Another Dam Threat
By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart
At the stroke of midnight July 8, the Denver Water Board closed the road over Dillon Dam in Summit County, Colorado, citing security concerns. The board’s decision, which was implemented without advance notice to local governments and citizens, has not been well-received. It has sparked protests by enraged residents and has even prompted officials from Summit County, three affected towns nearby and the local fire and rescue department to file suit in state district court in a bid to force Denver Water to reopen the road.
The road is one of only a few traversing Summit County, so residents are understandably upset at the inconvenience caused by the closure. Local fire and rescue departments also say closing the road negatively affects emergency response times. This not the first time the road has been closed, however. The road was shut down for a week in January after a report of suspicious activity in the area — activity investigated by authorities and found to be nothing more than two men from Denver filming a music video. The Water Board has spent several million dollars to improve security for the mile-long dam road, and in May it even hired a private security company to conduct 24-hour armed patrols of the dam.
Denver Water has said the decision to close the road was not made in response to a specific threat, and we tend to believe this. With the heat they’ve received over the issue, they surely would have cited evidence of a specific threat to assuage public anger if there had been such information.
But the ruckus raised over the closure of the Dillon Dam road provides a prime opportunity to re-examine the ability of jihadist militants to operate inside the United States, and to look at the types of targets militants might be most likely to select for an attack.
Assessing the Militant Threat
To assess a threat against a potential target like the Dillon Dam, several important tactical realities must be considered. The first is that as long as the ideology of jihadism exists and at least some jihadist militants embrace the philosophy of attacking the "far enemy" — aka the United States — there will be some threat of attacks against targets on U.S. soil. Indeed, there has not been a time since 1990 when some group of jihadists somewhere was not plotting such an attack.
A second tactical reality is that the U.S. government and the American people simply cannot protect every potential target. There are simply far too many of them. While insights gained from al Qaeda's targeting criteria can help authorities protect select high-value targets, there are just too many potential targets to protect them all. The federal government might instruct state and local authorities to protect every dam, bridge, power plant and mass-transit system in their respective jurisdictions, but the reality on the ground is that there are not nearly enough resources to protect all of these, much less to protect the far more plentiful array of potential soft targets.
Another tactical reality is that simple attacks against soft targets are very easy to conduct and very difficult to detect in advance and thwart. As an attack plan becomes larger and more complex, however, it requires more individuals, more materials and more infrastructure. This means that the bigger the attack plan is, the more difficult it is to conduct and the greater the chances it will be discovered and thwarted.
That said, just because attacks are possible — and indeed likely — and because there are a large number of vulnerable targets does not mean that all the vulnerable targets will be attacked. The capabilities and targeting criteria of militants also must be considered.
Let’s begin with the capability question first. When considering the capability of militants to strike in the United States, one must recognize that with regard to militant jihadists there are generally three different levels of actors to consider. First, there is the core al Qaeda organization; this is the small vanguard of jihadists led by Osama bin Laden attempting to lead a global rising of the Muslim masses. Second, there are al Qaeda’s regional franchises (such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), which are local or regional jihadist groups that have aligned themselves with al Qaeda, hoping to capitalize on the group’s popular brand name. And third, there are the local, self-motivated grassroots jihadists who think globally and act locally.
All three of these actors have different target selection criteria and different levels of capability. There is currently no al Qaeda franchise in the United States or even in the Western Hemisphere. This means that the main threat of an attack against a target in the United States will come from either the core al Qaeda group, a grassroots organization or a combination of the two, so we will focus our attention on those two actors.
Grassroots actors lack sophisticated terrorist tradecraft in crucial areas like preoperational planning and bomb making. Recent cases such as the July 7, 2005, attacks in London, the failed July 21, 2005, attacks in London, and the June 2007 attacks in London and Glasgow demonstrate the limited abilities of grassroots militants. They can sometimes kill people, but they do not have the ability to conduct large, strategic strikes.
Because of this, grassroots militants will often attempt to reach out for assistance if they desire to undertake a major attack. This is exactly what we saw in the early 1990s in New York. Grassroots operatives there were able to pull off a simple attack like the assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane, but they needed assistance for their bigger, more complex plans. In the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the local cell received assistance in the form of Abdel Basit (aka Ramzi Yousef), who helped them organize, plan their attack and construct a large truck-borne explosive device. In the second 1993 case, the local cell turned to an FBI informant for bomb-making expertise and were apprehended before they could strike.
The 2006 plot to bomb a series of airliners in the United Kingdom was likewise a case where a local grassroots cell received assistance from an al Qaeda operational commander but was thwarted before it could carry out its attack — mainly due to the complexity of the plan and the number of people involved.
Thus, without assistance the odds of a successful attack by a grassroots group against a target like a dam are low. Perhaps the greatest threat posed by a grassroots group is that one of its operatives could gain employment as an engineer at a dam — therefore gaining the opportunity to sabotage the equipment controlling the dam from the inside and turning the dam into a weapon against itself. This is similar to the threat posed by insiders at chemical plants. There have also been concerns previously that a savvy cyber-jihadist could assume control of the dam’s equipment via gaps in the information security of the entity running the dam.
As for the al Qaeda core, while the group may theoretically have personnel with the expertise to undertake such an attack, they have been extremely limited in their operational ability since the U.S. response to 9/11. We came under widespread criticism last July when we wrote that the al Qaeda core was a spent force that did not pose a strategic threat to the U.S. homeland, but our assessment holds one year on. Indeed, the vast majority of attacks attributed to the al Qaeda brand name since September 2001 have been conducted by regional franchises like Jemaah Islamiyah, al Qaeda in Iraq or al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, not core al Qaeda. In our assessment, the al Qaeda core might have some ability to attack, but it no longer has the ability to conduct a devastating strategic attack such as 9/11.
The Dam as a Target
It is possible to destroy a dam. Indeed, the British Royal Air Force destroyed German dams during World War II, and aircraft from the United States and its U.N. allies destroyed a North Korean hydroelectric dam during the Korean War. In general, however, dams are very large structures designed and built to withstand powerful forces such as floods and earthquakes. Because of this, it would be very difficult to destroy one with an improvised explosive device, unless the attacker could strike at a strategic location that would cause a leak in the structure (as the British did in their attacks on German dams) or at a location that would allow the water to overtop the dam and erode it — in either case, using the power of the water behind the dam to cause the structure to fail catastrophically.
Even with massive resources, however, it is not easy to destroy a large dam made of earth and rock. For proof, one need only to look at the massive efforts of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in China to unblock the Qingjiang River after it was dammed up by debris following the powerful May 12 earthquake. The PLA has used heavy machinery and massive amounts of explosives in their efforts. One July 2 blast on the Shibangou section of the river reportedly involved 6 tons of strategically placed explosives alone. It is very unlikely that militants would have the ability to carefully place that quantity of explosives on a dam in the United States without being detected.
Obtaining explosives in Western countries is also becoming more difficult in the post-9/11 era. Even the 2006 airliner plot involved small amounts of improvised explosives rather than an attack with a huge device, and the 9/11 attacks involved no explosives at all. The grassroots militants involved in the London and Glasgow attacks in the summer of 2007 also had problems obtaining explosives, and they instead chose to try using improvised (and ill-designed) fuel-air explosive devices in those incidents.
If a militant group planned properly and somehow amassed a sufficient quantity of explosives, it would be possible for it to destroy a dam. But that does not mean a group like al Qaeda would target a dam. Even if the group had the ability to conduct such an attack, it probably would choose to use such a large quantity of explosives to attack a far more symbolic target than a dam in rural Colorado.
While al Qaeda's Taliban cousins have conducted several unsuccessful attacks against dams in southern Afghanistan, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is far different than that in the United States. The Taliban in Afghanistan are a large, well-supplied insurgent force that regularly strikes at infrastructure such as roads, bridges and even schools.
Conversely, there is no large jihadist element in the United States. There are only scattered grassroots operatives and perhaps a few transnational al Qaeda-types available to conduct attacks. To our mind, that means that these operatives will want to maximize their efforts and undertake the most meaningful and symbolic attacks possible. Rather than choosing targets based on military utility (like the Taliban in Afghanistan), al Qaeda generally chooses targets in the United States for their potential symbolic value so as to elicit the greatest political or psychological impact, which they then hope will translate into economic impact.
This is not intended as an insult to the people of Colorado, but the Dillon Dam simply does not strike us as the kind of target that will carry the type of symbolic or economic impact al Qaeda would seek in an U.S. attack. Symbolic targets need to be readily recognizable not only by the people who live close to them, but also by people looking at a photo in a Pakistani newspaper. The World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol, the United Nations, or even the Library Tower in Los Angeles, the Sears Tower in Chicago, the strip in Las Vegas or the Space Needle in Seattle are highly symbolic targets that would meet these requirements. The Dillon Dam does not. In fact, we are Americans and had not even heard of this specific dam until the reports of the controversy over the road closure emerged.
Does this mean that jihadists will never strike in Denver? Not at all. Lone wolf or grassroots operatives could very well strike there. As seen in past cases in New Jersey, Florida and California, such people normally seek to strike in familiar territory close to where they live, and there might well be jihadists residing in Denver. But again, such a strike by grassroots operatives or lone wolves would likely be a smaller attack aimed at a soft target. We remain skeptical of the idea of al Qaeda dispatching a team from their headquarters in Pakistan to travel to the United States to destroy the Dillon Dam. The Democratic National Convention in Denver, maybe — but not the Dillon Dam.