Sandia LabNews

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

"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."