EVALUATING THE CREDIBILITY OF TERRORIST THREATS
The city of New York, which has obviously also suffered from terrorist attacks, decided that threat was neither credible nor specific. Troublingly, LAUSD characterized what was allegedly the same threat as “credible.”
As the former supervisor of the Al Qaeda squad on the Los Angeles Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), a day never went by when I wasn't evaluating a threat to Los Angeles or some other area. Some of these threats were large, some were small, some specific, some non-specific. Some were believed to be credible and some lacked any credibility. Regardless, it is a hard thing to be the one to have to make the decision that a certain (horrendous) threat is not to be taken seriously, so I understand the dilemma faced by LAUSD.
The problem of taking a non-credible threat seriously is not a small issue. In essence, it is “free terrorism.” For the price of an E-mail, an individual or group just caused widespread social disruption and cost the city of Los Angeles, and the businesses in it millions of dollars.
First, 640,000 students will miss a day of school. Secondarily, the economic damage to Los Angeles will be substantial. A large percentage of the children in school come from single parent families or families where both parents work. Today, tens of thousands of parents will be absent from work who would otherwise be in school. If there was a gauge that measured productivity in real-time, that indicator would be in freefall in Los Angeles today.
Additionally, the state of California reimburses the city of Los Angeles for school costs based on an attendance per day figure. Each student that misses class costs LAUSD money, which is why they are so aggressive with truancy. To lose 640,000 students in one day will cost LAUSD dearly. In essence, all this damage is the result of a terrorist ‘attack,’ though technically a non-violent one. And possibly an avoidable attack.
So how does one determine whether a threat is credible?
There is as much art as science in the business of threat assessment. But the investigators are experienced and the science is pretty good. The critical word is “credibility.” Apparently, New York and Los Angeles officials differ on its meaning.
Importantly, specificity is not the same as credibility. Specificity can lend credibility, but specificity alone is absolutely lacking in credibility. I have not heard a single bit of information from LAUSD or the city of Los Angeles or the police or the FBI, which would lead me to believe that this threat was in any way shape or form "credible."
1. able to be believed; convincing.
capable of persuading people that something will happen or be successful.
Credibility in terrorist threats exists when the person who threatens is known or strongly suspected of having the ability to conduct a terrorist attack; or the person threatening has inside and direct knowledge of someone who has the ability to conduct a terrorist attack.
Additionally, besides the ability to conduct an attack, a threatening individual would also have to have access to the target to be considered credible. A single terrorist banging out a threat on his or her keyboard in Raqqa, Syria may have the ability and motivation to attack schools in Los Angeles, but he or she does not have the access, sitting thousands of miles away. Finally, threats generally have to be specific in order to be taken seriously. Generally, specificity is easy. Find the name of a school in L.A. on the Internet, then close your eyes and point at a calendar to get a date and time. Done. A threat saying a bomb would go off somewhere in Los Angeles today is really not specific enough to be ‘actionable’ intelligence.
In essence, for anybody to deliver a credible threat, they would need to provide their bona fides. They do so by providing information proving their access to the target and the ability to hit it. Someone who is about to attack and really wants to give a warning is careful to provide that information. People engaged in hoaxes may be able to provide specificity; the name of a particular school and the time of the alleged attack, but rarely can they provide all three data points.
It is crucial to realize that specificity alone is not credibility.
It is crucial to realize that ability alone is not credibility.
It is crucial to realize that access alone is not credibility.
Terrorists live on attention and fear. If a terrorist or terrorist organization really desired to give advance warning of an actual attack, they would provide enough data to prove their credibility. The logic problem here, however, is that radical Islamic terrorists do not provide warnings. They want body counts. Warnings reduce body counts. Period. The fact that a warning was received, in and of itself, damages its credibility.
There are indications that both LAPD and the FBI judged the threat non-credible and provided that information to LAUSD. NYPD and the FBI apparently provided that same assessment to the city of New York. If this is true, then New York believes that its police and the FBI are the best equipped to determine the credibility of any threat. This should actually make the decision easier for the school officials—if anything happens, they can say they were told by experts that the threat was non-credible.
If it turns out that LAUSD was told by LAPD and the FBI that the threat was non-credible, then they made the mind-boggling decision to find LAPD and the FBI non credible, and to give credibility to an anonymous E-mail.
LAUSD’s job is not to evaluate intelligence and threats unilaterally. That is the job of the FBI and LAPD. LAUSD deals with a different type of intelligence. Cities and states sometimes reject the advice of law enforcement. It has happened to me. I’ve been in the room when the governor of California was told that a threat was non-credible and he went ahead and declared it credible. While I sympathize with the decisions LAUSD were making – because I have had to make the same type of decisions -- What the school district did (if it turns out that they were told that the threat was non-credible) is give the terrorists the attention they crave while costing them nothing.
To beat terrorism, we can't ramp up our response and lower our threshold panic after each terrorist attack. In fact, we need to learn to raise our threshold for panic and prevent overreaction. Otherwise, the terrorist continued to get freebies.