Defense study: Predicting 9/11-type catastrophes not possible

Predicting the occurrence of a terrorist event using a weapon of mass destruction is not possible under any approaches identified to date, concluded a recent report from a federally funded research corporation, making it extremely difficult to foresee a massively catastrophic event like the 9/11 terrorist attack.

According to the story in HSToday, the assessment of such an unusually large terrorist attack falls to the study of social sciences, where predictive models have faced a lot of difficulties in attempting to determine the outcomes of human behavior, stated the report Rare Events, developed by the JASON project of the Mitre Corp., based in McLean, Va.

The U.S. Department of Defense tasked the project with evaluating the possibilities of anticipating and assessing the risks of rare catastrophic events. Within the Department of Defense, the U.S. Special Operations Command and the U.S. Strategic Command have combined forces to set up a WMD-Terrorist intelligence and operations analysis enterprise, the report detailed.

The intelligence center would attempt to anticipate how terrorists would gain access to and use WMDs in the next 10 years. It would further identify and prioritize sources of WMD and terrorist activities related to WMD.

But the JASON report, released publicly by the Federation of American Scientists Nov. 4, concluded that no models or research exists to help the intelligence community predict catastrophic vents.

The report further argued that ongoing collaborative experiments offer no real value in predicting WMD threats because such experiments involve unproven assumptions, but that academic expertise proves "highly valuable" in real-time decision-making with regards to WMD threats.

The JASON project made many specific recommendations to the Department of Defense to improve its modeling and capabilities for attempting to predict a catastrophic event, however.

For example, JASON suggested that intelligence agents focus on motivation for a WMD attack, thereby decreasing the necessity to identify specific events. Institutes such as the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism, based at the University of Maryland and funded by the Department of Homeland Security, have conducted studies on terrorist motivations that would prove useful in that endeavor, the report said.

The Department of Defense uses a conceptual framework of intent, capability and opportunity, but adding motive to the framework would boost the intelligence community's attempts to anticipate WMD attacks, the report recommended.

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