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.
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.