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[Sandia Lab News]

Vol. 53, No. 20        October 5, 2001
[Sandia National Laboratories]

Albuquerque, New Mexico 87185-0165    ||   Livermore, California 94550-0969
Tonopah, Nevada; Nevada Test Site; Amarillo, Texas

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Water system vulnerabilities studied Sandia expert offers views on bin Laden

Sandia works with water association, EPA to develop program to assess vulnerabilities of water systems in US

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By Chris Burroughs

For Jeffrey Danneels (5862) the last three weeks have been a flurry of phone calls and e-mails from congressional staff members, water utilities, various associations and governmental agencies, and others. All are asking how they can ensure that the water distribution systems in this country remain secure.

Jeffrey, who is leading Sandia's efforts to protect the US water infrastructure, has some answers.

Over the past year and a half he has worked with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the American Water Works Association Research Foundation (AwwaRF) developing a program to train water utilities to assess the vulnerabilities of their systems and develop measures to reduce the risks and mitigate the consequences of terrorist or other criminal attacks.

"We started exploring the possibility of working together to enhance the security of America's water infrastructure -- supply, treatment, and distribution -- well before the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon," says Jeffrey, Manager of Civilian Surety Programs Dept. 5862. "We are putting a program in place that involves on-site assessments of utilities and training sessions for utility personnel."

The initiative comes at a time of heightened concern about the security of water supplies nationwide. Threats range from vandalism to terrorism to intentional contamination.

The program stems from a performance-based vulnerability assessment methodology initially developed by Sandia to support the national nuclear security mission. It has since been modified to evaluate the vulnerability to terrorist attack of government buildings, air force bases, nuclear power plants, nuclear processing facilities, prisons, and federal dams.

In the late 1990s the vulnerability assessment work on federal dams caught the attention of the AwwaRF and led the organization to Jeffrey, hoping Sandia could provide the same help to water utilities as it did for dams.

About the same time, then-President Clinton issued Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 62, Combating Terrorism, and PDD 63, Critical Infrastructure Protection, to create an integrated structure for combating terrorist attacks that involve explosives, chemical or biological agents, or sabotage against infrastructure. In PDD 63, the Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office was created to coordinate critical infrastructure assurance initiatives and create a well-directed national plan.

The EPA, the agency responsible for protecting the water supply, turned to Sandia to conduct a workshop for utilities on how to assess the vulnerabilities of their systems and reduce the risks of attacks.

The November 2000 workshop was attended by a national audience made up of members of the AwwaRF, the American Water Works Association (AWWA), the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA), water utilities, Centers for Disease Control, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and others.

Also, as part of the effort, Jeffrey conducted assessments of two water utilities, going onsite for the analyses.

Now, as a result of the Washington and New York City terrorist attacks, he is designing additional workshops for AwwaRF and AWWA. The workshops are scheduled to begin in November.

EPA's primary concerns center around water distribution systems that serve the nation's 340 cities with 100,000 or more residents. Many are more than 60 years old and were built without particular concern for security.

In looking at different utilities around the country Jeffrey has found a few with shared common security issues -- using potentially dangerous chemicals, for example. However, because most systems are quite old, few are configured alike, resulting in different security concerns for each utility.

He offers utilities three steps for assessing the vulnerability of their water infrastructure -- detect, delay, and respond.

The first, he says, is to determine how well the system detects a problem, which involves surveying all security and monitoring features. For example, how quickly could the system discover an undesired chemical being pumped into the water supply? (Sandia is developing detection devices -- such as the real-time soil and groundwater chemical sensor reported in Sept. 21 Lab News -- that will be able to detect events as they occur.)

The second is to measure delay capabilities to determine how well the system can stop undesired events. This involves looking at barriers, such as fences and walls, or how long treated water is stored before it is distributed into the water supply.

The third is to measure response capabilities -- determining the capacity of private guard forces and local, state, and federal authorities to respond.

"It is important that utilities be able to detect the problem and delay it long enough for the response to arrive and defeat it," Jeffrey says.

This could mean preventing an undesirable chemical that was released from spreading in the water distribution system before it could be cleaned up. Or it could involve stopping an intruder in a pump station from doing physical harm to critical assets before guards or police can arrive at the scene.

Jeffrey says another important aspect of a vulnerability assessment is to fully characterize the system to develop a complete understanding of the site, including its overall mission and operations. Only once this is understood can the undesired events and possible consequences be determined. At the highest level, typical undesired events for water supply, treatment, and distribution may include loss of power and system control, water supply contamination, and distribution loss.

"It's only after you figure out the undesired events that you can determine the critical assets to protect," Jeffrey says.

The monetary cost of security, Jeffrey says, depends on the level of protection a utility wants and can afford.

"A low security level might mean hiring a security guard and installing some detection features around critical assets, and that won't cost a lot," he says. "But to stop a fairly organized group from committing a terrorist act could be extremely expensive."

The water infrastructure security program is part of the Water Safety, Security, and Sustainability initiative undertaken by Sandia in the past couple of years. Water has been identified as a national security concern, and teams throughout the Labs are integrating years of work into the effort. Future Lab News articles will feature other parts of the program. -- Chris Burroughs

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Attacks: Sandia terrorism analyst gives his perspective on how, why threat developed

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By Nancy Garcia

"Basically, they turned a dozen knives into four huge guided cruise missiles."

-- Sandia systems analyst Gary Richter (8114) the week following the terrorist attacks

Sandia's in-house expert Gary Richter is respected for bringing a richer picture of "means and motivation" to the analysis of terrorist groups, says 8000 VP Mim John. In sessions for managers and staff after the attacks on New York and Washington, Gary shared his thoughts and perspectives.

Gary is a systems analyst who has spent his days evaluating the goals and capabilities of terrorist groups (Lab News, Feb. 25, 2000).

He shares the US government's view that Osama bin Laden's organization, al-Qaeda, was "probably a significant player" in the Sept. 11 attacks by four airliners that leveled the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon, and crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside, leaving more than 6,000 citizens and foreigners dead or missing. Gary traces the emergence of this particular group back at least a couple of decades, to the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who had made conciliatory moves toward the West and Israel, in 1981 -- carried out by associates of bin Laden. Furthermore, attempts to target the World Trade Center are not new; in the less disastrous 1993 bombing, ringleader Ramzi Yousef had intended to topple the two towers into each other.

In fact, Gary said, New York landmarks have been the target of other plots that were stopped. "Clearly we were lucky" during previous attempts, he remarked. "They just happened to have got through with this one . . . you can hijack a plane with a knife nowadays."

Dozens of people would have worked for years to bring this to pass, he said. The means to do so requires perhaps 10 to 20 active participants (out of some 10,000 people who follow bin Laden to some degree). It also requires suicidal determination, but fanaticism is not rare in that organization, he said; and flight-deck know-how, which is "just a matter of money," costing perhaps $50,000 for flight school. Navigation, Gary added, could be as simple as using a global positioning system like small craft pilots do. Once in eyeshot of a target, "it's just dead reckoning."

A few key features stand out. Gary said bin Laden, a native of Saudi Arabia who has been harbored by Afghanistan and Sudan, has been a "motivational genius" who got thousands of Muslims to leave their countries for Afghanistan, take up AK-47 automatic rifles, and face Soviet tanks -- eventually driving the Soviets from the country. "One of the things bin Laden learned during that war," Gary said, "is how 'ineffective' a superpower is."

Gary cautioned that the acts are not motivated by a cult of personality, simply that "he's viewed as an effective mouthpiece for God -- you do not need bin Laden, I guarantee it."

The other key feature was the communications security. "These people have learned a lot," he said, allowing the planners to keep a terrible secret from us for some time, Gary says.

In other ways, the attack was not a novel plot. Hijacking "is almost as old as terrorism itself," Gary points out. Using a vehicle as a "bomb" is an unfortunately attractive method, especially for a group extreme enough to consider everyday civilians -- men, women, and children -- legitimate targets.

Driving out the infidels

Another factor is the leverage that can be attained in an attack on modern society, in which cities are commercial hubs where we "cram 50,000 people into a tall vulnerable box."

On the other hand, "We were busy planning for yesterday's attacks," Gary said, and had grown lax to the threat of hijackings, since the last major scare was a sarin attack in Tokyo.

"We seem to think this is some sort of Pearl Harbor, some opening act in a war. It's not, it's been going on for at least a decade. They view the instigation as the arrival of US troops on Saudi soil -- who are still there [since the Gulf War]. They view this as a shocking development -- they are fighting to drive out the infidels soiling holy land, because Saudi Arabia has the two most holy mosques of Islam, Mecca and Medina."

Bin Laden, Gary said, has roused disaffected Muslims by telling them they can serve God by fighting the Great Satan. He does not participate in attacks, but inspires, trains, and supports them with a money-making apparatus that raises hundreds of millions of dollars a year, supplying money and explosives to the militants. In earlier published comments, bin Laden has expressed not feeling responsible for attacks against US targets overseas, but has praised such actions.

Sponsoring terrorism now unacceptable

Bin Laden believes the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia are propped up by the presence of US troops, but violence ascribed to his organization is a symptom of even deeper resentment, Gary said, driven by disparities in wealth and power, plus irreducible religious differences. "They want a number of governments overthrown and replaced with religious fundamentalists who have very different ideas about how people should live, and they see us as getting in the way of that. There's no way to conceive of a way to reweave the social fabric of the world to satisfy these people."

On the other hand, he said, without sponsorship of sheltering or supporting states, the organization's effectiveness would be vastly diminished. At the end of the Afghanistan war, al-Qaeda was built up, Gary said, in Sudanese training camps, while other countries also "bear major responsibility" for fostering the group's aims. "It is not acceptable anymore," he said. "Having let that continue has gotten us into this mess. . . . This is not the end. It's going to be ongoing -- we'll definitely suffer additional casualties."

Although Gary's work identified the possibility of this type of attack, Gary said parrying the threat is not simple. The element of surprise lies with the attackers, and even if a tip had been received directly, potential warnings are so common that embassies receive 30,000 threats annually. Averting danger is difficult -- an informant alerted the US embassy in Kenya of a planned attack and suspected terrorist cells were disrupted in advance, but the bombing was still carried out.

Infiltrating al-Qaeda's inner sanctum, based on long-standing relationships between war veterans, would not be easy for any newcomer. International cooperation helps, but exchange of sensitive intelligence can be challenging to develop.

Social shifts the only answer?

It would also be hard to expect influential people close to bin Laden to offer up their war hero. As an analogy, Gary said, asking Afghanistan's ruling Taliban to relinquish their guest would be like asking us to turn Colin Powell over to Vietnam for trial for American atrocities committed during the Vietnam war in which he was a commander.

In a final analogy, he compared the motivation of the attackers to aspects of the Crusades: There was a religious fervor and call to arms, downtrodden people were amassed into armies, and there was state sponsorship in an attempt to "kick the infidels out."

Gary agreed with listeners who observed that the Crusades ended through social shifts in Europe, saying there is hope a long-term solution may lie with cultural shifts within mainstream Islam. At the end of his talk, Gary pointed out the wide range of options available to terrorists for future attacks, and pointed out that a suspected accomplice is still at large who had studied ship-building while his cohorts studied aircraft design. Gary concluded by quoting another counterterrorism expert who compares our efforts to a soccer goalie who strives to block balls and not lose the game by permitting any scoring shot. "We have to be concerned with a lot more than just defending against yesterday's hijacking." -- Nancy Garcia

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Last modified: Oct. 5, 2001

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