Low-tech terrorism might not be as low-tech as it seems
No matter how bumbling the terrorist, complacency isn’t an option
- By John Breeden II
- May 19, 2010
It seems my recent Impressions item about how the battle against terrorists looked to be going increasingly low-tech touched off bit of a nerve. Several readers e-mailed me saying that I was somehow advocating complacency.
I can see their point to a certain extent. By advocating the investment of resources into surveillance of low-tech threats (like the Times Square bombing attempt), I was inadvertently saying money needed to come away from the high-tech programs. Given that there is limited money available, this makes sense. But my point was that low-tech defenses are being overlooked completely in some cases, at our peril.
But what really opened my eyes was a friend of mine who works in counter-terrorism, who also happened to read that column. In fact, he was participating in an exercise where teams of investigators try to combat both low-tech and high-tech threats. He got two of his virtual investigators killed, but “passed” the exam because almost every other team was wiped out to the man. And he has a theory about what really happened at Times Square that is down right frightening.
Although he stressed that he has no inside knowledge of what is going on with the investigation in New York, my friend believes that the attempted bombing was planned to be just that. Sure, late night hosts are calling the bomber the Wile E. Coyote of terrorists because of his pitiful bomb-building skills, but my friend stressed that this may have been the plan all along. Terrorists could have been using high-tech gear behind the scenes. Why? To watch the response teams.
The most dangerous skill a terrorist possesses is his ability to watch — and then exploit — weaknesses. What if the terrorists knew that the Times Square bomber was a bit of a loose cannon? They could have used him to attempt to set off a bomb. If it did somehow explode, so much the better, but their goal would be to elicit a police response, which they would get either way. Then while the police are going through their routines, terrorist agents are quietly filming everything like a concerned tourist, or even mapping out the response using GPS.
Their goal would be to ultimately put another fake or smaller bomb back in Times Square at a later date and then watch the same thing unfold. Only this time, the real bomb or bombs, the ones with the high-tech fuses and real explosives, could be sitting in secondary locations right where the police are evacuating people. The same technique has been used in Iraq before, and during the Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland. It’s entirely possible that the Times Square bomb attempt was merely a setup for a second attack. And we should be wary.
Oh, and my friend who “lost” two investigators in his exercise? They fell into a similar trap, by walking into a bomb planted at a secondary spot.
John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.