Navy Yard vs. Westgate: A Silver Lining for the US

Despite the title, this is not a cheerful post.  The incidents at the Navy Yard in Washington DC and at Westgate Mall in Nairobi are tragedies.  But comparing the highlights a modest silver lining for American counter-terror efforts.

First, about the Navy Yard the obvious tragic aspects must be reiterated:

  1. A dozen people, pointlessly, lost their lives
  2. A mentally ill person easily acquired a firearm
  3. A mentally ill person did not receive the help they needed (despite actively seeking it)

It would be easy to also rail against a failed clearance process that allowed Aaron Alexis access to a secure facility (the same process that brought us Edward Snowden) but I’m not sure that is fair.  We now have about five million cleared individuals, even a process that was 99.99% effective would fail 500 failures.  The question on that front is not how these people got through, but rather why there haven’t been a great deal more such failures.

In that spirit, of asking why not, I want to look at the question of why Westgate Mall style terror attacks have not happened in the United States.  The lion’s share of mass shootings appear to have been conducted by people who were mentally ill.  This emphasizes that, at least on one level, such attacks are extremely easy to carry out in the United States.  More than a few terrorist experts have noted this vulnerability.  So why have terrorists not done this, is it simply that the US has been lucky?

This is an important question to ask because, as the eminent Daveed Gartenstein-Ross observed:

it is well worth considering how we might respond were a shopping mall attacked in this manner. Would we create checkpoints at mall entrances to prevent people from entering with weapons? Would we increase the presence of security forces, perhaps providing them with instructions about how to identify possible perpetrators of an attack? Or would we encourage citizens to come to the mall armed, so that they could defend themselves in case terrorists strike? Perhaps we would decide that defensive measures were not worth the cost—especially since our ability to break up plots before they become operational remains strong—and find that a successful mall attack every 12 years or so is an acceptable cost for maintaining our current levels of convenience.

Often we seem blindsided by terrorist events. After failing to anticipate a particular attack, we struggle to respond, and our response might not address the underlying risk or may even be counterproductive. Considering possibilities is not the same as paranoia or fear, and the implications of a mall attack in the West are worth thinking through before it happens.

Since the costs of securing potential targets is extraordinarily high (a wealthy, open society of 300 million offers a plethora of soft targets) we need to press our analysis farther into the operation.  After the Mumbai attacks I observed:

To carry out a similar attack in the U.S. would require either training the attackers here, or inserting them from elsewhere. Both are possible, but neither is easy. 

In Kashmir there is a network of training camps, a pre-set structure. Here, a group of radicals would have to self-train. Possible: of course, but not easy. Without a formal structure, could a dozen Americans (many with jobs and families) put themselves through this rigorous program and stick to it over months – without anyone noticing? 

In fact there have been several self-starting cells, and they seem to get rounded up fairly early.
The other option is to smuggle the operatives in. But this is also difficult. While America’s borders and coastlines are poorly protected (and penetrated by smugglers almost constantly) this doesn’t mean that terrorists will necessarily have an easy time of it. Sailing direct from Karachi to a U.S. coast in a vessel small enough not to be noticed would be an impressive act of seamanship. More likely the terrorists would move more closely to the United States (for example to Latin America) and then infiltrate. But would they have the local contacts to acquire guns and transport without being noticed?

Most Latin American intelligence agencies are extremely concerned about being the base for an attack on the United States and would be on the lookout for such an infiltration. And the more operatives that are involved in the attack, the greater likelihood one will be detected.

An important addition to this point is on the importance of training – not only because of its tactical relevance – but because without extensive indoctrination, sane people are not inclined to take the lives of others.  Without placing a person in this environment for a lengthy period of time they will not commit to being a terrorist.  The places to get this kind of indoctrination are far away, increasing the chances that individuals who have had this kind of training will be detected before the enter the United States.

The US, unlike Kenya or India, is a long way from its enemies. This has been a blessing.  But we would be foolish to take it for granted.  The 9/11 Commission wrote an in-depth monograph on travel intelligence because of its importance for terror operations.  These capabilities need to continue to adapt, to continue to avoid a mass terror in the United States we need to make our own luck.

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