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For the Courage of the Founders

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For the Courage of the Founders

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There is no "surprise attack": The United States has thought of every kind of attack that a terrorist can or might attempt. Something that may be lost on the casual observer is the number of people already working terrorism issues before 9/11. Several organizations within the United States’ antiterror effort have active "Red Cells," whose responsibility it is to postulate different methods of attack. The United States has demonstrated an inability to aggregate, prioritize and assimilate the various attacks, but that does not nullify the fact that the attacks themselves have been considered. Although the political or military person being interviewed following an attack is always, "Shocked and surprised" and the latest attack always "unthinkable," this is simply false. In 1998 at a Department of Defense antiterrorism conference the topic of hijacking a plane for the purpose of crashing it into the World Trade Center or Empire State building was specifically discussed. The problem is not that the enemy is more clever than us, or has some insight or innovation that we lack; the problem is that there is no way to prevent all of the ways that there are to kill people at all times. (If there was a way to prevent all the ways that there are to kill people all the time, hopefully, no one would voluntarily put up with the invasive measures required to protect them. A prisoner in a super maximum-security prison is totally safe from terrorist attack.) If a terrorist has or can think of a method of attack, someone in the antiterror effort of the United States has thought of it also. If an attack is carried out, someone somewhere made a conscious or unconscious decision not to address the vulnerability. Likely this decision was not made consciously or is not a matter of public record, which is another problem, but there is no doubt that the method of attack and likely execution was thought about and discussed by people working within the United States government. The specific problem is one of collecting, collating and prioritizing all of that thought and making a conscious decision to accept risk with thorough consideration of strategic significance.

Terrorist Weapons of Mass Destruction aren't: The Aum Shrinrikyo set off a weapon of mass destruction in the subways of Japan—the death toll was 12. That is not mass destruction. The anthrax attack following 9/11 killed five. That is not mass destruction. Sadam Hussein killed a few thousand undefended Kurds with chemical weapons. That is not mass destruction. The allied powers killed 100,000+ in a month long firebombing campaign in WW II, which flattened the city of Dresden. That is mass destruction, yet firebombs are not WMDs. To be classified as weapon of mass destruction the weapon should have to be capable of mass destruction. Of course, in order to do this, mass destruction needs to be defined.

Scientists have improved their wares since WWI, but that conflict showed that chemical weapons were very bad at killing people—particularly if they were minimally protected. Smallpox plagues in the 1700s routinely killed hundreds; not tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands. Those death tolls were in cities without today’s standard of medical care, hygienics and waste control. The death toll in today’s modern cities with modern advances in health care could be expected to be much less. After destroying one building and killing fewer than two hundred people Timothy McVeigh was charged with using a weapon of mass destruction. Each victim possessed a precious life that had the right to fulfill its potential and should have been able to do so, but the attack was not mass destruction. The specific point is that the term weapon of mass destruction is inadequately defined and is used without regard to the actual effectiveness of the weapon. Mass destruction has to be a real amount that is significant—not twelve or 150. If an effort is not made in these semantics the Aum Shrinrikyo become purveyors of weapons of mass destruction because they chose a chemical attack, while the strategically more effective sniper attacks used by John Malvo remain "shootings". The strategic imperative of recognizing this fact is that the future prioritizing of resources must consider the real impact, across socio-economic and psychological realms, of all attacks; not automatically defer to falsely labeled WMD.

The other important consideration with regard to WMD is that the attack must be feasible as backed up by careful analysis. An example of this need is the much vaunted and feared detonation of a liquid natural gas tanker. If a LNG tanker were mass detonated it would seem to fit the intended description of a weapon of mass destruction. The problem is that the nature of liquid natural gas and the safeties built into the ship eliminate the potential for it being detonated from outside the ship. To get a high order detonation, extensive internal manipulation is required; a wholly different challenge than preventing a rocket propelled grenade from being fired at the ship. The concern is that local assets are drained by unnecessary protective requirements or civil liberties unnecessarily restricted to prevent an attack that cannot reasonably occur. Similarly, the presence of a chemical weapon does not mean that a weapon of mass destruction exists. There has to be enough of the agent to cause mass casualties and there has to be a means of delivery. Vats of nerve agent in a remote desert are of little consequence without the means to deliver a large dose to an appropriate target.

Bin Laden and Al Qaeda: Any modern discussion of terror must acknowledge the contributions of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. As will be discussed later in the book, the United States has an emotional need to elevate Bin Laden and Al Qaeda to a level of operational acumen that they simply don't deserve. Something in our national psyche demands that we raise our enemy to our level of proficiency. Bin Laden is not a worthy adversary. Al Qaeda is not omnipresent or omniscient. Neither Bin Laden nor the Taliban were great warriors who defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan; the United States defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Taliban, Al Qaeda and Bin Laden did succeed in destroying a country but it was not the Soviet Union or the United States, it was Afghanistan. Al Qaeda allegedly ran camps to train tens of thousands of dedicated fighters and deployed them worldwide. Not a particularly impressive feat, given the millions of people we train, especially when you consider that those globally deployed trainees are not fighting; not because they don't have the means but because they don't have the desire. Once away from the demigods the trainees make decisions based on their own observations and goals, not those of their handlers. Further, Al Qaeda is defunct. A member or group of members of the organization might be able to conduct an attack, much like a member of the "Black Panthers" or Symbonese Liberation Army could conduct an attack. That doesn't mean that their organization is still a going concern. Bin Laden and Al Qaeda built an organization and a pursued a strategy that led to their total destruction. Some of their ideas linger (which will be discussed later) but no one can argue that the organization was well led. Instead of elevating terrorists to vaunted levels of excellence and operational and strategic acumen, the United States should consider them for what they really are: deluded fanatics, marginally in touch with reality and of no real consequence to the survivability or core values of the United States.

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