Analysis 01-17-2015


America Tightens Security in Wake of Paris Terrorist Attacks

The terrorist attacks in Paris last week and the cyber attacks on Centcom’s social media sites have forced the United States to tighten its security arrangements.

House Homeland Security Committee chair Representative Mike McCaul (R – Texas) said on CBS that he expects to “see more and more” of the Paris style attacks take place around the world.  “I believe… larger scale, 9/11-style [attacks] are more difficult to pull off – a bigger cell we can detect, a small cell like this one, very difficult to detect, deter and disrupt which is really our goal. I think we’ll see more and more of these taking place, whether it be foreign fighters going to the warfare in return or whether it be someone getting on the internet as John Miller talked about, very sophisticated social media program then radicalizing over the internet,” McCaul said.  McCaul called the Paris attack, “the most successful foreign fighter terrorist attack that we have seen to date.”

The terrorism threat is clearly a bipartisan concern.  Democratic Senator Feinstein said, “I think there are sleeper cells, not only in France, but certainly in other countries, and, yes, even in our own.”  She went on to say, “So I think this calls for vigilance. It calls for seeing that the national security organizations of our country — the intelligence community — is funded fully, is directed ably, is cooperating with … British intelligence, French intelligence, German intelligence, as we do.”

There is already evidence that the Paris attack may be spurring attacks in America.  The FBI arrested a 20-year-old Ohio man for allegedly plotting to carry out a terrorist attack on the US Capitol. Government documents filed in the case indicate that the 20-year-old Christopher Lee Cornell, who also goes by the name Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah, allegedly planned to detonate pipe bombs in the Capitol and then open fire on people fleeing the building.  He had posted statements on social media sites stating that he supported the acts of ISIS, and that he believed Muslims should wage Jihad by setting up attacks in America.

But, physical attacks aren’t the only threat to the US.  Centcom was forced to shut down its Twitter and YouTube accounts this week after they were hacked into by a group calling itself the Cyber Caliphate. There were tweets praising ISIS and threatening American soldiers such as “AMERICAN SOLDIERS. WE ARE COMING. WATCH YOUR BACK. ISIS.” The hackers also published the phone numbers and e-mail accounts of high ranking Army officers while videos glorifying ISIS found their way onto the YouTube account.

Obama’s critics assert that tightening security in the US involves more than additional security at airports and such, to them, the issue is more a political problem than one of reallocating resources to vulnerable targets in the US.

The first problem is that in many ways, the Obama Administration has encouraged and assisted radical forces like ISIS and al Qaeda with its surrogate war in Syria.  Obama’s Syrian policy was unfocused and had no clear cut objective, aside from removing Assad from power.  It was also suffered from fits and starts as the administration vacillated from a “hands off” policy, to remote drone attacks, to arming and training various militias in Syria.  In the meantime, the war in Syria has become a training ground for potential terrorists, who eventually return home to Europe and North America.

Additional security measures will also fall afoul of the immigration debate.  Last month, Congress only funded the Department of Homeland Security for two months so it could address Obama’s controversial immigration amnesty.  By withholding funding for DHS, Congress could limit any immigration action that DHS could take.  However, with the Paris attack, the administration is arguing that failure to quickly fund DHS could hurt the agency’s war on terrorism.  But, despite this concern, Obama has threatened to veto any funding that doesn’t allow him to continue his immigration policy.

Another problem is that admitting that the Paris attacks pose a real threat also means that Obama has to admit that much of his anti-terrorism policy has failed.  Just recently, Obama noted that al Qaeda in Yemen – the same group that took credit for the Paris attack – had been successfully defeated by America.  Therefore, any push to tighten security is to admit that his highly touted anti-terrorism policy has failed.

Tightening Security

Despite the political issues, the US is trying to address the threat.  The White House announced that President Obama will host an anti-extremism summit February 18 to discuss ways to stop the radicalization and recruitment of Americans by terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS.  However, critics say there is some question about the seriousness of the White House in calling this meeting and insist that it was done in order to seem more concerned about terrorism.

No doubt, there is a greater interest in increasing security at other levels of the government.  The Department of Homeland Security announced that its increased measures include increasing random screenings of passengers at airports as well as ordering the Transportation Security Administration to conduct a short-term review as to whether more is needed.

DHS secretary Jeh Johnson has also ordered heightened security around government buildings, adding to the previous tightening of security procedures that began in October after a shooter attacked Canada’s Parliament. “The precise locations at which we are enhancing security is law-enforcement sensitive, will vary and shift from location to location, and will be continually re-evaluated,” he said.

Johnson said the US would continue to share information with the French and other allies about terrorist threats, suspicious individuals, and foreign fighters.  Johnson added that the DHS is providing state and local law enforcement with FBI training in incident response.  He said he personally met with community leaders in Columbus, Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston, and Los Angeles to engage them in countering violent extremism and he is looking forward to a White House summit on countering violent extremism on February 18.

But, this additional security is being met by more sophisticated terrorist methods by ISIS and al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda recently posted detailed airplane bombing instructions in its online magazine, including how to build the devices, get them past security, and where to sit on the plane to cause maximum damage. Homeland Security secretary Johnson says there is no specific threat at this time, but explosives expert Kevin Barry said it appeared to be one of the most “sophisticated” non-metallic explosives devices he’s seen, which could especially be a problem for smaller airports that don’t employ high-tech body imaging security devices.

Al Qaeda in Yemen, previously attempted to bring down an American airliner on Christmas Day 2009, but the would-be bomber couldn’t get the device to detonate. That bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, reportedly crossed paths in Yemen with one of the men who executed the Paris terror attack last week.  In response to the accelerated threat, airport security has reportedly been directed to conduct more random searches of both passengers and luggage. The device that al Qaeda described is designed to go undetected by airport metal detectors, but will probably be detectable by the newer full body scanners found at larger airports.

There is also additional concern being shown about America’s rail system, which is a critical people mover in the Eastern US.  Smoke and fire plagued two of the nation’s major metro rail stations this week, raising justified questions about safety and preparedness.  On Monday, one person died and 84 fell ill after heavy smoke filled the L’Enfant Plaza Metro in Washington, D.C.  Officials believe an “electrical arcing event” caused the lethal Beltway incident. A probe into the cause of the arcing — as well as an investigation into evacuation delays that trapped hundreds of passengers — is underway.

On Tuesday, an estimated 150 New York Fire Department personnel responded to a three-alarm fire at Penn Station that started before 2:30 a.m. Two firefighters suffered injuries battling the Big Apple blaze, which was initially deemed “suspicious” and then “accidental.”  There is some concern about the reason for the fire as a militant ISIS sympathizer published multiple threats on Twitter a few hours before the fire, warning that “tomorrow New York will burn” and predicting a “3:00 a.m. bomb.”

There is good reason for America’s Homeland Security to be worried.  Rail attacks have been a domestic and worldwide threat for more than 15 years, from the 1997 NYC subway-bombing plot to New Delhi, Mumbai, Chechnya, Madrid and London. Since 9/11, there have been 1,800 worldwide terrorist attacks on surface transport systems, which have claimed 4,000 innocent lives.  Al Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, told interrogators in 2003 of al Qaeda’s plot to target the D.C. metro rail system.

This is clearly a security problem as three years ago the Government Accounting Office (GAO) concluded that the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) was failing to collect and analyze rail security threat data. The audit found that oversight and enforcement of transit security measures were “inconsistent” and inspections so spotty that “three of 19 rail agencies GAO contacted were not inspected from January 2011 through June 2012, including a large (unnamed) metropolitan rail agency.”  The Department of Homeland Security “accepted” the recommendations, but issued no timeframe to address the deficiencies.

There are also concerns about specific probes around government installations.  For instance, the military has tightened security at New Castle Air National Guard Base in Delaware after unknown suspects apparently tried to probe the base for security weaknesses.  The FBI, the Air Force, the Joint Terrorism Task Force and Delaware police are investigating at least five attempted probes of the base perimeter this week.  Vice President Biden has frequently landed and taken off from the base.

The recent cyber attacks on Sony and Centcom have also added cyber security to the more traditional role of physical security.  This week Obama unveiled legislation that would fight cyber terrorism by allowing companies and the government to share information about potential cyber threats and security vulnerabilities.

The proposal, officially announced in a speech at the National Cyber security and Communications Integration Center, hopes to provide incentives to the private sector for participating in information-sharing with the federal government by offering them liability protection. The plan seeks to address privacy concerns by requiring participating companies to comply with a set of restrictions, such as removing “unnecessary personal information,” though the White House fact didn’t specify what those restrictions would entail.

However, the proposal is already facing opposition from privacy advocates, who warn that information-sharing legislation could bolster the government’s surveillance powers. Several groups have insisted that no information sharing bill should be considered before substantial National Security Agency reform.

According to the National Journal, “The Sony hacks demonstrates a failure of corporate digital security, and not a need for greater government information-sharing,” said Amie Stepanovich, senior policy counsel with Access, a digital-freedom group. “The administration’s attempt to use Sony to justify increased transfer of information to the government is difficult to understand, particularly in the absence of substantive NSA reform, a subject the administration has yet to comment on in the new year.”

Although Congress – both Republicans and Democrats – are interested in improving cyber security, the troubling issue of personal privacy is the stumbling block.  Revelations about the extent of the NSA’s spying on Americans have only made any bill that doesn’t provide considerable protection from government spying nearly impossible.

One legislative solution that will receive serious consideration is the current visa program.  Congressman McCaul, said that his House Homeland Security Committee plans to launch an investigation to identify potential security loopholes in the visa waiver program.  “I think we need to take a look at the visa waiver program again, and see what we can do to prevent this kind of thing from happening, because I believe it will happen, if it hasn’t already,” McCaul said.

There is also support for this on the other side of the political spectrum.  Democratic Senator Feinstein pointed out that had the two terrorists who had attacked the newspaper wanted to enter the US, they could have done so using a fake passport.  “They can come back from training, they go through a visa waiver country, and they come into this country,” Feinstein said. “We have a big problem here.”

Although the events in Paris have definitely heightened security in the US, there is no guarantee that it will stop any attack.  As has been mentioned before, lone wolf attacks are very difficult to detect and stop.  While DHS may be able to stop larger, more coordinated attacks, they can’t be everywhere.

Ironically, Gun lobby in U.S. and its advocates are claiming that it may be the American right to own firearms that may protect much of the country from such an attack.  While cities like Washington and New York City have restrictive gun laws, most Americans can own firearms and several million Americans are legally allowed to carry a firearm in public.  As one American noted after the Paris attacks, “This would have never happened in Van Horn, Texas.”



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Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor 

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