Rowan University professor discusses terrorism on anniversary of September 11 attacks

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Since the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, Dr. Robert S. Fleming, professor of management at Rowan University (Glassboro, N.J.) and a recognized authority on emergency preparedness has been interviewed by numerous television, radio, and print media outlets on a variety of topics related to our nation’s vulnerability to domestic terrorism and our enhanced preparedness for the ever-present threat of terrorism within our contemporary world.

Since the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, Dr. Robert S. Fleming, professor of management at Rowan University (Glassboro, N.J.) and a recognized authority on emergency preparedness has been interviewed by numerous television, radio, and print media outlets on a variety of topics related to our nation’s vulnerability to domestic terrorism and our enhanced preparedness for the ever-present threat of terrorism within our contemporary world.

On the 11th anniversary of the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, Fleming has provided the following responses to typical questions from the media.  Reporters are encouraged to use and credit this material as appropriate in related news stories and coverage.  Fleming is also available for interviews and can be reached at (484) 614-2188 or fleming@rowan.edu.

Fleming has been actively involved in fire and emergency management for more than 40 years, serving in numerous operational and administrative positions, including that of fire chief. His professional activities have included serving on the National Fire Academy Board of Visitors for 13 years, including six years as vice chairman and six years as chairman.  He is the chairman of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Fire Service Certification Advisory Committee and the Chester County Local Emergency Planning Committee.  The primary focus of his research, teaching and consulting has been on enhancing organizational effectiveness, with an emphasis on local, county, state, regional and national fire and emergency service organizations.  Fleming has five earned master’s degrees, including a Master of Government Administration from the Fels Center of Government of the University of Pennsylvania.  He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and has completed the Senior Executives in National and International Security Program at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government.  His most recent books are Effective Fire and Emergency Services Administration (2010) and Survival Skills for the Fire Chief (2011).  His new book on Media Coverage of Emergency Incidents will be published in early 2013.

1.    How prepared was the United States for a terrorist attack prior to September 11, 2001?
The coordinated attacks of September 11, 2001, were not the first acts of terrorism in the United States.  Prior to that day there had been several attacks that resulted in the potential for domestic or international terrorism assuming a prominent position on the radar of agencies tasked with preventing such attacks. Although a reasonable degree of analysis based on after action reports of the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 led to significant enhancements in our nation’s ability to respond to a domestic terrorist attack, the reality of the four separate but interrelated and well-planned and coordinated aircraft hijackings on September 11, 2001, clearly and convincingly illustrated that we were not prepared to prevent such attacks.  The failure to prevent these attacks was characterized by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (commonly referred to as The 9/11 Commission) as a lack of imagination in understanding and institutionalization.  It became clear that intelligence gathering, processing and dissemination at that time failed to prevent these tragic attacks on our nation, its government and its people.

2.    What did we learn about the threat of terrorism and our vulnerability on September 11, 2001?
While consistent with conventional wisdom that the targets of attacks would typically include controversial businesses, historical sites, infrastructure systems, places or assembly, public buildings and symbolic targets, the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, revealed a number of important lessons and insights with respect to preventing such attacks in the future.  Although governmental agencies and businesses had engaged in fairly extensive vulnerability analysis and planning initiatives based on the previous attacks, certain constructs of that planning changed on September 11, 2001.  Earlier planning had focused on traditional means of attack delivery, such as parking a truck loaded with explosives in a parking garage, rather than the unimaginable hijacking of commercial aircraft loaded with unsuspecting passengers and sizeable fuel loads and the use of the same airplanes, that we take for granted in a contemporary world, as instruments of domestic terrorism.  That tragic day also taught us that attacks can happen anywhere, as evidenced by the airplane brought down in the rural area near Shanksville, Pa.

3.    In what areas were deficiencies in our preparedness recognized prior to September 11, 2001?
A number of deficiencies in our nation’s preparedness had been identified and were being addressed prior to September 11, 2001.  The lack of interagency communication, cooperation and collaboration was a significant issue that had resulted in a fragmented system that incorporated disconnects between local, state and federal government agencies.  Instead of operating as cooperative partners, agencies routinely operated in isolation of each other.  These disconnects unfortunately existed all too often both between and within the various levels of government with responsibilities for terrorism preparedness.  The lack of interoperability of radio communication systems utilized by public safety personnel, resulting in an inability of first responders to engage in mission-critical radio communications with those from different disciplines or jurisdictions operating at major emergency incidents, including those resulting from acts of domestic terrorism, was a second major deficiency.  A third deficiency was the lack of a universal incident management system and the provision of appropriate training in its use to all response disciplines.  Need for personnel protective equipment for responders and other types of apparatus and equipment also was identified as an important issue that needed to be addressed.  

4.    What actions have been taken to enhance preparedness since September 11, 2001?
Remarkable progress has been made to address all of the recognized deficiencies discussed above.  The U.S. Department of Homeland Security was established to address the issues of interagency cooperation, collaboration and communication.  The Department of Homeland Security has made much progress in aligning its efforts with those of other federal agencies, including the Department of Defense and Department of Justice, and corresponding state agencies.  The National Incident Management System (NIMS) has been developed and implemented throughout the nation with necessary training in this system’s use being provided to emergency response personnel from all involved agencies and disciplines.  NIMS is designed as a command-and-control tool to enhance the effectiveness, efficiency and safety of incident management.  Significant progress likewise has been made in enhancing the interoperability of public safety radio communications systems.  Federal grant programs have supported planning initiatives, training and the acquisition of necessary apparatus and equipment.

5.    How did the establishment of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security contribute to an enhanced level of preparedness?
Establishing the Department of Homeland Security was an integral step in enhancing our nation’s capabilities with respect to combating domestic terrorism.  Prior to its establishment there were 22 separate federal agencies that had various responsibilities with respect to domestic terrorism.   The Department of Homeland Security has made tremendous progress in enhancing our nation’s preparedness in many areas, emphasizing terrorism preparedness in most of its initiatives.

6.    How has the threat of domestic terrorism changed over the past 11 years?
The goal of terrorists to create a climate of fear and intimidation was clearly attained through the coordinated attacks of September 11, 2001.  Those living in the United States and the citizens of the world woke up to a new reality that morning.  Through the media we all experienced the tragic events at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in a rural field in western Pennsylvania.  It was now in the “minds and hearts” of most that our nation and world would never again be the same safe and secure places we once took for granted.

7.    How have the targets of domestic terrorism changed?
While traditional targets of terrorism including controversial businesses, historical sites, infrastructure systems, places of assembly, public buildings and symbolic targets continue to represent desired targets of terrorists, it is realistic to expect that there may be an increase in attempted attacks of “soft targets,” particularly as the more traditional targets have taken the necessary actions to harden their ability to defend themselves against terrorist attacks.

8.    How have the perpetrators of terrorism changed?
The bilateral world that existed during the Cold War has been replaced with a transnational world wherein a growing number of countries seek to advance their goals through a continuum of means, including in some cases committing acts of terrorism against other nations and peoples.  While state actors will continue to present future concerns in terms of domestic and international terrorism, a growing number of non-state actors, represented by various well-known and little-known terrorist groups, have joined their ranks.  Identifying these new actors, who act individually or in small groups, and tracking their activities presents obvious new challenges.

9.    What new threats regarding domestic terrorism exist today?
The potential for traditional attacks of an explosive or incendiary nature as well as those involving biological, chemical and nuclear weapons is now recognized and addressed in planning and preparedness initiatives.  Traditional targets of the terrorist have now been supplemented so as to include both “hard” and “soft targets.”  The cast of characters who would seek to invoke harm through acts of domestic terrorism has grown to include not only state actors and non-state actors, but also the “homegrown” terrorist.  The instability that exists in particular regions of the world has the potential of impacting our national security in the coming years.

10.    What new challenges with respect to domestic terrorism are we likely to face over the next 10 years?
While the threat of domestic terrorism will clearly remain an ever-present threat in the future, it must be recognized that the nature of domestic and international terrorism will continue to evolve.  Although it is unlikely that any country will be capable of eliminating the terrorist threat and accompanying vulnerability of the contemporary world, it is essential that we continue to build our capabilities and resilience with respect to domestic terrorism.  Preparedness in the future will require that we fully embrace, and as appropriate address, issues and events related to international terrorism that have the real and proven potential of compromising our national security.   

11.    What is the greatest worldwide threat that we will face in the coming years?
Most authorizes agree that while the potential threats of terrorism will continue to include biological, chemical, explosive and incendiary attacks, the greatest worldwide threat that we will face in future years is that of nuclear terrorism.  This has thus become a priority of the international community through such strategies as containment, elimination and deterrence.  The focus with respect to preventing the use of nuclear weapons as an instrument of terrorism must be to prevent those actors who would intend to use these catastrophic weapons from gaining access to the weapons or the necessary materials to construct them.

12.    How has the role of the public changed with respect to domestic preparedness?
The integral role of the general public in preventing domestic terrorism is one of the most important lessons that we have learned.  Since the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, the first Homeland Security Secretary, Tom Ridge, and those leaders who followed him have emphasized this important role through encouraging the public to be “vigilant” and to report any suspicious acts or behaviors to the appropriate authorities.  The importance of this role of the public is evidenced by numerous planned attacks that have been prevented based on the astute observation and reporting by citizens.

13.    What role will social media play with respect to terrorism in the future?
The presence and use of social media has revolutionized the world in which we live, work and travel in terms of how individuals, groups and organizations communicate.  Many governmental agencies now use social media tools to communicate with the public in issuing educational information, notifications, warnings and alerts.  These same capabilities have been used successfully in emergencies such as earthquakes and hurricanes and thus have prepared agencies to effectively and efficiently use these communication capabilities for information/intelligence gathering and dissemination with respect to suspected or actual terrorist activity.  The downside, however, is that terrorists can likewise avail themselves to social media tools to advance their cause and facilitate their activities.

14.    Are we safer today than we were 11 years ago?
Without question we are safer today than we were prior to the September 11 attacks.  Enhancements in our intelligence capabilities provide an essential foundation.  The establishment of regional intelligence (“fusion”) centers has provided the underpinning infrastructure for the necessary gathering, evaluation and dissemination of information, as well as information-based decision making and action.  Public safety and other governmental agencies are now on the same page and working in an unprecedented cooperative and collaborative mode.  The public, as well as public safety organizations, now play a key role in identifying and reporting possible suspicious activity.  As a nation, we have embraced the threat of domestic terrorism and through our vigilance, resolve and resilience have greatly enhanced our national security today and will continue to do so in the future.

15.    What steps do we need to take to further enhance our preparedness in the future?
Elected and appointed leaders must never forget the vivid images of the attacks on our nation on September 11, 2001, and continue to commit their talent, energy and passion to combating domestic terrorism, regardless of its source. They must put politics aside and based on the lessons learned from past and future attacks around the world, ensure that our nation’s capabilities and resilience to prevent future domestic attacks are measured and proportional to the scope and magnitude of the threats that we face in the present and will inherit in the future.

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