News from ILEETA 2011: 'Red Teaming' soft terror targets

It’s sometimes a useful endeavor to think using the brain of a terrorist — Kevin Gors of SEAL-MAR did a daylong session at ILEETA 2011 demonstrating why

Today, on the last day of ILEETA 2011 in Wheeling (Ill.), I attended an all-day session with Kevin Gors of SEAL-MAR Protection Services. The session was called, “Soft Target Awareness Certification” but could easily also have been called, “How Evil Can You Force Your Brain to Be?”

A little — a very little — about Kevin Gors. He has “been there and done that” in a significant way. Gors — who served as a police officer in the city of Oakland (Calif.) following his military service — combines highly-refined intelligence-gathering capabilities with what one might call “unique skills” to do unique things for unique individuals, companies, and governments — including our own. Needless to say, he keeps plenty busy.

Gors’ intimate knowledge of terrorist organizations, the history of terrorism as a tactic, and the varying degrees of operational effectiveness of a wide variety of private companies and government agencies’ counterterrorism work, is staggering. I’ve had a few email and phone conversations with Gors since we first met at ILEETA 2010, and the pleasure of videotaping an interview with him earlier this week (watch for that segment on Police1 in coming months). Caveat time: For what should be obvious operational security reasons, I will reveal very, very little detailed information about today’s session. I will also not make any attempt to quote Gors directly. If you want to learn more about this stuff — outside of your own independent research — just email me and I’ll do my best to get you in touch with Gors and the team at SEAL-MAR.

History, Heroes, and Hideous Video
As with any discussion about the recent history of terrorism and counterterrorism, the morning began with Gors invoking the names of men like Col. David Hackworth, Lt. Cmdr. Roy Boehm, Col. Charlie Beckwith, and Cmdr. Dick Marcinko. Mention was made of some of the better-known exploits of those heroes. Gors was intent on making clear from the outset that terrorism is a tactic — not a group of people or a belief system — and that terrorism has history that goes back to Sun Tzu and Genghis Kahn. It is not unique to our present — and persistent — focus on radicalized Islamist militants like al Qaeda or Al-Shabaab. I’m not belittling our fight against groups like that — they’re a serious threat — but pointing out that there are other threats right here in the United States who have nothing at all to do with Islam. It’s the tactic we need to concern ourselves with, not the political objective of the tacticians.

Good to go on that? Good.

Following a bit of conversation about the tactic of terrorism, we watched some adult movies. For those of you who have seen the videotape of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl being beheaded, the stuff we looked at today makes that look like a Disney movie. This part of the program was not simply to view some gratuitous violence. It was a valuable lesson to help us prepare our minds to think not like the humane, reasonable, people we actually are, but to push our brains to what would otherwise be unimaginable evil.

Now, we all know that cops see some evil stuff on the streets every single day, but it is equally fair to say that there is a significant difference between these two varieties of evil.

The murderer, rapist, or child abuser is targeting his or her violence against the victim. The terrorist couldn’t really care less about the victim (beyond how spectacularly they can die). The terrorist is targeting his or her attack on the effects it will have on the survivors. The criminal wants to affect the behavior — continued breathing, for example — of the person they’re targeting, while the terrorist wants to change the behavior of a group of people who he or she has grievance against.

Just as evil, but definitely different.

You’ve Got to “Go There” to Get There
So, we watched some pretty heinous videotapes made by terrorists, and in so doing, we — well, I will speak only for myself, but I believe this is also true for the other attendees — went to a dark and ugly part of the brain.

Why? Because for the remainder of the morning and early afternoon, we were given the tools to “become terrorists” in an exercise known as Red Teaming — the process of devising, planning, and executing a simulated terrorist attack. The perfection of this type of exercise is widely credited to the aforementioned Marcinko, who has famously “commandeered” a U.S. Navy Ballistic Nuclear Missile Submarine (including the launch codes for the nuclear missiles) near Washington D.C., and “borrowed” at least one — by the way, it was way more than one — so-called “suitcase nukes” from a military installation in California. He did this not to get commanders of those assets fired — he often did have that unintended effect also — but to identify serious security weaknesses in need of improvement.

Gors gave us a thorough understanding of how terrorist cells are created and their operational doctrine, then formed us up into four- and six-man teams. We were told that the target would be the ILEETA Conference itself, and that our level of carnage and mayhem would be limited by our imaginations alone. The simulated attack would be taken only through pre-operational surveillance and planning — not the attack phase.

Off we went, me and my six-man team. I was hooked up with one law enforcer from the United Kingdom, one from the Great State of Illinois, one from a Detroit suburb, and two who work for a federal agency that’s rumored to not even exist (by the way, the presence of those two guys raises and interesting existentialist question: if that acronym doesn’t actually exist, were those guys really even there?).

As instructed, we determined the specific and unique capabilities each of us brought to the table, brainstormed how those skills could be synthesized into a viable assault, collected our intelligence, and finalized the plan. In a matter of hours! I marvel at what we could have done with a few days.

I won’t tell you the specifics of the attack we planned out, but I will tell you that it’s a near certainty that it would have worked. In fact, I haven’t got even the slightest shadow of a doubt that it would have worked. And it would have been spectacularly horrific. Trust me.

I will tell you also that the exercise itself is an awesome eye-opener. Even for me, and I’ve been thinking about and reading about and learning about terrorism for more than two decades. For example, the ease with which we were able to obtain sensitive security information was shocking.

The concept of “values transfer” has been discussed at various times this week, but perhaps nowhere is it more important than in the case of counterterrorism. You simply cannot impose your values system — to protect innocent life, for example — on a terrorist adversary. But it’s sometimes an incredibly useful endeavor to think using the brain of a terrorist, especially if you are the one responsible for the security of events and high value targets.  

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