Case Study: Terrorism in Seattle

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[. . .] On December 29, 1999, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell with the concurrence of the City Council decided to cancel the Millennium Celebration, even though it had been planned for over 24 months. The ostensible reason was a potential terrorist attack, based on the December 14th arrest of an Algerian man, Ahmed Ressam, who was arrested in Port Angeles with enough explosives to blow up at least one major building. When Ressam was arrest boarding a ferry, investigators found that he had booked up a hotel room for one night near the Space Needle. While there was no "direct evidence" that Ressam was planning to blow up the Needle, this and recent events in Seattle led to the decision to end all events by 6pm on New Year's Eve (Lundberg, 2002).

The New York Times quoted Mayor Schell as noting that there was not just one reason for the decision, but many: "It's a combination of things. No other city has had a bomb delivered to its doorstep, or the kind of anxiety we've had over the WTO meetings, plus Y2K concerns" (Egan, 1999). Seattle, of course, had just faced massive street protests outside the city's major hotels and the Washington State Convention Center at the end of November, 1999. Estimates say that at least 40,000 people congregated in downtown Seattle to protest globalization issues. On November 30, protestors tried to block activities, traffic, and damaging police and public safety vehicles. Initial reports noted that protestors were violent and using Molotov Cocktails. This resulted in panic from the Seattle Police, the governor calling out the National Guard, and a number of violent altercations between police and protestors. By December 2, the New York Times corrected earlier articles, noting that the protest was mostly peaceful and that no protesters were accused of throwing objects at delegates or the police/military. The City Council also confirmed this, citing the notion that many in government and law enforcement may have overreacted to the potential for violence rather than the actual threat (Origins, 2008). Still, within the period of three weeks Seattle had faced global criticism for handling the WTO protests and then the realization that a foreign terrorist had almost smuggled explosives into the city, near an iconic monument, during a highly visible and popular venue.

However, there was no specific evidence that the Space Needle, or actually any structure in Seattle, was a target. In some ways, it appeared that Schell and the Council reacted strongly to "perceived" threats based on incidents in other areas and the WTO issues. The job of the city government, though, must be to find win-win situations to both protect and enhance the public. On one hand, the information was disparate and unclear; on the other hand, had Schell and the Council ignored the threat and it proved credible, we may be certain the fallout would be vehement, as well as the guilt over any loss of life. Since 9/11 had not yet happened, there was less credibility on a threat, yet the point of entry was indeed, in Washington. Putting ourselves in the shoes of Schell and the Council, we also find that they looked to the FBI for some guidance, yet despite thousands of agents actively working the Ressam case, the general consensus was that there had been multiple terrorist threats focused on Millennium celebrations, particularly in New York and Washington, DC. Indeed, there was precedent for the attack potential. In 1998 Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden told the world that every Muslim's duty was to kill Americans. In fact, the day after Ressam's arrest, authorities in Jordan raided an Al Qaeda cell and found that attacks were being planned against the U.S. And Israel, although Seattle was not mentioned specifically (Lundberg, p. 5).

Using probabilities, decision trees, logic models and statistics may be helpful, but are also problematic when dealing with actual human motivations and actions. There are a number of tools that explore scenarios, uncertain events, and help assess risk. For instance, decision trees are logic trees that include decision nodes in addition to events. Essentially, these diagrams are representations of decisions and what if statements; endpoints represent paths and alternatives, but there is still a great deal of analysis necessary. In a similar way, probability and event trees also share methodology when developing a risk protocol. In many ways, though, these tools are based on what is known vs. what is unknown, and whether there are, indeed, connections between what may appear to be disparate events. Most of the scholarly research shows that while these types of statistical tools are valuable, it is more appropriate that one understand that no single model can meet the complex challenges of tracking or predicting terrorist or criminal threats -- there is just too much information unknown. Instead, multiple models can aid the decision maker's ability to lean towards a certain decision with more information (e.g. there is a 60% chance of an attack vs. there is a 20% chance) (Ezell, et al., 2010).

Thus, if we look at the information in front of the Council, we find:

View towards status quo

View towards cancellation

18-24 months of time invested in preparation; millions in planning

Better to risk embarrassment and future political opportunities than to put citizens at risk

Vendors and citizens already made commitments; travel, etc.

Even with increased security, no guarantees could be made for safety

Cancellation would have negative future consequences

No sane person could risk 50,000 lives and millions in property damage

Extra security would increase fiscal vulnerability; would send psychological message of fear

Most events were relatively easy to cancel; allowing for fireworks to continue placates the situation

Fiscal investment in the event

WTO issues were still raw, Schell had no way of knowing if there would be more violence

Allows terrorists globally to believe they can make threats and cause terror without investing their own risk

Problems with the Ressam investigation left some law enforcement officials out of the loop; lack of information pointed towards caution

Information unclear, FBI cannot make robust recommendation; Seattle not named as specific target

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allowed for electronic surveillance of Ressam and colleagues; finding that Ressam was part of an organized group; and more than Ressam had travelled to Seattle

Ressam arrested, so threat level already decreased

Essentially, Schell noted that the year had already been unpredictable and unprecedented; with WTO and other issues, it was more important to be safe than risk lives (Lundberg, 2002, Epilogue).

External Environment

The idea of terrorism is certainly nothing new. World War I was started by a terrorist, the Russian Revolution was a terrorist activity, and even in the Ancient world, terrorism was used as a means to sublimate the population and make it difficult for the military to continue warfare. In the 21st century, though, regional terrorism has grown to two levels: international and transnational. Globalism has changed the world in so many ways, it has brought people closer together for trade, economic benefit, culture, communication -- all with the idea that if people communicate more and have economic ties, they will not wish to have political conflict. However, as globalism redefines cultures, international terrorism has also increased. The terrorist can now operate on a global platform using modern techniques and communication to evade capture and ostensibly do more damage. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union funded these types of groups, particularly in the developing world and all to disrupt capitalism. Now that most of the world, even China, is adopting at least a semblance of capitalism, terrorists no longer focus on just the developing world, but in disrupting global trade and economic development (Wirtz, 2006).

The unfortunate consequence of the new world order is that many now see terrorism as religious based, and most focused on radical Islamic sects. This tends to predispose many against Islam, which is unfortunate because the large majority of Muslims are law-abiding, peaceful people who wish to coexist in a global world of cooperation. Unfortunately, because of the press and continued actions from groups like al-Qaeda, many in the West mistrust Islam and psychologically believe that the imagined community of patriotic Americans does not include anyone from any Muslim nation. In fact, many prejudices that arose after 9/11 focused hate-crimes and bias. This has become engendered in the advertising arena, in both the commercial and non-profit areas. Americans now see their patriotic duty to buy American, and tend to view Muslims as the "other" or the outsiders who may harbor terrorist leanings. This, of course, is unfortunate. Imagined communities in America should, in fact, concentrate not on racial profiling and hate crimes, but on the diverse nature of a community that needed to pull together against violence. Violence and terrorism benefit no one but the terrorists. The maxim for the 21st century should be watchfulness and attending to security,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Terrorism in Seattle.  (2013, May 25).  Retrieved March 23, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/terrorism-seattle-even/3011162

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"Terrorism in Seattle."  Essaytown.com.  May 25, 2013.  Accessed March 23, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/terrorism-seattle-even/3011162.