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Planning to Fail?

We can all agree that all governments, local, state and Federal, have an obligation to provide certain essential services to their citizens. We also probably expect, optimistically, that our local governments have plans to ensure these essential services can be delivered during a disaster or disruption of some kind. We might be wrong.

The concept of continuity of government planning has been around for a while, but it did not come into its own until after Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005. Scenes of devastation from New Orleans were broadcast around the globe. Local governments were seemingly incapable of providing essential services during the disaster. The situation became politically unacceptable very quickly. It is tragic that reforms are enacted only after it is too late.

Homeland Security Presidential Directive 20 – National Continuity Policy, was released in 2007. It ordered Federal departments and agencies to identify the mission essential functions they perform, and develop procedures to ensure those functions could be carried out. The Federal government is forced to comply with this. Good for them. What good does that do you, wherever you are? What has your local government (city or county) done to ensure they are ready? Odds are, not too much.

Local government is not forced to have continuity plans. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has put out two excellent documents, Continuity Guidance Circulars 1 and 2, to assist local governments. The key term is guidance. Many soft, pleasing words are in the prefaces of these documents, emphasizing cooperation across local, state and Federal governments, extolling integration of planning efforts, etc., etc. Unless the individual States mandate continuity plans, it is possible your local jurisdiction doesn’t have one.

There are a few very basic reasons why your town may not have a continuity of government plan:

  1. They might not know what it is. This is not intended as criticism; some law enforcement and fire department personnel are “volunteered” as emergency management coordinators and receive little to no formal training in the discipline. The term literally may be no more than a vague memory from a boring PowerPoint years past.
  2. They don’t know how to do it. Local officials may not know how to get started. If DHS had put out the guidance for local jurisdictions, they would have been 300 pages each, filled with technical jargon and a sure cure for insomnia. Because FEMA, a professional agency, developed the guidance the result is a model in brevity and clarity. So simple, so clear . . . Unfortunately, these “volunteered” planners may not know where to find the training materials.
  3. They aren’t made to do it. Local officials probably won’t undertake the project on their own initiative, unless a bright emergency management official pushes for it. If nobody else cares, why should they?

Some naysayers out there may ask: “Who cares?” After all, civilization has endured for thousands of years without FEMA and their silly continuity guidance, right? If a disaster strikes, “they” will make it work somehow, won’t they? Perhaps “they” will, but at what cost?

Is a 14-day power failure, instead of a six-day failure, acceptable to you? How about a $30 million bill because your jurisdiction had to secure an emergency contract with a private ambulance company to transport casualties, because all the Fire Dept. ambulances were submerged in five feet of water, because your elected officials ignored a recommendation to relocate the fire station out of a floodplain? How about a $10 million bill because the vital records at the County Clerks Office, both paper and electronic, were not backed up and a false fire alarm soaked the office with one foot of water and destroyed 80% of the records? How about a response to a mass casualty incident taking much longer than it should because the County Emergency Operations Center was destroyed and there was no alternate site? Is this acceptable to you? It shouldn’t be.

Local governments have an obligation to their citizens to ensure they can provide essential services. How many of them are owning up to this responsibility?


Department of Homeland Security. (2007). Homeland Security Presidential Directive 20 – National Continuity Policy. Retrieved from

Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2009). Continuity Guidance Circular 1. Retrieved from

Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2010). Continuity Guidance Circular 2. Retrieved from

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Posted by on November 29, 2011 in Uncategorized


The Waffle House Index

At the link below, you’ll find an outstanding article about the Waffle House chain restaurant and their excellent business continuity practices in action. What is business continuity? It’s emergency planning for businesses – determining what your functions your organization absolutely needs, and developing strategies to make sure these functions can continue during times of crisis – during natural disasters or man-made disasters.

I don’t mean to say your business must be housed in a reinforced concrete bunker, capable of withstanding a nuclear blast or an armed assault by even the most determined, steely-eyed terrorists out there. (If you do want that, I’m an anti-terrorism and physical security expert as well as an emergency planner – we can make it happen!)

Business continuity protects your bottom line – that’s what business comes down to in the end, right? Every organization needs a comprehensive plan to ensure the business can continue to function through adverse conditions. Think back to the last time your area experienced a wide-spread power loss – wasn’t it inconveinent that so many stores were closed, due to lack of power? How much business do you think they lost because they couldn’t be open? How long do you think they can afford to be not taking in any revenue? Consider that, then consider your own business. Are you prepared?

Waffle House article:

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Posted by on September 19, 2011 in Uncategorized


Biological Terrorism – The Real Threat

“As long as rapid innovations in biological science and the malevolent intentions of terrorists and proliferators continue on trajectories that are likely to intersect sooner or later, the risk that biological weapons pose to humanity must not be minimized or ignored,” (World at Risk, 2009, p. 12-13).

Perhaps the greatest risk from biological agents is from non-state actors, such as domestic and foreign terrorist groups who like the idea of inflicting mass casualties in a covert manner. I must emphasize again, biological agents are very different from chemical weapons – intubation periods may range from a few days to perhaps a week or more, depending on the agent used (Jane’s, 2009, p. 160). Medical professionals will probably not even know they have a problem until days later, when people begin presenting to the hospitals with similar symptoms. Even then, unless there is an active medical surveillance program in place in the community, the local Health Department may not connect the dots immediately. Biological agents may also produce results all out of proportion to the actual threat; remember the public fear during the 2001 anthrax scare? I’ll examine two real-world incidents where non-state actors attempted to conduct biological attacks – one succeeded, the other did not:

The Rajneeshees:

This was an Indian cult with significant financial resources which immigrated to the United States and set up shop near The Dallas, Oregon in 1981. The cult effectively took over a nearby city by sheer force of numbers, had perhaps 10,000 local members and even their own medical clinic with a state-licensed medical laboratory (Tucker, 2000, p. 118). Their biological attack was conducted to sicken and incapacitate as many local residents as possible so they could not vote in a local election, which the Rajneeshees intended to influence.

The chief architect behind this biological attack was a thoroughly evil woman named Ma Anaud Puja, a registered nurse and cult member who “delighted in death, poisons, and the idea of carrying out various plots,” (Tucker, 121). Other, less rabid cultists secretly referred to her as their own “Dr. Mendele.”

Puja took “bactrol discs” containing Salmonella Typhimurium from the cult’s state-licensed medical laboratory and had a technician culture the bacterium (Tucker, 127-128). The cult had a legitimate use for these discs:

“The RMC had a legitimate need for Salmonella Typhimurium because it was one of the control organisms used to meet the requirements for quality assurance expected of licensed clinical laboratories. The RMC laboratory was required to test the proficiency of its technicians by having them identify samples contaminated with known agents, and it maintained stocks of common pathogens for this purpose,” (Tucker, p. 127).

The cultists took the cultured salmonella and sprinkled it onto salad bars at ten different restaurants. Puja was reported to have giggled madly after one such foray and remarked that she’d had a “good time,” (Tucker, p. 134). 751 people were sickened, some quite seriously. Nobody died. Prior to the 2001 anthrax attacks, it was the only successful biological attack perpetrated on American soil.

Aum Shinrikyo:

I covered this bizarre doomsday cult in a posting a few months back. This is the same group whose claim to fame is the 1995 Toyko subway sarin attack. They also had an active biological weapons program, but their efforts were futile. They attempted perhaps ten attacks, including one where they released anthrax spores from a rooftop building in Tokyo. The attack failed, some reports say due to the low virulence of the anthrax (Tucker, p. 271) and others claim the cult used the wrong strain of anthrax (World at Risk, p. 271).

Al Qaeda:

In keeping with Al-Qaeda’s long-standing hatred of America and the West, they have attempted to get a viable biological weapons program going for some time. I see no evidence they have approached the capabilities of Aum Shinrikyo, or even the Rajneeshees, for that matter.

Prior to 9/11, they hired a Pakistani veterinarian to help them develop an anthrax program. This scheme fell apart as the man balked over money and abandoned the project. Al-Qaeda later hired a Malaysian who studied biology at California State University; however, this man was apprehended shortly after 9/11.

Outlook Grim:

Aum Shinrikyo and the Rajneeshees sought out talent to help them develop biological weapons – Aum even had its own chemical and biological weapons plant. Aum attempted at least ten biological attacks and failed, the Rajneeshees succeeded on their first try.

“Aum’s failure to carry out a mass-casualty attack, despite its access to scientific expertise and ample financial resources, suggests that one should not oversimplify or exaggerate the threat of bioterrorism. Developing a biological weapon that can inflict mass casualties is an intricate undertaking, both technically and operationally complex,” (World at Risk, 11).

Both of these organizations were further along than Al-Qaeda likely is right now – but the key concept is that biological weapons are difficult to use, unless an organization can recruit appropriate talent.

“In other words, given the high level of know-how needed to use disease as a weapon to cause mass casualties, the United States should be less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists,” (World at Risk, 11).

In their report, World at Risk, the President’s Commission on WMD Proliferation and Terrorism stated the threat from a biological agent is more likely than a nuclear threat: “[T]he acquisition of deadly pathogens, and their weaponization and dissemination in aerosol form, would entail fewer technical hurdles than the theft or production of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium and its assembly into an improvised nuclear device,” (p. 11).

Another disturbing aspect to biological terrorism is that so many of the processes are “dual use,” meaning they can be used for good or nefarious purposes, and who can tell otherwise?

“As DNA synthesis technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, it will soon become feasible to synthesize nearly any virus whose DNA sequence has been decoded—such as the smallpox virus, which was eradicated from nature in 1977—as well as artificial microbes that do not exist in nature. This growing ability to engineer life at the molecular level carries with it the risk of facilitating the development of new and more deadly biological weapons,” (World at Risk, p. 12).

Future Topics:

I’ve covered the risks from biological agents over the past few months. I will delve into nuclear terrorism next, and there is some frightening info to cover! I’ll begin examining some of the key recommendations from World at Risk in my next posts.


Graham, B., Talent, J., Allison, G., Cleveland, R., Rademaker, S., Roemer, T., Sherman, W., Sokolski, H. & Verma, R. (2008). World at Risk: The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism. Retrieved from

Jane’s. (2009). Jane’s chem-bio handbook (3rd ed.). Surrey, UK.

Tucker, J, (2000). Toxic terror: Assessing terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons.Cambridge, MA: BCSIA.

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Posted by on September 5, 2011 in Uncategorized


Assessing the Threat – Case Study #1

This is a case study supporting my argument that actual analysis is missing from the assessment of threats in our world today. Look at these excerpts about the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin suway attack, all of which are from the Council on Foreign Relations website:

“[T]he subway attack also showed the world just how easy it is for a small cult or group of terrorists with limited means to engage in chemical warfare.”

“Although sarin is very complex and dangerous to make, experts say that the gas can be produced by a trained chemist with publicly available chemicals.”

Look at the two assumptions from the excerpts above – they assume (1) Aum Shinrikyo had limited resources, and (2) weaponizing and devising a means to deliver the sarin to the target was not a problem. Both of these assumptions are wrong.

The Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995 is regarded as the “chemical 9/11” in the security field. The attack was carried out by the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo. However, contrary to most professionals, I don’t rate their operational capability very high.

Aum Shinrikyo was founded by a man named Shoko Asahara, who argued that he was the Christian messiah, that a great cataclysm would soon destroy the earth and that a global apocalyptic war was inevitable. David Kaplan, in the book Toxic Terror (2000), argued that “belief in Armageddon appears to have been the primary motivation behind the cult’s far-ranging attempts to arm itself with powerful weapons, including biological and chemical agents,” (p. 208).

When the topic of chemical terrorism is mentioned, Aum Shinrikyo usually comes up. What is missing from these arguments is analysis . . .

Consider this:

Aum Shinrikyo had an unusually favorable operating environment. Japanese authorities were aware of their activities, but allowed them to continue. Either the Japanese authorities were professionally incompetent or I fail to grasp the intricacies of their political difficulties. Kaplan (2000) put it more politely, “Despite an extraordinary six-year crime spree, the sect met with surprisingly little resistance from Japanese officials, who were hampered with jurisdictional problems, a reluctance to probe religious organizations, and a lack of investigative initiative. Only after the Tokyo subway attack did authorities move quickly against the cult,” (p. 223).

•  Aum Shinrikyo had significant financial resources. At its peak in 1995, analysts believe Aum had in excess of $1 billion in funds. This figure is widely cited in various reports on the cult. 

Aum Skinrikyo had a robust chemical and biological weapons program, run by “believers” with credentials in medicine, biochemistry, biology, physics – and they still failed to achieve the massive death toll they sought.

Despite this expertise, Aum Shinrikyo never developed a delivery method for their C/B weapons suitable for mass casualties.

     –   They attempted to release anthrax from a building in Tokyo with a sprayer and a fan – no casualties resulted, probably from the low quality of the anthrax.

     –   In all, they attempted ten biological attacks, each of which resulted in no casualties.

     –   In 1994, Aum Shinrikyo killed seven people in a sarin attack in the city of Matsumoto which made use of a heater and a fan.

     –   In 1995, twelve were killed in the subway attack, which was crudely executed by puncturing bags of diluted sarin inside a subway car.

     –   Jonathan Tucker, in Toxic Terror (2000), argued that, “the fact that the cult did not succeed in its effort to inflict mass casualties suggests that chemical terrorism is not as easy as some analysts contend,” (p. 6).  

Al-Qaeda, despite the impassioned warnings from “experts,” has never demonstrated anywhere near the C/B capability of Aum Shinrikyo. Their online terror manuals for C/B weapon development are crude and amateurish, reflecting an intention to cause harm but little credible capability.

If we look at appropriate case studies, we can see lessons learned for present-day situations. In this case, did Aum Shinrikyo successfully overcome the three operational hurdles?

Devise a plan of attack? Yes.

Obtain the weapon? Yes.

Successfully deliver the weapon to the target? No. Aum attempted 10 biological attacks and 10 chemical attacks from 1990 – 1995. These attacks resulted in nineteen deaths, 12 of which were from the 1995 subway attack. The crude delivery methods and generally poor quality of the agents involved drastically lowered the potential casualty rates.

When you examine a potential threat, remember to consider intentions and capability. You usually get a different, but more accurate picture.


Tucker, J. (Ed). (2000). Toxic terror: assessing terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons. Cambridge, MS: BCSIA.

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Posted by on June 3, 2011 in Uncategorized


Assessing the threat

You’ve seen these headlines, and so have I:

“Terrorists plan to attack major US cities!”

“Al-Qaeda planned to attack rail sectors!”

I’ve had enough of it all. This post 9/11 terrorist craze has given way to hysteria – perhaps like my grandparent’s generation, we’ve all become a little too paranoid. Media outlets and government intelligence estimates often fail to apply actual analysis to these warnings. The result is a populace which is increasingly numb to repetitive dire warnings from solemn goverment officials. I’m an anti-terrorism specialist, and I even skim over these headlines on my search for something actually interesting!

A good threat assessment will examine intentions and capabilities of an adversary. Too often, those provoking headlines are all about the intent of a terror organization (yes, there really are some besides al-Qaeda), and not the capabilities. This is where the analysis piece is missing.

Any adversary who wants to attack a target must overcome three basic hurdles:

1. Devise a plan of attack – what tactic will be used?

2. Obtain the weapon  – explosive, handgun & ammunition, chemical or biological, etc.

3. Devise a means to successfully deliver that weapon to the target – how will the attack be carried out?

Hollywood isn’t reality – unless you have a handgun and some ammunition, these attack means aren’t as easy to execute as you might think. The intentions of a adversary typically don’t match up to it’s capailities. If they were, Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square vehicle bomber, would have succeeded. He did not – because it requires a moderate degree of skill to devise a vehicle bomb that will actually work.

Next time you see a catchy headline about some devious terror plot, ask yourself: Have the three operational hurdles been overcome? Did these terrorists even get close? More often than not, the answer is no.

Apply analysis to the homeland security headlines, and you’ll be surprised at how meaningless much of it all is . . .

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Posted by on June 2, 2011 in Uncategorized