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Counterterror, Technology, and Reaction

​In the recent incident in Detroit, a homegrown, self-radicalized jihadist attempted to blow up an aircraft on Christmas day by igniting explosives hidden in his underwear.  Since then, there has been the usual hue and cry concerning bureaucratic accountability and a call for technology to help rescue us from evildoers.  

Although full body imagers are capable of identifying contraband hidden beneath clothing, there’s no conclusive proof that they can locate articles stuffed in body cavities, much less the explosive powders used by the failed bomber. They’re also large machines that take up valuable space in the bottlenecks that many airport screening areas have become. 

Besides, it’s a machine, not a panacea. The terrorists will eventually become familiar with its limitations. “Terrorists will easily evade [a] body scanner,” the American Civil Liberties Union argued recently. “The terrorist threat is a dynamic threat – terrorists react and adapt to security measures, and that fact must be taken into account in selecting those measures.”

Civil aviation security is basically reactive. Passengers and their carry-on luggage began to be screened in the early 1970’s in response to an escalating number of aircraft hijackings, mostly by homesick Cubans seeking a return to the island.  The industry has retained that model ever since. 

When Richard Reid tried unsuccessfully tried to ignite explosives hidden in his shoes on an American Airlines flight in December 2001, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reacted with emergency rulemaking almost immediately. Without undue debate, they imposed (rather artificial) limitations on the amount of liquid one could carry on aircraft. Mr. Reid’s efforts eventually had the rest of us padding through screening lines shoeless.

Much of what constitutes aviation security today is a direct result of reactions to attacks, whether successful or attempted. The process of action equals reaction began with the FAA and was adopted by its successor agency, the TSA. This reactive approach does make the system more secure. The screening devices work as advertised.  Deploying a “new” technology also makes people feel safer. The government is doing something; we feel better.  

But more secure isn’t the same as foolproof. More attacks will be attempted and some will be successful.  Not everyone can be protected all the time.  The fatalistic recognition of vulnerability shared by citizens of other countries is not as acceptable to the American ethos. No elected official will ever admit our vulnerability; few Americans are prepared to accept it.  

Rather than a robust and immediate response, we should learn to take a deep breath after an incident, step back, and think. President Obama was roundly criticized for taking a few weeks to examine policy options regarding our national strategy towards Afghanistan versus doing something (anything) to address an issue that had been simmering for nearly a decade. He should have been commended. 

In the case of the Christmas Day bomber, instead of the knee-jerk reaction to enhance passenger screening, a more creative approach requires going beyond the conventional reaction.  We often miss a critical point when assessing civil aviation attacks:  by the time the attack has reached the airport, it’s probably too late to prevent it. Airports--like subways, train stations and other transportation facilities--are designed to accommodate large numbers of people in very public places. Under these conditions, technology has its limits. A continuing reliance on technology is taking us along paths that lead to dead ends (or drone strikes, however successful). The optimal time and place to interdict terrorist attacks directed against civil aviation is months and miles away from the airport. A more successful counter-strategy involves intelligence. Despite the intelligence communities’ putative improvements post-9-11, the information available to analysts, much of it unclassified, remains ignored or underutilized. The civil aviation infrastructure in the United States still does not possess a successful, robust interagency process for collection, dissemination, or analysis of information relating to threats against the aviation system. 

In order to successfully counter these threats we must spend the time and treasure to understand, undermine, and disrupt terrorist groups.  In a recent report dealing with intelligence collection and utilization in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, the military’s highest ranking intelligence officer, makes the point that we probably spend too much time gathering intelligence to kill terrorists. Rather, the U.S. military should improve and build on our understanding of the groups that provide insurgents with the necessary support to continue their fight.

Finally, regardless of how effective these technologies are in countering terrorist attacks, it’s crucial to note that none of these innovations even begin to address the issue of terrorism.  Discussing the use of aerial drones and “other collection assets” as techniques to help spot insurgents and interdict bombings, Flynn and his coauthors make the point that “relying on [tools] exclusively baits intelligence shops into reacting to enemy tactics at the expense of finding ways to strike at the very heart of the insurgency.”

In some cases, technology may be the solution to a particular problem.  But that reaction only addresses the symptom, not the disease.  The precursors – social, environmental, religious, cultural – that combined to cause a shy, reclusive member of an upper-class Muslim family to attempt to kill himself and a planeload of others are complex and deserve more attention than they’re getting.  To advance the battle against terrorism, we must begin to address those issues, which reach far beyond the latest whole body imaging device.

In the final analysis, how we as a nation respond to terrorism is at the crux of the issue.  “Overreacting to terrorist attacks plays into Al Qaeda’s hands,” CNN and Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria pointed out recently.  “It also provokes responses that are likely to be large scale, expensive, ineffective, and perhaps even counterproductive.”  

Migrating from a largely reactive approach—one that has defined our position now and in the past—to one which presumes a long-term, calculated offense predicated on our national security interests is far more effective than attempting to counter the next terrorist strike.  This strategy will leverage the intrinsic capabilities of the intelligence community; develop strengths that will help take the fight to our enemies; and challenge them to keep up with us, not the other way around.  


Robert T. Raffel is associate professor of applied aviation science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.