Is the US Ready for Near-Simultaneous Terrorist Attacks?
By Dr. Brian Blodgett
Faculty Member, Homeland Security, American Military University
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Imagine this scenario: Terrorists infiltrate an industrial facility and set explosives on a storage tank filled with chlorine gas as well as secondary devices strewn across a 20-meter radius.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, several helicopters land at petroleum refineries and plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs) before launching rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) at the distillation units. As the helicopters leave the refinery, they see cargo containers at a nearby port explode. At the same time in a Midwest city, terrorists release sarin gas into the ventilation systems of three large commercial office buildings.
Many Fatalities and Hospitalizations
The chlorine attack results in 17,500 fatalities, 10,000 severe injuries and 100,000 hospitalizations. An estimated 100,000 other victims have to shelter in place; 50,000 are evacuated to nearby shelters; and 500,000 self-evacuate the area. The economic impact is in the millions of dollars and the recovery timeline takes weeks.
The refinery and nearby port attacks result in 350 fatalities and thousands of hospitalizations. An estimated 25,000 people have to shelter in place, 10,000 others are evacuated and 100,000 move out of the area. Over 50% of the structures in the area are damaged. The economic impact is in the billions and the recovery timeline takes months.
The attacks at the office buildings result in 5,700 fatalities and 300 injuries. An estimated 50,000 workers and nearby residents have to shelter in place. The economic impact is in the hundreds of millions of dollars and the recovery timeline takes several months.
The above scenarios and resulting figures come from a 2005 Department of Homeland Security National Planning Scenarios report for federal, state and local homeland security preparedness organizations.
Testing Our Response Abilities
After 9/11, Congress realized the urgency of testing our emergency preparedness systems. The U.S. government then held national security exercises beginning in 2003 and every other year through 2007.
TOPOFF 4 in 2007 was led by the Department of Homeland Security and included over 200 domestic and international organizations, ranging from FEMA, the FBI, CIA, National Guard, the United States military, NORAD, and the National Reconnaissance Office to state, local, tribal, private industry and non-profit organizations, as well as representatives from five other nations.
The objectives of TOPOFF 4 were to:
- Test the handling and flow of operational and time-critical intelligence between agencies to prevent a terrorist attack.
- Test the handling and flow of operational and time-critical intelligence between agencies prior to and response to a linked terrorist incident.
- Test existing procedures for domestic incident management of a terrorist event.
- Test the ability to coordinate with the media and provide information through public information channels.
David Paulison was FEMA administrator at the time of the 2007 exercise, the last major large-scale exercise the U.S. has held.
Paulison explained that the exercise stressed “our preparedness and response systems with situations that no single agency or jurisdiction could handle on its own. The right response actually takes thousands of individuals working together. This exercise is about strengthening working relationships within our partners in federal, state and local agencies, emergency management communities and private industry groups. It’s about increasing preparedness by sharing information and processes.”
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Instead of large-scale biennial events, in 2009, the federal government began to hold these exercises yearly. But instead of focusing on reacting to terrorist attacks, the focus shifted to include prevention, protection and mitigation in addition to incident response and recovery.
US Must Be Ready to Respond to Multiple, Almost Simultaneous Terrorist Attacks
While we have not experienced a major domestic terrorist attack since 9/11, we must be ready to respond not just to one, but to multiple, near simultaneous attacks. In 2003, President George W. Bush signed Presidential Policy Directive/PPD-8: National Preparedness, which President Barack Obama amended in 2011.
PPD-8 focuses on emphasizing the need for the entire community, not just the government, to work together to ensure that our nation is prepared for hazards that pose risks to the country such as acts of terrorism, natural disasters and pandemics.
The 2017 Final Report from the Republican Members of the Task Force on Denying Terrorists Entry to the United States stated: “More than 40,000 fighters, including approximately 5,000 Europeans, have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It has been widely reported that many of these foreign fighters have traveled back to the West from Iraq and Syria further radicalized and equipped with the knowledge and battlefield experience necessary to perpetrate successful terrorist attacks.”
As former DHS Secretary John Kelly warned in the report, returning foreign fighters “have learned how to make IEDs, employ drones to drop ordnance, and acquired experience on the battlefield that by all reports they are bringing back home.”
The threat of mass mobilization of foreign fighters is facilitated by the fact that internet recruiting and training no longer requires international travel and that the majority of the European fighters come from countries with Visa Waiver Programs (VWP).
- Tracking foreign fighters requires cooperation between a number of agencies. However, existing interoperability, legal and technical challenges obstruct current information sharing efforts.
- There are many departments involved in the authorization of persons coming to the United States. With each having its own procedures and guidelines, the process has developed vulnerabilities.
- Limited resources hinder the Visa Security Program (VSP) development and expansion.
- Information shared on social media is not being fully utilized by government for vetting and screening purposes.
- Terrorist Screening Centers’ (TSC) goals are more in line with those of DHS, but currently fall under the FBI’s auspices and are not authorized in statute.
- Continuous screening of foreign nationals is not standard practice and is typically done based on a periodic threat assessment.
- Information sharing between the U.S. and VWP countries is inconsistent. Some VWP countries do not have the technical capability or legal authorities needed to participate in automated and continuous information sharing.
The Terrorist and Foreign Fighter Travel Exercise Act of 2019
Earlier this year, Representative Michael Guest (R-MS) introduced H.R. 1590, the Terrorist and Foreign Fighter Travel Exercise Act of 2019. The House approved the Act in April in a bipartisan vote, but it has yet to gain Senate approval.
The Act would require the Department of Homeland Security to plan and conduct an exercise to determine if the United States can detect and prevent terrorists and foreign fighters from traveling into and out of the U.S. The DHS exercise would need to include:
- A scenario where a U.S. citizen is traveling to provide support to a terrorist group in another country.
- A scenario where either a U.S. citizen or a foreign national enters the U.S. to launch a terrorist attack.
- Appropriate coordination among local, state, federal and foreign agencies.
What Needs to Be Done Next
The nation needs to again conduct a large-scale, multiple, near-simultaneous attack exercise to test our ability to respond to various nationwide terrorist attacks with little or no warning. To prevent mass hysteria, we would have to inform the media ahead of time and use our nation’s Emergency Alert System to inform citizens that this is only an exercise, an exercise 10 years overdue.
About the Author
Dr. Brian Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University who graduated in 2000 with a master’s of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer after serving over 20 years, first as an infantryman and then as an intelligence analyst. He is a 2003 graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College where he earned a master’s of science in strategic intelligence with a concentration in South Asia. He graduated from Northcentral University in 2008, earning a doctorate in philosophy in business administration with a specialization in homeland security.
Dr. Blodgett has been a part-time faculty member, a full-time faculty member and a program director. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies and teaches homeland security and security management courses.