Jeff and Christine's Homeland Security Blog

Homeland Security and Terrorism

A “Pre-crime” System?

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Is it possible to detect terrorists or criminals before they strike? That’s the premise of science-fiction films like Minority Report, but the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is already experimenting with a “pre-crime” system it calls Future Attribute Screening Technology, or FAST. In an October 7, 2011, article, CNET News writer Declan McCullagh explores what FAST is intended to achieve.

Instead of relying on psychics to predict who will commit a dangerous act, FAST is designed to collect data surreptitiously on a subject’s heart rate, breathing, voice patterns, eye movements, ethnicity, occupation and gender. Algorithms will then determine which individuals may have malicious intent.

So far, FAST is still in the testing phase. In addition to testing on DHS employees who volunteered for the program, a field test was conducted in one northeastern US venue. How would it be used? DHS has suggested that FAST may be deployed at airports, but it might also be used at border crossings or public events where large crowds are present.

How about the science behind FAST? There’s no way to conclusively detect someone’s criminal or terrorist inclinations; that idea went out with phrenology in the 19th century. However, biological signs can betray a person’s anxiety, and someone who is about to commit a terrorist attack is likely to be under stress.

One problem is that while symptoms like an elevated heart rate or changes in voice patterns may indicate anxiety, they don’t offer insight into the cause of the anxiety. Someone displaying these symptoms may simply be nervous about missing a flight, or may be stressed at a sporting stadium because of misplaced car keys or even an adverse referee’s call.

There’s a parallel with “lie detectors.” Polygraph equipment can’t look into someone’s mind and determine that he is lying. All it can do is reveal biological symptoms which are associated with the anxiety or stress. Since stress accompanies deception for most psychologically normal people, it can indicate areas for questioning for investigators.

Because FAST won’t be able to “detect terrorists” in a simplistic and certain manner, we as Homeland Security professionals will need to consider how technologies like this should be used. There are clear privacy implications: how would collecting data from crowds of people square with the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures?  If a system like FAST does point out an individual with a suspicious profile, how should law enforcement or transportation security officers proceed?  Would it be sufficient grounds for probable cause, leading to further action?

Natural Disasters: Why Will They Hit Us Harder?

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We’re used to thinking of natural disasters as random acts of nature, no greater or less in our own century than in earlier times. Some commentators believe the frequency of natural disasters has increased, but what’s certain is that they affect us more than ever before, despite our advances in predicting storms and measuring quakes.

Why? Because human populations are denser than ever before, so it’s likely that a disaster will strike a populated area. In the past, earthquakes and storms often hit regions with few towns or settlements, so death tolls were low.

Likewise, the level of infrastructure was lower in the past. Disasters now destroy not only farms, homes, houses of worship, and markets but also skyscrapers, factories, airports, and microwave towers. The financial cost has gone up along with the human cost. According to Erwann Michel-Kerjann, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in risk management, America is highly vulnerable to natural disasters. Writing in the Washington Post, Michel-Kerjann shows that the economic costs of natural disasters have doubled compared to a similar period 20 years ago:

The world has entered a new era of catastrophes. Economic losses from hurricanes, earthquakes and resulting tsunamis, floods, wildfires and other natural disasters increased from $528 billion (1981-1990) to more than $1.2 trillion over the period 2001-2010. The 9.0 earthquake and massive tsunami in Japan this past spring caused hundreds of billions of dollars of direct and indirect costs.

How about the idea that there have been more natural disasters in recent times? The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) studied this idea in a 2005 article. Here’s what UNEP had to say:

With growing population and infrastructures the world’s exposure to natural hazards is inevitably increasing. This is particularly true as the strongest population growth is located in coastal areas (with greater exposure to floods, cyclones and tidal waves). To make matters worse any land remaining available for urban growth is generally risk-prone, for instance flood plains or steep slopes subject to landslides. The statistics in this graphic reveal an exponential increase in disasters. This raises several questions. Is the increase due to a significant improvement in access to information? What part does population growth and infrastructure development play? Finally, is climate change behind the increasing frequency of natural hazards?

In late September 2011, funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was at the center of budget battles in Washington. While the situation was temporarily resolved, a fundamental challenge remains: as more Americans will be facing natural disasters in years to come, is there still a national consensus that disaster victims can count on Federal help?

Graphic courtesy of UNEP

Grades Are In… a Report Card for Homeland Security

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Every year, the Homeland Security Today website issues a report card for Homeland Security efforts during the twelve months between each September 11 anniversary. For the year September 11, 2010 – September 10, 2011, HST writer David Silverberg focused on the death of Usama bin Laden and the wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring.

To HST, this was an especially important year: The year 2011 marks a turning point in homeland security and a decisive year in world history of equal significance to 2001. Whether that means an improvement or a worsening depends on each of us and our actions in the year to come… The death of Osama Bin Laden and the Arab Spring was a cleansing wind throughout the Middle East and a huge blow to Al Qaeda’s jihad.

The report card includes a timeline of key events and a judgment on performance in four areas: Overseas and Foreign Policy; the Nation; and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Government, States and Localities. The analysis of the effects of bin Ladin’s death and the Arab Spring movement is complemented by a look at the significance of narcotics-fueled violence along the US-Mexico border. Bin Ladin’s end meant that Homeland Security could finally look in new directions and make some necessary updates:

Liberated, in a sense, by the death of Osama Bin Laden, this was the year that Napolitano and the Obama administration unveiled new strategies for dealing with terrorism and transnational crime. They also broke with the past by discarding the previous color-coded alert system. At the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), Pistole preserved airport screening as a purely government domain and empowered unions by permitting collective bargaining. The Department of Defense memorandum of agreement on cybersecurity helped clarify responsibilities.

As for DHS, Silverberg thought the agency made progress in building its internal capacity and its relationships with other agencies. However, he anticipates that government-wide budget cutting will damage the overall status of homeland security in states and localities as DHS funding drops, even if DHS fares better financially than other parts of government. Silverberg also notes a wave of discontent with airport screening procedures, but recent changes to a “risk-based” system may help reduce public anger.

Here’s what Silverberg expects for the coming year. Would you agree with his assessment of the most pressing homeland security challenges?

The year ahead will present the challenge of working with new Arab governments to further democracy and friendly relations with the United States and completing the defeat of Al Qaeda and jihadism in the Middle East. Closer to home, the challenge will be to prevent narco-cartel violence and corruption from further infecting the United States. Although levels of illegal immigration and shipments of contraband are lower than those of previous years, conflict on the US border and in Mexico remain.

From our perspective, some additional challenges to consider include building a national consensus in support of disaster relief funding, and addressing the growing share of terror attacks from domestic sources. FEMA’s funding is hanging in the balance during a year of natural calamities, and political wrangling is making the issue all the more delicate. The face of terror now statistically tends to look like most of America– homegrown radicals, most with a militant anti-government agenda rather than an Islamic extremist objective.

DHS has a massive mission, since it must handle both of these problems and many others. Students of Homeland Security will be solving a wider range of problems than professionals in most other fields, so the need for preparation is pressing.

Written by Homeland Security

September 28, 2011 at 15:48

Trends in Terrorism: the Threat from Domestic Extremists

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For students of Homeland Security, it is important that we remain focused on the changing trends in terrorism in the US. In a recent article, FBI Intelligence analyst Lauren O’Brien makes a good case that the terrorist enemy is now more diverse and adaptable, which makes focusing on the enemy just that more difficult than prior to 9/11.

As she noted in this article “Following 9/11, the United States faced a threat from Al Qaeda not only as an organization but also as an ideology. A new global jihadist movement composed of al Qaeda-affiliated and -inspired groups and individuals began to unfold. Although these groups threatened U.S. interests overseas, they did not rival al Qaeda in the threat they posed to the homeland. However, over time, the spread of this decentralized, diffuse movement has increased the threats to U.S. interests at home and abroad.”

While we cannot discount the threat posed by Islamic extremism and the domestic threat posed by homegrown Islamic extremists, the FBI has reported that roughly two-thirds of terrorism in the US was conducted by non-Islamic American extremists from 1980-2001; and from 2002-2005, the figure went up to 95 percent.

One of the factors in these statistics is that the Patriot Act of 2001 expanded the legal definition of “terrorism” to include domestic terrorism as well as international terrorism. Naturally, this would increase FBI statistics on domestic terrorism cases. However, the government is confronting a notable problem in classifying cases as domestic terrorism and violent extremism: the lack of a comprehensive definition. This lack of uniformity in defining domestic terrorism is reflected in the way domestic terrorists are prosecuted and their final sentencing.

This is noted in an excellent article published by the Council on Foreign Relations and written by Jonathan Masters:

Mr. Masters noted this lack of agreement on what constitutes domestic terrorism, and what distinguishes it from other crimes. Here’s an excerpt from his study: “a Syracuse University-sponsored watchdog organization, when it compared the number of terrorism cases listed by three entities–the courts (310), the prosecutors (508), and the National Security Division (253)– it found that from 2004-2009 only 4 percent of the cases were classified as terrorism on all three lists.” This suggests that the agency that made the designation, not the facts of the case, determined whether a suspect was prosecuted as a terrorist and, therefore, may have received a harsher sentence.

In discussing domestic extremists, the FBI uses four broad categories: left-wing, right-wing, single issue groups, and homegrown Islamic.

Mr. Masters further notes that Lone Offenders may pose the most immediate threat in the US. “According to an FBI report on terrorism, the lone wolf label refers to individuals “who commit acts of violence outside of the auspices of structured terrorist organizations or without the prior approval or knowledge of these groups’ leaders.” A Department of Homeland Security study found that attacks by individuals constituted one-third of all extremist acts of violence since 1995, up from just 6.5 percent in the twenty-five years prior. Recent high-profile cases of these attacks include those by Jared Lee Loughner, James von Brunn, and Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad. Because of their isolation from organized extremist groups, lone wolves are particularly hard to track for intelligence agencies. However, their independence often makes them less effective than members who are well connected to large networks.

In the United States, left-wing violence has been characterized in recent decades by a decline since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and a very successful mid-1980s FBI infiltration campaign. From 1960 to the mid-1980s, most domestic extremist violence was committed by leftist factions, but this is no longer the prevailing trend.

Mr. Masters further discusses single-issue groups where “extremists attack targets that embody distinct political issues like environmental degradation, abortion, genetic engineering, or animal abuse. These groups are usually composed of small, autonomous cells that are hard to infiltrate because of rigid secrecy. According to the FBI, so-called eco-terrorists and animal rights groups like the Earth Liberation Front have committed over two thousand crimes and caused losses of over $110 million since 1979. Ecological extremism gained particular notoriety in the 1990s, and in 2004 the FBI declared these groups the No. 1 domestic terrorism threat. Anti-abortion extremists are responsible for seven murders, forty-one bombings, and 173 acts of arson in the U.S. and Canada since 1977, according to the National Abortion Federation, an abortion rights group. While much of this violence peaked in the 1990s (PDF), the 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller served as a reminder of the threat still posed by these factions.

Interestingly, Mr Masters notes that “the most recent swell of extremist violence began to emerge from right-wing militants in the late-1980s and 1990s. According to a 2005 FBI report on terrorism, these groups, which are “primarily in the form of domestic militias and conservative special interest causes, began to overtake left-wing extremism as the most dangerous, if not the most prolific, domestic terrorist threat to the country.” Right-wing extremists champion a wide variety of causes, including racial supremacy, hatred and suspicion of the federal government, and fundamentalist Christianity. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks the activities of hate groups, suggests militia groups declined every year since 1996 but have seen a dramatic resurgence since 2008.”

Complacency Is Not an Option

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While many Americans rejoice and are relieved that Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden was killed by US forces in Pakistan, we need to be careful that our vigilance against terrorism is not decreased. In an article published in the FBI‘s Law Enforcement Bulletin (September 2011), <LINK> FBI Intelligence analyst Lauren O’Brien provides her thoughts on the state of terrorism today.

Her opinion is that in the last 10 years, while the US faces a more diverse enemy, the threat still exists and is just as formidable as it was in 2001. The enemy is now more adaptive and changing which makes focusing on the enemy just that more difficult. Ms. O’Brien goes on to provide a good understanding of how terrorism trends have evolved in the last 10 years.

In particular, Ms O’Brien is spot on when she states that, “Following 9/11, the United States faced a threat from al Qaeda not only as an organization but also as an ideology. A new global jihadist movement composed of al Qaeda-affiliated and -inspired groups and individuals began to unfold. Although these groups threatened U.S. interests overseas, they did not rival al Qaeda in the threat they posed to the homeland. However, over time, the spread of this decentralized, diffuse movement has increased the threats to U.S. interests at home and abroad.” This makes our (US) efforts against potential terrorists just that much harder and expensive.

We can see some of the more visible results in the Boko Haram movement in the West African country of Nigeria (the source of around 11% of oil imported into the US) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Ms. O’Brien correctly concludes that the US must continue to enhance its relationship with intelligence and law enforcement partners. The FBI (and other government agencies) need to adapt their techniques to confront the ever changing threat of terrorism. Complacency is not an option.

Written by Homeland Security

September 22, 2011 at 19:34

“Open Source” Terrorism and the Internet: What Do You Think?

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ASIS, the leading industry organization in our field, just held its annual conference in Orlando. A keynote topic of conversation was terrorist use of the Internet. According to a 20 September 2011 Homeland Security Newswire article, terrorists make use of cyberspace for a range of activities, including recruitment and planning:

Jeff Bardin, the chief security strategist of Treadstone 71, a presenter at this year’s ASIS conference on cyber jihad, argues in a report that “Cyber jihadist groups have adopted the power of modern communications technology for planning, recruiting, propaganda purposes, enhancing communications, command and control, fund raising and funds transfer, information gathering, and as a method for winning the hearts of minds of the global insurgency.”

Terrorists have been on the Internet as long as it’s been around, of course. It’s another tool that they can use– and we can use against them. Much of the conversation at ASIS was about how best to use the Internet to investigate and undermine terrorism.

To me, one of the most significant parts of the discussion was the concept of “open source Jihad.” In the information technology world, open-source code means that software writers are free to use the building blocks of a computer platform to create programs and applications without asking, or paying, a big firm like Apple or Microsoft. In the same way, open source Jihad encourages would-be terrorists to operate independently while building on the work of others. Here’s how the Newswire describes al-Qa’ida’s role in facilitating terrorism by individuals and small groups which are not part of its formal structure:

Most notably, al Qaeda uses the Internet to publish Inspire, the organization’s own magazine. The group describes its publication as “Open Source Jihad,” writing that it is a “resource manual for those who loathe the tyrants; includes bomb making techniques, security measures, guerilla tactics, weapons training, and all other Jihad related activities.” They go on to say, “The open source Jihad is America’s worst nightmare; It allows Muslims to train at home instead of risking a dangerous travel abroad.”

The magazine, Inspire, is well named. This is an essential change in the pattern of Islamic extremist terrorist activity today: instead of being directed by relatively large, “professional” terrorist organizations, it is typically designed and carried out by small groups who are inspired by al-Qa’ida, but who are not members in the classic sense.

This pattern holds true for domestic terrorism, too. There are hundreds of like-minded groups and thousands of individuals who share neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and militia/anti-government ideologies. Yet, they have not coalesced into anything like al-Qa’ida in its heyday, and they instead serve to inflame individuals like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh without actively directing them.

Written by Homeland Security

September 22, 2011 at 04:26

With friends like these…..

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When reviewing a number of articles dealing with Homeland Security, I came upon a recent NY Times article (LINK) which was an interesting demonstration of how sometimes the US confuses itself and can’t focus on Homeland Security with one voice.

The article was discussing Nassir Al-Rifahe, who was a member of the Iraqi National Congress, having worked for years to topple Saddam Hussein before being granted political asylum in the United States in 1997. For the last 10 years, Mr. Rifahe has been living in the US as a refugee, and the Department of Homeland Security has refused to grant his application for a green card.

To remind my readers, the Iraqi National Congress (INC) was an umbrella Iraqi opposition group led by Ahmed Chalabi. It received millions of dollars in funding from the United States government following the first Gulf War, with the goal of overthrowing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Why is this happening to Mr. Rifahe, you ask?

Well, according to the New York Times article, “Under a sweeping section of federal immigration law, the government considers Mr. Rifahe to have engaged in terrorist-related activity, making him ineligible to live here permanently. That the group Mr. Rifahe worked for was once supported by the United States and tried to overthrow Saddam Hussein matters little.

At issue is a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which was bolstered after the Sept. 11 attacks by the Patriot Act and other legislation to prevent terrorists from entering the United States.

As currently worded, the act defines a terrorist group as any organization with two or more people that has engaged in a range of violent activities against persons or property. This would include groups that take up arms against a government. Simply belonging to such an organization, which does not have to be officially designated by the United States as terrorist, or providing “material support” are grounds for being barred from this country.

The law makes no distinction for groups or governments that Washington views favorably.

I personally don’t see any benefit from this law being so broad as to prevent the US government from assisting individuals who are being labeled as terrorists even when they did not engage in terrorist activities or worked for a US funded group which was doing the bidding of the US Government.

What do you think?

Challenges for TSA

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Many of you may be considering careers at the Transportation Security Agency (TSA). The work there is vital: it’s the first line of defense against terrorists and criminals who plan to hijack or destroy aircraft.

The US government took a dramatic step in 2001 when it removed airport security screening from the hands of private-sector contractors and created a corps of federal employees to do the job. Training and pay are at a professional level, whereas under the old system airports hired private firms to do the screening work, and the firms varied greatly in training and other quality factors.

Now, there’s a trend in the opposite direction. Here’s an article on a growing trend by budget-cutters to privatize screening work (link to humanevents article).

Proponents of privatization argue that because there have been instances of bureaucratic bloat at TSA and of inattention and theft by TSA officers, it would be better to replace TSA screeners with cheaper private-sector employees.  However, in the private sector, contracts usually go to the lowest bidder, who keeps costs low by paying low wages and keeping training to a minimum.  That was the situation before 9/11.

For a more detailed look at Representative Mica’s comments on TSA, here’s a link to a newsmax article.

TSA has an especially tough job, since it must close off existing vulnerabilities and anticipate new ones, while maintaining the support of the traveling public.  There was a recent case here in Panama City in which an elderly lady was placed in an uncomfortable situation due to screening regulations (link), and it got quite a bit of negative publicity nationwide.

Here’s another article on a change in TSA procedure designed to build public support for travel screening procedures.  Note that random inspections will still take place, because otherwise terrorist groups may attempt to exploit the new policy:

As the memory of 9/11 dims for many Americans, the traveling public may be less tolerant of intrusive security measures. It will be a challenge for us, as Homeland Security professionals, to build a transportation security program which stays a step ahead of terrorists, while maintaining public support and confidence.

Dollars and “Sense” at the Mall of America

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We came upon an interesting computerworld article (Link ) which led us to three good NPR articles (Link 1 , Link 2, Link 3) on the Mall of America (MOA) and its counterterrorism efforts, which appear to have brought ordinary citizens under suspicion, sometimes on an ethnic basis.

Of course, MOA is the kind of target terrorists might find attractive, and its owners are correct to have a serious security program. While we believe these efforts have a good objective, we question whether this is the work of just a few untrained private security officers who are neither trained observers nor counterterrorism experts. The result is a number of “suspicious” reports filed by MOA security, which result in innocent individuals being the subjects of “Suspicious Activity Reports” (SAR), which then eventually involve other authorities including the FBI.

Given that FBI and other counterterrorism resources are finite, we doubt if this is a wise use of available manpower: chasing down dead ends while not being able to focus on serious suspicious individuals.

Another possible problem with this is the possible trend of reporting mostly minorities as suspicious. While Minnesota is a predomantly Caucasian state, most of the SARs were issued about nonwhites. According to the 2010 Census data, White persons make up 85.3% of the Minnesota population. However, according to the article, “Whites made up 34.6% (36) of the 125 reports. The other 65.4% or 89 non-white SARs were further broken down by ethnicity or race: 23 identified as Black, 1 Turkish, 2 Pakistani, 16 Middle Eastern, 1 Indian/Alaskan Native, 9 Hispanic, 8 East Indian, 6 Asian, and 2 Arab/Persian/Indian.” Forty-nine percent of the 125 SARs were sent on to the FBI, Joint Terrorism Task Force, Minnesota Joint Analysis Center or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

This just gives us pause to consider whether this program passes the giggle test and if law enforcement is getting a bang for the buck with the MOA program– or if it is wasting dollars and sense!

Recommended Reading: Homeland Security Remains an Agency in Progress (Brian Naylor, National Public Radio Weekend Edition, September 11, 2011)

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Recommended reading: Homeland Security Remains an Agency in Progress (Brian Naylor, National Public Radio Weekend Edition, September 11, 2011) Link:

NPR’s Brian Naylor presented an interesting discussion of the status of the Department of Homeland Security as of September 11, 2011. Ten years after 9/11, DHS has overcome many of the growing pains involved in building a vast agency out of 22 separate entities, and it is working to solve the vulnerabilities and faults identified in the 9/11 Commission Report.

The article reflects several challenges DHS is facing. One is the need to spend money carefully. Another is the Department’s balance between terrorism response and management of other kinds of disasters. The public often thinks of DHS in terms of terrorism, such as the old color-coded alert system, yet much of its work is on an “all-hazards” basis: it’s preparing for natural disasters, accidental chemical releases, etc., as well as terrorist attacks. Naylor quotes one academic who believes DHS should reduce its spending on terrorist preparations and focus on risks which happen with more frequency.

Steven Flynn, a member of the 9/11 Commission, says in the article that there’s also a need to focus more on resilience– bouncing back from disasters, since they can’t always be prevented. Flynn doesn’t say that prevention is no longer worth DHS time and resources, but his statement may represent a new way of looking at disasters.

What do you think?