Fire as a Tool of Terror

Co-blogger Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Kyle Dabruzzi recently co-authored an interesting report on how firefighters can play an enhanced counter-terror role. His report reminded me of some preliminary research I had done on terrorist use of fire in the wake of the 2007 forest fires in Greece that killed 63 people and did hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage. Putting these two items together suggests another possible counter-terror role for fire-fighters.

Fire Next Time?

Fire is certainly capable of causing substantial damage either to specific targets and, if the conditions are right, as a virtual WMD. Several of the worst disasters in U.S. history were fires, including the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 and the fires triggered by the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 destroyed entire cities. As recently as 1991 a firestorm in Oakland killed 25, did $1.5 billion in damage, and decimated 1520 acres within a major American city. Additionally, fire has the potential to trigger a cascading disaster. A fire might also lead to utility outages or reach new dimensions of scale if it reaches a sensitive site.

Fire has some advantages as a tool for terrorists. First, it is a basic mantra among TV newspeople, “The camera loves fire.” As a means of garnering media attention, fire has tremendous potential. (Consider the endless footage of the fire at the Glasgow airport from the summer 2007 terror plot.)

Fire is also technically easy. Although it is conventional wisdom that bomb-making techniques can be gleaned off of the Internet – the actual record of self-starting cells as bomb-makers is not very good. The successful plots have had links to real world training.

Interestingly, in light of its apparent ease of use, based on these graphs from the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland’s Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (with which I have no affiliation), fire does not appear to be the terror weapon of choice. In fact, the groups that use it the most frequently are those that have stated they do not wish to kill people, such as the Earth Liberation Front.

This may reflect some of the limitations of using fire as a terror weapon. Counter-terror is the application of Murphy’s Law. The more barriers placed in a terrorist’s path the more likely the terrorists will be caught and the plan will fail. While setting fires is relatively easy, setting fires that do major damage is harder. Industrialized nations have substantial firefighting capabilities. If the conditions are not right and the locations are not scouted, the fire may be only a minor incident. (When the UK doctors rammed their burning SUV into Glasgow airport the images were dramatic, the actual damage was minor.)

An effective terror attack using fire will require substantial surveillance. This is when terrorists are most likely to be caught. Photographing emergency exits, lurking around sprinkler system controls, and the other activities necessary to adequately plan a major arson attack are activities that should trigger the attentions of security personnel.

There have been some devastating terror attacks using fire. In 1978 Shia radicals in Abadan, Iran set a movie theater on fire – 377 people died horribly. However, the exit doors were locked, the firefighters were late, and the hydrants didn’t work. Many of the deadliest fire attacks occurred in less developed countries, where safety codes (if they exist) are loosely enforced and government services are less able to respond effectively.

Fire Diplomacy

The potential vulnerability in the less developed countries to arson should be addressed, first because it is a humanitarian issue, but also because it is an important opportunity for public diplomacy. Firemen worldwide quickly find common ground based on the essentials of their profession. Consequently, fire safety, prevention, and mitigation are potentially fruitful realms for positive, non-political, international engagement. While there are programs delivering this kind of aid, they may be worth expanding.

Assistance would be good counter-terror, but the places vulnerable to mass arson are also vulnerable to natural fires and a host of other natural disasters. Helping to reduce these dangers and improve local and national services is a real and tangible benefit. It is an opportunity to deliver aid, engage in public diplomacy, and build new networks of relationships worldwide.

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8 Responses

  1. If the terror org documented their work would it not fall under the exclusions in most policies against terrorism and insurrection? I would think this would be a very big issue for the government especially in a big forest fire in an urban area.

  2. Back in 1980’s IRA used small incendiary devices – were planted in department stores. While actual
    dmage was minor, ecomonic damage
    and disruption was severe. In
    recent years in blighted cities of Detroit MI and Camden NJ
    was wave of arsons in cars and
    abandoned buildings on Halloween
    (Devils Night) Al Quaeda tend to
    go for spectalur mass casualty
    type operations. Problem now is that major operations are severely
    limited by security forces which
    quickly jump on any plots early.
    In future may see individual
    “personal jihadists” lacking access to explosives use arson as
    weapon of choice. T^hink of wave
    of small fires set in shopping malls during Christmas season….

  3. Aaron,

    I have some very detailed records of the As-Shahab networks from Somolia that gained access to funding for passports forgeries from S Thailand and Bulgeria for $10,000 a pop. Al Queda operatives have also claimed to have taken possesion of the island of Cyprus. They mainly have been targetting baks and financial institutions there that are not tied into their local banking system. Local unions of the PPP there have been tied in as possible collaborators during that raid. But local union and separatist leaders there were not that organized and were not claiming responsibility. In some villages the insurgents were trapping families in their homes by gunpoint and them setting them on fire. Mr Pelligrassio a major player int he olive industry there has joined aour moovment in a cooperation effort since then and foreign nationals seeking work as migrant workers ahve been banned in Greece and England since then to prevent further economic damage to our regions as response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan led by the UBL networks.

    We too in America had several attacks from Homegrowns in California and the 5-11 attacks in 2006. I was a part of all three investigations unofficially and have some great sattelite shots, news articles, and several stories from investigators firsthand who were filesharing data in our us mil and Ci areas.
    I also have some data on nano-tubes chemical sniffers for the newer arson bots lines versus using dogs to sniff out arson accelerants and explosives residue. After the ELR guerruilla attack back on 9-1 also using sausage bombs on the natural gas lines we seee the need for robotics possibly to guard our strategic oil reserves , pipelines, and oil platforms from terrorists beyond cameras that are sitting still. I allready sent over the bhe data to you on the drone helli data. These newer arson bots lines I am discussing today are to be used specifically for arson monitoring, arson prevention, and to relay data back to the commercial sectors also to let them know who may be at large even if they pull off an attack so we know where the fires are, where the insurgents or eco-terrorists are, and performing as transitional hubs if th e insurgents knock out communications just before the attack. We are also working on micfrowave beam technologies for the newer sattelites to beam down energy if neccary to the drones in the air and on the ground at safe levels to keep their batteries charged up and keep the communications lines flowing in to command centers at HS, fire suppression teams, and the corporate sectors if necssary by a case by case basis. Possibly also wildlife teams if it is forest areas. We have seen in the 5-11 fires that encampments of insurgents were camped in remote areas using breifcase style incineary devices. Some were using timed incineary devices, others were using accelerants and lighting trash barells on fire and then kicking them over. A small tip on the Pak fire at the marriot reports that aluminum nitrate powder was used as an accelerant to keep the fire burning once it started. Some also reported that a small fire in the vehicle lit before it detonated. I think this may have been propane they were using witht he aluminum nitrate with a possible flare as a ignition. They probably started turning on the gas just before succesfuylly ramming the front door area.

    Here is some up to date data on the most recent data I spoke of earlier today.

  4. Absolutely! This is correct. Just one malfunctional sprinkler system in anything large will keep 1st responders busy for many many hours. Get out of reach of the ladders pipes and things are way difficult for firefighters. Anything terror related below the 6the floor is handable where as above the 6th creates numerous problems concerning a fire.

  5. Hey everyone, thanks for the great and thoughtful comments.

    A lot of counter-terror stuff are these kinds of nuts&bolts details.

    …And turning vulnerabilities into opportunities.

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