Tool of choice

Tool of choice

Byline: Det. John R. McDermott Arson/Environment Crimes Unit WMD Assessment Team Morris County (N.J.) Pro

This year may have seen terrorists at the forefront of the minds of politicians, the media and the American public, but the fire service has been concerned with the threat of terrorism for some time now.

Over the past few years, many local agencies have adapted their hazmat response to take into account the possibility of a terrorist attack. The threat of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons has caused first responders to prepare for weapons that traditionally had been a concern only to the military.

Fire as a weapon

Today even though the media and politicians focus on the exotic weapons, the main weapon of terrorist organizations around the world involves the process we know as oxidation, the speed of which can vary between the rapid oxidation of fire or the instantaneous oxidation of a detonation.

The most common weapons used by terrorist organizations throughout the world have been firearms, fire or explosives. The form of oxidation used varies from organization to organization based on its level of sophistication.

For example, Theodore Kaczynski sent letter bombs to the executives of companies he believed epitomized the problems with society. Some will tell you that he wasn’t a terrorist because he didn’t belong to a terrorist organization, but he did terrorize this country in an attempt to change society to match his political ideals.

Other organizations, such as the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front, commonly use fire in their attacks. Arson is one of their main weapons in their fight to force society to agree with them. Local street gangs and criminal organizations also have used fire to control or terrorize their victims and bring about compliance.

Fire, sometimes referred to as the poor man’s atom bomb, is an effective terrorist weapon that can be deployed by anyone with a minimum amount of preparation. The materials needed to start a fire are often present at the scene of the target, and the outcome of the attack is unpredictable.

Recent domestic terrorist arson attacks by the Earth Liberation Front have been against a Vail, Colo., ski resort and homes under construction in Long Island, N.Y. Additionally, an unknown group or individual set fire to the campaign office of Michigan Congressman Joseph Knollenberg, revealing that local terrorist groups still use fire as a weapon to further their political objectives.

Response to a terrorist incident

As first responders, we can’t focus, along with the general public, on traditional terrorist organizations. It doesn’t matter to us who made the attack and where they receive their funding. Emergency responders face similar dangers from the coordinated terrorist organization as they do from a lone individual who has some education or the ability to use a computer.

The best way to prevent a terrorist attack is to identify the responsible parties and bring them to justice. The weakness that every criminal organization faces is their identification, and terrorist organizations must take credit for their actions to accomplish their goals. When we know about an organization, we can develop ways to combat its threat and bring its members to justice.

For example, our initial response to any criminal incident must take into account the various weapons used by terrorist organizations, especially the probability of a secondary device. One way to do that is to fully investigate every incident. Investigators also may be able to identify the terrorist organization through hypotheses about the target under attack, using a study of the victim or target known as victimology.

If the investigation identifies the group responsible, the identity can be coordinated with a law enforcement intelligence unit to give the incident commander knowledge of the group’s common tactics and weapons. This information will help the IC make decisions that can protect the responders by alerting them to the potential for secondary devices or other possible chemical or biological weapons.

Threat assessment

Preplanning has always been a cornerstone of every fire department’s emergency operation plans because it identifies certain threats that the department will face in the event of a fire at the target hazards within their response area.

Similarly, we now have threat assessments of terrorist targets within our response areas. The federal government recently asked state and local emergency managers to conduct a threat assessment of the possible terrorist targets in their jurisdictions. These threat assessments were broad-based and addressed targets that would affect a large area. As local emergency responders we must be prepared for all possible targets. Our threat assessments must go beyond the national-scale targets and take into consideration the lone individual with a grudge.

Preplanning isn’t only for target hazards; it also can account for typical behavior by the public. Fire and post-blast investigators have traditionally experienced certain trends. For example, when bombing threats hit the news media, firefighters will respond to many suspicious packages until public fears are abated.

As the news media teaches the public what these devices look like and curiosity causes people to search out information on the Internet, these panic responses will be followed by hoax devices. As time goes by, individuals will attempt to manufacture working devices. This cycle traditionally continues until media coverage focuses on the next big “threat.”

With last year’s anthrax attacks, the first two phases already have occurred. The actual attacks took place and were immediately followed by a large amount of people who believed they had received anthrax in their mail, at their place of business, in public restrooms and even in their doughnut bags.

Now we’re responding to the hoax devices, where employees, ex-lovers, and anyone with a real or imagined grudge are sending powder with the intention of disrupting their targets’ lives. With all of the media coverage showing how effective these weapons are as terror catalysts, we can expect to experience an actual attack using a chemical or biological weapon.

Don’t forget domestic violence

As the media concentrates on the Middle East, our local terrorist organizations have been removed from the minds of the public.

With the current events that are unfolding around the world, it has become even harder for these local groups to get their message out to the public. To make matters worse, they can see how disruptive an aggressive terror campaign can be to the public.

The Sept. 11 attacks, as well as the subsequent anthrax letters, raised the bar of public experience. We can expect other terrorist organizations, which want to make the media take notice, to raise the ante on the targets they choose.

These attacks may not be directed at the targets identified by the threat assessments conducted by most emergency managers. When we deal with domestic terrorism or other fringe groups, we can expect that the targets will be of local interest to personalize the threat to each person who watches the news.

Beyond the terrorist organizations, every jurisdiction has individuals who operate outside the realm of normal society. These individuals can range from the person who harasses a neighborhood, to someone who takes personal demons public and initiates attacks. They are quite often very intelligent people who are capable of producing or manufacturing various weapons. The blueprints and manuals for incendiary devices, as well as delay timing devices, are readily available to anyone on the Internet.

This individual terrorist is beyond the scope of federal law enforcement and currently is not being considered in many emergency operations plans. As first responders to any terrorist incident, it doesn’t matter whether the attack came from an organized international or domestic terrorist group or a lone individual, because the response will be the same.

With that in mind, we must be able to identify a criminal incident involving the use of fire or explosives rapidly, altering our response to effect a safe conclusion to the incident. Every fire investigation should be conducted with an open mind as to whether the cause was incendiary or accidental, which means we should initiate crime scene protocols at every scene. As we all know, when the evidence of a crime is destroyed, it’s lost forever.

Of course, our approach must now take into consideration the possibility of a terrorist-style attack. If we ignore the possibility of terrorist tactics such as a secondary device, we cannot take back the consequences of our actions after the device activates. The secondary device is aimed at the first responders and thwarting their containment or extinguishment efforts.

The terrorist incident is different from the traditional arson fire in that the terrorist has a goal: to get a message out and influence the public through terror. This fear can be compounded by injuring the first responders, as this complicates the incident and draws media attention. When a first responder is injured, it also causes the public to question, “If the professionals can get hurt, then how can we protect ourselves?”

Investigation resources

When faced with a potential terrorist attack the fire investigator must use all of the training and experience at their disposal. Potentially, the fire investigator can be up against a highly organized criminal organization that may not be based in the jurisdiction of the attack.

The investigation into a terrorist incident can take on a life of its own. In the event of a large-scale, high-profile attack, the local fire investigator can expect a large influx of investigative personnel. In some cases the investigators taking over the scene will have less experience and training than the local fire investigator.

In the event of a small localized attack, a fire investigator may be hard pressed for assistance, but the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and other resources can be readily available in most areas of the country. The BATF can bring the expertise and experience of highly trained fire investigators to almost every fire investigation.

After determining that the fire was intentionally set, the fire investigator also can begin to develop a hypothesis as to the responsible party based on the examination of the victim and the actual object that was attacked. The indicators found by the investigator during the scene examination can be used in conjunction with the knowledge gained by a motive-based analysis of serial arsonists.

This analytical process was used by the BATF while operating as a sub-unit to a larger Federal Bureau of Investigation study on serial criminals. The results of such an analysis can guide the investigator by identifying certain traits that are consistent with other arson fires. This information has even identified extremist arsonist as a separate classification. The investigator can use all of this information in the development of a hypothesis.

Step-by-step analysis

We know that someone has set a fire, but now we must figure out why they have done this. There’s always a reason – it may not be readily apparent or it may not even be a good reason, but there is a reason. Something happened to cause an individual or group to set a fire, and investigators must use the evidence and indicators present at the scene to figure out who.

After determining that the cause of a fire is incendiary in nature, the fire investigator must make a decision as to what course the investigation should take. The first step is applying the information gained by profilers and the BATF study to the indicators found during the examination of what was attacked, whether building, vehicle or person.

We must look at how the fire was set. Did the arsonist use only available materials and leave a great deal of physical evidence? That shows a lack of planning. This offender would most likely be classified as a disorganized offender, and the crime is probably motivated by emotions. For example, if we responded to a school fire that focused on a specific section of a classroom, we would attempt to determine what happened there prior to the fire to bring on this attack.

If the arsonist brings accelerants and timing devices and places them where they will do the most damage, we would focus on a more organized offender. These indicators show preparation and tend toward an unemotional crime. Most terrorist attacks would fall into this category, because terrorist usually conduct operations in places outside of their comfort zones. Success in such a situation requires a great deal of planning.

For example, the bombing of an abortion clinic would take preparation, and many Internet documents by domestic terrorist organizations go into detail on how to plan the attack. They even guide the fledgling terrorist on how to purchase materials without raising suspicion. This level of coordination would be difficult but not impossible for a lone individual.

The location that was attacked also can indicate to the investigator a potential terrorist attack. A fire in a building that was under construction could reveal indicators of a local environmental terrorist organization, and a fire in a department store fur section would point to an animal rights activist.

Beyond location

In fires where a person is attacked, the victim can also give clues as to the perpetrator’s identity. For example, a local judge can be the target of anyone who perceives his or her problems as stemming from one or more court actions. Other local officials also make decisions that affect the lives of many people sometimes adversely.

The investigator should look into the recent history of the victim. This examination of the victim can identify any conflicts or previous complaints to local police departments that may raise suspicion. It could even reveal that the fire occurred on the anniversary of a perceived injustice. The details of the previous incident and subsequent protests or threats would guide the investigator to the likely suspect.

In some cases the attack is even more localized. The residents of a neighborhood may have been enduring the stress of a problem neighbor or criminal activities. This could lead to an attack by the problem person or one of the residents attempting to eliminate the problem. Coordination with the local police department will help identify any problems that the victim may have had prior to this incident.

When conducting this type of examination, the investigator must ask the following questions: What has changed in the existence of this target preceding the fire? Why was the fire set at this point in time? What has occurred that may have instigated this attack? What happened in the hours, days or weeks leading up to this point?

Don’t forget other significant dates, as they can predict attacks and indicate likely perpetrators. Hitler’s birthday is a date of concern in areas where white supremacists are active, and the BATF maintains a higher state of alert on the anniversary of the standoff in Waco, Texas, as this anniversary has already been the catalyst for one large-scale attack.

Theories need proof

It’s important to note that the investigator using this process has initially developed a hypothesis only. We shouldn’t have anyone arrested based on this theory, and we shouldn’t rely on this hypothesis alone when making decisions or building a court case.

Like any scientific study, we develop a hypothesis and then attempt to prove or disprove it. It’s only when the scientific data and other aspects of the investigation, including witness statements, forensic audits and laboratory analysis, support the hypothesis that we can move forward with the apprehension of the responsible parties.

An advantage that we have when looking for proof is that terrorists can’t achieve their main goal without claiming responsibility. The investigator should examine this claim to determine its validity and ensure that the organization claiming responsibility is actually involved in the incident.

In the end, the only way to combat terrorism is through a coordinated approach to the terrorist problem. This coordinated approach must flow from the highest levels of the federal government to the initial responders.

First responders don’t need to know all of the details that a federal agent must know, but they can’t be kept in the dark about the issues they may face during a response. By the same token, an FBI agent in Smalltown, USA, can’t be effective without the help of local officials.

Information on suspected terrorist activities must flow both up and down the intelligence chain. If we continue to reinvent the wheel every time we conduct an investigation, we will surely lose the war on terrorism.

The local fire investigator is the initial investigator at a terrorist attack where arson is used as the primary weapon. Without access to the intelligence information affecting his or her jurisdiction, the investigation will go nowhere, valuable evidence may be lost and time will be wasted.

John R. McDermott is a detective with the Morris County (N.J.) Prosecutor’s Office in the arson/environment crimes unit. He is also a member of the weapons of mass destruction assessment team.

The psychology of terrorism

Terrorist organizations can use a broad spectrum of weaponry to get out their message, which can be political, religious, social or racist. Terror is the weapon that a group in the minority chooses to change the actions and lifestyle of the majority of a population. The smaller, less powerful group attacks the general public until the public opinion and outcry influence the government to succumb to the demands of the terrorist organization.

The terrorist organization uses violence to affect the target audience. The actual victims are not necessarily the target of the attack; the target of the attack is those who witness the violence. The terrorist goal is accomplished by striking fear into the hearts of the civilian population, shaking people’s trust in their government’s ability to protect them.

Such broad definitions of terrorism allow politicians and the media to argue whether an incident was a terrorist attack or a normal crime. A denial of terrorist attacks keeps the public focused on international terrorism and does not address the true scope of the domestic threat that we face. Traditionally in the United States, terrorist attacks are directed at small targets without the intention of injuring large numbers of people. Only recently have large groups of people become the target of terrorists like Timothy McVeigh and the Al Qaeda organization.

A terrorist attack can come from an international group, but it also may come from a local group. Many local terrorist groups have used bank robberies or street crimes to fund their terrorist activities. Recently international terrorist organizations have been found training and funding local street gang members to carry out terrorist attacks. Libya long has been suspected of funding criminal street gangs. There are now reports of Al Qaeda forming bonds with local terrorist organizations throughout the world. The definitions of international and domestic terrorism are beginning to fade.

We know that there are terrorist groups which intend to change the social attitudes of the American public. Such domestic terrorist organizations want society to stop eating meat, cutting down trees or allowing abortions. This type of organization is different from the traditional left- or right-wing organizations that persisted during and after the Vietnam conflict. Those organizations intended to bring down the government and establish a more socialist or communist government.

The Armed Forces of National Liberation, known by its Spanish initials FALN, attacking the federal government to secure freedom for Puerto Rico and anti-abortion groups attacking women’s health clinics are what we expect from local terrorist groups. Environmentalist terrorist groups, such as the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front, have concentrated their actions against property. However, they state in their writings that emergency responders are not innocent civilians but combatants, who are to be considered as enemy soldiers in their war.

Politics of persuasion

Outside of the right-wing anti-abortion groups and local street gangs, the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front are currently the most active groups on a national level, based on the limited information that has been released to the public. These two loosely joined terrorist organizations direct their actions not to influence the government, but to change specific societal views. They are involved in acts of vandalism and often turn to arson in pursuit of their goals.

ALF is a loose-knit organization that works toward discouraging the harming or exploitation of any animal. The ELF is an organization that spun off from the Earth First radical group when members of that group desired to become more mainstream. The two groups have declared solidarity since 1993 and often claim joint responsibility for the actions of their members. These organizations intend to bring social change by using violence and force, an action they term “ecotage.”

There is no known formal organization, and “membership” is gained by engaging in direct action against a target, which is encouraged on the groups’ Web sites and in the writings of their members. Individual terrorists do not report directly to any individual, but they may form small, localized cells. Cells often start small with graffiti and vandalism before progressing to arson fires.

These organizations use their Web sites to encourage anyone to take action with convenient instructional materials. For example, the ELF Web site contains the document Setting Fires With Electrical Timers, An Earth Liberation Front Guide. The document describes the most effective locations to place incendiary devices, as well as fuel requirements and construction methods for various timers.

The guide is copyrighted, but permission to copy and distribute is granted to “nonprofit groups working for animal liberation and their supporters.” The stated copyright further forbids all government agencies from copying the document, stating that violators will be subject to prosecution or retribution.


Canadian Security Intelligence Service Groups that are active throughout the world.

ERRI Counter-Terrorism Archive

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Access to response protocols and documents

Anti-Defamation League Active hate groups active in the United States and links to certain reports.

Federation of American Scientists Links to numerous reports on terrorism.

Loyola University Strategic Intelligence Links to intelligence agencies and reports.

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