Free World Nations Face Multifaceted Threats

April 2002
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

The attacks on the United States have opened a new Pandora’s box of terrorism.

Networked terror groups, domestic radicals, renegade states and terror for profit all threaten Western democracies to an unprecedented degree. Prospective targets might be high-profile infrastructure assets with the potential for high casualty totals, or they might simply take the form of attacks on public institutions to rapidly erode confidence in governments.

The possible targets are as diverse as the different groups that may attack them. They include nuclear power plants, the U.S. food supply, financial institutions and even cruise ships. And, these targets form the backdrop of a likelihood that the extensive remnants of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network will try to strike the United States again within the next 18 months.

These scenarios all constitute the core concerns of David Kay, senior vice president at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), McLean, Virginia. He is responsible for the company’s homeland-security-related business. Kay was a chief weapons inspector for the United Nations inspection team specializing in nuclear materials in Iraq in the 1990s. He and his team were expelled from Iraq as they pursued evidence of Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction.

He states that the Bush administration “looked over a brink” and realized that the September 11 attacks were just the opening and “a pretty minor round.” What they saw are forces that are inalterably hostile to the United States and are becoming smarter in terms of tactics and concepts of operations—and, they are willing to attack us in our own homeland, he warns.

“We face a long-term struggle with people who genuinely hate our way of life,” Kay asserts. “This is not a battle; it really is a war. It is a long-term struggle. There are going to be successes, but unfortunately there are going to be reversals. You don’t want to get too high on the successes, nor do you want to get too down on the reversals, but it is deadly serious.”

One aspect that Kay believes has been hard for the public to grasp is the threat transition from national adversaries to stateless foes. Conventional concepts of deterrence and retaliation do not apply to terrorists. While state terrorism has not disappeared, a number of different stateless groups see the United States as an implacable foe that must be destroyed.

The September 11 attacks also increased the possibility of domestic terrorism. While U.S. terrorists tend to be loners, their actions can prove deadly, as recent history demonstrates. Their greater accessibility to technology, along with improved understanding of how it can be used, can have serious consequences for the United States, Kay warrants. He cites radical anti-abortion, animal rights, anti-globalization and anti-government activists as potential threats to the country.

Overseas terrorists may come from the legions of radicals who believe that dying for their cause confers significance on their worldly existence. “You have entire classes of individuals who are part of this culture of death that believe ‘I die, therefore I am,’” Kay remarks. Their sense of hopelessness allows them to be won over easily to a cause that offers more than a despairing life. Tragically, he points out, many of these people are well-educated with many other options in life. Yet, they see no future beyond doing something that appeals to a cause beyond their own life.

When Osama bin Laden’s core organization was pushed out of Saudi Arabia to Sudan, and later from Sudan to Afghanistan, the group sought an environment that featured a state structure from which to operate.

“The issue of whether al Qaida received other, more direct, support from states will be one of the interesting ‘walk the cat back’ exercises,” Kay declares. Future scenarios likely will include a cast of characters from terrorist groups and their state sponsors, all working against the United States and its interests worldwide. “As I look at the next decade, very few [countries] are going to be [like] Iraq—willing to stand up to U.S. military might directly,” Kay predicts. “The asymmetrical threats that many of us believe are coming are likely to be states empowering—by providing intelligence, by facilitating or by equipping—terrorists to carry out state aims to weaken U.S. resolve and presence in areas.

“If you look at al Qaida, it looks like the perfect organization for power projection. They understand how to project power globally—whether moving money, bodies or information, or carrying out operations at a distance.”

The United States should fear terrorist actions that involve significantly greater casualties than occurred on September 11, Kay states. He believes that the country probably will suffer attacks within 12 to 18 months, if not sooner.

However, Kay believes that the next terrorist attack will take place outside the continental United States. U.S. citizens and business interests abroad are the likely targets. These include embassies and banks, which are symbols of U.S. power and reach.

“I think that the terrorists learned from their attack on the World Trade Center that the impact that hurt us the most was not the two buildings falling down,” Kay explains. “It hurt the economy.

“The next class of targets will be splashy—and the damage will be great—but the intent will be to wreak economic damage. The terrorists are after the Americans’ resolve, will and prestige we have in the world. The commentary that flew out of the World Trade Center [attack] is heavily focused on the economic impact, and terrorists understand that,” he emphasizes.

In addition to economic and government facilities abroad, Kay warns that the cruise industry is a highly visible and vulnerable target for terrorist attack. These floating resorts tend not to be escorted by warships when they are at sea, and they regularly put into ports where access is convenient. The economic impact of closing down the cruise industry would be devastating for some countries, he states.

Major infrastructure targets are attractive to terrorists because of both economic and symbolic effects. Nuclear power plants are one example. “A successful attack on a U.S. nuclear power plant or one abroad would immediately lead to calls for closing down similar facilities that have not yet been attacked,” Kay observes. About 20 percent of U.S. electricity is generated by nuclear power. France generates more than 75 percent of its electricity in nuclear power plants. In addition to the physical damage to the immediate region, “a successful attack of that sort could have horrendous economic implications.”

Potential infrastructure targets are not limited to nuclear power plants. Oil refineries and liquid natural gas storage facilities would offer similar social and economic effects following a successful terrorist attack.

Kay warns that the U.S. infrastructure is not well protected. Most concern over infrastructure protection during the year 2000 (Y2K) buildup focused on computer network defense against hackers. Planners did not deal with the physical protection of the infrastructure, he charges.

“Terrorists fundamentally seek vulnerabilities,” Kay relates. “So they seek things that have not been well prepared. Business, by and large, has not responded with the same sense of urgency that the U.S. military did after the Khobar Towers blast.”

Another class of terrorist targets would be part of a focus on shaking public confidence in the ability of a government to respond to the crisis. The anthrax events provided a hint of this approach, Kay notes. These attacks showed a lack of preparedness on the part of the U.S. government to respond properly—and even to identify the earliest anthrax outbreaks as attacks. The federal response was “less than reassuring,” he says, and this points out how advantageous it would be for terrorists to seek out “the seams and fissures of the federal system.”

Agriculture, for example, is an inviting target. In some states, it is the major reason they are still populated, Kay offers. The strong U.S. confidence in its food supply would be shattered if food from one region were quarantined, and this in turn would lead to a huge economic and social impact. The hoof and mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom is an example, he notes.

The greater threat is to food products, Kay maintains. While some large-scale terror attacks on the food supply in general could have “millennial ideological” implications, attacking the food distribution chain to affect the individual consumer directly is the more likely course for al Qaida-type terrorists, he contends.

However, another threat may emerge from terrorists forming alliances with common criminals. A profiteer could make huge sums of money in the futures market by placing bets on agricultural products such as wheat or pork just prior to even a small outbreak that tightens supply. In recent years, the futures markets have become globally linked, so these malevolent traders could reap hidden windfalls with inside knowledge of upcoming terrorist attacks. Kay believes that these operations most likely will be associated with global organized crime elements, including international narcotics criminals, and workhorse terrorists who may not even know they are fronting for a terror-for-profit operation.

This threat can emerge from Columbia or Mexico, where narco-terrorist operations actually threaten the sovereignty of regional or national governments. These terrorists might attack the United States to protect their own interests or threaten the United States into withholding support for crackdowns on their organizations.

Kay describes the role historically played by Syria as a parallel to the narco-terrorist model. Syria has offered protection and sanctuary to terrorists operating against Israel and other rivals. However, Syria sharply controlled the terrorists’ activities to ensure that their operations were only in that country’s interests.

The potential for this type of activity in the Middle East is growing, especially as many countries deal with the transition from an oil-wealth to a post-oil-wealth economy. They face the unsettling effects of a burgeoning population and declining revenues.

Iran both has fought the Taliban and has offered them passage into that country, according to statements by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Addressing this seeming contradiction, Kay expands that some factions within Iran seek to discomfort the United States and dissuade it from establishing permanent bases in the region. Iran may be most concerned about turning its Afghanistan neighbor into a permanent U.S. base, which is an anathema to Iranian geostrategic planners.

To empower the U.S. intelligence community to deal with all these new challenges, the country must address “the fundamental imbalance” that has occurred between technical collection capacity and analysis capacity, Kay contends. As hard as signals intelligence collection has become, the United States still amasses more information than it ever can analyze. It may well be that unread data collected prior to September 11 may contain material that could have warned authorities of the ensuing attacks if they had effective analysis capabilities, Kay suggests.

Simply adding more people to analyze data will not solve the problem, he cautions. This approach is analogous to the telephone company adding more switchboard operators to handle increased telecommunications traffic during a transition to more advanced technologies. The intelligence community has not placed enough emphasis on performing analysis in a way other than by one individual on one data set, he charges.

Automating the process may be key to providing the broad-based analysis necessary to absorb all the incoming data. These analytical techniques are essential for closing the collection-analysis gap. “You probably find better analytical tools in many market survey and consumer product companies than you find in parts of the intelligence community,” Kay charges. “The resistance toward open-source intelligence is a cultural hostility. The diagnosis is agreed to by everyone, but no one is ready to move to the next conclusion,” he says.

Another key requirement is more human intelligence, or HUMINT. This involves a long-term dedication to the target organization or country, Kay maintains. Assets must be in place long before a budding crisis turns a country or region into a hot spot. “You must dedicate and reward a career in [a specialty],” he says, noting that the uncertainty of this new era differs dramatically from the Cold War certainty of the Soviet adversary and its clients.

He continues that the United States does not play catch-up very well in HUMINT, as most of the people it could recruit in a crisis are not in government circles. They could be in business, academia, organized crime, drug running and prostitution, and layered clearance rules reign over recruitment. Similarly, many of these potential recruits may not trust the United States not to burn them either by inadvertent leaks or by abandoning them or selling them out.

The intelligence community also must break down “its silos and soda straws” that inhibit effective information flow, Kay warrants. While these organizations collaborate better than ever, many of the disciplines remain a world unto themselves. Ironically, many barriers between the groups were beginning to fall because of the threat of terrorism before September 11. However, the breaking down of these barriers must accelerate, Kay states.

The success of operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan will have positive consequences for the intelligence community. If people who are hostile to the United States genuinely fear that U.S. military power can—and will—be turned against them rapidly and effectively, then “you will get people who will walk and talk,” Kay predicts. “I think we can—and the administration is starting to—communicate to the forces of evil that we are after them. Some people will fall off at the edges, and they will make our intelligence better.”

Company Center Takes Aim at Homeland Security

David Kay heads SAIC’s homeland security activities, which he emphasizes predate September 11, 2001, and represent the foremost investment requirement for the company’s new fiscal year. The company performs tasks ranging from policy to practice, based on the premise that having a single focal point for homeland security helps coordinate expertise scattered throughout the corporation.

Kay served as the United Nations’ chief nuclear weapons inspector before he and his team were expelled from Iraq by Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. Kay joined SAIC shortly after his return from Iraq. For the first couple of years, he focused on counterproliferation. However, the burgeoning terrorist threat led to a broad-based approach to the multifaceted threat to national security.

“We have to maintain an openness to doing things differently,” he declares. If we just do things better, but the same way, we’ll help, but we really won’t make a difference. “If we think about how things can be done better, even if that means doing things differently, we are likely to win this thing faster and easier.”

For example, one recent project explored how mass transit authorities can use dogs for explosive detection. Despite recent advances in signal processing power, a dog’s nose remains the best sensor for detecting faint scents of multiple compounds. The drawback to using canine detectors is that they can become fatigued or even overwhelmed by the broad range of fragrances found in big-city subways, for example. By applying science and augmenting the dogs’ capabilities, the company is finding ways to increase the amount of time that dogs can sniff for explosives.

The company is focusing its work on homeland security on four thrust areas. The first involves assisting customers—emergency responders at the state and local levels—in improving their exercise and response capabilities.

The second thrust concerns bioterrorism, and it builds on traditional capabilities in detection and signal processing. Most detectors can detect one hazardous substance but not another—anthrax versus botulism toxin, for example. In addition, genetic engineering may reduce the effectiveness of detectors calibrated to detect known biohazards. Kay suggests that some innovative concepts may offer rapid detection of a broader spectrum of substances with fewer false alarms.

“We actually are at the very earliest stages of understanding how you would calculate, predict and understand release patterns of a large urban area that has cars moving amid high-rise towers,” Kay notes. “The level of confidence as well as the number of detectors you would require to provide confidence in the civilian environment is much larger than in the military environment.” The company is aiming, in the next year or two, at developing detector concepts that are specifically tailored for the home front.

A related issue is how to automate disease tracking methodologies. Kay states that, for the most part, authorities currently track disease outbreaks by conventional mail. Less than half of U.S. state public health services have high-speed broadband Internet connections. Automating this “primitive” public health information system also can help in tracking mundane disease outbreaks, Kay notes.

The third area concerns “smart borders.” The United States admits more than 15,000 cargo containers into the country every day, and only about 2 percent are ever inspected. A terrorist could easily infiltrate a weapon of mass destruction inside a common container, especially through a shadow shipping company. However, their flimsy nature does lend itself to examination with the proper equipment.

Tracking people is another method of securing the border that can—and should—be accomplished from the moment individuals apply to enter the United States, Kay continues. If they enter the United States, these individuals also would be tracked while in the country, and their identifications and images would be compared to databases of known terrorists. Kay relates that the company is developing methods of tying facial recognition with other biometrics and databases. Similar data fusion could be applied to airline luggage matching.

The fourth thrust involves intelligence fusion. “It is clear that the country must figure a way to share intelligence out of the traditional bastions of its holders,” Kay declares. “It does no good to have the data for a warning and not to give it. On the other hand, it probably is equally destructive to issue a warning without an understanding of what that warning means,” he adds. The struggle will be to develop a consistent system by which the federal government can fuse intelligence internally and share it with state and local authorities. “We must do it in real time and with meaning,” he emphasizes.

Additional information on Science Applications International Corporation is available on the World Wide Web at


Iraq Looms as the Ultimate Threat

Above all the threats to U.S. security is Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. SAIC’s David Kay, former United Nations weapons inspector in that country, describes it as a one-man state with considerable resources—Iraq sits on the world’s second-largest proven oil reserves—and one that is relentless in its hostility toward U.S. interests. Hussein has shown that he is “an amazing risk taker and not a well-calculating one in terms of how he achieves his objectives,” Kay relates.

Effective weapons inspections have not taken place for five years, Kay notes. “I cannot believe that there is anyone who looks at Saddam’s Iraq and its persistent attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction who cannot realize that it is not a question of if he would attack us, but where and when he will attack us,” he warrants.

“I find it very frightening that some people believe that this is an adjustable dispute and that if we get some form of inspection and lift sanctions, then they will move to more moderate [behavior],” he continues. “As long as Saddam is there with his power structure, it is a revolutionary regime in the sense that it has a different conflicted view of the world and the region.

“I think we are headed for disaster. The only choice we face is how we remove Saddam from power.”

Kay adds that this choice should focus on the modes of removal and not on the objective. “Otherwise, you are just waiting to absorb the first hit,” he emphasizes.

He continues that the Iraqi government view is that the United States occasionally blusters about Saddam Hussein, and its main response would be to periodically “waste a few Tomahawks, almost always in the middle of the night and almost always at empty buildings. The Clinton administration is the only administration I’ve known that thought that the way to attack the intelligence community of a country was to attack at 3:00 a.m. when only cleaners are there. Intelligence communities are about people, not about buildings—especially in the middle of the night.

“Even with this [Bush] administration, the periodic ratcheting up of the rhetoric about Saddam is almost always followed by unattributed quotes from others in the administration with a different view, which is followed by a ratcheting down of the threat,” Kay imparts. “From the point of view of Iraq, it only reconfirms the belief that the Americans are tied by either allies or their own inhibitions, and will not deal with Saddam seriously. So, if you are in opposition to Saddam in Iraq, you never move out because you don’t believe that the Americans won’t do something foolish or won’t change their rhetoric overnight.

“From Saddam’s point of view, it just emboldens him. So, I’m afraid that we’ve created a situation there that the only thing that will change it is a full-scope use of military force against Saddam,” Kay concludes.

Covert action to remove Hussein is not likely a realistic option, he charges. “If I were an opposition political leader, the United States is about the last one I would seek support from because we have a record that is largely unblemished by success—talk to the Cubans or the Kurds,” Kay says. “Even if we were better, Iraq is a hard place for doing it well because Saddam runs a very tough police state.”

The threat of using external émigré forces against Saddam Hussein does not frighten him at all, Kay believes. Hussein has so penetrated that émigré community and other opposition groups that he does not view them as a serious threat. The United States seems reluctant to admit that it might take the actual application of U.S. military force to overthrow him, Kay offers. Rather than constrain Hussein, this makes him less constrained because he believes he does not face full-scale U.S. military action.

Hussein’s reign of terror will make it easier to topple his regime with a full-scale military operation, Kay posits. His personal experiences in Iraq convince him that the country harbors a wellspring of desire for freedom from Hussein, and its people would flock to someone else given a realistic alternative. Most of Iraq’s military is terrified of Hussein, and his gulag-like police-state policies will not help him rally the troops against the United States. “I think the shell would just crack under military action,” he contends.

Kay downplays the reluctance of other Arab nations to endorse the use of U.S. military force against Iraq. “The fact is, the Arab population likes winners, as most of us do. What frightens most Arab political leaders is that the United States will stir up the beehive and then get out of Dodge without dealing with the angry bees. If they [the Arab leaders] were convinced we would apply military action—effectively and quickly remove Saddam—then they would be all behind us in private, and when we actually did it, they would be behind us in public,” Kay predicts. “What they are really afraid of—and in their position I would be too—is an ineffectual application of military power that does nothing but increases Saddam’s popularity.”