Sunday, October 29, 2006

America's Untapped Anti-Terror Weapon - Technothriller Writers

Author Frederick Forsyth has a piece in todays Sunday Times in which he explains the shadowy world of high-seas freight and how it could easily be used by terrorists.
When I began to look at terrorism around the world for a new project, it was not long before I found that the prospect of in-air sabotage of transatlantic airliners was but one of the nightmares with which the West’s anti-terrorist agencies wrestle on a daily basis. The unrevealed and undiscussed horror is the burgeoning world of marine terrorism.

Megadeath coming at us from the sea is envisaged as a seemingly normal and legitimate merchant ship, maybe a tanker but not necessarily, stolen by Al-Qaeda and staffed with a suicidal crew, bearing inside her hull a simply devastating cargo, quietly cruising into the very heart of a city before detonating.
The whole thing is worth a read - flags of convenience and no-questions banks in offshore islands create a situation where it is impossible to find out who own a large proportion of the world's 44,000 merchant vessels and untold numbers of smaller boats.

But reading the article, I had an idea. Or to be precise, I remembered someone else's idea.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, in their science-fiction novel Footfall, had the U.S. government put together a panel of SF authors led by the thinly-disguised, late and great, Robert Heinlein to come up with ideas to fight the alien bad-guys.

Why not apply that idea to counter-terror threat assessment? Let's face it, we've all noticed that Al Qaida and others seem to be mirroring ideas from the likes of Tom Clancy and Dale Brown. These authors think out of the box for a living - if they can't come up with a new and believable hook or two for their next novel then it will sink. They are, by temperament and by experience, some of the best imaginable people to begin thinking ahead of the terrorists so that the bad guys can be cut off before they have properly begun a plot. Contrast that with the institutionalised experts of government agencies who, like generals are reputed to do, always seem to be taking steps to fight the last attack.

It couldn't hurt and might well help. It certainly would be a drop in the Homeland Security budget's ocean. I would suggest that a panel include, at a minimum, Forsyth, Tom Clancy, Dale Brown, Larry Bond, Stephen Coonts, R.J. Piniero and Michael DiMercurio. What do you think?

Update I'm told (thanks, James) that at one stage a brainstorming group of Hollywood screnwriters was used to try to come up with possible new terrorist targets and attack methods. But then, the powers that be decided to go for a version of risk assessment that concentrates on protecting us against attacks that have already happened while failing to differentiate between, say, the Empire State Building and a pig fair in Bumf**k, Indiana.
State emergency-management officials use a simple formula — "history plus judgment equals forecast" — to determine the probability of a wide range of hazards, from terrorist attacks to tsunamis, wildfires or an explosion at the Umatilla Chemical Depot in Oregon.

...But all the techniques reflect a conundrum: How do you determine the likelihood that a building, boat or some public icon will be attacked? The answer, say terrorism experts, is you don't. Instead, without specific intelligence, most risk-assessment models assume a constant threat.

...In 1998, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, reported that the Defense Department's risk-based methodology included these levels of probability: frequent, probable, occasional, remote and improbable — "so unlikely it can be assumed occurrence may not be experienced."

But many of the assumptions behind that approach were rewritten after experts investigated the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995...From a risk-management perspective, the likelihood of a terrorist attack on that day at that location was practically zero, said Rod Propst, senior operations analyst with the Virginia-based Anser Institute for Homeland Security, a nonprofit research organization established a few months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Propst has conducted vulnerability tests on a wide range of military bases and civilian structures. A few years after the Oklahoma City bombing, he removed the idea of "likelihood" from all his statistical models.

"We don't use likelihood in risk-based methodology anymore," he said. "We assume there is a likelihood."
I've some experience in risk assessment techniques as they apply to fire insurance etc. If you don't figure in "likelihood" as part of the judgement process then you haven't DONE a risk assessment. Mind you, it explains - exactly - why some out of the way event in a place no-one has ever heard of gets as much weighting as the Brooklyn Bridge.

Moreover, notice that insurers often either exclude terrorism along with acts of God and the like or cap their liability at a fixed sum - which tells you exactly how good insurers think risk assessment is when it comes to terrorism. You can't do that with lives the way the insurers can with cash-value.

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