Are the recent fires in Southern California a wakeup call of possible future terror arson incidents? They should be.
In the public mind, terrorism is universally associated with suicide bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and the potential for mass destruction attacks. Rarely is arson, the most primitive modus operandi, mentioned in relation to terrorism, although it is a popular tactic used by terror groups globally. Often, the cost to society of terror arson is enormous in terms of lives, property, business and the environment. Even more troubling is the loss of confidence by the public in the government’s capability to provide adequate security to its citizens and communities.
The breadth of terror-related arson cases can be viewed with reference to the target, location and group undertaking the act. Terrorists conducting arson attacks comprise the full breadth of ideological underpinnings from left- and right-wing ideology, single-issue groups (environmentalists/animal rights), religious (al Qaeda) and nationalists. Overall, according to the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism’s database, there were nearly 700 terror-related incidents from 2000 through August 2007. These terror acts led to over 290 deaths and 170 injuries.
THE RUNDOWNConsider, for example, some recent terror arson cases. In 2004, Muslim separatists in Southern Thailand set a number of government-owned schools ablaze. In February 2006, the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria were burned in protest of the Danish cartoons’ unfavorable depiction of the prophet Mohammed.
In August 2007, Greece was plagued with a series of wildfires that government authorities believed was set by terrorists. A senior member of the Turkish True Path Party claimed that the Turkish terror group Grey Wolves ignited the fires. The burning of civilian homes in Baghdad is exemplary of Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence. In doing so, members of the respective communities leave sections of the city – a “religious-sect cleansing,” fueled by fire.
In Europe, terror-connected arson took place at the office of a political party in Italy (2003), a train station in Spain (2007) and a university boathouse in the United Kingdom (2005). In Latin America in 2005, such incidents took place at various locations: Headquarters of a media group in Brazil; gas pipelines at water treatment plant and infrastructure sites at a telephone company in Colombia; and a Bank of Boston ATM in Uruguay. Terror-inspired arson incidents in Africa include a cement plant in Algeria (2006), a discotheque in Kenya (2002) and homes at a refugee camp in Uganda (2004).
The Middle East’s terror record with arson comprises the burning of civilian cars in Turkey (2000), a bookstore in Saudi Arabia (2007) and school in Yemen (2004). In Asia, terrorists set ablaze targets, including a police post in India (2001), mosques in Indonesia (2001) and Bangladesh (2005), passenger buses in the Philippines (2006) and Bangladesh (2004), and schools in Thailand (2004).
The North American record of terror arson includes a school (2004), golf pro-shop (2005) and several construction projects (2006) in Canada. In 2005, the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF) undertook arson attacks against newly constructed and unoccupied homes in New York and Maryland, respectively. That same year, the ELF set fire to several SUVs and luxury cars at car dealerships in California. The group also took credit for arson at offices of timber companies in Oregon and Maine in 2001 and 2005, respectively. In 1998, the ELF burned a ski complex in Colorado, causing some $12 million in damages.
Other ecoterrorists, such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), use arson to achieve their political objectives. For instance, in 2003, the ALF set fire to an Illinois store that sold tiger and leopard meat, as well as set fire at a McDonald’s in Ohio. In 1999 and 2002, a mink feed mill and a truck at a poultry plant were set ablaze in Wisconsin and Indiana, respectively.
RECOGNITION IS KEYBetter recognition by the U.S. government of arson as a terror tactic would result in a greater allocation of funds, technologies, security awareness and response training to this threat. So, too, industry would accelerate its efforts in creating technologies, product and service solutions to combat terror-linked arson. Civilian understanding of arson as a terror tool can contribute to combating this terror menace.
Nearly two hundred years ago Heinrich Heine noted in Almansor, “Where they have burnt books, they will end in burning human beings.” Terrorists, who in the past burned property without concern, have likewise shown no premonitions about burning people today. We will limit the frequency and breadth of such carnage when government, industry and citizenry adequately share in this burden.