Terrorism: January 30, 2003


Force protection has become a major concern within the Department of Defense and other U.S. government agencies. Attacks on U.S. embassies and military bases overseas was already a concern before September 11, 2001, but after the attacks on New York City and Washington, the scramble for security became even more frantic. As more people looked more closely at how to protect personnel and places, it became apparent that there was a lot more vulnerability than earlier thought. But the situation was worse than that. Many of the most notable attacks on Americans, starting with the 1983 suicide bomb attack on a Marine barracks in Lebanon, were caused by deliberately sacrificing security for political and diplomatic considerations. The Marines were ordered to drop many of their standard security measures so as not to "cause diplomatic or political problems" with the Lebanese. In 1996, a Saudi Arabian apartment building (Khobar Towers), was hit by a truck bomb, killing 19 Americans. Again, attempts to improve security were thwarted by an unwillingness to offend the locals. When the USS Cole was hit with a boat bomb in a Yemen harbor in 2000, it was another case of security taking last place to diplomatic goals. 

But it isn't just diplomacy and politics that cripple security. There's also a money angle. Increased security is expensive. One reason for sending the USS Cole to a Yemen port to refuel was because there were not enough fleet oilers to refuel the Cole at sea. After Khobar Towers and the USS Cole bombing, money was found to improve security. Congress has never been enthusiastic about spending billions to increase security at embassies and military bases overseas, but will respond, momentarily, to a bloody attack. 

There are hundreds of U.S. military and diplomatic sites around the world. And if terrorists just want to get at Americans, there are thousands of American owned business properties in dangerous (for Americans) regions. But terrorists realize that they make more of a point by attacking U.S. government targets, and there are plenty of them out there. But not all overseas locations are equally at risk. Some countries are easier for terrorists to operate in, so that narrows down the target list. But that only helps you if your intelligence operation is good at keeping track of which terrorists are doing what where. Congress has been reluctant to authorize, or pay for, a lot more American agents snooping around where the terrorists operate. Too uncertain, and prone to produce ugly, messy incidents.

September 11, 2001 loosened Congressional purse strings and other restrictions. As a result, a lot of planned terrorist attacks have been derailed. But the bad guys are still trying, and will continue to do so for another decade, or generation, if past experience means anything. So force protection has become a big, ongoing business in the Department of Defense and State Department. 

Some of the solutions already developed are pretty obvious. In the 1990s, as American troops were sent to the Balkans as peacekeepers, force protection was enhanced by putting the troops under house arrest. This was expensive, for lavishly equipped bases, full of amenities, had to be built lest morale took a dive. Despite that, American troops catch a lot of ribbing from other NATO troops, who are allowed to spend their off duty time with the locals. Existing bases overseas have added more fences, cameras, guards and tedious security checks. Embassies have become like fortresses, although somewhat discrete fortresses. 

However, in this age of Information War, it is becoming evident that the best protection is superior information. Keeping tabs on what terrorist movements are up to can be effective, but it does not inspire the same sense of security as physical, largely passive defenses. Information is also valuable when force protection techniques are exchanged between government agencies and nations. This is an idea that, while excellent in theory, has proved difficult to implement in practice. Bureaucracies are not comfortable sharing their secrets, particularly those relating to personal security.

Unfortunately, improvements in force protection are driven more by successful terrorist attacks than anything else. In the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack, exchanging force protection information no longer seems so risky. But this attitude quickly fades and pretty soon everyone is back to throwing money, rather than ideas, at the problem. 


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