Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Have the Terrorists Won?

On Wednesday, officials closed down all security checkpoints at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Aiport when a “suspicious device” was detected in a screening machine.

All departing flights were stopped, and arriving flights were delayed 90 minutes, affecting 120 flights during the day’s peak travel time, according to the Associated Press. However, after two hours, the gates were reopened shortly before 4 p.m. EST.

It may well make sense to kick in more aggressive procedures if you find an actual gun or bomb (although my understanding is that they find guns fairly regularly). But a ‘suspicious device?’

After writing the above, both Bruce Schneier and Ryan Singel have pointed out that it was a software failure. See “Software Failure Causes Airport Evacuation” and “Software Failure Shuts Down Nation’s Busiest Airport.”

So, a suspicious device shows up, but they can’t figure out why. Being risk-averse, the TSA closes the airport, causing huge economic and personal costs to thousands of travelers. Is that rational?

2 comments on "Have the Terrorists Won?"

  • One would assume that from the TSA’s PoV it is… That they’re harrassing travellers is part of their mission and supposedly a tradeoff that the majority of people accept, so a quantitative increase in harrassment is much less costly to them than a failure to detect a real attack. Add to that “People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks”, and you get decisions like these.
    I wouldn’t want to be the TSA official who has to explain that the cost of shutting down airports too often exceeds the cost of having one airplane blown up every few years 🙂

  • Iang says:

    Yes (the terrorists are probably winning on points). The objective of the guerilla in guerilla warfare is to move the action from phase to phase, the last of which is conventional warfare. When America+allies decided to go to “war” after 9/11, they actually leapfrogged the guerilla campaign, skipping a phase or two.
    The direct effect of “going to war” is that it validates the case of the terrorist and turns it into a guerilla war. This is a substantial advantage for recruiting and infrastructure purposes, as you now tell your fellow jihadists that we are all at war, and that we are soldiers not criminals. They will now believe you. Further, you impose war costs on the enemy which generally are quite significant. Thirdly you start the process of sapping the will of the other people. (Latter two being subject of your post!)
    The strategic response that should be taken if one is on the side other than the guerillas is to deny them the ability to go to war. You generally prefer to deny the enemy what he wants, as a matter of principle. E.g., you would treat all their activity as a police action. c.f., London bombings elicited primarily a police response, and were not considered widely to be calls to go to war. This might reflect the Brits wider experience in Northern Ireland.
    There was always a question as to whether the “war effort” would wipe out the terrorist cells or whether it would as perhaps predicted by theory of guerilla warfare kickstart the campaign of the guerillas. The betting these days would be on the latter, e.g. Iraq being a useful training ground. We’ll know more in about 5-10 years when we can trace the events to results more fully and filter out the irrelevant (e.g., propoganda from both sides).

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