Sunday, February 15, 2009

Terrorist Swarms

There's an interesting article in the New York Times called "The Coming Swarm," that warns of terrorist swarm tactics being used to target the U.S., and offers possible countermeasures. The author, John Arquilla, who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School, describes the tactic
The basic concept is that hitting several targets at once, even with just a few fighters at each site, can cause fits for elite counterterrorist forces that are often manpower-heavy, far away and organized to deal with only one crisis at a time.
How would the U.S. counter separate, coordinated attacks by small terrorist groups at different sites throughout the U.S.? Arquilla says that current response plans are inadequate. What does he suggest?

Arquilla advocates a counterterrorist strategy that involves scattering small regular military quick response units throughout the country, training Reserve and National Guard units for counterterror missions, and creating police counterterrorism posts throughout major cities. I see a number of problems with these suggestions.

First let's look at the regular military component. Where are these special counterterrorist units going to come from? Do we have enough troops not committed to other missions and responsibilities to even create these units, or would this be part of a military expansion? Arquilla writes that
Cities, states and Washington should work out clear rules in advance for using military forces in a counterterrorist role, to avoid any bickering or delay during a crisis
That's a pretty big "should." Jurisdictional disputes are inevitable. How do we even identify a terrorist attack as such and not just another incident? If there's shooting at a mall, how long will it take local authorities to figure out that it's a terror attack and decide to call in the military? What's the trigger for using the military? And there are all sorts of other mundane issues as well, such as where they will be based. Will they be permanently committed to this mission? What if we need such a unit overseas? Will the area of the U.S. they are supposed to be protecting be left uncovered? Where does the FBI fit in with all of this? I thought they were a key counterterrorism agency.

Training Reservists and National Guardsmen to assist in counterterrorism response seems to be a reasonable idea, but how long will it take to deploy these units in a crisis? If a terrorist team is shooting up an office building in a small city here in NJ, how long is it going to take to decide to use the National Guard, and then have a counterterror unit respond? Who decides to commit the guard?

The police are clearly the first line of defense against terrorist swarm tactics. They are going to respond first, and have the best chance of snuffing out an attack. But is increasing police readiness for terrorist attacks worth the price? We have already seen numerous problems caused by the militarization of the police throughout the U.S., which has led to many abuses. Arquilla is calling for even greater militarization. What are these elite counterterrorism squads going to be doing for 99.9999% of the time when there is no terrorist attack? Are they going to be launching assaults on houses looking for drugs? There's no way they are just going to sit idle as wasted resources on the off-chance that terrorists hit their area.

Is the terrorist swarm threat even worthy of a major military commitment? Do small teams of terrorists pose a danger that can't be handled by our already militarized police forces? A military response is probably going to arrive too late to prevent the carnage in any event. I believe the threat of this type of terrorist attack is real and we should be planning for it. But freedom has a price. I don't think there is any way to truly protect against this sort of terrorism without turning the country into a police state -- and even then you can't guard everything.

One of the main counters to small scale terrorist attacks isn't even mentioned in the article -- a heavily armed citizenry. The sad fact is, that by the time the police arrive, let alone the military, a terrorist swarm attack will almost certainly have inflicted numerous casualties. Unless police officers happen to be in the right place at the right time, there is nothing to stop the terrorists -- except their potential victims. Terrorists plans account for police/military response. If they have any brains at all, they aren't going to strike targets in a location near a rapid response police or military counterterrorism unit. They are going to target weak spots, where the coverage and response time will be slower. The one thing they can't account for are their supposedly helpless intended victims returning fire and killing them before they can inflict more damage. 


  1. Iraq has an armed citizenry, in the sense that everyone who wants a gun can get one. Riverbend used to complain that families were only allowed one handgun and one rifle for self-defense. Terrorist attacks still happen there, and are never thwarted by armed citizens, only by the police of the military.

    I also understand the police state concerns, but this raises the question of what counterterrorism teams do on their down time now.

  2. " Terrorist attacks still happen there"

    I wasn't claiming they could be prevented, only possibly countered before they achieved maximal damage. If someone is going to detonate themselves with a bomb vest, there's not much you can do unless you identify him as a suicide bomber before he blows up. But for shooting type terrorists, armed citizens on the scene are the fastest response possible.

    "and are never thwarted by armed citizens"

    I'd be surprised if that were true. In fact I seem to remember some situations where settlers killed terrorists before they did further damage. It's definitely not true in the U.S., where domestic type terrorists (ie people who try to go on shooting sprees) have been killed by citizens. There was one just last year where a volunteer security guard with a concealed carry permit killed a shooter at a church.

    Many people who go to the effort to obtain concealed carry permits and actually carry weapons are as good or better marksmen as a typical cop or soldier -- not to mention the fact that a significant number have prior military service anyway. I've known gun nut types who train constantly to respond to various possible threats. They put in more range time and more tactical training than pretty much any cop short of SWAT member.