THE MAGAZINE

Mapping Terrorist Planning

By Joseph Straw

Imagine a scenario in which an officer with a small town police department pulls a driver over for operating a car with a cracked windshield. The officer only plans to issue a warning, but the driver’s behavior raises his concern. When the officer phones in the license plate number, a dispatcher tells the officer it matches that of a car involved in a fuel theft from a local gas station just moments earlier.  A subsequent search of the car turns up six plastic water jugs in its trunk, each filled with fuel. Later, a call to the FBI links the driver to a radical environmental movement, raising the possibility that the fuel was to be used in a terrorist attack.

But the suspect’s not talking. Is she part of a terrorist plot?  If so, what is the target? And if a plot proceeds without her, how long do authorities have to stop it?

Law enforcement and intelligence agency personnel need to find ways to answer these types of critical questions without inside sources or cooperative suspects. New research being led by Brent Smith of the University of Arkansas’ Fulbright College is aimed at helping investigators make informed estimates under such circumstances.

Smith, director of the school’s Terrorism Research Center, along with colleague Paxton Roberts and Kelly Damphousse of the University of Oklahoma, crunched three decades’ worth of open-source data on domestic terrorism incidents to map how different groups prepare for and carry out their attacks.

The project, funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), considered the duration of attack planning, the distances from perpetrators’ residences to their targets, and the distances perpetrators and their accomplices traveled to carry out the petty crimes that funded and equipped their plots.

It turns out that the highest-profile terrorist plots of the era—9-11, Oklahoma City, and those of Unibomber Theodore Kaczynski and Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph—were exceptional in that the attacks occurred as much as 1,200 miles from the perpetrators’ residences. But in most other cases, the events were not so far reaching.

Roberts borrows a phrase from the environmental movement, the fringe of which is featured in the research, stating that most domestic terrorists “think globally but act locally.” In nearly half of the 65 cases considered, attacks occurred within 30 miles of a perpetrator’s home at the time of the attack.

With regard to timing, again, there was a break between global and local attackers. As evidenced by 9-11 and the 1993 World Trade Center bombings the researchers found that most international groups spend more than six months planning their U.S. attacks.

Homegrown groups, whether right-wing, left-wing, or “single-issue,” such as environmental or anti-abortion, are likely to plan and prepare for attacks far more quickly. In the case of The Family, which acts under the better-known names Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF), 85 percent of planning and preparation occurred within six days of an attack. 

While willing to strike close to home, terrorists and their accomplices travel long distances to commit the petty crimes that help fund and equip their plots, an average of 492 miles, apparently to avoid drawing attention to the intended attack area, the researchers found.

So what is the use of the research in detecting and thwarting terrorist plots? As in the hypothetical case above, Roberts and his peers say the project’s most valuable findings are those regarding planning timeframes.

If investigators arrest a suspect or detect attack preparation, such as theft or surveillance, they can make an informed estimate regarding how long they have to stop an attack and whether they have time to monitor a cell’s operations before making arrests.

“If you know what group you’re dealing with, it will give you an idea how long you have and when you have to intervene,” Smith says.

Bruce McIndoe, president of private intelligence firm iJet, calls Smith’s work “first generation” research that parallels intelligence fusion centers’ efforts to connect the dots between disparate events to forecast elevated risk.

“Law enforcement now has the databases to tie this information together,” explains McIndoe, adding that some states and jurisdictions are “applying this information to real-life scenarios. It’s spotty—it’s not universal—but they’re working on it,” McIndoe says.

The research may also help security professionals, regardless of sector, better inform the threat element in facility risk assessments, says Don Hamilton, executive director of Oklahoma City’s Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. If, for example, a radical environ- mental group is active in a given area, data such as the NIJ’s may indicate the radius within which its members are most likely to attempt an attack. Private companies may assign a higher threat value to facilities within that area, and added resources might be allocated to protect those facilities. “So this is practical information,” Hamilton says.

Smith further hopes that his research reinforces the importance of routine police work in the global war on terror. He illustrates the point with two well-known examples. Just over an hour after the Oklahoma City bombing, Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Charles J. Hanger pulled over a car on Interstate 35 for operating without a license plate. McVeigh, the driver, was arrested for carrying a pistol with an invalid permit, jailed, and identified three days later as the bombing suspect. Rudolph was captured in March 2003 after Officer Jeffrey Postell of the Murphy, North Carolina, Police Department spotted him foraging for food behind a local supermarket.

Scott Stewart, senior terrorism and security analyst with private intelligence firm Stratfor, agrees with Smith’s point about police work, comparing the number of FBI agents—nearly 12,000—to those of uniformed police and security professionals, which together number close to 2 million. “They’re the real screen” against terrorism, Stewart says.

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