Faced with the sustained threat of terrorist attacks against its interests and citizens, the US government needs to devote more resources to developing models for understanding the threat of terrorism while building a better civil infrastructure for spotting and reacting to terrorist threats.
That was the opinion of leading experts on technology and public policy who gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Friday for the event Global & Homeland Security: Science, Technology, and the Role of the University.
The third annual symposium, sponsored by MIT's Technology and Policy Program, featured a series of panel discussions on the subject of the role of the university in homeland security in which experts from leading research institutions and think tanks weighed the challenges confronting the US government in battling international terrorism.
Given the country's overwhelming economic and military strength, terrorism is a threat that is not likely to disappear for the foreseeable future — even if Osama bin Laden is ultimately captured, experts agreed.
Nations or organisations that wish to harm the US in the future will almost certainly turn to terrorism and so-called "asymmetric means," such as weapons of mass destruction, to attack the country, according to panelist Dr Ruth David, president and CEO of Analytic Services (ANSER) of Arlington, Virginia, a public-service research institute.
The dynamic and competitive US economy, which demands openness and the free flow of people and goods, will continue to provide targets of opportunity for terrorist groups, David said.
The US needs to work with leading scientific institutions like MIT to develop better models for assessing the risk of terrorism and spotting patterns of discrete activity that might identify nascent terrorist plans in the making, she said.
"With 9/11, the pieces of data made sense as a pattern in retrospect, but the research community must develop a way to recognise such patterns in real time. It's a tough research problem that demands effort," David said.
Calling the job tough may be an understatement, however.
Speaking on the topic of how to analyse the risk posed by terrorists, George Apostolakis, a professor of Nuclear Engineering at MIT and an expert on performing risk assessment on complex systems, said that the threat of terrorism exists within a diffuse system of civilian infrastructures in which possible terrorist scenarios and their outcomes (or "end states") are almost limitless.
Nevertheless, more work must be done to try to quantify the exact risks posed by terrorists and define "security objectives" that the country is working towards. The US needs hard information to serve as a basis for discussions and terrorism response planning, he said.
"The uncertainties exist whether we quantify them or not. But if you understand the system better, you can create a debate that is much more focused. (Risk assessment) helps to define issues and makes the discussion more concrete," he said.
Universities can contribute to the development of such models and help knit together the quantitative risk assessment with more traditional security measures such as screening, Apostolakis said.
Businesses, too, suffer from a lack of quantitative data when it comes to terrorism, according to James Rice, director of the integrated supply chain management program at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics.
While many firms use qualitative, internal assessments to understand the risks posed to their business by terrorist actions, there are no standard approaches or tools to help companies plan their response, Rice said.
To properly gird themselves for terrorist attacks, businesses need to treat such events like inclement weather and other unpredictable business disruptions, building security into their supply chains and making them more adaptable and resilient, he said.
In addition to using information technology to adjust to local disruptions and make it easier for disrupted networks to come back online, companies also need to socialise the concepts of security and resilience for their employees.
Unannounced mock "terrorism" drills and detailed continuity planning can help develop an organisation's ability to respond successfully to disruptions caused by terrorism, he said.
In short, the US society, government and corporations need to normalise terrorism, making it a factor in even routine planning, experts concluded.
Ruth summed up the idea with the notion of "dual benefit implementations" in which security and protection against terrorism is considered alongside the other "basic missions" of society.
For example, new warning technologies and defences against biological attacks may well have beneficial applications outside of the realm of security, Ruth said.
Modelling and technology aside, universities such as MIT have a responsibility to help develop a better understanding of complex human behaviours that produce environments that foment terrorism, according to Nancy Hayden of the Advanced Concepts Group at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
While the tone of the discussions was generally resigned, Hayden sounded one of the symposium's more hopeful notes.
Observing the way that even innocuous tools such as the NetLogo programmable software (See http://ccl.northwestern.edu/netlogo), which allows researchers to simulate natural and social phenomena, can help people better understand the world they live in, Hayden said that breakthrough technologies have the potential to create a more peaceful world.
"I'd like to see (the US) take the high road and develop strategies that are not just about defense, but also about working with (other) countries to make society better — connect real people to real people," she said.