Since Slate was kind enough to cite my thoughts on Syria’s attendance at the Annapolis Conference in its daily feature Today’s Blogs I thought I might return the favor.
Yesterday Slate’s Hot Document section published a PowerPoint briefing given by the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Infrastructure Threat and Risk Analysis Center to a Department of Agriculture workshop on Animal & Plant Biosecurity. The document is unclassified, but For Official Use Only (which in practice means very little.)
This slide stuck out.
Cell phone smuggling is the sort of dual-use criminal activity that can both raise funds, but also increase a terrorist group’s other capabilities. Cell phones have been used as timers in bomb attacks, most notably in the Madrid bombings of March 11, 2004. One of the attack’s ringleaders, Jamal Zougam, ran a cell phone shop (which supplied the devices). But practically speaking, IED timer is not the main use of cell phones.
Jimmy Breslin once wrote (I paraphrase) that criminals need two things – guns and stolen cars. That list can be up-dated to include many cell-phones. While they offer tremendous advantages for coordinating activities across time and distance (which is why so many of us are now attached to them) they can also be monitored by law enforcement. Spanish security services tracked the Madrid bombers through their cell phone activity.
Criminals of all sorts, such as neighborhood drug chiefs, go through large numbers of mobiles to evade surveillance. Al-Qaeda has also long been concerned about electronic surveillance of its communications. In September 1998, OBL stopped using his satellite phone. Before his training in Afghanistan, Ahmed Ressam’s voice had been recorded in nearly 400 conversations by Canadian security services – after his training Ressam (who planned to bomb LAX as part of al-Qaeda’s Millennium plot) used stolen phones and low-key personal meetings. Although they were aware of Ressam’s return to Canada and his probable intentions Canadian intelligence was no longer able to eavesdrop on his conversations.
Finally, the DHS briefing to the Department of Agriculture is quite sober. It discusses DHS’ structure and role, the nature and targets of the major terrorist threats to the United States. It examines recent terrorist activity in the United States and documents terrorist efforts to infiltrate U.S. critical infrastructure, while admitting that the government labors under incomplete information – which has occasionally sparked false alarms. Because it is a briefing for the Department of Agriculture it discusses possible plots against the U.S. agriculture. While granting that al-Qaeda training manuals discuss “agro-terrorism” DHS claims it has no credible information that any such attack is likely. This dovetails with my own assessment. An attack on the food supply would require substantial technical skills and access. But even if successful it would probably amount to little more than a big expensive hassle. Few would notice. This is not to say the U.S. should not monitor food safety (which has plenty of other, non-terrorist threats), but dramatic mass murder has been al-Qaeda’s preferred tool for attacking the psyche and soul of its enemies.
That being said – the slide on cell phone smuggling is an outlier and doesn’t seem to belong or be relevant to the Department of Agriculture’s areas of responsibility.