Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 11, 2010

10 (maybe 11) homeland security books I very much enjoy

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on May 11, 2010

I spent the last two weeks working with a new group of homeland security master’s degree students. Being with people who are intensely passionate about this enterprise called homeland security does wonders for mental churning.

I thought particularly about what homeland security books I’ve most enjoyed reading over the past decade. Enjoyment for me means both informative and riveting. There is nothing that says a book about homeland security can’t be a page turner, a book you just cannot put down.

Here’s my list of 10 (possibly 11).  I have not captured all the great written works in homeland security. And doubtlessly, your idea of riveting might not agree with mine. So I welcome your contributions.

1. The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright.

For me, most of the homeland security literature begins with the events surrounding September 11, 2001. I agree with the New York Times reviewer who wrote “The Looming Tower is not just a detailed, heart-stopping account of the events leading up to 9/11, written with style and verve, and carried along by villains and heroes that only a crime novelist could dream up. It’s an education, too — though you’d never know it — a thoughtful examination of the world that produced the men who brought us 9/11, and of their progeny who bedevil us today.” (Dexter Filkins, in a review you can find here.)

2. The 9/11 Commission Report. The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. And, while I’m at it, The Commission by Philip Shenon

The 9/11 Commission Report remains — in my view — the most elegantly written government report in the past 50 years. It is worth reading at least once a year — even if one only reads the table of contents or the still controversial graphic adaption of the 9/11 report by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón. I used to believe the 9/11 Report chronicled artfully the precarious balance between the search for justice and the pragmatics of reform. Reading The Commission after completing the 9/11 Commission Report radically disrupts that belief. But in a good way.

3. Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9/11, by Patrick Creed and Rick Newman

The official 9/11 Report allocates two of its 428 pages to the successful response at the Pentagon. Firefight wants to remedy that glaring historical deficiency

“The Pentagon attack … has received less attention than the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan and United Airlines Flight 93 in a grassy field in Pennsylvania…. The direst scenarios [about what might have happened at the Pentagon that day] did not come to pass, however, thanks to hundreds of firefighters, medics, FBI agents and military and civilian personnel. Heroes came in all shapes and sizes, from a vintage fire truck small enough to squeeze into the Pentagon’s central courtyard to generals willing to forget their stars. Most people run from fire. At the Pentagon, military and civilian personnel rushed into the building to save others and protect vital information. A four-star Army general with 20 soldiers at his back got into a wrestling match with a firefighter who had been ordered to keep people out of the building. The firefighter won, and the general apologized. Capt. Jennifer Glidewell, an Army nurse at a Pentagon clinic, went to the central courtyard as it began to fill with wounded and found herself, momentarily, the ranking medical officer. She took charge, but after a few minutes a three-star Air Force general approached. He was a doctor, he told the captain, and asked where she needed him…. It took five years for authors Patrick Creed, a volunteer firefighter and Army officer, and Rick Newman, a writer for U.S. News and World Report, to pull together this story. Combing public records and conducting 150 interviews, Creed and Newman have done a monumental reporting job. Firefight tells the tale moment by moment through the accounts of dozens of participants and eye-witnesses.” (John N. Maclean in a review located here.)

4. No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, by Reza Aslan.

Why do they hate us? Why did the attackers use Islam to justify their attacks? What is Islam all about? Where does one go to learn about Islam if one is not a Muslim or one does not speak Arabic? No god but God might not be the optimal solution — at least with respect to a reader, but it did open my eyes wide enough to advance my understanding, even if slightly. The book “manages to be both an incisive, scholarly primer in Muslim history and an engaging personal exploration.”  It is not about us, argues Aslan. “What is unfolding … is nothing less than a struggle over who will ultimately define the sweeping ‘Islamic Reformation’ that [Aslan] believes is already well under way across much of the Muslim world.” We are ”merely a bystander — an unwary yet complicit casualty of a rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter in its story…. [The] historical process we are witnessing is less a clash of civilizations than a working out of suppressed internal conflicts…. Over the 14 centuries that followed Muhammad’s 22 years of revelation, Muslim kings and scholars distorted its tenets to serve their own narrow interests, and then cast these accretions in stone. Not only were the words of the Koran reinterpreted, but so were the hundreds of thousands of traditions and sayings collected by the prophet’s contemporaries…. If the Osama bin Ladens of the world have achieved one thing, it is to force Muslims to confront some of their demons.” (Max Rodenbeck in a review you can read at this link.)

5. The Edge of Disaster, by Stephen Flynn.

In this book, the author discovers that America is vulnerable to more than just a terrorist attack or a natural disaster. Flynn describes the country’s vulnerabilities in the maritime domain, where we build our homes, power grids, healthcare systems, transportation systems, and in other infrastructure sectors. One notes that Flynn’s 2007 call for a resilient nation has now morphed into mainstream public policy.

6. 12 Diseases that Changed our World, by Erwin W. Sherman.

This book frightened me to the significant biological threats the world has already experienced. These include the potato blight, cholera, smallpox, bubonic plague, syphilis, tuberculosis, malaria, yellow fever, the great influenza, and AIDS. In clinically neutral prose, the author describes how these diseases literally changed history. The author said he wrote the book to show that despite the challenges diseases like the ones he describes present, “the future is not without hope or remedy.” That said, this book should be read in a well lit room, preferably while one is wearing latex gloves.

7. The Dark Side, by Jane Mayer

The subtitle of this book is “the inside story of how the war on terror turned into a war on American ideals.” The book is about the moral costs of the war on terror. When I use this 2008 book in class I tend to get one of three reactions. Many students argue the book is a heavy handed and biased attack against the Bush administration. A number of other students said they knew all along this was going on. For a few students — maybe too few — the events described in the book trigger disgust. One continues to search unsuccessfully for evidence that Mayer got the essentials of the story wrong.

8. The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It, by Joshua Cooper Ramo.

This, as one student described it, “is a game changer.” The Age of the Unthinkable is — if not the first — the most readable popularization of how to apply complex adaptive systems theory to homeland security. We discussed the book last week in class. As uncomfortably real time case studies of the validity of the ideas Ramo writes about, we had: the oil spill in the Gulf, the Times Square improvised explosive device, the flooding in Tennessee, and the stock market plunge. “We don’t have all the answers and, in fact can’t even anticipate many of the questions,” Ramo says. “Growing complexity and ceaseless newness” are not anomalies to be explained. They are the new givens. “Unfortunately… some of the best minds of our era are still in thrall to an older way of seeing and thinking….[Too] many of our leaders are incapable of confronting this disconnect. They lack the language, creativity, and revolutionary spirit our moment demands…. We’ve left our future… largely in the hands of people whose single greatest characteristic is that they are bewildered by the present.”In the 1960s,  the slogan was “Never trust anyone over thirty.” In the 2010s, it’s “Don’t trust anyone who doesn’t get complexity.”

9. Terror and Consent: The Wars for the 21st Century, by Philip Bobbitt.

In this intellectually humbling and difficult book (at least to me), Bobbitt aims to build the meta-level national security and homeland security conceptual framework for the next 30 to 50 years. He argues that much of what we conventionally believe about terror and terrorism is wrong. He claims we can have a war against terror. He believes we are at the historical dawn of a struggle between governance premised on terror and fear, and governance based on the educated consent of the governed. He argues this battle will be waged against terrorist acts, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and catastrophes. A central claim in his argument is the need to reinvent law, including our Constitution.

10. The Constitution of the United States.

It’s not dead yet. Mike German in his book “Thinking Like a Terrorist,” writes “the United States has the most practical counterterrorism strategy ever written, and its record of effectiveness has lasted over 200 years. All we have to do now is take it off the shelf where it has been languishing since 9/11 and implement it. The counterterrorism strategy I’m referring to is called the Constitution of the United States of America…. The Constitution is a workable counterterrorism strategy because its authors were themselves terrorists — or freedom fighters, if you prefer — fresh from a successful asymmetrical war of attrition waged against the superpower of their day…. When they sat down to create a new government, they wanted to inoculate it against the abuses of power that drove their just rebellion.”

One might disagree with German’s argument. But it is difficult to come away from a reading of the Constitution — one can pick just about any page — without remembering why we care about homeland security in the first place.

May 10, 2010

This dot connects to Karachi, which connects to Miranshah, which connects to Barcelona… and what might that suggest?

Filed under: Risk Assessment,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on May 10, 2010

Sunday Messrs. Brennan and Holder told us the Taliban-in-Pakistan or Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) were involved in the fizzled Times Square attack.  “We know that they helped facilitate it; we know that they helped direct it,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “And I suspect that we are going to come up with evidence which shows that they helped to finance it. They were intimately involved in this plot.” (Associated Press)

The TTP has claimed credit.  It has also released an audio message of its leader threatening future attacks on the United States.  You can see and hear a  translated and illustrated version of the message courtesy of YouTube and the TTPs propaganda branch.  (Brian Fishman at Foreign Policy has a helpful analysis of a couple of recent TTP media pieces.)

In March 2009, Homeland Security Watch and many others reported on a specific TTP threat to attack the United States.  So… none of this is exactly breaking news.  But the events in Times Square have, for the moment, focused our attention.  While I have your attention, please examine what the TTP tried — and failed — to undertake in Barcelona.  As far as I know this has been their most ambitious operation outside South Asia.

In January 2008 Spanish authorities arrested 14 involved in a plot to attack the Barcelona subway system (Reuters).   In January 2009, the US Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center published a case study on the Barcelona attack plan. In December 2009 eleven of those arrested were convicted. (Deutsche Welle).  

I have recently tried to distinguish between what we can predict-and-control in contrast with anticipation-and-preparation.  Attention is critical to anticipation.

Did DHS Screw Up “Again” By Letting the Times Square Bomber on a Plane?

Filed under: Aviation Security,Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on May 10, 2010

This post — written by a colleague — should have been posted on Friday, May 7th.  For a several reasons, it was not posted. However, the point the author makes is still valid.


There were plenty of articles and comments over the past few days stating that once again DHS did not fulfill its responsibilities of keeping bad people out of an otherwise sterile security environment.

As the story goes, DHS is to be blamed for allowing the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, to board the plane thus putting the flight at risk or allowing him the opportunity to make an escape to freedom. Unfortunately, in most instances DHS has become the Nation’s equivalent of an inflatable punching bag when all manner of safety and security activities go awry. Such criticism is offered by the politically disingenuous intelligencia and easily accepted by the media and uninformed masses.

Might there be another way to assess the situation?

Suppose there were compelling intelligence collection, investigative, and prosecutorial reasons to allow the suspect to continue with his plan (attempting to depart the country) up until he was about to leave a “positively controlled” environment.

During Tuesday’s press conference, AG Holder responded to the “did Shahzad almost get away” question by stating “I was aware of the tracking that was going on and was never in fear of losing him.”

Might this be another example of the intelligence collection-safeguarding society-prosecutorial discretion tension that occurs almost daily when trying to assess whether to arrest and shut down activities perceived to be related to terrorism, contrasted to the need to allow the bad actors to continue with their plans for purposes of gaining a better contextual understanding of the plot and associated conspirators?

Or, as Paul Harvey suggests, possibly there is more to the story than meets the eye: FBI Team ‘Lost’ Suspected Times Square Bomber During Crucial Hours

In either case, whether this was a well orchestrated intelligence collection operation or, as the web article above notes, the FBI did lose Shahzad in the waning hours of the manhunt, it appears DHS should be praised, not excoriated, for being an effective safeguard of last resort.

As the article notes, Shahzad was first added to the no fly list at noon on Monday (May 3rd). A decision and job not of DHS’ doing.

Once DHS officials became aware he was on the plane, based on a routine check of the flight manifest by CBP officials, procedures were followed and the system was implemented as designed.

Maybe this incident has highlighted how the DHS should be viewed in most safety and security settings: the Nation’s safeguard of last resort.

May 8, 2010

Disasters and Catastrophe at Antioch

Filed under: Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 8, 2010

Last week we spent a few days on what constitutes a catastrophe and how we might define it.   There is no consensus.  But among the top contenders are:

Triple-trouble disasters, perhaps what Craig Fugate calls “Maximum-of- Maximums.”  (Has the FEMA administrator derived this mantra from hurricane surge models?)

Cascading systems failure obliterating means of command, control, or coordination. (Well, sure…  but let’s admit there’s an innate tautology in presumptive commanders, controllers, and coordinators defining catastrophe as losing the ability to play their roles.)

A significant shift in the society’s sense-of-self and direction caused by how  the event is interpreted, even if the maximum-of-maximums is not  suffered and command-and-control is preserved.  Regular readers know this is my bias. (See a prior post for more.)

A colleague recently suggested that time-passing is also an important component in defining catastrophe.  How will 9/11 be viewed a century from now?  How do we perceive (if at all)  the 1755 Lisbon earthquake?  What about Chernobyl or Bhopal?  The sack of Rome or Baghdad?  With the passage of time do we understand these events as catastrophic?  If so, how?  If not, why not?

Even more obscure, how about the collapse of Antioch?  Across most of the classical era Antioch was one of the three great cities of the Mediterranean world.   Rome and Alexandria — while much changed — have persisted, Antioch has essentially disappeared.

Founded in 300 BC by Seleucus, a successor of Alexander the Great, Antioch may have been the most vivacious city in the Hellenistic world.  During most of the Roman Empire — even after the founding of Constantinople (324 AD) —   it was the true capital of the East.   It was from Antioch that St. Paul set out to convert the world. 

The historian H.V. Morton describes classical Antioch as a, “city of consumers…full of rich aristocrats and nouveaux riches, and of wealthy, retired people who sought here one of the finest climates in the world. Something that we associate with Venice in the eighteenth century, with Paris in the nineteenth century, and with Hollywood today, with its deification of youth and beauty, distinguished Antioch… It was up-to-date, amusing, elegant, wicked….”

Antioch was always a tumultuous place.  It was situated  at the seam of  Western and Eastern cultures, at the flashpoint of Greco-Roman and Persian imperial ambition, and at the intersection of what are now known as the Dead Sea Fault and the East Anatolian Fault.

Over the centuries Antioch experienced several disastrous floods, earthquakes, and conquests. But it always recovered, usually stronger, more beautiful, and more compelling than before.  Antioch was especially resilient. Yet it did not recover from the earthquake of October 31, 588.  Why not? 

The late sixth century disaster was severe. It  was also  the culmination of a series of disasters.  The earthquake was followed by other closely spaced stress events.  Finally, the late sixth century was a time of significant shifts in economic, political, and cultural realities extending far beyond Antioch.  

It seems to me the catastrophe at Antioch — if you will join me it calling it such — was the outcome of a cumulative set of challenges.

There was a huge fire in 525.  The next year an earthquake reportedly killed 250,000 inhabitants.  On November 29, 528 an even worse earthquake hit the city.  In 538 Antioch was temporarily captured by the Persians.

After reclaiming Antioch in 540 the Byzantine Emperor Justinian led a major rebuilding effort.  The restoration continued apace for over 15 years, barely slowing during an epidemic of bubonic plague that began in 542. The plague continued in spurts and starts for several years

But after the 588 quake Antioch never reclaimed anything close to its former population, status, or wealth.  The October 31 earthquake was bad, but not as bad as two or three prior hits.  Something other than the quake is needed to explain the persistent decline the great city experienced after 588.

Possible culprits include the economic consequences of the mid-sixth century plague years and the (related) financial crisis resulting from drastic overspending by the Byzantine government (this included overspending on Antioch).  There was also a serious drought in the Antioch region over many years at the turn of the seventh century.

These challenges were extended and amplified by the Byzantine-Sassanid (Persian) wars of 602-628 AD,which once again brought foreign conquest to Antioch.   This long war  weakened both the Byzantines and Sassanids, setting the stage for the Arabs to take the city in 638.

So… at least in the case of Antioch, we can see non-resilience and non-recovery after 588 as the culmination of a range of inter-related factors unfolding over time. Most of these factors would have been impossible to confidently forecast, but are clear in retrospect.

While this may seem a weird weekend indulgence in historical musing, I am prompted  by a radio conversation regarding today’s Gulf coast.  Given the continuing impacts of Katrina — especially on the Mississippi delta marshes — the likelihood of a major oil spill, the expectation of an especially bad 2010 hurricane season, and a range of other factors, the effects do seem cumulative.  Will there be a culminating event?  Will we decide it is a  catastrophic event?

For further consideration:

Anatolia: a history forged by disaster (National Geographic)

History of Byzantium by Timothy E. Gregory

Antioch: The Lost Ancient City (Worcester Art Museum)

Antioch Mosaics (Baltimore Museum of Art) — On February 5 I was in Baltimore for meetings related to regional catastrophic planning.  By the time I finished the snowpocalypse had already claimed my home in Piedmont Virginia and was moving north.  Before hunkering down in my hotel (where I was snowbound for four days) I visited the Baltimore Museum of Art.  These fabulous room-sized mosaics have enthralled me ever since.

May 6, 2010

Categorical imperatives: natural, accidental, or intentional

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on May 6, 2010

May 7  Update:  Late yesterday and overnight I received a few private emails from journalists.  They suggest considerable debate in many news rooms regarding the editorial decisions that have crowded out more attention to the floods in the mid-South.  

It might be wishful thinking, but on Friday morning I seem to see a bit more attention to the natural disaster.  Last week a colleague suggested, “catastrophe is whatever Anderson Cooper says it is.”   Thursday night Anderson was reporting from Tennessee (after the blasted ad).  

 But many of the news reports now emerging from the Cumberland river basin are “victim stories.”   It may seem cold — and unrealistic given contemporary culture — but I am not convinced the victim narrative is any better than the blame narrative. 

I am not expecting journalists to spontaneously produce a (boring) RAND Corporation analysis of watershed risk .  But citizens in a democracy need more than emotional engagement, even from visual media. We need cogent analysis  and crystallized explorations of cause, complexities, and effect.

Original Post:

On Monday and Tuesday the broadcast news cycle was remarkable for its consensus: The lead story was the Times Square terrorism scare. The second story was the Gulf oil spill. Coming in close behind was the Nashville deluge.

I did not use a stop-watch, nor could I view all channels simultaneously, and I had to leave for meetings after an hour of flipping channels, but it was my clear impression that CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC and the still Big Three were, for once, in full agreement as to news priority and even news angle.

Wednesday morning the 1-2-3 hierarchy remained the same, but much less attention was being given to the flood. During the Wednesday 7 to 7:30 block CNN did not give any substantive attention to the flood. (It did use the flood story as a teaser to stay tuned past 7:30.) 

A quick glance at Thursday morning headlines suggests the flood continues to subside, both in terms of attention and otherwise.  The May 6 print edition of USA Today seems to be unique among national news outlets in committing its cover story to “In Nashville, a way of life washed away“.  But the USA Today website practically buries the same story.

Some of this reflects availability of new information. The media – like most of us – tend to focus on what is fresh and different.  By Wednesday it had stopped raining over most of the mid-South.

But the kind of attention being given to stories 1 and 2 suggest another difference.  Wednesday morning the editorial focus was on how security lapses let the terrorist suspect board a plane bound for Dubai and how, in retrospect, the suspect had displayed suspicious behavior since last summer. CBS reported that Faisal Shahzad has appeared on one watch list since 1999.

In terms of the Gulf oil spill, a late Tuesday report by the Washington Post received prominent attention in the broadcast media.  Juliet Eilperin reported, “The Interior Department exempted BP’s calamitous Gulf of Mexico drilling operation from a detailed environment impact analysis last year.”

The Wednesday print-edition of the Washington Post placed Ms. Eilperin’s report on page A-4.  For several hours Wednesday morning MSNBC highlighted the identical story as the principal lead on its webpage.  On-air, though not on its website, CNN also gave the story considerable play. 

Many media are repeating Michael Brown’s (FEMA director during Katrina) accusation that President Obama and his allies, “want a crisis like this, so that they can use a crisis like this to shut down offshore and gas drilling.”  There are also earnest reports on how much BP contributed to the Obama presidential campaign.

For the continuing oil spill and the fizzled bomb plot, the hunt-for-blame is underway.  Who is to blame, what did s/he do, when did s/he do it, where did s/he do it, and why did s/he do it? If the why is purposeful or profoundly negligent the media (and all of us?) are even more interested.  Amplified attention will be given if there is the possibility of  gross incompetence, fraud or — especially — personal hypocrisy.

As a result, an intentional event, such as a terrorist attack, will almost always trump a natural calamity in terms of media attention.  An accidental event will usually come in second, unless blame can be clearly assigned.  Natural hazards are, to a certain extent, taken for granted.  The more cause (blame) can be personalized, the more attention the issue will receive.  In this I think the media largely mimics public interest.

Would even the Katrina story have gotten the sustained attention it did without the widely perceived incompetence of the response, personified in Mr. Brown and eventually Mr. Bush?  Coverage was given another boost by recognizing the real culprit was a poorly constructed  levee system rather than the hurricane.  The media tends to focus on human causation.  If it can be traced to an individual human, so much the better.

It is, however, worth noting that as of Wednesday the less news-worthy natural disaster had claimed 29 lives and done an estimated “tens of billions of dollars” of damage. Meanwhile the intentional attack – at the top of the news – had failed and the suspected perpetrator was captured.   The potential consequences of the oil spill remain grim, but not yet fully realized.

Natural hazards have — so far in history — been the principal source of death, injury, and destruction, even exceeding the toll of increasingly efficient international warfare and murderous governments. (See LiveScience list of world’s worst natural disasters and  top 10 US disasters.)  Compared to many accidents and, especially, to lone-wolf terrorists, the threat, vulnerability, and consequences related to most natural disasters can be more easily recognized and mitigated.

It is often possible — and beneficial — to integrate prevention, protection, mitigation, response and recovery efforts across the categories.  In addition to threat-specific counter-measures, we can apply a strategy of resilience to a range of risks.  But to do this we must be self-aware of — and correct for — a certain obsessive compulsive tendency to give greater weight to what is new and different and an inclination to reduce the issue to who we can blame.

For further consideration:

The Role of Perceived Control in Coping with Disaster (Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology)

Building Resilient Communities: Tools for Assessment (Project on Resilience and Security, Syracuse University)

Acting Intentionally and the Side-Effect Effect (Psychological Science)

Deontological Ethics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

UPDATE: As of 8:00 AM (eastern) on Thursday the broadcast news cycle seems to be restoring flood coverage to its top-three status.  But the depth of attention remains considerably less than that given to the intentional and accidental threats.

May 5, 2010

Attacking Ambiguity

Filed under: Events,General Homeland Security,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Mark Chubb on May 5, 2010

Steve Coll of The New Yorker offers an interesting perspective on the prospective relationship between the alleged Times Square terrorist Faisal Shahzad and the Pakistani Taliban. Writing for the same magazine’s May 10 issue, Coll’s colleague, Malcolm Gladwell, offers an interesting and oddly congruent account of the ambiguities arising from espionage activities that could be said to apply equally to the relationship between terrorism and counter-terrorism.

Several media outlets quoting well-placed but anonymous intelligence or law enforcement sources have reported that Shahzad traveled to and from Pakistan frequently over the eleven years he lived in the United States legally since entering the country as a student in 1998. Within the past few months, Shahzad allegedly attended a terrorist training camp, where is he is said to have learned to assemble improvised explosive devices.

Soon after a smoking vehicle packed with a crude assortment of incendiaries was discovered, talking heads noted that the bomb’s construction bore striking similarities to the vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) used to mount crude attacks on the Glasgow International Airport in June 2007. The next day, media reports carried news that the Pakistani Taliban were claiming credit for mounting the failed attack. While not disavowing these claims, officials quickly indicated that they had no evidence to support them either. They would consider every possibility and pursue every lead we were repeatedly and reassuringly told on Sunday morning.

From the outset, officials noted the amateurish nature of the attack. Loaded with liquefied petroleum gas containers, gasoline cans, consumer-grade fireworks, an alarm clock, crude wiring, and steel box containing fertilzer, the 1993 Nissan Pathfinder had little chance of actually exploding, although it would have produced a rather impressive and nonetheless dangerous fire.

It now seems the inadequacies of Shahzad’s plot did not end with the poor design and deployment of his weapon. Within a very short time, law enforcement officials identified the vehicle despite efforts to conceal its ownership and tracked down the former owner who provided details of the recent cash transaction that led to Shahzad taking possession of it. Shahzad arranged the transaction after scanning online classified ads. He made little effort to conceal his identity when making the transaction, corresponding with the former owner from an easily traceable email account. Although he used a prepaid cellphone to arrange the final meeting where he paid for and took possession of the Pathfinder, it too proved easy enough to trace.

These were not the only cyber-fingerprints Shahzad left. It seems he, like many others in his age cohort, liked to share his exploits using social media. A YouTube channel claiming credit for attacks on “Satan’s USA” was created by as yet unidentified individuals in Connecticut the day before the attack, but has now been removed.

The picture now emerging of Shahzad seems not altogether unlike others we have heard before. He was of upper-middle class status, reasonably well-educated in a technical discipline but certainly not a high-achiever. He had few connections with the broader community, and had encountered financial difficulties having defaulted on his mortgage. This may strike some as the perfect profile of a terrorist, but it is not so unlike the profile of many other criminals either, particularly those whose crimes are intended to attract attention.

Federal law enforcement officials took Shahzad into custody last night after he boarded an Emirates flight headed to Dubai. Soon after his arrest we learned he paid cash for a one-way ticket he reserved while en route to JFK International Airport, and paid cash at the ticket counter to secure his seat. The fact he was able to board the plane at all has raised more than a few eyebrows since his name was added to the no-fly list earlier in the day. It now seems Emirates had not updated its ticketing services to reflect recent changes in the list.

Shortly after taking Shahzad into custody, we are told, he admitted involvement in the incident and disclosed ties to terrorist training camps back in Pakistan. He continued to talk to investigators even after being read his Miranda rights as required when any  U.S. citizen is held under suspicion of committing a crime.

Officials acknowledge that claims of a Pakistani Taliban connection now appear more plausible. But as Steve Coll and Malcolm Gladwell’s pieces point out vividly, the terrorists in Pakistan may be not only be our enemies, but they may also turn out to be our best allies. When confronted by an eager young volunteer fresh from the United States, those building and controlling terrorist networks have to question whether the recruit can be trusted. “How do we know he is not a plant sent to infiltrate our organization and disrupt our activities?”,  they must ask themselves.

Presented with such ambiguities the terrorist handlers find themselves with little choice but to proceed cautiously. What better way to go forward than to provide only cursory training with little or no intelligence value. If the recruit turns out to be an agent under the control of a counter-terrorism agency, little is lost. If he turns out to be a valuable asset, all the better.

Taken together, Faisal Shahzad’s rather haphazard planning and execution coupled with his effort to return to his homeland and his willingness (even eagerness?) to admit his role seem to suggest a desire to demonstrate his value and earn the trust of others; if not the reluctant handlers from whom he obtained his initial training back in Pakistan, then the U.S. authorities who took him into custody. For all we know, this was something he considered possible if not plausible right from the start.

For our part, how do we know his pledge to bear true faith and allegiance to the United States in the oath of naturalization he took just over a year ago wasn’t genuine? Perhaps young Faisal Shahzad fancied himself a double-agent?

May 4, 2010

What does this age demand?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on May 4, 2010

“We’re breaking new ground here. It’s hard to write a plan for a catastrophic event that has no precedent, which is what this was,” [Admiral Thad] Allen said….

Volcanoes, floods, tornadoes, water infrastructure failure, pipe bombs in microwave ovens, propane tanks and fireworks cobbled together in an improvised SUV device, and the slow-moving dirty bomb that is the British Petroleum spill.

Yes, we are breaking new ground here.  The sheer number of incidents that can be linked to homeland security (I learned today that the weather in space may be a FEMA responsibility) combined with means of communicating fact and rumor at almost quantum speed has turned “the march toward complexity” into a sprint.

David Segal’s April 30, 2010 essay on Making Sense of Complexity notes “Complexity used to signify progress…. Now complexity lurks behind the most expensive and intractable issues of our age. It’s the pet that grew fangs and started eating the furniture.”

The essay  makes a distinction between something that is complicated and something complex.

One can figure out the complicated because it tends to adhere to knowable cause and effect relationships.  That’s not as easy to do with complex issues, where cause-and-effect is often known only after the fact, and generally is unrepeatable. Whatever the cause of the British Petroleum spill, it is not likely to be repeated — at least not in the same way.

Joshua Cooper Ramo’s book “The Age of the Unthinkable,” is precisely about the kinds of inevitable surprises our exponentially interconnected world has in store for us.

Segal concludes his essay with the somewhat dispiriting conclusion that “complexity has a way of defeating good intentions. As we clean up these messes, there is no point in hoping for a new age of simplicity. The best we can do is hope the solutions are just complicated enough to work.”

Ramo is as realistic as Segal in his analysis of the problem, but more optimistic about what to do. He argues we need to be as complex as the world we live in.

“In a world that is changing fast, we need a grand strategy that’s capable of the sort of rapid change the world itself produces, because much of what we have to confront will be the things that have never occurred to us before.”

Another book — Kegan and Leahy’s “Immunity to Change” — describes in some detail the mental capacity leaders need to meet that confrontation. It essentially involves a switch away from learning how to lead, toward leading in a way that allows one to learn how to engage with these “things that have never occurred to us before.”

But back to Ramo.

In a very readable, almost New Yorker like book, he describes the causes and consequences of living in this new “age of the unthinkable.” He introduces the idea of deep security.

“Such a world demands a whole new way of composing a grand strategic view. I call this new approach “deep security” because it is about mastering the forces at work deep inside our sandpile world. [You will have to read the book to understand the appropriateness of Per Bak’s sandpile metaphor. ] Deep security doesn’t answer all of our questions about the future. Indeed, it’s predicated on the idea that we don’t have all the answers and, in fact, can’t even anticipate many of the questions. What it is instead is a way of seeing, thinking, and of acting that accepts growing complexity and ceaseless newness as givens — and, used properly, our best allies.  Deep security creates a context in which all of the change we now need and are planning for can make sense, can be as adaptive and flexible as the world we inhabit. Instead of starting with a view of how we want the world to be and then jamming that view into place, we start more reasonably with a picture of how the world is.”

This weekend the picture of how the world is — at least from a homeland security perspective — seemed unusually messed up.  Tonight, the oil slick continues its slow moving invasion toward our southern coast, millions of Boston area residents have to learn how to make do without safe water, Mississippi and Tennessee residents start recovering from yet another weather assault, and New York City knows it will be attacked again.

Ramo — like Segal– believes a growing number of people are “aware that something dramatic is happening to the world around us. The people and institutions we might once have relied on to rescue us can’t.”

Who can we rely on?

Ramo answers with a question: “This age, what does it demand of me?”

May 3, 2010


Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on May 3, 2010

From within a weekend of floods, tornadoes, water main breaks, a national recall of children’s medicine, an oil spill larger than Puerto Rico, and a car bomb in Times Square, a friend sent me this brief message from a New York City police officer.


Last night I responded to the IED in Times Square. During that time [a colleague 3,000 miles away] fed me [via Twitter] tidbits that were genuinely helpful.

Upon reflecting on the night’s happenings I can say that 99% of our homeland security practitioners i.e. the american people were cooperative and helpful.

NYPD has suspected that Times Square would be targeted.  Much of our counterterrorism efforts were focused on it.

I was detailed to Times Square the previous two nights (Thurdsay and Friday).  Both nights were warm late spring nights with thousands of tourists enjoying Broadway and the attractions.  (By the way the eye candy was awesome!)  I couldn’t help imagine what chaos would ensue in the event of an attack.

I was not detailed to Times Square on Saturday and first learned of the attack in a text from my teen aged  son who was in Times Square at the time. That was followed by successive tweets.

Minutes later my unit was ordered to respond. During Saturday night’s events we – NYPD – were convinced that a secondary  device would detonate.

I woke up late Sunday and my wife dragged me to church (I thought about blowing it off).

I found myself in the same pew I sat in on Wednesday, September 12th and just thought about what might have happened.

Thanks for the tweets. I wish I had had them on September 11 when my unit was in the dark about what was happening in the Pentagon and Pennsylvania

I don’t believe we have seen the last of al Qaeda.

May 2, 2010

Social Interpretation: “Oil spill threatens our… way of life.”

Filed under: Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 2, 2010

Further to defining – or as a colleague recently suggested, envisioning – catastrophe, a few early Sunday morning headlines:

US Oil Spill ‘threatens way of life’, governor says (BBC)

After flyover, congressman downplays threat of oil spill (Miami Herald)

Federal Response based on Worst Case Scenario (Times-Picayune)

Oil spill that threatens an Armageddon (The Mirror UK)

Long-term impact of spill remains unclear (Times-Picayune)

Frustration and Fear Grow in Oil Spill Clean-up (Associated Press video)

Oil Spill Disaster now “Out of Control” (Times Online UK)

White House moves to blunt criticism on oil spill (Associated Press)

May 4 UpdateGulf oil spill is bad, but how bad? (New York Times)

May 4 Update:  A Catastrophe (USA Today print-edition frontpage headline for mid-South floods.  The same newspaper headlines the oil spill on the third page with Winds holding spill offshore: Though long-term path of oil slick is unclear, weather offers unexpected good news)

A catastrophe is in the eye of the beholder.  The meaning we give a disaster determines its catastrophic potential and impact.

May 1, 2010

Catastrophe in the Gulf?

Filed under: Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 1, 2010

Saturday’s lead story in the Washington Post provides more fodder for our consideration of how to define catastrophe.

Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen said in an interview Friday that the company’s plans for responding to oil spills did not address the complete failure of equipment on the seafloor designed to prevent a blowout of the sort that took place on the massive drilling rig.

“We’re breaking new ground here. It’s hard to write a plan for a catastrophic event that has no precedent, which is what this was,” Allen said, defending the company against not writing a response for “what could never be in a plan, what you couldn’t anticipate.”

The Admiral is correct.  To plan for what is unprecedented is very difficult.  To prepare for an unprecedented but predictable high consequence risk is, therefore, even more critical.  It is too soon to assess the level of preparedness or the effectiveness of the response in regard to the Deepwater Horizon explosion.  The unfolding of  disaster does not ipso facto mean preparedness was insufficient.  Harm experienced does not necessarily condemn the adequacy of the response.  But it certainly raises questions.

Hammond Eve, who did environmental impact studies of offshore drilling for the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, said the federal agency never planned for response to an oil spill of this size. “We never imagined that it would happen because the safety measures were supposed to work and prevent it from happening,” he said.

Another failure of imagination?  It is sounding and looking like it.  If so, before we quickly condemn, we might consider how our obsession – especially our regulatory obsession – with quantitative measurement, “hard” facts, and predictable outcomes can overtime constrain and de-value imagination.  There is certainly an important place for rigorous and quantitative measurement.  But by itself, this does not fulfill the potential of  good judgment.

John Amos, who spent 10 years as a consulting exploration geologist for oil and gas companies and now heads SkyTruth, an operation that uses government satellite imagery to monitor environmental disasters, said he was not surprised that both oil executives and federal officials failed to properly forecast the risks associated with offshore drilling. “Just like the explosion of a volcano, to a geologist like myself, these kinds of incidents are fairly predictable, but when they happen, they come as a shock to us,” Amos said.

The disaster at Deepwater Horizon does not yet meet the full definition of catastrophe that I outlined on Thursday.   It is certainly a surprise to many, but not to all. Many have warned something like this was bound to happen. There is significant scope encompassing hundreds of miles of coastline and square miles of open sea. The secondary effects (especially ecological and economic) are likely to be significant, these effects could spur political consequences.  Scale is not yet clear, but it seems to loom large.   The social interpretation of the event is still emerging.  It seems to me that this final element will be the crucial factor in whether this event will mark a sudden change in direction by some significant element of society.


Editorial Note:  Does anyone know the source of the unattributed Friday interview with Admiral Allen?  I have read or watched seven Friday interviews with the man (he was busy) and cannot find the quote given above by the Washington Post.  Especially given the characterization of the quote, it would be worth reading the full context.

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