RAND Study Offers Advice on Designing Systems to Guard Against Terrorist Attacks

For Release

February 7, 2007

When designing systems to protect people and places against terrorist attacks, government officials should take into account that terrorists actively seek and find ways around defensive measures deployed against them, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

The report examines defensive technologies – the systems and approaches used to protect an area and people in it from terrorism – along with the methods terrorist groups have historically used to thwart attempts to discover and frustrate their efforts.

“The most important point we found is that terrorist organizations keep changing their strategies in order to remain effective, and we have to design our defense capabilties to adapt,” said lead study author Brian Jackson. “If we don't, we risk spending our resources building the equivalent of a fortress wall that won't actually provide much protection once terrorists have found a way over, under, through or around it.”

Defensive technologies examined in the report include: surveillance methods, techniques that counter terrorist weapon systems, blast walls and terrorist profiling.

RAND researchers note in the report that while America's defensive technologies can provide an edge in combatting terrorism, that edge can be dulled by the countertechnology efforts of terrorists.

Jackson and his colleagues at RAND, a nonprofit research organization, recommend that counterterrorism experts design multiple technologies to fight terrorism. Then when terrorists figure out how to defeat one defensive technology, there will always be another one waiting to be deployed.

“For most defensive technologies, terrorists will eventually develop countermeasures that will limit the value of the technologies,” Jackson said. “So it is imperative that we have other options available when that happens.”

The study also concludes that it is particularly important for those who design defensive technology to “red team” new systems, a process for anticipating what countermeasures the enemy will use and whether or not that strategy is likely to work.

“In a red team exercise, the good guys pretend to be the bad guys, to see if they can defeat the technolgies designed to defend against terrorism,” Jackson said. “When they uncover weak points in defenses, those weak points can often be closed.”

The goal of such a process is to assess the limits of a technology before it is built and deployed, thereby helping reduce the risk that limited resources will be spent to design and construct a defensive system that ultimately won't provide much protection.

For example, when countries examined in the study tried to use profiling techniques to identify members of certain terrorist organizations, the terrorist groups simply found people who did not fit the profile to carry out high-priority missions like suicide bombings. Government officials should anticipate such countermeasures by terrorists when crafting new defensive approaches.

Researchers examined terrorist conflicts and methods that included Palestinian terrorist groups, Southeast Asia's Jemaah Islamiyah, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, and the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

Understanding how terrorist groups have adapted to defenses deployed against them in the past allows government officials to design better and more robust measures for today's threats, according to the report.

RAND researchers found that when faced with a defensive technology threat, each of the terrorist groups studied responded by:

  • Changing the way it carries out its activities or designs its operations so that the terrrorist organization may reduce the value of a defensive technology.
  • Modifying its own technologies, acquiring new ones or substituting different measures for those already in place in order to limit the impact of a defensive technology on its activities.
  • Avoiding the defensive technology by moving terrorist operations to a different area.
  • Attacking the defensive technology in order to damage or destroy it.

Creators of defensive technologies used by governments need to be aware that those defenses could eventually be used against them, according to the RAND researchers. For example, detection systems could be used by terrorists to produce false alarms in order to trigger response systems and cause chaos.

The report authors also stress the importance of combining defensive technologies with other tools, such as human intelligence, in the fight against terrorism.

The report, “Breaching the Fortress Wall: Understanding Terrorist Efforts to Overcome Defensive Technologies,” is available at www.rand.org.

In addition to Jackson, other RAND researchers who produced the report were Peter Chalk, R. Kim Cragin, Bruce Newsome, John V. Parachini, William Rosenau, Erin M. Simpson, Melanie Sisson and Donald Temple.

The study was conducted for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and produced by the Homeland Security Program in the RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment Division. Homeland Security Program research supports the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies charged with preventing and mitigating the effects of terrorist activity within U.S. borders.

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