October 26, 2003


"In a speech that [Gen.] Boykin regularly gives, he tells the story of an aerial photo he took over Mogadishu that, when it was developed, revealed a black smudge over the city. Rather than accept the mark as a thumb print from whoever processed the film, Boykin became convinced that it was a sign of the evil hanging over the Somali city."

--Eleanor Clift, in Newsweek. Forget his effect on those of other faiths in the military. Someone who brings those kinds of preconceptions to the table would appear to be dangerous from an intelligence perspective.

Posted by BruceR at 05:40 PM


(See post below.) Okay, a couple other thoughts I had on the Pearson terrorism scare, too long to put in a footnote. I'll try and explain a little better why I'm discounting the prospect of shoulder-fired SAMs being used in North American airports as a highly likely threat.

You'd think I'd be more worried than I am. Pearson is, after all, the airport I fly out of. But SAM attacks by North American-based terrorists are not as likely as they sound. And it's got little to do with the limits of the technology, although that's a part of it.

Start with the basic assumption that you are a terrorist bent on raising havoc among Western commercial air travellers. It would seem fair to say that, either you are planning to give your life to do so, or you are not. You are either a suicide terrorist, or one who wants to get away to strike again.

Okay. Shoulder-fired missiles would seem ideal if you'd like to get away afterwards. You don't need to invade an airport to attack air travellers, just fire from a couple km away, right? Trouble is, though, it's still only a couple km away at most. You are still tied to attacking the plane on the point of takeoff, pretty much. You are physically tied to the airport, and that means local security, if it's aware of the threat and capable, can interdict, if not to stop the attack, then at least to impede your escape: the weapons signature alone is obvious enough that unless you have a sympathetic population or a brilliant escape plan, your trail will be picked up and you will be caught.

There is presumably a reason why every successful missile hit on a commercial jet so far has taken place in an area where the local authorities did not control the countryside. If the local population is hostile to those who control the airport, using SAMs and then escaping can be quite effective (indeed, I don't know of a single case where the assassins in those attacks were caught afterwards).

If you're a suicide, on the other hand, SAM attack is overly complex, and too much can go wrong for it to be ideal, when you could just attack the airport instead. SAMs require more training (not much more, but still more) than other weapons you could use. They are considerably more expensive. They are as hard or harder to conceal and smuggle than those other weapons. They have a higher chance of failure in bringing down a large commercial aircraft than a bomb, or a terrorist on board. And the suicide doesn't need a seeking warhead to help select his optimal target... he can use his human brain to do so.

It's thus something of a truism that suicidal terrorists do not use SAMs, and vice versa. When SAMs are used to attack aircraft, they are by people who want to get away.

But if you want to get away, then planning an attack in North America is considerably more difficult than numerous other places you could have picked. Not only do you now have to smuggle the weapons and operatives into the country, but you must have a logistically elaborate escape plan to smuggle your people OUT again. Presumably, since your operatives aren't suicides (not that they're not dedicated to the cause, it's just they're not planning to die that particular day if they can help it), they're only going to subscribe if the entrance and escape plans seem like it could work. And getting out of North America, with every law officer hunting you, cannot be that easy, compared to Europe, say, or Asia.

Given all the effort that would be required for a plausible in-out plan, it only makes sense, and decreases the risk of failure considerably, to make your SAM strike closer to home. The case in point is this threat against El Al, which is almost certainly only that... a threat. There is no advantage to striking Israeli airliners with SAMs in Toronto that isn't enjoyed by a planned strike at them when they leave Tel Aviv. If anything, the chances of a successful attack and escape there would have to be far greater. International airports with large disaffected Muslim populations have a far more realistic chance of falling victim to this kind of attack at present: Moscow or Delhi are thus far more likely targets for the next successful international terrorist SAM strike than any airport in North America.

Suicides, on the other hand, don't need all the rigmarole: not having to think of escape frees them. They can scale the fence and start firing RPGs at taxiiing jets, or raid the airport terminal with automatic weapons and explosives on their bodies, for far less planning and effort than getting just a single SAM into the country would take. (I'd lump in RPGs with the other suicide weapons because, while with SAMs you could well be 2000m away and off airport grounds, with RPGs you're 2-300m away from the aircraft terminal and almost certainly in a controlled area when you'd start to fire.) The only real limiting factor in this case for the international terrorists is how many suicidal adherents they can covertly get into the country... just as with Sept. 11.

The advantage is that this is the kind of scenario one hopes police tactical teams in North America have been planning for for decades. If there's real concern about a particular airport or what have you, additional support could be called in from the military or other agencies, and be able to have an impact. To the policeman as well as the common person, the risk, and the appropriate response, are understandable: we can all intuitively grasp that there's a small, but non-zero chance of suicide terrorists attacking North American airports. We all understand that they'd better beef up security then. (We've already had one such suicide attack since Sept. 11 at LAX, even if that individual was more a terrorist sympathizer than a member of any organized group.)

The trouble with all the talk of SAMs is that North Americans, not being widely familiar with the technology and its limitations, have trouble gauging the appropriate response... they don't understand the problems with attacking a plane when it's in flight, or landing, for instance. Once the defensive technology has improved, I do believe putting aircraft-protection systems on aircraft flying into high-risk airports abroad makes absolute sense. However, current proposals to refit entire domestic fleets are in cost-benefit terms not as sound a measure as spending an equivalent amount on protecting against all the other less-expensive-and-complicated-to-the-terrorists kinds of threat would be.

In the famous Rumsfeld memo, he talks about spending billions when the terrorists are spending millions. This is the problem with putting flare dispensers and the like on commercial airliners right now. We want by our government's behaviour to push terrorists away from lower-cost forms of attack into higher-cost ones (cost in that sentence being relative... our cost of preventing it vs the cost if we fail). If we want to make things harder on terrorists next year than it is this year, then rather than spend $1 million and up to harden just one aircraft against SAMs, we should first put that $1 million towards making Pearson (and other airports) as resistant as they can be to the lower-cost-but-potentially-just-as-deadly attacks.

If we can force terrorists to go for the more expensive and more complex plans, because the low-cost ones are becoming less likely to work, then we potentially lower the frequency, and increase our chances of stopping them, by virtue of how complicated thwarting airport security has become for them. In this war, that's the most victory we can hope for.

UPDATE: The Canadian authorities are now saying the threat that diverted the El Al flight came from the Israeli government, not a called-in threat to them directly, but the Israeli government is questioning the need to divert any air traffic on the basis of it.

Posted by BruceR at 05:30 PM


The Toronto Sun is running with a story today that the Canadian union of customs employees is complaining about the large number of weapons their staff have seized in the mail at a major Mississauga postal plant over the last two years.

For some reason, the Sun, Canada's leading tabloid, is trying to tie this into the threat against the El Al aircraft earlier this week that was already discussed. What follows is the usual back-of-the-envelope speculation, but if you've been here long, I figure it's what you're used to.

The relevant paragraphs in the Sun story, in full:

"Canadian security officials say a "serious" threat to an El Al Israel flight bound for Pearson airport was made by phone from the Toronto area and involving a surface-to-air missile...

"[An anonymous official said] We understand the target was to be attacked on the tarmac..."

"The official said a heat-seeking missile was to be used to attack the aircraft.

"Security officials are also trying to determine if a rocket launcher found in a postal shipment is linked to the threat.

"The Mounties and CSIS are tracing the origins and destination of a German-made rocket launcher, found by Canada Customs officers among 14 caches of weapons, entering the country at a Mississauga postal plant from April 2001 to March 2003.

"The weapon is designed to be fired from the shoulder and can be outfitted with heat-seeking missiles."
Okay, observations:

Paragraphs 1 and 2 show pretty clearly that the "anonymous official" quoted probably has no real idea what they're talking about. If you're attacking a plane on the tarmac, you don't need a surface-to-air missile to do it.

Airline security officials have long warned that a rocket-propelled grenade is a more likely anti-airplane weapon for terrorists than a shoulder-fired SAM... both are just as concealable, an RPG's much cheaper, and if local security is lax enough to get close with a SAM (which contrary to popular opinion, has a small and relatively predictable launch footprint) you can probably get within the 300m needed for an RPG launch against a stationary plane, too.

In this particular case, we'd already commented that firing on El Al jets as they come in to land in Toronto is not optimal, and because the chances of success are so slight, would almost certainly not be preceded by any threats. Scaling a fence and firing at stationary or taxiing planes at the terminal with RPGs could be more successful, if only because it would allow you to circumvent the elaborate flare-type countermeasure systems El Al jets are rumoured to have.

This is, by the way, the reason that Chuck Schumer's push to have all U.S. domestic jets fixed with still-in-development countermeasure systems may not be the best expense at this time for the several billion dollars it would cost (NB: international jets flying high-risk routes may be another matter). Such systems would be useless against an RPG attack on the tarmac, and if you believe the other guy might have them, it's actually easier (and cheaper) for the theoretical terrorist to switch to the other mode of attack, instead.

Anyway, so what about the customs story that's linked to it? Well, the facts are sketchy, but it seems that an internal customs report pointed out that Ontario's big postal plant has seen 14 weapons seizures from mail packages in the last two years. (The report was leaked by the employees' union.) One of these apparently contained said German "rocket launcher."

There's no mention of when in the last 2 years this happened. And there's one small problem: Germans don't make shoulder-launched heat-seekers. Never have.

What they do make is very efficient light anti-vehicle weapons, similar to Russian RPG rocket-propelled grenades (in fact, the first RPGs were crude remakes of them). Have for over 50 years, in fact. They call them Panzerfausts. The WW2 Panzerfaust was reengineered in the late 1950s as the PzF 44A1 ("Lanze"), which was replaced in the 1980s by the PzF 3. (They also have a nice little mini-Panzerfaust which doesn't have the backblast of the others called the Armbrust.) All these weapons are shoulder-launched, unguided, with a range in good hands of 300 metres, tops, just like RPGs.

And here's where I expect is where the writer got confused. All Panzerfausts, like RPGs, use HEAT warheads (High Explosive Anti-Tank). If you don't know what you're talking about, you could easily conclude that meant those warheads are Heat-Seeking, which is something entirely different (the big difference being an RPG with a HEAT warhead is useless against anything except a stationary or taxiiing aircraft, whereas a heat-seeker can chase the plane in flight.)

When the smoke clears, I think we will find that someone tried to ship some kind of Panzerfaust into the country (maybe even a WW2 souvenir) a year or so ago and it got caught at the post office. It will probably have very little to do with the threat against El Al traffic to North America at the moment. But if it does, it will only confirm that the more dangerous threat at the moment isn't shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, but rocket-propelled grenades from just inside the tarmac fence. And assuming that the authorities are drawing the same conclusions, hopefully they'll spend a few million on electrifying fences before they spend a few billion on unproven anti-missile technologies.

AFTERTHOUGHT: Notably the last time that Canadian customs authorities sounded the alarm about rocket-launchers coming into Canada, it was in the case of an American NRA fan trying to drive his gun collection, which contained an M72 LAW (another kind of unguided anti-tank rocket), to Alaska. Just keep that in mind when you hear about weapons being sent through the mail being de facto evidence of terrorists.

Posted by BruceR at 02:57 PM