“Soft Targets” and the Invisible Veterans in Our Midst

We are used to seeing our beloved veterans returning home from war. Tearful reunions with family, friends, and loved ones in the airport. They come back to a grateful nation, VA benefits, and lifelong support – as it should be.

But there is another kind of veteran returning from war that we don’t see, and he may pose a deadly threat to our country. He will not be wearing a uniform, or carrying a duffle bag. He will have a tourist passport either from the U.S., or a friendly European country.

“Here to visit friends, or family” he tells the immigration officials at customs. Increasingly, the Islamic State in Iraq’s [ISIS] combat-hardened veterans are returning home to Europe, to North Africa, and to the U.S. They were recruited to come and fight for the caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and for those that survived and are returning they bring with them combat skills, and the taste of victory. They can be a lethal enemy. Unfortunately for the west, we are their enemy, and they have no intention of settling down.

As we approach the new year, we do so with some trepidation. Sadly, this past year brought us a new kind of threat, and resurgence of a term that we’re likely to hear a lot more of in the coming months.  Soft Targets.

Soft Targets

There is a lot of talk about these kinds of targets today in light of the recent ISIS-attributed attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. Theatres, Sports Stadiums…even company Christmas parties:  The last places one would expect armed guards, barriers, fences, access control or threat alerts. Places where we are comfortable and let down our guard.

What is less acknowledged, but potentially more concerning, is the kinds of targets we think are already secured. Our power generation, nuclear, or water treatment facilities.  Refineries and pipelines. Rail transport. Following 9/11 there was a rush to secure these kinds of facilities. A plethora of security solutions, standards and guidelines were trotted out to harden up infrastructure. In the U.S. this was done pretty much to the exclusion of hotels, resorts, shopping malls and other sites deemed less important.

The hard truth is that given this new adversary that we face, both types of facilities – the infrastructure assets, and the commercial hospitality, entertainment and leisure assets – are all so-called “soft targets”.

Is One Asset More Critical than Another?

In the intervening years since 9/11, security experts made a general assumption that certain assets were not as critical as others.  Yes, some protections were designed in to upscale hotels and iconic locations, but as time passed so did the urgency of having the security in the first place. Following the recent attacks on Paris, and in San Bernardino, California, the shock waves of unanticipated consequences to usually unassailable constitutional principles (a “State of Emergency” in France, and renewed sharp debate on the 2nd Amendment and gun-control in the U.S.) serious political shifts & schisms in the body politic as a whole might have some re-thinking what is considered a “critical asset” in a free society. The ISIS threat and its agents have shown themselves acutely adept at targeting sectarian divisions within a society (witness the recent Beirut suicide bombing, calculated to further widen divisions between Shi’a, Sunni, and Christians in this fragile democracy). We are no less immune.

Security Theater

Likewise after 9/11 there was a stampede of security experts clamoring to “secure” critical assets. Millions of dollars were spent on security hardware that collectively represents what I like to call “security theater.” Compliance accomplished – “check”. Voila! Security. Unfortunately, security-by-compliance-checklist ignores any serious analysis of what really represents a valid threat, vulnerability and consequent risk to a facility or operation. The result? Money wasted on security measures that secure the wrong vulnerability. Over time, less is invested in security measures since “nothing happens.” The technology and hardware deteriorates, the contract guard force gets complacent, policies and procedures languish and “workarounds” to make operations at the facility more convenient proliferate.

Do not think for a minute that these vulnerabilities go unnoticed by threat actors. This is the risk in classifying “soft targets” and “hard targets”. Today’s radical Islamic terrorists are opportunists with an agenda, and the tactical skills and understanding to exploit the knowledge they gain. If they have inside information that the nuclear power reactor outside of town is poorly guarded, with half of its cameras non-functional and the other half unmonitored, the fences in disrepair and access control badges that are left active after employees are terminated or move on to different jobs…that facility becomes a soft target, every bit as appealing as a shopping mall packed with holiday shoppers. Anywhere that physical security measures have deteriorated or where we make naïve assumptions about the effectiveness of the security already in place is vulnerable to attack.

At the risk of sounding a bit like the prophet of old, now is the time for security officers to reassess their risks, and where necessary invest the money to bring in security experts to analyze threats, vulnerabilities and the effectiveness of current countermeasures. Security-by-compliance-checklistis not security. It is an SOP to government regulators, who in turn need to announce to their political masters that the nation’s infrastructure is hardened and need the metrics to prove it.  In short, having the security control (hence a check in the box) as opposed to testing and assessing it, are two entirely different things.  You need to do the latter – a thorough risk assessment by solid professionals. If so, the former (compliance) falls into place naturally. The reciprocal does not apply to real security.

It Can Happen Here

For security professionals chartered to protect hotels, theatres, shopping centers, stadiums or the like, the biggest threat is the notion from management that “it cannot happen here.” It is worth remembering that the Paris attacks occurred in spite of a heightened state of security alert. This adversary is not deterred by additional security…assuming it will not “happen here” is to willfully not take the lessons of recent attacks to heart.

The recent attacks we’ve experienced are likely just the beginning of a new phase in the war that has found its way to our shores.  We’ve become comfortable within our boundaries, due in no small part to those great oceans that isolate us from the migrant crisis, and war that is happening “over there.” We are a nation of soft targets, vulnerable to those “invisible veterans” coming home to our small towns and suburbs, battle-hardened, capable and eager to attack us where we live.