beware the fury of a patient man

John Dryden was right.

A single, dedicated man is nearly impossible to stop. And one who waits a long time before exacting revenge is even harder – the target never knows that it’s coming.

I took an introduction to terrorism class during the spring 2000 semester at Hudson Valley Community College. The class served as a presentation of the causal factors behind terrorism, and how defenses against it are developed. As part of the class we were broken up into groups and given the task of picking a target, and then installing defenses against threats we thought to be most probable.

My group picked an embassy (using floor plans of a structure in downtown Troy NY). We decided that we could defend against anything other than kamikaze-style missions and nuclear weapons, but that it would be incredibly expensive to do so. In order to provide round-the-clock guards, we decided to station about 30 Marines at the embassy, install 30+ security cameras, maintain an extensive armory, and put metal detectors and X-ray machines at each entrance.

We had planned three routes of escape/attack for our building: the roof, the river (which was conveniently a few feet from the back door), and the front door. While we didn’t decide to station a helicopter permanently at the embassy, we were prepared for up to three to land on the roof and cart away refugees. To beef-up our external defenses, we installed 4 guard towers on the corners of the building, and put a Phalanx CIWS unit on the roof. We also armored the dock doors (which shielded our planned boat from the outside world) so an attack would not be likely to destroy one of our escape routes.

But the real issue we were most worried about was someone who didn’t bring a metallic weapon with him to the embassy, and yet was still dangerous. A rope, ceramic knife, cane, or any of a thousand other items could be easily smuggled inside the embassy, perhaps even in plain view, and there was nothing we could do about it. That dedicated individual, who may be operating under a shroud of not caring about his own life, would be practically impossible to stop – or even identify.

Even after that class, I have spent a lot of free time noting problems with physical security at various locations. The primary point I noted, due to my employer’s proximity, was the airport. I realized that taking-out the entire fuel supply for the airport would be a trivially-simple task for anyone who could shoot well at long ranges, and who acquired a few incendiary or tracer rounds. Positioning himself back a few hundred yards, and firing a handful of incendiary rounds into the large fuel tanks at the airport wouldn’t be hard – especially considering the fact that they are only typically behind chain-link fencing. And if shooting wasn’t his strong suit, he could just rent a moving truck, and slam through the fence into the tanks.

While performing my more-or-less mindless job of cleaning rental cars, I thought about how those tanks could be protected better. I designed several soft-armored ‘curtain’ arrangements made from layers of Kevlar and thin Lexan sheeting which could be suspended around the tanks from simple frames, and would provide a great deal of bullet resistance.

Stopping a kamikaze driver wouldn’t be too hard, either: just put in place some concrete or steel posts/barriers, and any civilian vehicle would be stopped from getting too close. Stopping a suicide pilot would be difficult, if not impossible, but defense has to stop somewhere.

From both my class experience and further personal reading, I am convinced we spend a lot of money on securing the wrong things. Yes, preventing some nut-job from hijacking a plane is a good thing. However, I think it would be a boon to airline security if people with legitimate carry permits were allowed to bring personal firearms onboard – in the passenger cabin, not just the baggage area.

A primary deterrent to crime is the thought that maybe the person about to be attacked will defend himself. In areas where legally carrying weapons is either inhibited or prohibited, criminals have a much easier time than where carrying weapons is allowed or encouraged.

It would seem to me that it would be a more effective use of security dollars to invest in real physical security and intelligence rather than what Bruce Schneier refers to as ‘movie-plot security’. We’ve spent money to make cockpit doors more-or-less invulnerable, but pull 84-year-old grandmothers out of line to be screened more thoroughly. Security is about identifying the most likely threats, and responding to them. It’s not about coming up with a possible attack, and defending against it alone.

When I worked on the embassy protection project, I kept trying to come up with other attacks that the proposed defenses would be able to handle. And if something we were proposing was really only useful against one highly improbable action, it was listed as discardable if it couldn’t be afforded.

We need more people coming up with real security devices, like my proposed curtains, rather than coming up with movie-plot scenarios.