Layers of Security 2: The World after 9/11

Bruce Schneier now looks into the scope of terrorism threats in the last decade and further elaborates on the way airport security changed after the 9/11 attack.

– So you see you are not alone, I think, in security analysts saying: “Hey, we don’t need to spend so much money on this stuff, and what we are doing isn’t necessarily that useful anyway.” But at the moment (maybe you’re about to tell me this isn’t the case) most governments don’t seem to be listening.

– Most governments don’t seem to be listening, and there’s an important reason for that. Being tough on security is a good political position to take. So imagine after September 11th there are two politicians, one who’s saying, “Everything is horrible, we’re all going to die unless you do these security measures.” Then there’s me on the other side saying, “Don’t worry, relax, it’s not that bad, you don’t need to.” Fast-forward 10 years. If nothing happens, the guy who overreacted can claim credit for preventing an attack, and if something happens, I’m out of a job. So it makes political sense for politicians on either side of the aisle to exaggerate the threats, there is no downside.

– I’ve read an article, I think it was in Vanity Fair, and you had a bet with a journalist concerned (this was way back in 2001) that 10 years hence from the September 11th attacks there wouldn’t be another major terrorist attack on the States. So have you got your bet?

– Well, I mean yes, obviously yes, and that was a rare position. You had people saying there’s going to be a repeat within years, that the world has changed, you know, kind of crazy things.

Richard Reid – the notorious Shoe Bomber

Richard Reid – the notorious Shoe Bomber

– There have been attempts though, haven’t there?

– There have been sloppy attempts. What have we had since September 11th? On airplanes we’ve had the Shoe Bomber who was really sort of incompetent, he was caught because he was sort of an idiot. We had the Underwear Bomber who wasn’t much better. And we’ve had some random plots in the U.S. which don’t seem to be serious at all. One of the problems I think we have is the police, the FBI in the United States…

– Was it a full member of the military, Arab member of the military, Arab American, who shot a lot of people?

– Right, that was at that Fort Hood.

– Yes, that’s right.

– That was a lone gunman, I mean, not something that any security system could catch. A lone man with a gun is going to be able to damage. When you think about terrorist plots that security is going to prevent, it’s a 9/11 sort of plot, it’s a plot that’s complicated, requires planning, and, hopefully, you are going to catch before anything happens. We’ve had pretty much nothing.

– In other Western nations, I mean, London had the terrible attacks of 2005. Australia almost can claim a terror attack, although I think we have to remember the majority of people who died in the Bali bombings were not Australian, they were Indonesian.

– And we can add Mumbai.

– Yes.

– We can add the attacks in Spain.

– There have been quite a lot of terrorist attacks…

– Actually, there haven’t. If you look at the numbers, the peak for terrorism is the 1980s. There hasn’t been a lot. You know, when we think about them and they come to mind – and we don’t remember anything of the 80s – when you look at the numbers, the last decade has been pretty calm for terrorism. If you take out September 11th, terrorism has been declining over the past 20-30 years. The exceptions are always countries that are trying to repel an invading army: Iraq, or Palestine, Afghanistan – and that’s where you’ll see terrorist attacks. But normal terrorism in peaceful Western nations is very rare these days.

– Of course, the people who put in those security measures would say, as you have already hinted: “That’s because of all the measures we put in”.

John Ashcroft considered absence of new attacks to be result of his policies

John Ashcroft considered absence of new attacks to be result of his policies

– Yes, but that’s not true. I remember, I think it was like 2004, United States Attorney General John Ashcroft was in my home town, he was speaking and he said something like: “There have been no attacks in the 3 years since September 11th, and that’s proof that my policies are working.” I’m listening to him and thinking: “There were no attacks in the 3 years before September 11th, and you didn’t have any policies.” Now, what does that prove? It seems that terrorism has been on the wane even before September 11th. September 11th was a singular anomaly, it was an incredible tragedy, but it’s not something that was repeated. People would be saying: “We are going to see 2-3 terrorist attacks a year in the United States, it’s going to look like Northern Ireland…” And we’ve seen nothing of the sort.

– Bruce, let’s go through those checks we mentioned before, point by point, and you can explain to me, because I’m not entirely convinced that it’s not because of those measures, so tell me why the measures that we put in, which the authorities would say ‘work’, don’t work. Let’s go back, say, to the X-ray scan. Isn’t that very useful?

– The X-ray scan is useful, and in the United States it’s been around since the 1970s. Think of airplane security over the years, we have the X-ray scans and the magnetometers, basically we take away obvious guns and bombs. 9/11 terrorists used box cutters. Okay, we take away box cutters and knitting needles, and Richard Reid put a bomb in his shoe. We screen shoes, and then now we have the Underwear Bomber. We put in full-body scanners, and then the terrorists use liquids. We take away liquids, they’re going to do something else. This is actually a stupid game, because we’re focusing on the tactic, we’re focusing on the target. The mistake we’re making in airport security is we’re focusing on what the terrorists did last time, when in fact, as you see, terrorists tend to be adaptive, they will react. The reason a lot of what we’re doing is security theater, is because it doesn’t focus on the real threat, it just forces the bad guy to make a minor change in their tactics or target. Now, if we spend – and I’m making this up $20 billion a year – on airport security, and the terrorists go bomb shopping malls, we’re not any safer. What I’ve always proposed is we take all our money and spend it on investigation and intelligence, and emergency response – the stuff that works regardless of a terrorist’s plan.

– Just to give an example of metal detectors and knives. Now, that was in reaction toward the September 11th terrorists, that they brought knives with them and they hijacked the plane with knives. Now, in New Zealand we had, not too recently, a woman – she wasn’t a terrorist, she was probably a person who was unwell mentally, but she got onto a flight in a provincial town and there was a scuffle, and the crew and other passengers did overcome her, but a couple were pretty badly cut. So I’m sure, and this was because there was no metal detector or knife restrictions in this airport, that those people would argue, even though they managed to deal with the problem, that they probably would have rather not had to.

– Well, maybe, but do they want those metal detectors in restaurants, on the streets, on buses? I mean, a crazy woman with a knife could happen anywhere, it doesn’t actually make it better. We had an instant recently in the United States where a pilot got unruly, he was mentally unstable, and he was also subdued by the passengers. The Underwear Bomber, the Shoe Bomber, they were both subdued by passengers. Being subdued by the passengers IS security. And yes, someone’s going to get caught up, and that happens in a bar room fight as well. We’re not going to make the world safe from pointy objects, that’s not the goal of airport security. The goal of airport security is to prevent terrorism, tragedies, large-scale death, and we can do that with pre-9/11 security, with the basic metal detectors.

Preventive strategy helped avoid attack in London’s Heathrow airport in 2004

Preventive strategy helped avoid attack in London’s Heathrow airport in 2004

And there are two types of airplane terrorists. The first is the lone nut case who is going to be stopped by pretty much anything. The second is the professional plot. The professional plot is probably not going to be stopped at all, because professional plot takes airport security into account. Our best hope against that is to stop it before it gets to the airport. Now, think of the liquid bombers. They were captured in London, 2004, I think, in their apartments, and that was before the plot got to the airport. It didn’t matter if they were using liquids or solids, or gases, it didn’t matter if they were targeting airplanes or stadiums, or movie theaters – they were caught and arrested, that’s good security. And remember, they picked liquids because we weren’t screening for them. Now that we’re screening for liquids, the next group will pick something else.

Read previous: Bruce Schneier: Layers of Security
Read next: Layers of Security 3: Are We on the Right Track?

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