News Release

Taking the terror out of terror: Sandia team re-thinks physical security for homeland defense

Analysis may lead to less anxiety, more safety

Peer-Reviewed Publication

DOE/Sandia National Laboratories

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Anticipating attacks from terrorists, and hardening potential targets against them, is a wearying and expensive business that could be made simpler through a broader view of the opponents' origins, fears, and ultimate objectives, according to studies by the Advanced Concepts Group (ACG) of Sandia National Laboratories.

"Right now, there are way too many targets considered and way too many ways to attack them," says ACG's Curtis Johnson. "Any thinking person can spin up enemies, threats, and locations it takes billions [of dollars] to fix."

That U.S. response is actually part of the war plan of our opponents, points out ACG vice president and Sandia Principal Scientist Gerry Yonas. Yonas reports that an al Quaeda strategy document signed by Shiekh Naji, dated September 2004, reads: "Force the enemy to guard every building, train station, and street in order to plant fear in their hearts and convince Muslims to join and die as martyrs instead of dying as infidels."

Osama bin Laden put it in this way, according to Yonas: "We are continuing . . . to make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy . . ."

The ACG - a technical think tank that influences the direction of long-term research at Sandia, a National Nuclear Security Administration laboratory - is in the early stages of developing a conceptual program to improve America's defenses against terrorism.

"Something to keep in mind," says Johnson, "is that an attack isn't a goal in itself but a means to a further end. The terrorist might succeed at some tactical objective - create terrible destruction and loss of life - yet still be foiled in achieving his strategic goal of bringing our society to its knees."

"There can never be perfect protection," says Yonas. "We can never stop every conceivable attack. But we live with danger every day in many forms."

"Because their goal is to terrorize us, one point is to take the terror out of terror," says John Whitley, another ACG group member. "Consider fire: At one time, fire was a major threat to cities and even burned a number of them down. Now we have fire engines, water hydrants, fire insurance. We live with the danger almost without thinking about it. We need to set up the same kind of standby mechanisms against terrorism, and do so in an affordable manner."

People in airports voluntarily might carry smart cards if the cards could be sweetened to perform additional tasks like helping the bearer get through security, or to the right gate at the right time.

Mall shoppers might be handed a sensing card that also would help locate a particular store, a special sale, or find the closest parking space through cheap distributed-sensor networks.

"Suppose every PDA had a sensor on it," suggests ACG researcher Laura McNamara. "We would achieve decentralized surveillance." These sensors could report by radio frequency to a central computer any signal from contraband biological, chemical, or nuclear material

Danger signals would call forth already-in-place defensive procedures.

"The goal here is to abolish anonymity, the terrorist's friend," says Sandia researcher Peter Chew. "We're not talking about abolishing privacy - that's another issue. We're only considering the effect of setting up an electronic situation where all the people in a mall, subway, or airport 'know' each other - via, say, Bluetooth - as they would have, personally, in a small town. This would help malls and communities become bad targets."

Other ways to fight terrorism start earlier.

"The game really starts when the bad guys are getting together to plan something, not when they show up at your door," says Johnson. "Can you ping them to get them to reveal their hand, or get them to turn against themselves?"

Better yet is to bring the battle to the countries from which terrorists spring, and beat insurgencies before they have a foothold.

"We need to help win over the as-yet-undecided populace to the view it is their government that is legitimate and not the insurgents," says the ACG's David Kitterman. Data from Middle East polls suggest, perhaps surprisingly, that most respondents are favorable to Western values. Turbulent times, however, put that liking under stress.

A nation's people and media can be won over, says Yonas, through global initiatives that deal with local problems such as the need for clean water and affordable energy.

Says Johnson, "U.S. security already is integrated with global security. We're always helping victims of disaster like tsunami victims, or victims of oppressive governments. Perhaps our ideas on national security should be redefined to reflect the needs of these people."

This part of the process may have already begun. Peter Davies, director of Sandia's Geosciences and Environment group, says that Sandia has just completed a workshop series in partnership with the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Global Water Futures ( This project is focused on innovation in U.S. international water policy and in the way it deploys technology.

The issue of global water is seeing active attention on the Hill, most recently in a bill titled "Safe Water: Currency for Peace Act of 2005." This bill, Davies says, was introduced by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist last week.

More technical actions under consideration are for researchers to enter chat rooms with military commanders to solicit feedback to problems encountered in the field; apply system solutions to monitoring borders without interrupting legitimate traffic flow; and direct more simulated attacks by red teams to probe and correct technical weaknesses in U.S. defenses before actual assailants strike.

Yonas believes this global war does not have to last for generations "if we harness the comprehensive capacity of our nation." He means by this, he says, that while technology will play an important role in the overall struggle, it will be most effective when coupled into the entire range of social, political, psychological, economic, historical, and philosophical issues.

ACG ideas are pursued through fests, workshops, and almost-weekly brainstorm sessions to stimulate innovative approaches throughout the Sandia community.


Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration. Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

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