Are we soft targets for terrorists?
By Shelly Ridenour
AUGUST 31, 1998: Forever symbolically the second city, Chicago may fall in line behind New York, as the big apple of America's eye, but we've still got plenty to brag about: the tallest building in the United States, the busiest airport, the third-largest population. But do these status symbols, the very things Chicagoans embrace as icons of our identity, also rank us as a likely target for terrorism?
"Without a crystal ball, there's no way to tell what buildings could be targets, though we do look closely at major buildings and areas within the city," says Bob Long, an FBI agent based in Chicago. Long cannot, for security reasons, name those buildings.
But according to Don Lavey, a counter-terrorism expert, it's safe to place your bets on history. And what does history suggest might be terrorist targets? "Federal buildings and financial centers," says Lavey, retired from both the FBI and the Office of International Criminal Justice, a grant-funded research organization at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "You can use history to make an educated assessment of where our enemies are ideologically."
"Terrorists are most often interested in places where there is a good before-picture to go with the after-picture," says Dave Cornelius, a partner with the Minneapolis security-consulting firm B. Prepared Inc. "So if someone ever bombed the Sears Tower, you can bet it wouldn't be the loading dock. Every newspaper in the world has a long shot of that beautiful front."
And then there are airports. "In other parts of the world," Cornelius accounts, "as soon as someone sees an unattended briefcase, they're on alert. We're naive about that, and it would do everyone a world of good to be more aware."
Just past noon on Monday in the Loop, workers pour into the CTA red line's Washington Street subway station, fast-food lunch bags in hand. Up on the street, at the corner of State and Dearborn, across from the Daley Center, is a dirty red pick-up, no driver behind the wheel.
Haphazardly parked in the middle of construction rubble, the truck is the kind of thing you see so often, you don't even notice it.
To a Chicago pedestrian, an unattended truck, outside the mayor's office, is no big deal. In other parts of the world, where terrorism is an oppressive fact of daily life, an unmarked truck parked in front of a government building is not just a rush-hour nuisance. It's a matter of fear and suspicion.
Some experts think it's high time Americans started paying more diligent attention, too.
"It really is overdue," Cornelius opines. "Whenever I travel to London, or China, I'm always impressed by how aware people are. Everyone makes sure their own bags are with them at all times, and you look at things differently than you do here."
"If someone drives up a truck of explosives, as they did in Lebanon some fifteen years ago, and flees from the scene, there's not a lot you can do," adds Long. "If we have information indicating that such a problem could take place, we may put up barricades so they can't do as much damage."
The difficulty lies in keeping buildings accessible to the public while protecting the safety of those very visitors. Never was this issue more apparent than during the deadly siege on the Capitol. "We're torn between being user-friendly - after all, a building like the Capitol is the people's Capitol, not the Senators' Capitol - and not wanting somebody driving up with a truckload of explosives," says the FBI's Long. "To insure there's never, ever an incident all you can do is station highly-armed guards every ten feet. We don't want to live in a military state. We don't have the men to do that, nor do we want to. If you want people to have access and to be able to come and go without being overly-burdened by security restrictions, you have to keep it open a little bit."
Some Americans were shocked by how easily the alleged shooter at the Capitol gained access to a building full of high-ranking politicians. But when it gets down to it, if a terrorist wants to create havoc, he will. "A suicide attack on anything may succeed," Long says. "Like at the Capitol building; the system essentially worked, and the magnetometer indicated a weapon. The Capitol police were on the ball and were able to stop the guy before he was able to get into the Senate or the House, or do any more damage than he did."
"People who do bombs are, for the most part, cowards," says B. Prepared's Cornelius. "We're not talking about Middle Eastern zealots; they're a different animal. We're doomed if someone walks into a building with explosives strapped to their back. But as long as we know that the person planting a bomb doesn't want to get caught, we have tools. Openness is an enemy to the bomber. If we give them places to hide a bomb, they win."
"Twenty-five years ago, people could come and go as they pleased in federal buildings, armed even, and go onto the elevators, go into any office," remembers Long. "There was security there, but it was not to be preventive as much as to be there after the fact. Twenty-five years ago there weren't even airport security checks."
How times have changed. As 185,000 travelers and visitors rushed through O'Hare two weeks ago, they undoubtedly had no idea that the mechanisms of a carefully orchestrated plan were in high gear. A bomb threat had been phoned-in, and airport security were rushing to alert everyone from individual airline security teams to Department of Aviation employees, all of whom responded to, well, defuse the situation.
No need to really worry, though; this was only a test. Known as a tabletop disaster drill, it is an active simulation of threatening or disastrous events - say, a hostage situation or an employees' strike - with airport workers acting out their personal roles in a sort of walk-through rehearsal.
"It involves the airlines, all levels of security," says Monique Bond, spokesperson for the Department of Aviation. "We're taken by surprise and never know when these drills are going to take place. We just did one with a bomb threat. Basically, they tell you what the problem is, and you have to tell them what you would do given the scenario. We are always in a heightened state of security, always working to do our best to enhance the security."
O'Hare officials aren't the only ones creating and disarming disastrous scenarios. Training takes place at specific, undisclosed locations. "The president has ordered the FBI and other agencies to put together plans to handle biological or nuclear activities," Long explains. "We conducted one out in the western suburbs last spring, for a major critical incident, it could've been criminal activity, or a hostage situation, or damage to a federal building. We were testing communication and our computer systems. It was a very realistic scenario that lasted three days, and we brought in field officers from Detroit and Ohio."
Under the 1997 Defense Authorization Bill, commonly known as the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici legislation, a Domestic Preparedness initiative provides funding for the Department of Defense to enhance the capability of federal, state and local emergency responders in incidents involving nuclear, biological and chemical terrorism. Training is arranged by a federal interagency team, comprised of representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, Public Health Service and Department of Defense. Cities such as Chicago are trained in a team approach which combines experts in chemical and biological warfare with experienced emergency responders. The courses are designed to "train-the-trainer," supplying emergency responders with the knowledge and experience needed to conduct their own training program with specialized nuclear, chemical and biological training materials.
Biological terrorism isn't just the far-flung stuff of Stephen King novels, as was evidenced in 1984 when 750 people became ill after eating from salad bars in four eastern Oregon restaurants after a religious group had spread salmonella bacteria in the food in an attempt to disrupt local elections. Luckily, not all biological terrorists are successful. Extremists have been arrested for possession of botulism and ricin toxins, and in 1995 an Ohio laboratory worker and white supremacist was stopped from retrieving a mail-ordered package of Yersinia pestis, the agent responsible for the bubonic plague.
"It's amazing how easy it is for people to build a bomb," says Long, repeatedly.
Cornelius echoes this sentiment, adding, "It's equally frightening that people can get their hands on biological agents, like the sarin gas that was spread through the Tokyo subways.
"Our best line of defense is a combination of preparedness and intelligence information," Long says. "And intelligence information isn't easy to come by."
In the wake of the American embassy bombings in Africa, it's only reasonable that other embassy offices around the world would step up their own security measures, but, again, how far can you go?
"When you have a softer target, like an embassy, sometimes the most you can do is test the best location and consider moving it to a new site," says Long.
In Chicago, where several consulate general offices are located along Michigan and Wacker Drives, there are no plans for such drastic measures. Still, all of the foreign government officials we spoke with agree that crisis situations in any part of the world reinforce their fears of vulnerability. Though security at Chicago-based foreign government offices has not been heightened following the African bombings, that's mainly because, in the words of Egyptian Vice-Consulate Ahmad Hufsenien of the Chicago office of the Consulate General of the Arab Republic of Egypt, "The security must be tight at all times."
As defined by The Terrorism Research Center, an independent, cyber-only research institute, "Terrorism may be motivated by political, religious or ideological objectives. In a sense, terrorist goals are always political, as extremists, driven by religious or ideological beliefs usually seek political power to compel society to conform to their views."
The Terrorism Research Center also presents a few basic but important points to keep in mind when preparing against, or even just worrying about terrorism. "Anyone can be a victim... (Essentially, there are no innocents.) Second, attacks that may appear to be senseless and random are not. To the perpetrators, their attacks make perfect sense. Acts such as bombing public places of assembly and shooting into crowded restaurants heighten public anxiety. This is the terrorists' immediate objective. Third, the terrorist needs to publicize his attack. If no one knows about it, it will not produce fear."
The TRC concludes that "a leader planning for combating terrorism must understand that he cannot protect every possible target all the time."
"There are times you can be more aware," Cornelius says. "Terrorism concerns vary by the month. For instance, we haven't had the radical left do anything for a while. When they decide to be more active, courthouses will be more vulnerable. Say there's a case coming up where someone hasn't paid taxes for philosophical reasons, that would be a good day to stay away.
"The key is to keep yourself from becoming the designated victim," says Cornelius. But even if you avoid embassies, abortion clinics, gay nightclubs, cosmetic or medical supply company testing laboratories, and the fur boutiques at major department stores, there's still no guarantee that you're safe. "The thing is, any place could be hit," Long says. "Someone's home could be a target."
Maybe all you can do on an individual level is trust the FBI, the think tanks, and the counter-terrorist measures that, for good reason, must remain shrouded in secrecy. "People don't need to be on guard all the time," Cornelius continues, "because it's a waste of time. Like with the embassy bombings in Africa. There was a bus full of people who just happened to be passing by at the same time one of the bombs went off. There's nothing to be done about that. It's just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
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