Low-tech terrorism might not be as low-tech as it seems

No matter how bumbling the terrorist, complacency isn’t an option

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.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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Reader Comments

Thu, May 20, 2010 DR

Do you guys really think terrorists are looking at GCN and saying, "Hey, wait a minute...first we set a bomb and then we set another bomb to to target people after the first one goes of? Brilliant! We never would have thought of that!" The author's exact point is that this is ALREADY a very routine tactic.

Thu, May 20, 2010 Greg Md

I think Henry has a very good point. I have read or seen many helpfull tips for terroroists online in respectable sites such as this or regular broadcasting stations. The authors may say "it sells papers" but shouldn't we consider sending the authors to Iran for a while?

Thu, May 20, 2010 Steve Albany, NY

@Henry: Re "teaching the terrorists new tricks" this is by no means a new trick; it was used on TV shows several times in the last year alone (e.g. on Criminal Minds) just in case that terrorists have not been paying attention to techniques taught in Iraq & Afghanistan. Perhaps you're young enough to think that anything new to you is new, but I would venture a guess that this "new trick" has been around for a thousand years.

Thu, May 20, 2010 Henry

Well, if they weren't thinking that before, they are now. Good job teaching the terrorists new tricks. As an IT security specialist, I personally carry around a lot of ideas about how to exploit and/or perform surveillance on computers, computer networks, and the underlying systems they assist us in managing (assembly lines, financial systems, records management, etc.), but I surely don't publicly espouse them. I inform only who need the knowledge in the course of my duties, and keep the rest to myself. I feel it is irresponsible to broadcast a weakness without having already fixed it. Then again, I'm an IT professional with a CISSP, not a journalism degree.

Wed, May 19, 2010

i like your version of the story. But i believe i have seen it in many movies!!! get real man, its nt easy to put and plan a bomb. terrorists would take any chance. I would believe that it was a conspiracy more han your version!! though i think he simply failed.

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