Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Kabul Hotel Attack Reflects Emerging Terror Strategy

Today’s attack on the Kabul InterContinental Hotel reinforces the assessment that terrorists are embracing Mumbai style commando attacks as an effective strategy. As previously discussed, it seems likely that commando style terror plots targeting hotel facilities in Europe and possibly the United States are on the horizon. See, New Commando Style Terror Plot Predicted in Mumbai Security Briefing – September 2010 , and Lessons Learned from the Mumbai Attacks – April,2010.

As recently as a week ago, Fox News reported that intelligence obtained in Somalia pointed to a potential Mumbai style plot aimed at a luxury hotel in London. Earlier in May, 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior Al-Qaeda leader threatened Mumbai style attacks on Europe, as reported by The Sun, a U.K. based newspaper. Overall, the gestalt of the Islamic inspired terror network seems to be shifting towards this style of attack.

As noted in past analysis, hotels, particularly luxury-style international hotels, are attractive targets. This is because of their symbolic representation as centers of western business and commercial interests, more affluent clientele and high value targets are present, and there is a cross section of various nationalities and religions peaceably coexisting in contravention of extremist ideals. Most significantly, hotels are soft targets.

For all intents and purposes, hotels have no effective means of resisting or thwarting an armed assault. Further, hotels can be easily surveilled and penetrated, because they are generally open to the public and there are transient visitors. Militants can pose as guests with a minimum of suspicion, especially in international hotel venues where peoples of diverse origin are present. Finally, smuggling weapons into hotels is a low risk exercise because weapons can be concealed wiithin baggage without arousing suspicion, and groups can quietly build by staggering their check-ins, concealing their association.

In terms of high impact and low personnel requirements, hotels offer themselves up as good targets as well. Hotels house large numbers of guests that are generally confined to floors with a limited numbers of exits and common egress stairwells. By controlling lower level floors, entire facilities can be effectively controlled with a limited number of militant personnel. Effective control can further be projected by detonating bombs or starting fires and maintaining fire zones at main doorways and entrances covered by shooters. Once control of the premises is achieved, members of the terrorist team are set up to sweep from the bottom to the top of the hotel facility executing guests, taking hostages and/or planting explosives.

Once physical control over the facility and hotel guests is established, the terror group has achieved a position of strength. Efforts to dislodge hostile operators by direct assault become a high risk operation due to concerns about potential collateral losses, the use of human shields, and/or triggering a preplanned mass killing event. This psychological advantage is likely to be more effective in Western countries where both real time news coverage and more open government create intense political pressures not to place hostages and victims at further risk. This situation also plays into the hands of the terrorists by providing a global stage for protracted hysteria and attention.

In both the Mumbai attack and Kabul Hotel attacks, the terrorists were wearing suicide vests and were operating to inflict maximum loss of life. Looking at other prototypical terror attacks such as the Beslan School incident and Moscow Theater attack, Islamic militants also intended to ultimately kill as many hostages as possible. Once they consolidated hostage groups, they extensively wired explosives in holding areas and detonated them.

These behaviors speak to the need for Western police and anti-terror units to quickly respond to any attack and actively engage hostile actors to deny them the ability to establish control over the facility and interrupt or delay planned operations that can further entrench their position and/or gain mass killing opportunities. With regard to hotel facilities, it is nearly impossible to adequately secure these venues. Attentiveness on the part of Hotel personnel in identifying suspicious actors is essential. Hotel personnel must be capable of identifying anomalies such as unusual numbers of younger single men originating from suspect destinations checking in with overlapping stay dates. Persons who are overly protective of their baggage and refuse to allow others near it may be a sign of unusual activity. Persons that are evasive as to the purpose of their stay, that are secretive or avoid public interaction may be a sign of suspect activity.

In addition to being alert, hotels must improve response coordination capabilities with law enforcement. In cases of an emergency, a rapid response aided by real time situational information that can assist a quick reaction force in effectively engaging and contesting militants. Allowing police to view the interior of the hotel through the sharing of security camera feeds would provide a tactical edge over the militants by enabling responders to identify militants, their positions and weaponry, command elements and monitor movements. Similarly enabling direct communication between on-scene responders and hotel staff and guests via cell phones, mobile chat, and even streaming video from smart phones, provides additional “eyes on” capability and situational awareness that can provide responders with a lifesaving edge.

The threat posed by this new mode of terror attack is not insignificant and offers many challenges to homeland security and public safety agencies. While we hope plots can continue to be successfully detected and thwarted before they become real operational threats, we must be prepared to handle and respond to a commando style terror attack. Hotels can be better prepared for these security risk scenarios and should invest in concealed video monitoring systems, interoperable communications and video sharing capabilities so they are equipped to give responders the information they need should the quite thinkable occur.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

School Emergency Preparedness Requires More Focus

What would happen if a major catastrophe like the Tsunami in Japan struck during schools hours in your community? Do you know what would happen? Would you know where your children are, how to get them or what their condition is? Is your school really prepared to really take care of your kids?
These questions came to mind when looking at a picture from NBC news showing a mound of several hundred muddied and torn school backpacks collected in a pile in the midst of a devastated landscape. The caption for this picture read:
“Schoolbags are recovered from Okawa elementary school in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture on March 22. Only 24 of 84 schoolchildren and 13 teachers have been found alive so far. After the earthquake hit, all the schoolchildren and teachers prepared for evacuation in the school yard. Some children left for their homes with family members. While the rest of the children were waiting to be collected, the tsunami hit.”
What struck me was the matter-of-factness of the numbers. Sixty children from an elementary are missing and presumably dead, but nobody can say with certainty. How many other school children suffered similar fates we do not know either.
But as we contemplate the heap of lifeless school backpacks, each one recently attached to a child, I ask again is your school ready? Are we taking this kind of emergency scenario seriously enough? Here are some basic questions:

  • Is your school capable of being an emergency shelter with ample food, water and electricity during a prolonged emergency?

  • Is your school earthquake proof? Is it hurricane proof? Is it in a flood zone?

  • Where do the children go if they must evacuate the school during an emergency and shelter at another location? Do you know where it is? Would you know if they were moved?

  • How will you be able to get information about your children’s location and health status? Is there multiple means of communication and information dissemination set-up? Do you know what they are?

  • Does your school have real interoperable communications with police, fire, ems and emergency management?

  • Who is in charge and what is the chain of command in emergencies? Are they trained to make critical assessments and handle emergencies? Are they certified in NIMS-ICS procedures?

  • Does your school have back-up satellite communications? If not, why not?

  • Is there an emergency store of critical medications that your child may need for prolonged sheltering? If not why not?

  • Is there a full time nurse on staff? If not, why not?

  • Is there family disaster assistance plan for teachers and others who must take care of kids, or will they abandon your children if things really get bad because they must take care of their families?

  • Is there a system that will enable youngsters to communicate with parents during an emergency or while sheltering away from home?

  • Is there a procedure for periodic roll call and status of students? How does the school monitor egress?

  • Is your school staff trained to handle and alleviate the psychological stress that young children will feel during an emergency?

  • If something happens to you in an emergency, does the school have alternate pick-up plans?

  • Can you pick up your children during an emergency or will you be locked out the school and be placed in danger? How does the school communicate that to you?

  • Does the school have a policy making sure siblings are reunited and sheltered together?

  • What plans are in place to deal with genders if sheltering in place is required? Will male teachers be left along to care for young girls? Should they?

While school budgets always seem to be tight and many priorities must give way to others, there are many reasons why investing in emergency preparedness and resiliency must take a priority at local and state levels. We have seen the consequences of schools involved in major emergencies, whether it was in the China earthquakes, the Japan Tsunami, or the many unspeakable acts of terrorism committed against schools throughout the world. As a society and has parents, we have a duty to protect our children, and the complacency is frightening.
There are few states that seem to be taking some important initiatives. In 2010, New Jersey passed a a law (New Jersey Statutes Section 18A:41-1) requiring that schools coordinate and work with emergency responders to implement and update school safety plans, and implement drill, management and emergency response procedures. The New Jersey law also mandates that full-time school employees receive training on school safety and emergency drills.
In Colorado, a new bill (Colorado Senate Bill No. SB11-173, “Interoperable Communications in Schools”) concerning interoperable communications for Colorado schools is pressing forward. Sponsored by Senator Steve King, this bill should serve as a model for action in other states. Without robust interoperable emergency communications and real time information sharing between schools and first responder, emergency management and emergency support function agencies, the framework for ensuring coordinated and effective live saving response is missing. Simply using a public 911 emergency call mechanism during an emergency for a school is woefully inadequate for a myriad of reasons, including the basic fact that a major community resource with hundreds of at-risk children is competing for assistance and call time with the general public and repetitive and possibly flooded call banks. Moreover, a method of constant situational awareness and coordinated effort is required at the beginning, during and after an emergency. This communication capability also serves as a means for important tabletop and field exercises and training, so that the school staff is capable of responding appropriately and effectively during a disaster or emergency.
At the end of the day, schools must be properly equipped, have practiced emergency plans in place, and the school staff must be trained and prepared to deal with large scale emergencies, because they can and do happen. Emergency preparedness and resilience requires an investment in time, focus and resources for unknown or unpredictable events. In many cases emergences are o remote that initiatives often lose their rightful priority until it is too late. Emergency preparedness is not attractive and sexy like sports and other popular school programs, but they are vital to the long term safety of our children.
There is no single greater force for change than parents, and of all the issues confronting schools emergency preparedness and resilience should be front and center, because the lives of our children may depend on it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Resiliency in the Modern Society: The Japan Earthquake Lesson

By: Joe Mazzarella, SVP and Chief Legal Officer, Mutualink, Inc.
March 17, 2011

As Japan urgently struggles to combat the predations of a massive earthquake and tsunami, the forces of chaos have offered up another sober warning that societies are fragile. The everyday certainty and reliability experienced by citizens and leaders of modernized nations obscures the inherent vulnerabilities attendant to complex economies and societies functioning in a deeply interconnected and interdependent manner. The paradox that the Japan earthquake lays bare is that the very thing that creates a highly efficient and successful economy may well be the same thing that exposes us to catastrophic ruin.

As the world has witnessed, Japan is suffering enormous devastation from a series of compounding events spawned from an initial large scale natural disaster. These secondary and tertiary events have cascaded like a series of invisible dominos spanning outwards in many directions from a single push of a finger. Japan’s emergency response and support infrastructure is being stressed beyond its capability to respond to all needs. From debris fields blocking search and rescue teams, heavy equipment and relief supplies being cut off from communities, to stranded people, trains and impassable roads, limited electricity from rolling blackouts, radiation clouds and evacuations, gas rationing, empty food shelves, insufficient numbers of body bags and decaying corpses due to a lack of refrigeration, and snow and cold freezing adding to the plight of millions of displaced people, the effects of mother nature’s wrath seems to know no bounds. As this is being written, the specter of a mass evacuation of Tokyo is not beyond the realm of the thinkable should Japan’s nuclear emergencies continue to worsen and become unchecked. The impact of evacuating 18 million people and the ensuing panic it will ignite, couple with overwhelming devastation from the earthquake could result in major collapses in critical sectors of their civil society.

Fortunately, Japan has an intangible advantage that may very well be the key to their short and medium term survival, the inherently cooperative, caring and self-restrained nature of the Japanese society. It is the culturally engrained resilience of the average Japanese citizen that will provide a vast network of local human support infrastructure that will enable them to prevail. The simple act of sharing a bottle of drinking water with a neighbor, sharing heat or shelter and food, instead of hoarding resources and closing out those in need may be essential difference between mass suffering occasioned by death and illnesses and great discomfort but survival. And, the reports of this type of behavior are not few or far between.

On the other side of the equation, one can readily observe how the more sophisticated and complex societies become the more fragile they are in terms of their exposure to large scale disasters. As societies become more modernized, economic sectors becomes more specialized along verticals and more concentrated, becoming ever more efficient in production and streamlined in the delivery of services and products. Economies of scale are achieved through great volumes, and this has the practical effect of driving consolidation, cost reduction and lower prices and higher profit margins. Communications and digital information networks drive financial transactions and exchanges set prices and delivery of critical commodities. Electrical and hydrocarbon based energy systems power our communications and information networks as well as our factories, transportation, and nearly every appliance in our households. Food production sources are no longer local, and they crucially depend on transportation and refrigeration. Water and sewage treatment systems depend on power. Medical systems depend on specialized medications and equipment manufactured by a small number of facilities and delivered by transportation systems. Shipping requires fuel and functioning transportation systems and ports, and payment settlement systems. This litany of interlocking dependencies could be continued virtually ad infinitum with increasing granularity, but let the above suffice for sake of argument.

Where the old watch maker may have made his own parts or bought materials from locally produced resources, the new global watch company assembles much, makes little and consumes even less locally, preferring to depend and upon vast supply chains, special parts makers, and sophisticated just in time transportation networks to receive goods and ship them back out to the market. And so it is for a thousand, thousand other niches which make up our vast and complex economy. The same holds true for the individual, where once most households were highly self-sustaining entities, virtually nothing is produced in the household. We are dependent on the delivery of food, electricity, water, and heat to our homes. Whereas at one time nearly all food was produced and sold locally yet a pair of French silk stockings was a rare imported extravagance, today it is just the opposite. One would be more likely to find French made stockings in a grocery store than to find locally produced berries. Modern households are fragile and are deeply dependent on far reaching, often global, supply chains to perform.

Simply put, a vast web of highly dependent connections produces the marvel that is our increasingly productive, specialized and hyper-efficient world. But when one thread frays and breaks, as in the case of a large scale power outage, the fabric can quickly unravel especially when pulled upon and stressed even by the smallest of forces.

Perhaps one of the most astute initiatives of the Department of Homeland Security in regards to emergency preparedness is focusing on strengthening the resilience of communities. The introduction and promotion of this concept is essential to our security. Yet, its true implications may far exceed its intended import. It is one thing to have an all hazards coordinated public safety and emergency response structure that can scale and work with a unified purpose in times of disaster, but it is quite another to achieve a resilient society. In the first instance, much work is being done to plan for and be able to respond and recover from disasters through a better coordinated public emergency response agency structure and this will pay dividends. In the latter case, true community level resilience simply may be at odds with the forces of economic globalization.

Resilience in terms of key infrastructure and critical resources requires more than redundancy. It requires diverse modalities with functional redundancies. By these terms, I mean using many different methods and ways to achieve the same or substantially same functions. On both accounts, global economic forces drive in the opposite direction.

First, at a pure redundancy level, redundancy means necessarily having more of the same thing. By definition, this means having excess capacity. This is squarely at odds with competitive global economic forces that drive the cost of production down by eliminating excess or idle capacity. In the most efficient and productive market ideal, the productive capacity of an asset should be producing at full capacity up to the last marginal profit dollar. At anything less, it is not being used to its highest economic value. So, creating more idle capacity is at odds with market forces even if it is beneficial from a disaster perspective. Worse yet, productive capacity is often dislocated from local areas and moved to more cost efficient places, often in other parts of the world. But, the problem extends even beyond global market forces. In the case of large scale systems that present significant investments such as electrical transport grids, regulated monopolies replicate the same conditions of singular reliance without redundancy. In the United States, our electrical transport system is vulnerable to mass outages because of its spoke and hub topology and lack of real redundancy in transport. It is unlikely that rate payers will be willing to pay the cost for an abstraction called redundancy. So, in most cases the practical reality is most are unwilling to pay more to ensure resilience against a remote event whether it is indirectly through buying behavior or in the form of a direct cost.

Secondly, pure redundancy (or more of the same) is not sufficient in terms of establishing true levels of resiliency. As was demonstrated in the Japan nuclear reactor failures, redundant cooling systems constructed the same way may reduce probability of failure but all are vulnerable to the same type of failure. So, if the causation event spans each system space (i.e., it is sufficiently large to span all redundant systems), the probability of failure is not lower as predicted, it is the same as having one. An analogy can be drawn to airplane hydraulic systems. Three redundant hydraulic lines running through the same harness is not redundant if a turbine blade from an engine breaches the plane and severs all three lines. Again, in the global economy, forces are at work that are driving towards commoditization and pushing against multi-modal diversity. Across virtually all industries the same or similar parts (and underlying designs) are often used by the same vendors. Lower prices attained through scale and volume drive homogenization at the component level and this even dictate similar outcomes at systems levels. Unique approaches in mechanical, operational and even software design are driven out of the system for routine but critical functions.

So what is to be done? Certainly, the substitution of free market mechanisms with old style managed economies is unwise and proven to be a failure over the long term. But what is new is that global market forces are operating in ways that are asymmetric to sovereign interests. Once robust and competitive production assets are removed from the fabric of a nation (whether it is energy resources or raw and processed materials production, food production, core manufacturing capabilities, technological know-how), the overall resilience of that nation becomes dependent upon cooperative forces beyond its borders. Nations become subject to global supply chains and the competing interests and decisions of foreign entities and agnostic market forces. The ability to direct policies that create a robust and healthy production capability across vital domestic infrastructure segments is beyond the grasp. The ability to persuade or direct re-tooling, increased production, or the redirection or concentration of goods and supplies in response to a crisis for the good of the country is lost. Looking at the United States, a strong case can be made that it has become substantially more vulnerable over the past 30 years as its competitive industrial production and infrastructure has been dismantled and shipped overseas. Many of our critical resources, raw materials and finished materials are produced in foreign markets, and little domestic capability remains. While at advent of connected global markets have increased the diversity and supply of goods and services at lower prices under stable conditions, we may well have placed the core of our safety and security during major crisis into the hands of others in that exchange.

We must begin to investigate and understand the vulnerabilities that are being created by complex interdependencies through economic globalization. There is a compelling case to be made that consolidation and elimination of domestic industries create additional vulnerabilities to large scale disasters and hamper recovery. It further can be said, the very nature of advancing economic realities are that all sectors are interdependent with others in one way or another. Resiliency requires investment in diversified redundant capabilities with back-up capacity in key sectors of our economy. Also, restoring and protecting competitive production capabilities across key sectors within domestic markets is vital to a resilient fabric. Perhaps the forces of globalization are so strong that it is impossible to restore local and regional resilience by reestablishing domestic competitive infrastructure. But knowing this fact compels us to seriously understand and evaluate the systems and delicate dependencies that are critical to allowing basic services to continue to function in times of large scale disaster and provide a path for recovery. It may be that basic policies at local, state and federal levels must serve to foster effective surrogate diversified redundancies so that we can achieve a counterbalance to the fragile environment we have constructed.

Finally, returning to Japan, perhaps when all else fails the last line of resiliency lies in the citizenry itself. Creating a culture of individual preparedness and fostering mutual care among neighbors during times of crisis might very well be the invisible thread that holds us together.

Our sincere prayers and condolences go out to our friends in Japan