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Counter-Terrorism in General

Getting the Bad Guys Before They Attack Us

How long before terrorists switch focus from airports and planes to easier unprotected targets such as a town water supply, or a church congregation, or any of many other vulnerable things?

Part 5 of a series on alternative and better approaches to US airport security.  Additional parts to be published in the following weeks.



Any terrorist can attack us at any of a million different points of vulnerability in our society, using any of a thousand different forms of attack (including some we've not yet even thought about).

Isn't it more efficient to focus on the individual terrorists rather than trying to provide last ditch 'point defense' for only some of the specific locations at risk, and against only some of the specific types of attack?

The manpower and money being misspent making normal people's travels more unpleasant should better be focused on making normal people (ie you and me) safer everywhere, and on detecting and apprehending people who would wish us harm, long before they reach our airports and planes, and long before they choose to attack us somewhere totally different, in a totally new way.

Protecting Airports Makes the Rest of Our Society More Dangerous

Here's the cruel calculus of the nasty post 9/11 world we must live in and respond to.  There are a small but significant group of people in the world who have made it their life's task to cause us harm.

They don't care where or how they harm us.  In this respect they are unthinkingly mindlessly evil, and there is no way we can appease them or appeal to their 'better nature' or in any other way dissuade them from carrying out their task - their jihad.

Indeed, they are so fixated on this objective that they are willing to die in the process themselves.  Being a suicide bomber seems to promise them sufficient glory (and apparently virgins) in some perceived after-life as to hasten them on their way to certain death.

So what happens when we make it more difficult for them to attack our airplanes and our airports?

These people don't just give up.  And while their evil intent is unthinking and irrational (in the sense of something we can't reason with - from their perspective their implacable hatred is totally reasonable and just), there is nothing stupid about their thought processes when it comes to working out where and how to inflict suffering and unpleasantness on the west.

If we prevent them from attacking us in one part of our society, they will simply shift focus to another part.  And if/when we protect that, they will shift to another and so on and so on.

So protecting our airports and airplanes doesn't stop these terrorists.  It merely causes them to shift their focus to another part of our lives.

Now for the really hard part - answer this next question if you can, because it is a question our security forces must correctly anticipate and answer, every day.

If Not Airports, Then What Next Will The Terrorists Attack?

Where will the terrorists attack next?  Indeed, not only where, but what and how?  The people charged with our protection and our nation's security need to answer these questions so they know where to deploy protective measures.

Here are just a very few sample risks.

Will they attack people?

Maybe they will attack a sports stadium?  A mega-hotel? An office-building?  A school?  A mall?  A hospital?  A church congretation?

Will they attack our infrastructure?

Or maybe they'll shift focus and more obliquely attack other parts of our infrastructure in a way so as to result in 'downstream death'.

For example, if they destroy our electricity grid in the peak of a winter chill, how many people will die from exposure?  If they poison our water supply, how many people will die from that?  If they release deadly toxins in our city centers, might that infect everyone in our very mobile country with a fatal disease?

They don't even need to kill people to destroy our society

If terrorists use computer viruses to attack the internet, how many businesses will go bankrupt, how much will our economy shrink, how many people will lose their jobs, and how much will our 'misery index' increase?

Indeed, think that cycle through.  A bad economy may cause more youths to become disaffected with 'the American dream' and turn to a life of crime, killing people as part of their life of crime.

Or maybe such people will become converts to Islamic extremism (notwithstanding the irony of them not realizing they were suffering the effects of Islamic extremism in the first place) and become terrorists themselves.

It is a truism that war is an extension of economic competition by other means.  Perhaps the terrorists will reverse that and use economic harm to damage us just as surely as physical harm would.

The Problems with the Preceding Question and Its Answers

There's an obvious and a subtle problem with asking the question about what/where/when/how terrorists will next attack us, and a similar problem with answers to this conundrum.

The obvious problem - if you choose the wrong answer, and overlook the next vulnerability; tens, hundreds, thousands, or even larger numbers of innocent people might die, and/or the nation might be plunged even deeper into a bottomless economic recession.

These are high stakes indeed.

The subtle problem - the question itself is invalid.  Trying to identify the next 'point target' is the wrong strategy.  Trying to harden the last physical thing that was previously attacked is the wrong thing to do.

We are not looking at the correct part of the problem when we task the TSA to protect airports, and other groups to protect other places and things, because we are creating finite protection, but against a potentially infinite range of creative threats, and against a similarly nearly infinite range of creatively chosen vulnerable targets.

The security guard who is 'protecting' us passengers by feeling us up at the airport is unable to help us or to prevent an attack against a hospital just down the road and around the corner.

Lessons from the French and Germans

There is a classic example of the inadequacies of point protection in both  World War 1 and 2.  The French had fixed fortress point defense systems along its border with Germany, but no protection on its border with friendly Belgium.  So instead of sweeping across the border, straight into France, and being confronted by these formidable defenses, the Germans took the long way around, detouring through Belgium.

This strategy surprised the French twice.  We should learn from the mistakes of the French, and focus not on a fixed point 'last ditch' defense against yesterday's threat, but instead look further back in the process of what the terrorist(s) must do prior to actually staging their attack.

At Last - Some Good News and A Direction for the Future

And that is where there is some welcome good news.  In order to blow up a school, or a shopping mall, or whatever, the terrorists need some explosives.  So - why not monitor sources of explosives and the raw materials needed to create explosives?  If we make it impossible for the terrorists to obtain or build bombs, and/or if their attempts cause them to be identified and then neutralized, isn't that a good thing?

By simply limiting access to explosives, we've enhanced the safety of all locations, everywhere in the country, that would be vulnerable to explosive attack.

This is a good suggestion (not without its flaws but still worthy of implementation), but it is still a compromise between the current policies (protecting specific things against specific risks) and a more general approach to protecting every place and everyone against everything.

So let's keep going.  Terrorists don't just appear from nowhere, being one minute an 'ordinary' person and the next minute a crazed suicide bomber.  The typical process is for the person to become Muslim, then an extremist, to start reading extremist Muslim literature, to visit extremist Muslim websites, to attend extremist Muslim mosques, to associate with fellow extremists, and to join groups of like minded people.

Best of all, these people seem unable to keep their change in mindset a secret.  As they become increasingly extreme, they become increasingly vocal about their views, which are increasingly different from those of the majority of people around them.

Why don't we monitor who visits extremist Muslim websites (the technology to do so is completely in place already)?  Why don't we monitor who attends extremist Muslim mosques?  Why don't we see who is most aggressively defaming the United States and advocating its violent overthrow (whatever happened to the crime of treason and related offenses, anyway)?

It gets even easier.  These people usually end up either visiting known Muslim terrorist training camps in other countries, or at the very least communicating with some of the international terror organizations that exist to coordinate such acts of terrorism.  Are we monitoring everyone who does either of these things?

There are more tell-tale signs of pending terrorist activity, too.  Probably the terrorist has insufficient money of his own, and so needs to be funded by an existing extremist group.  Are we tracking currency movements to see who is getting money from known terrorist groups?

Furthermore, individual terrorists usually seek to join up with other individuals to form collective groups or cells of terrorists.  How do they do that?  If we can find out how terrorists identify each other, can't we then do the same thing and identify them too?

Terrorism's Universal Tell-tale Signs

Now for the really good thing about all of this.  All these preceding tell tale signs of terrorist activity are universal to all forms of terrorism.  Whether the person is planning on detonating a 'dirty bomb' in the center of your city or planning on gassing the subway system in a city two states away from you, or simply running amok in your local church or school assembly hall; they will invariably have things in common.  Sure, there's nothing in common with their targets, or their 'weapons of mass destruction'.

But the chances are that any and all groups of terrorists comprise at least some people who have in public expressed a hatred towards the United States and a desire to see it suffer from violent harm.  The chances are very good that these groups include people who have been in the terrorist training camps in places such as Yemen or Pakistan.

The chances are very good that they have been in touch with Al Qaeda or some other international terrorist group - indeed, different groups with different methods and targets might be getting their instructions, advice, and money from the exact same people.

There are fewer focus points for detecting nascent terrorism than there are potential targets for the terrorists and ways to attack these targets.  We should direct our attention to the 'bottle necks' in the terrorism process.

Rather than try and always be protecting yesterday's terrorist target and worrying about where tomorrow's radically different terrorist attack might appear, we need to switch our focus away from defending specific places and things against specific types of attack, and instead, we need to hunt down the terrorists before they get close to their targets.

Rather than wait passively for the terrorists to stage attacks in a manner, at a time, and in a place of their choosing, giving them the benefit of surprise and initiative, we need to bring the battle to them, and to instead attack them in places of our choosing, with us having the benefit of surprise and initiative, and sharing the same ruthlessness that they themselves seek to harm us with.

The Current Imbalance of Forces

As of the end of 2010, the TSA had approximately 50,000 front line employees, and an unknown number of administrative and other staff.  Their job is primarily to protect planes and the flights they operate.

So there are 50,000 people plus substantial support resources, inputs from other organizations (eg the thousands of personnel employed by airport police forces), equipment, and other costs, just to protect our nation's flights.

The rest of the country has approximately 14,000 FBI special agents, who are split amongst eight different areas of operation.  Yes, counter-terrorism is one of these eight areas, but most agents are assigned to the other seven departments - counter-intelligence, cyber-crime, public corruption, civil rights, organized crime, white collar crime and violent crime/major thefts.

Sure, there are also other personnel resources in other fields who also provide some degree of counter-terrorism support, such as 'liaison officers' in local police departments, although these people probably do double duty as FBI/Homeland Security liaison and also liaising with the local dog catcher too.  Counter-terrorism represents a some small time-slice of the Secret Service and who knows what other organizations.

Let's not forget a large number of CIA and NSA staff, both within the US and internationally, who are already actively working on taking the battle back to the enemy.

But however you count the numbers, the fact remains there are 50,000+ people who are primarily tasked with single-mindedly (and simple-mindedly) protecting airplanes; compared to some number more than 2,000 but massively less than 50,000, tasked with protecting all the rest of the country from every other imaginable (and as yet unimagined) threat.

Is it any wonder then that the last three terrorist attacks against the US have occurred at a military base, Times Square New York, and central downtown Portland, OR, rather than on airplanes (or even at airports in general)?

The enemy already knows that our aviation system has become harder to attack, while the rest of our country is invitingly open and exposed.  They are shifting their focus to exploit our other vulnerabilities.

So shouldn't we shift our focus too, and look for their signs/traces, long before they carry out an attack?

One terrorist can choose from (for example) one million different targets and ways of attacking them.  Which makes more sense (and which is more achievable) - to protect these million different vulnerabilities, or to hunt down the one terrorist?

Better for Us as Citizens Too

Here's another interesting thought.  Currently, every form of 'protection' against terrorists involves treating all innocent citizens as if we were disguised terrorists, and forcing us all to accept encroachments on our freedoms and restrictions on our liberties, while subjecting us to harassment, dangerous radiation, and inconvenient delays and procedures.

Worst of all, as we discuss in the section 'The Limitations of the TSA', no matter how much they increasingly subject us to inconvenient intrusive screening, they consistently fail to detect at least half the weapons and explosives that are test smuggled past them.

Terrorists don't need to do anything except stand back, look, and laugh at the way we destroy our own once valued freedoms and conveniences.

On the other hand, sending unmanned Predators to obliterate terrorist camps in far away countries inconveniences us not at all.

And then it can be us who stand back, look and laugh at the outcomes.

A dead terrorist is dead forever and poses no more threat.  A deterred terrorist can come back and more cleverly attack us a different way, tomorrow.

So which do you think is the better strategy?  More (but ineffective) airport style security, everywhere in our lives?  Or more bombs in the desert?

This is part of a series on alternatives to present airport security.  Please also see :

1.  Israeli style airport security
2.  Profiling passengers
3.  The Limitations of the TSA
4.  Protecting Airports
5.  General counter-terrorism measures
6.  Sundry other ideas (coming soon)

Related Articles, etc

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Originally published 3 Dec 2010, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.



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