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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Tech Central Station December 12 2002

Hi-Tech vs. Low-Tech Threats

By Noah Shachtman

The Bush Administration has repeatedly raised the specter of evildoers armed with exotic weapons - from Al-Qaeda's "dirty bombs" to Saddam's biotoxin-spraying unmanned planes. But the recent attacks in Kenya underscore a simple truth, defense experts say: terrorists hardly ever use high-tech gadgetry. Instead, they rely on low- or no-tech methods to help pull off their missions.

"These are not James Bond movie villains, imagining the most complex means to an end," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org. "They look for the simplest plan."

It couldn't get any simpler than the strikes in Mombassa. The shoulder-fired SA-7 missiles used to fire on the chartered 757 haven't been state of the art since the '60's. Car bombs, like the one used to strike the Paradise hotel, are an even older tactic.

"Bombs are every (terrorist's) favorite," said Jim Lewis, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "They're tried and true - and there's a high payoff when they explode."

Contrast that with biological weapons: "If there's snow, the germs all die in the cold, and no one notices a thing," he continued. "Terrorists aren't going to rely on weapons that are difficult to use or that will fizzle at the last minute."

According to Pike, there's been a quiet, important shift in U.S. national security policy, from defending against "probable" threats to defending against "describable" threats, regardless of how likely they are. The emphasis on high-tech terror is part of this shift, which began in the early days of the current administration, and has only accelerated during the war on terror.

"The attitude now is, 'these (terrorists) could do anything. So anything we can think of, they can do,'" Pike said.

"Washington is the capitol of imaginary threats," Lewis added. "They focus on (defenses) that don't really have much benefit, but make for a good Tom Clancy novel."

This scrambling detracts from homeland security, both by wasting valuable resources and by diverting attention from small, manageable measures that could prevent the most likely of terrorist attacks.

For example, air freight and air charter operators fly large airplanes that could be used in 9/11-style strikes, noted Phil Anderson, Lewis' colleague at CSIS. But, for the most part, these planes aren't subjected to the same security measures that the commercial airlines must undergo.

There are 123 chemical plants and storage facilities "in close proximity to large population centers," Anderson continued. But there's no consistent set of security measures to protect against the most likely terrorist attacks - car bombs and armed squads. Fences, security cameras, and guards are all haphazardly placed.

Small concrete barriers, strategically placed, are an excellent defense against car bombs, Globalsecurity.org's Pike said. But there hasn't been a concentrated push to set up these barriers around likely targets.

William Martel, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, argues that exotic threats, like chemical and biologcial attacks, can't be ignored.

"Although the risk is seen as very low, the consequences are profound," he said.

However, Lewis responded, "There's a risk of us getting carried away and doing something dumb in response to exotic threats.

In an effort to deny terrorists access to cutting edge technologies, government agencies are squelching the exchange of scientific information. Information on key research websites is being suppressed.

Los Alamos National Laboratory used to have an online library of technical reports on nuclear science, chemistry, and metallurgy, for example. That's now been taken down.

Lewis noted, "People are coming up with policies that could wind up doing real damage."

2002 Tech Central Station