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Analysis of a Countering Terrorism Exercise

An essay for School of International Service 419: Countering Terrorism: it analyzes a 5-week exercise designed to replicate the national security apparatus and its ability to detect and thwart terrorist actors. Written 8 Nov. 2010.

I. Reflections on Role and Character of Director Goldberg

The five week exercise in countering terrorism thrust me into the role of Philip S. Goldberg, the Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research otherwise referred to as the Director of INR at the State Department. Goldberg assumed office on February 9, 2010 and over eight months later I took on his persona. Along with fourteen other students, I was charged with discovering and thwarting six classmates who assumed the roles of terrorists plotting to attack the United States.

Throughout the exercise, signals intelligence (SIGNIT) and human intelligence (HUMINT) along with various reports and news clips contributed to the digital national security apparatus complete with several spurious threats and torrents of information. While no exercise can replicate all aspects of real world threats, several striking similarities to the responses and planning surrounding genuine threats emerged. In particular, the government wasted limited resources following false leads and failed to take simple actions, while the terrorists – aided by some luck – primarily relied on extensive planning for attacks that would garner significant renown. By the conclusion of the exercise, the government had failed to prevent an attack at a Dallas Cowboy’s game and had barely prevented the loss of life at a NATO security summit.

The reasons for the failure will be covered throughout this paper, but a focus will be on my experiences with the exercise and its comparison to real life experiences with terrorism. Initially, as Director of INR I felt as though I had received a severely restricted role, limited to gathering information on pending visa applications forwarded to me by Secretary Clinton. Since I did not have unprompted contact with the managers, and was not a cabinet level position in contact with other agencies, I felt isolated and recognized an emerging problem of compartmentalization that would restrict information sharing. In an effort to overcome that isolation, I created a listserv and a dropbox folder for file sharing. Unfortunately, the carbon copying of the listserv to important interagency emails and reports did not occur until late in the exercise, while file sharing with dropbox was always chronically underutilized.

Beyond the file sharing and visa applications, the exercise slowly began to unfold with more opportunities for INR to become involved. Early on, the Secretary Clinton directed me to investigate a hijacking of a vessel in the Gulf of Aden. While the effort proved unwarranted given the lack of American citizens onboard, it was important for two reasons: (1) it enabled me to find my voice for Goldberg to communicate with INR Embassy staff, and (2) it created a stigma with international incidents as it was made clear that the French security services did not need our assistance in retaking the ship. The latter would become especially important as news clippings and reports started to relate to a NATO security summit. As a result of the hijacking, I had a predisposition to accept that Belgian and NATO forces, like the French, would not need US assistance. That predisposition enabled me to waste significant time and resources pursuing a threat against the President in Israel that did not exist.

Even when pursuing threats that did exist, I primarily limited my actions to the emails that comprised the exercise. From the beginning, the managers indicated that many of the questions that I asked had “open source” answers. After reviewing my emails, I realized that I failed to connect those open source hints to a wider use of Google and other resources beyond emails related to the exercise. When told that information about Hizb al-Islam was open source, I failed to realize that the group existed as both an agent of the exercise and as a genuine terrorist organization in the real world. My reaction to the email indicates that ignorance by suggesting that State confer with the DNI and CIA to see if they had collected information about the group. I was only able to start linking the exercise to the real world after being told that information on the Maersk shipping line was open source. I searched for the group on Google, and produced a report on the company based on the information that I found. As the exercise progressed, I utilized other resources more frequently, an example being when I used Google Maps to search the coordinates provided in the Serbian plot. Still, the link was never forged as completely as the terrorists, who performed extensive outside research, as evidenced by my suggestion of an impractical two mile wide security zone around the NATO summit.

II. Threat Focus and Blind Alleys

From the start, the goals of the terrorists were to launch a chemical attack at the October 25th Monday night football game featuring the Dallas Cowboys in their new stadium against the New York Giants as well as to launch an attack on a NATO Security Summit in Brussels with javelin missiles. However, planning for those actual threats was obscured by ostensibly credible plans for several other attacks. In hindsight, the government wasted time and resources pursing information related to piracy in the Gulf of Aden, the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel, the Maersk liner, Yankee Fenway; the fertilizer thief and Canadian national Clarence Hoffman, the Mall of America attack planned by the Serbians Davor and Darija, and the threat to the President while visiting Israel for peace talks. All the while, the government failed to coordinate the dates of each alleged attack and important events that would lead up to them with a calendar that could track upcoming episodes. The most glaring example was the failure to appoint an individual in charge of the Yankee Fenway, which permitted the ship to dock without any clear directions to prevent the offloading of materials onboard. This failure was nearly replicated at the NATO summit.

Despite the lack of cohesion, INR managed to provide some information regarding Aafaya Siddiqu (Abigail Braun) and her entrance into the U.S. via a visa waiver program, but it was too little too late. While Siddiqu and her accomplice Lahcen Agha traveled into California and started amassing supplies of instant cold packs for ammonium nitrate, INR was focused on the Serbians and Israel. The same ignorance allowed Ben Hammach, Malik Izz al-Din and the two other conspirators to travel from Turkey to Brussels unobstructed with two javelin missiles. At least in their case, INR was actively searching for their means of attack. Unfortunately, the search in Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt was in the wrong part of the world. A quick glance at a map of the Middle East may have pushed me from considering an attack in Israel, as transporting missiles through Turkey to get into that country would overly complicate more direct routes through Syria or Jordan.

Little consideration by the government was given to the terrorists planning attacks beyond the Middle East with the missiles, as any mention of the NATO summit during our group meetings was brief and unsubstantial. Vague threats from Hamas and Hezbollah continued to propel the government groupthink that focused our attention on Israel. In a period stretching from October 11th to the first attack, I sent one email asking for additional information regarding security plans for the summit, but sent nearly twenty emails regarding Israel and a comparable number regarding the Serbians. As time progressed, we received little concrete information suggesting that the javelins reached Israel other than the professed aspirations of groups in the region to acquire weapons. Nevertheless, a web of conspiracies kept us busy following leads. One such lead involved a ship from Lahore, Pakistan that had been blocked to U.S. agents by the ISI, and which unloaded 15 trucks worth of materials that were covertly shipped into the Gaza Strip. Such actions appeared to warrant further attention, but left government resources wasted.

A similar web of convincing, but vague reports and emails continued to support the Serbian threat. Intercepted conversations that discussed plans to attack the U.S. were supplemented by coordinates that indicated a path via Route 42 into North Dakota from Saskatchewan. The correction of the last coordinate by the managers to being the Mall of America enhanced the probability of attack, as they would not have been compelled to make the correction if the threat was not real. In addition, the expansion of the group to five individuals along with the intelligence report that included their biographical information and photographs pushed the government to divert more resources to thwarting an increasingly credible threat. Even as it became clear that at least one attack was planned against an NFL game, INR was not ready to suspend all efforts to track down the Serbians.

Those efforts by INR and their corollaries to find the javelins and Benjamin Hammoch in Israel highlighted the disconnect pervading the government agencies. After receiving Hammoch’s photograph, I distributed it to relevant Israeli national police and intelligence agencies so that they could openly search for him throughout the country. The same action was taken with the five Serbians, with their pictures distributed to Canadian authorities and posted at all border stations. Had domestic-focused agencies such as the FBI and DHS taken similar steps with the photograph of Lahcen Agha, it may have been possible to locate him and Siddiqui. In the same vein, if State and INR had considered the threat to the NATO summit more thoroughly, then the picture of Hammoch and his companions would have been distributed to Interpol and to police and intelligence agencies throughout Belgium and the rest of Europe.

The overreliance on emails and SIGNIT reports validated the arguments made by former CIA Case Officer Robert Baer in his 2002 critique of the CIA titled “See No Evil,” in which he argues for more HUMINT to complement SIGNIT. Unfortunately, the government actors failed to take necessary proactive steps to receive HUMINT intelligence such as photograph distribution or a nationwide all-points bulletin. Those efforts would have supplemented the SIGINT that indicated that the terrorists had entered the US and had purchased NFL tickets. Unfortunately, we were left desperately searching for individuals and materials that we knew would be involved in future attacks without taking the steps necessary to locate either. As a result, we relied on a defensive posture which proved futile given the planning by the terrorists.

III. Related to Real World Terrorists

As mentioned earlier in the paper, four points stand out about the exercise, two regarding the government’s misuse of limited resources and its related failure to take simple but critical actions, and two regarding the terrorists’ extensive, rational planning that was directed against targets selected for their potential for renown. The actions of the both the government and terrorist actors replicated those described in accounts by three individuals who have spent considerable time researching terrorists and the agencies that work to stop them. American author and journalist James Bamford detailed the actions and consequent shortcomings of the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies leading up to and following the 9/11 attacks in his 2008 work “The Shadow Factory.” The rational planning and nature of terrorists was explored by Louise Richardson, Ph.D. a principal at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in her 2006 work “What Terrorists Want,” and by Bruce Hoffman, Ph.D. the Director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University in his 2006 work “Inside Terrorism.”

In “The Shadow Factory,” Bamford presents a parallel narrative following government agents and the terrorists responsible for the planning and carrying out of the 9/11 attacks. Similar to the inability of the government actors in the exercise to effectively coordinate and share information that could lead to the emphasis or de-emphasis of certain attacks, Bamford details the institutional barriers blocking communication between the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, and the State Department. One glaring example was the denial by Tom Wilshire, director of Alec Station at the CIA, which is tasked with finding Osama Bin Laden, to release a report to the FBI that would inform them that one of the eventual hijackers, Khalid al Mihdhar was headed to New York. At the same time, the NSA failed to send the name of that individual and his accomplice Nawaf al Hazmi to the State Department who had just issued each of them visas. SIGNIT data collected by the NSA was sufficient to indicate that the individuals were planning an attack on U.S. soil, while information from the CIA plotted their travel. Unfortunately, the agencies were unable to communicate all the pieces of information, and as in the exercise when resources were devoted to a nonexistent threat in Israel, Tom Wilshire continued to believe that Al Qaeda’s next big attack was in Kuala Lumpur.

Once Hazmi, Mihdhar and the other hijackers were permitted to enter the U.S. further similarities can be drawn to the exercise. Initially, Hazmi and Mihdhar were unwittingly living with an FBI informant in San Diego. Later, they were pulled over in a routine traffic stop on the way to the east coast to meet up with the other hijackers. Had the agency been looking for them, then they would have been caught. Unfortunately, agents in Alec station were only able to connect the dots long after both incidents, on August 21st (Bamford 69). As the CIA started to frantically search for them, agents still erroneously believed that the attack would come in Malaysia, much like the government in the exercise believed the intended targets were the Patriots Chargers game and the President while he was in Israel (75). Unfortunately, just as the government actors failed to issue an all points bulletin with the photograph of Lahcen or for Hammoch in Europe, the hunt for Hazmi was only given “routine precedence” (77). A simple raise in the precedence may have led the FBI to catch Ziad Jarrah and the other terrorists when the former was pulled over in a routine traffic stop just four days prior to the attack (79). As in real life and in the exercise, the wider distribution of names and photographs, a decidedly more aggressive posture than defending every potential target, could have led to the capture of the terrorists while en route to their intended targets.

Despite missteps by the terrorists which could have led to their capture, both those in real life and in the exercise extensively planned their method of attack and displayed a cunning and sober rationality in their actions. Two of the 9/11 hijackers, Hazmi and Mihdhar, arrived in the United States over a year in advance of the attack to lay groundwork including participating in flight training. The value ascribed to the long term planning was evidenced by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad refusing to launch them prematurely despite Bin Laden’s demand (Bamford 63). Similarly, students acting as Aafaya Siddiqu and Lahcen Agha carefully planned every aspect of their attack on the Dallas Cowboy’s game. Their plans included detailed recipes for the bombs to be used and the materials required as well as surveillance photographs and several fallback options. They indicated that every step was taken to ensure that they were nearly untraceable through anonymous email accounts, disguises, and by not parking their car in the same spot twice and never at any hotel. That attention to detail, mirrored by the four terrorists traveling to the NATO summit, embodied the “violent intellectual” that Hoffman used to described the modern terrorist (Hoffman 38). Their actions were violent, using assorted bombs, missiles, and kidnapping a newborn as well as intellectual in their specificity and planning.

The violent actions taken by terrorists are described by Richardson as motivated by a desire for Revenge, Renown, and Reaction. As with the 9/11 hijackers, the terrorists in the exercise described a need for revenge against the West in several emails sent to news agencies and intercepted by the NSA. In addition, the selection of the World Trade Center Twin Towers and the Pentagon on 9/11 ensured that the hijackers would be renowned for their successful attacks against visible symbols of America. Although the terrorists in the exercise were tasked with targeting the Dallas Cowboy’s game and the NATO summit, the selection indicated the same desire for renown as the NFL is a quintessentially American sports league – and would have high viewership as the only Monday Night Football game – while NATO is a military representation of the West. While the degree of the reaction expected by the 9/11 terrorists can never be known for sure, the terrorists in the exercise succeeded in shocking the government team – with morale plummeting after the first attack – only to watch as we scrambled to heighten security for the summit. Had the second attack been successful despite a reaction to significantly enhance security, then the exercise-world media reaction would have been tremendous.

IV. Reflection on Real Possibility of Attacks and Differences

No exercise could ever replicate the entire national security apparatus or the threat of terrorist attacks. Fifteen students filled the roles of agency director down through to the intern who buys coffee, which left each member of the government team scrambling to assess threats and send out especially specific emails to managers acting as staff to ensure that actions would be taken appropriately. The relative smaller size of the government in the exercise as compared to the terrorists was compensated in part due to the proportionally smaller number of threats and intelligence.  However, the camaraderie that quickly emerged among the six terrorists who were acting as six individuals took a measurably slower time to develop among the government officials. Had the government been able to hasten that progress towards effective working relationships, then I am confident that the attacks could have been thwarted. For that reason, I remain optimistic that the government officials in the real world will be able to avoid many of the mistakes of the government team in the exercise.

Considering the planning of the terrorists in the exercise, it is plausible that a real world government could need to confront similar attacks in both method and target. In particular, the successful attack against the Cowboy’s game is unnerving in its meticulous planning and plausibility. Entering the U.S. was relatively easy for both terrorists who were separately able to utilize a real visa waiver program with Germany – especially for an English-speaking German – and loose visa requirements to travel to Canada which shares many unprotected nature trails with the U.S. Once in the country, fortuitous surveillance and a massive manhunt would have been the only methods to stop them. Even so, their substitution of instant cold packs for fertilizer for bomb making materials is frightening in its simplicity and propensity to cause significant loss of life. Once made, the bombs would have been used in some attack, even if not the one originally planned.

At first glance, the second attack seems less plausible since one would assume that a military base would have appropriate security around weapons such as javelin missiles. Unfortunately, as exposed in a New York Times article from 2007, there were numerous accounts of weapons missing from bases in Iraq that were later used by “guerrillas responsible for attacks against Turkey” (Schmitt). Considering that there is evidence of stolen weapons being taken into Turkey along with easy travel through Europe once in EU member states, the ability of the terrorists to acquire the weapons and reach their target seems plausible. Even though the government in the exercise may have been able to stop them if it had released their picture throughout Europe – knowing they were headed for the NATO summit –  it is unsettling that terrorist in real life would have numerous targets on the continent that could not all be sufficiently defended at once. Heightened security in the exercise, albeit last-minute, only barely prevented the loss of life at the summit.

V. Conclusion

The fourth rendition of the five week exercise in countering terrorism provided valuable reflections on the government’s ability to prevent attacks and the terrorists’ ability to stage them. The actors in the exercise and the government in 2001 failed to communicate and coordinate effectively across agencies. Often simple actions such as the releasing of photographs to police agencies were overlooked by individuals intent on stopping the attack but ignorant of the larger picture. In addition, the attention to detail and selection of targets displayed by the terrorists in the exercise mimicked that of such individuals in the real world. Ultimately, their success in the exercise cannot be dismissed as impossible given an actual government’s access to significantly more resources since the same communication problems that plagued the government actors plagues the government in the real world. Unfortunately, the access to money, to weapons and materials, and to entering the U.S. is entirely too reasonable. Goal-oriented individuals who are determined to launch an attack will probably succeed at some point in the future. Still, the same mistakes must not be repeated and exploited, so that future agents can prevent what I am sure was the smile of joy across Agha’s face as he sped his motorcycle into the stadium gates.

Works Cited

Baer, Robert. See No Evil. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002. Print.

Bamford, James. The Shadow Factory. New York: Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008. Web.

Hoffman, Richardson. Inside Terrorism: Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Print.

Richardson, Louise. What Terrorists Want. New York: Random House, 2006. Print.

Schmitt, Eric and Ginger Thompson. “Broken Supply Channel Sent Arms for Iraq Astray.” New York Times. 11 Nov. 2007. Web. 5 Nov. 2010.

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