*Unless specifically designated, the term homeland security refers to all departments and agencies charged with homeland security duties.
A week ago the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released an unclassified intelligence assessment of the latest homegrown terrorist attempts. Overall, it was a well written, clear and concise assessment. It focused primarily on the Najibullah Zazi and Faisal Shahzad cases, outlining some of the commonalities between them in an effort to provide state and local law enforcement essentially a snapshot of the trends. It reveals that “the number and pace of attempted attacks against the United States over the past nine months have surpassed the number of attempts during any other previous one-year period,” according to CNN. But why it required time and manpower from a department in the Intelligence Community (IC) to essentially summarize what has been in the media for at least six months, not to mention basically regurgitating analysis that has been done by websites like this one, seems to me to be a waste of already limited homeland security resources.
On 3 November 2009, shortly after the Finton and Smadi cases became public and only two days before U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan shot and killed fellow Soldiers at Ft. Hood, I wrote an analysis of the then-current and rising number of terrorist attacks / attempts perpetrated by homegrown terrorists. In my analysis I discussed how “threats emanating from within our borders are much more difficult to track or interdict” primarily because “homegrown extremists have the luxury of already operating inside of our overseas and border security layers and being familiar with our culture.” It took six months for DHS to come to a similar conclusion. According to media reports the DHS assessment released last week stated “recent attempted terror attacks have used operatives and tactics which made the plots hard to detect” because the terrorists “spent significant time in the United States and were familiar with their alleged targets.” This is not an earth-shattering revelation. Even more obvious is the statement that “the plots involved materials that can be commonly purchased…without causing suspicion.” Really? This has been the modus operandi for quite some time now. Terrorists understand how difficult it is to surreptitiously obtain traditional explosives and triggering mechanisms in the United States and as a result have relied on what is termed “field-expedient” explosive devices (FEDs).* These devices are generally constructed out of easily obtained everyday inconspicuous items. The only way it becomes suspicious is if 1) the items being purchased are known to be used by terrorists in constructing FEDs and 2) the supplies are purchased in large quantities. The first point means intelligence or law enforcement authorities must make not only local law enforcement, but also the public, aware of what can be used to create explosives. In the Zazi case it was hydrogen peroxide and acetone, two of the main ingredients in Triacetone Triperoxide (TATP). TATP was the primary explosive in the 2001 attempted bombing by Richard “the shoe bomber” Reid and the 2005 London train bombings. As for point two, unless the public is aware that certain products are used by terrorists, they have no reason to suspect a buyer who comes in and purchases supplies in bulk. However, if the terrorist suspects he / she is being surveilled, or if they believe the store employees are monitoring the purchase of certain products, they may divide the workload among other, witting or unwitting, participants or buy from different stores; much like how methamphetamine cookers used to shop multiple stores in search of cold medicines that contained pseudoephedrine. Again, in the Zazi case, he enlisted the support of family members to make trips to the beauty supply store to purchase the hydrogen peroxide (hair bleach) and acetone (nail polish remover), both of which are contained in various types of beauty and hair supplies, the purchase of which would not be suspicious if the buyer purported to be an owner of a hair salon or spa. Unfortunately, both points depend on human intervention; the homeland security network making the public aware of potential threats and the public remaining vigilant and reporting suspicious activity. Humans are not infallible.
*Some may term these as “improvised explosive devices,” or IEDs. This is incorrect. An IED is an actual explosive device (i.e. artillery shell, landmine, small arm ammunition, etc) that is improvised in such a way that it can be detonated using an unconventional method. For example, in Iraq and Afghanistan insurgents and terrorists use artillery shells and wire it with either a manual or electrical firing system, such as a cell phone. In some cases they are wired with both as a fail-safe measure. When a device is constructed from normally non-explosive, everyday material (i.e. hydrogen peroxide) it is considered “field-expedient” since it must be made expediently while in the field.
The Zazi case would begin the U.S. law enforcement’s “year of luck.” In his case, the only reason the plot failed was because somewhere in his past he had a connection to terrorists who were being monitored or investigated by our British cousins who then passed his name to our Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), thus placing Zazi firmly on our radar. Very lucky indeed. Aside from Nidal Hasan, the Ft. Hood shooter, the other major attempts (i.e. Christmas Day, Times Square) succeeded, meaning that everything went according to the terrorists’ plans except for the explosion. Our law enforcement and intelligence communities played no role in stopping those attempts.
The recently released DHS memo further advised that terrorists may attempt attacks in the United States with “increased frequency” and “we have to operate under the premise that other operatives are in the country and could advance plotting with little or no warning.” It also indicates that the recent attacks demonstrate that terrorists are seeking “easily accessible targets.” Again, this is not a new terrorist trend nor should it be new to counterterror analysts. Almost exactly four years ago Clark Kent Ervin, the former inspector general at DHS, wrote that heightened security of certain key targets “has increased the appeal of shopping malls, sports arenas, hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, movie theaters, housing complexes and other ‘soft’ targets that remain relatively unprotected against terrorist attacks.” Like water in a river, terrorists will seek the path of least resistance.
If DHS released this assessment back in November, or even December, it would have been forward looking and very informative and could thus be considered timely and actionable, thus demonstrating the capability of the homeland security intelligence enterprise. Alas, it was released only a week ago. It is reminiscent of the scene in the movie Pearl Harbor with Ben Affleck, when, as the U.S. Navy Admiral in command of Pearl Harbor is in the middle of almost 2,500 dead Americans and a crippled Pacific Fleet, he is handed the intelligence memo telling him that war with Japan should be deemed imminent. The premise behind having an intelligence capability is that they will tell you of what is to come, using their best experience with the enemy, judgment of the situation, and based on solid analysis of all sources. It may be wrong, but at least the analysts will not be afraid to go out on a limb with what little information they have at their disposal. Writing assessments of what has already happened is what 24-hour news outlets are for. Until DHS decides it does not answer to other federal departments and agencies and forges ahead on its own in the intelligence arena, we will continue to see assessments and analyses after-the-fact.