Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 18, 2009

Jakarta attacks: avoid the blame game and stick with reality

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on July 18, 2009

INDONESIA-BLAST    Photograph of the Ritz-Carlton restaurant after the attack (Daily News/Getty)

The Marriott International security chief, Alan Orlob,  was conducting a Jakarta site visit at the time of the attacks.  Friday morning CNN’s John Roberts  interviewed Orlob on the phone.  During the interview Roberts suggested the attacks’ success was evidence of a “significant gap” in hotel security.  How so?

So far evidence is pointing to a meticulously planned, patiently executed, and carefully calculated attack.   The effort expended suggests to me that any gaps were well-closed.  Instead, it appears the terrorists had to operate along the most narrow of seams.

When we are unhappily surprised — whether or not we should be surprised — our first reaction is often to find someone to blame.  The media is too often at the vanguard of this tendency.

This morning the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is headlining, “Questions raised on Jakarta security.”  The ABC’s lead captures what I perceive as the contradictions innate to this particular blame game, “Experts say the bomb attacks on two of Jakarta’s luxury hotels would have required months of careful planning, raising questions about hotel security and whether a prevention was possible.”

We are talking about hotels.  The purpose of a hotel is to host people who come and go with equipage and luggage and much more.   A bit more than 24 hours after twin explosions the most prominent explanation for the attacks is, “Indonesian police say the bombers checked into the Marriott Hotel as guests and probably assembled the device in their room.”  Several trips, perhaps even several stays, were required to bring the separate materials inside the security perimeter. (See related CNN video)

Further, the bombs’ blasts were sufficiently contained that reports indicate there has been no structural damage to either hotel. Only those in the immediate vicinity of the blast were injured (see photograph above).  Contrast this with the huge blasts involved in attacks on hotels in Peshawar and Islamabad or  the swarming of the Taj and Oberoi.

There is absolutely the need for a rigorous after-action analysis of what happened in Jakarta and consideration of  additional prevention and mitigation measures.  But — until some true gap is clearly identified — it is unhelpful and misleading to immediately assume that a successful attack implies a lack of counterterrorist due diligence.

Rather, there is a need to prepare ourselves to fully expect terrorist attacks will from time to time be successful, despite the most robust efforts to the prevent, deter, and preempt such attacks. 

Realistic expectations — reflecting the true nature of the risk — are fundamental to our readiness and resilience.  Quickly seeking to blame is a way to deny reality and avoid responsibility for taking risks.

(Editorial note:  I cannot find a transcript or video of the CNN telephone interview with Alan Orlob.  I am sure the word “gap” was used, I am not sure that I am accurately remembering the modifier, but it suggested significant.)

UPDATEBloomberg is filing some further details on Monday, July 20.

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Comment by Pat Longstaff

July 18, 2009 @ 7:41 am

I could not agree more that the Blame Game is not just unnecessary, but counterproductive. When it happens people (and organizations) start to clam up and the truth about what really happened does not become apparent to anybody. And knowing what has NOT worked is just as important as knowing what does work.

It is important that other hotels know what happened and then they can decide if they should change what they do. But this knowledge should not mandate that they make their hotels more like Fort Knox. Public accommodations cannot prevent every possible risk.

Perhaps it is time for a real national (and international) dialog on the nature of risk, the limits of security measures, and the dangers of the Blame Game. This should start as a dialog with the media. They are generally very good people who want to do the right thing but none of this is part of their training.

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 18, 2009 @ 8:41 am

The MSM are really just shills for corporate interests. The proof is how little of the Why, where, when, what, who and how that were once the basics of a story prepared by journalists is demonstrated in MSM. The death of Walter Conkrite just marks the passage of real journalism through what was then the new medium of TV. Well it looks like TV of the Conkrite age is no longeer a way to make money so perhaps some reform will come through technology. Note that Business Week as a write up of new history out about blogging. Entitled “SAY EVERYTHING:HOW BLOGGING BEGAN, WHAT ITS BECOMING, AND WHY IT MATTERS” BY Scott Rosenberg, Crown; 405 pp. $26.

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