Terrorist patterns of adaptation continue to present challenges for the emergency services community worldwide. In the 1980s the number of terrorist suicide/homicide bombings was rapidly increasing and spreading. Terrorist tactics almost exclusively involved person-borne and vehicle-borne delivery of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Some terrorist groups led the way toward adaptation, and most others followed. Death tolls escalated and the tactics spread on a global scale.
The reason this is relevant now is that the United Kingdom’s Secret Service (MI-5) recently released intelligence-based warnings that Islamic jihadists – many of them trained in Western colleges and universities as medical professionals (surgeons, for example) – may soon play a major role in preparing and launching the next wave of terrorist attacks against the West.
Similarly, hijacking for the use of commercial aircraft as weapons against a target population were a relatively new tactic nearly a decade ago. Today, though, the use of either privately owned or commercial aircraft is but one of many "delivery" options available to terrorists and/or mentally disturbed persons alike. Even an angry taxpayer may be willing to resort to airborne suicide attack – as recently proved by the attack on the U.S. Internal Revenue Service offices in Austin, Texas.
Reid's Shoes & Christmas Day Underwear Another example of how terrorists learn from experience: The “shoe bombing” tactic used by Richard Reid and his support network in the failed 2001 attack was unique at the time. Even though U.S. airport security was on high alert – it was still only a few months after the 9/11 attacks against the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon – Reid was able to pass through screening at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris with explosives concealed in his shoes, which were built to circumvent metallic detection devices – and which were then very seldom checked by security inspectors.
About four years ago, adapting to Israeli's advanced security inspection techniques, the Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist groups came up with theea of using “underwear bombs.” Countering this terrorist adaptation, Israel developed countermeasures to more easily thwart this still emerging tactic. In an urban application of martyrdom-delivered explosives, the size of a main charge sufficient to inflict mass casualties poses a challenge to underwear concealment methods.
However, combining the construction of non-metallic explosive devices with underwear concealment methods apparently was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s intended tactic of choice in his failed Christmas 2009 attempt to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit, Michigan. The construction of the device, coupled with the concealment method used, is yet another example of how terrorist groups continue to adapt their tactics to circumvent improved security measures.
A few months earlier (in August 2009), al Qaeda adapted the smuggling techniques used by drug traffickers in Adbullah Asieri’s assassination attempt against Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s chief of counterterrorism operations. Armed with an estimated 2kg of explosives secreted in his body cavity, Asieri, a wanted terrorist, failed operationally – but strategically raised the bar another notch for counterterrorism security officials.
The United States and many other countries are now accelerating the installation and use of body scanners in the nation's airports to counter additional Abdulmutallab-style attacks. The recent MI-5 warning strongly suggests, though, that the next step in terrorist circumvention techniques may be the surgical implantation of explosives deep inside the bomber's body.
A Deadly Game of Chess – With No End in Sight The possibility that the jihadist recruiting of Western-trained surgeons adhering to radicaleology may be to use their specialized skills to surgically implant high-impact explosives into the body of a suicide attacker should not be dismissed as improbable or unlikely. Dr. Stuart Linder, a noted Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, said in a recent ABC News interview that it is medically possible to implant a large enough charge of explosives into the human body to create an effective bomb. Such a concealment method would be very difficult to detect, according to several security experts, even with the new "full body" scanning devices now being installed at many U.S. airports.
If nothing else, U.S. screeners should at least be made fully aware of the emerging threat involving medically implanted IEDs – as well as all other forms of anatomical-based concealment. Terrorist attack operations have repeatedly demonstrated the alarming ability of terrorists to circumvent new screening technologies. Nonetheless, no terrorist group has successfully eluded Israel’s airport screening in recent years. The behavioral assessment techniques used by the Israelis, in conjunction with advanced technology, provide another important layer in the screening process. Screeners should be provided additional training on behavioral assessment techniques – as well as directions on how to actively engage people in targeted conversations as an added layer of screening.
Large, high-risk security screening operations, such as those typically used at most U.S. airports, may decide to station and use medical professionals – emergency medical technicians, for example, and/or paramedics – on-site to carry out closer and more comprehensive medical examinations, and use those examinations in conjunction with improved patient-assessment techniques to detect suspicious people – particularly those who have apparently had recent surgeries.
One cautionary note, though: EMS (emergency medical services) personnel are already a key provider of the emergency services capability at most of the nation's larger airports, but they are not currently expected to carry out a security screening function in addition to their usual medical-response tasks.
Nonetheless, with terrorist tactics frequently evolving into new and even more dangerous methods for circumventing evolving security procedures, the recognition of newly emerging threats is essential to developing – and constantly upgrading – effective countermeasures. Total reliance on advanced technology is of course an insufficient guarantor of public safety. To detect and thwart the use of medically implanted IEDs, an interdisciplinary approach – involving sophisticated behavioral assessments, used in conjunction with new advances in screening technology – may be what is needed to effectively counter the still evolving threat posed by the new "human IEDs" of the early 21st century.