What You Need to Know with Terrorism Expert Harvey Kushner

Harvey Kushner
Reports surfaced that an Islamic Media Center website has a communiqué from Al Qaeda in which they claim responsibility for last week’s blackout. What’s your reaction to that?

It’s probably just a good PR stunt —  putting the idea out there that they can induce something like this.  Quite frankly, all the sources I’ve been speaking to over the months, do not believe that Al Qaeda has this type of capability.  They prefer a low-tech approach —  truck bombs, flying planes into buildings.  They don’t have the kind of sophistication required to hack into our power grid.  Certainly they are interested in it.  They saw tens of thousands of people on television in distress and they would be interested in being able to target them at a time like that.  But I would take [the report] with a boulder-sized grain of salt.

Is there any concern that the reports came out on the same day an audiotape claiming Usama bin Laden is alive was broadcast by an Arab TV network?

Usually when you have a tape claiming anything, something happens overseas against American assets or where there are American tourists.  But, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over their ability, at this particular point in time, to take down power grids, electricity, communications, and other things like that.  They don’t have those types of technological skills — YET! 

Three men were arrested for allegedly trying to smuggle a surface-to-air missile into the U.S.  In your opinion, is this an isolated incident or do you think this just one of many plots?

Certainly I don’t have knowledge of anybody involved in smuggling this type of equipment into this country.  That said however, I believe that there are a significant number of other plots afoot to get all sorts of weaponry, chemical, biological, and even nuclear material into the United States.  I think it’s very important to highlight what this case means to law enforcement and to our intelligence gathering capabilities.  I do not think it’s isolated.

Is this arrest an indication that U.S. intelligence is working?

Yes.  I think that there are two things involved here that are very important to note.  One, it shows that our intelligence agencies can develop leads, follow a trail, and develop a sting operation for individuals who would harm the United States.  Certainly this case speaks to that; an individual who might not have ties to a specific terrorist group, but who would profit over the fact that there are terrorists out there who would be willing to target Americans.  In the indictment [of one of the men arrested], the language that he used referring to the United States and his support of Usama bin Laden’s actions indicates this.  The second thing is that it shows there is significant cooperation between nations in prosecuting this war on terrorism, in particular, Russia and the United States.  This was a joint effort, and it’s very pleasing to see that Russians and Americans were able to work together because there is concern in the United States that Russia, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, has a significant number of these [surface-to-air missiles] that are on the black market.  I applaud the effort of our intelligence agencies to work together, and it shows that we are beginning to make headway into alleviating what is a potentially disastrous problem, having so much of this equipment available in that region of the world for sale.

How likely do you feel it is for terrorists to get their hands on a surface-to-air missile and use it against commercial air flights?

It’s one thing to understand that the possibility of taking down a jetliner is indeed there, and certainly we’ve seen events that indicate that.  One most recently against an Israeli aviation asset in Mombassa, where a missile believed to be of this type was fired at the plane.  We also know that in Saudi Arabia one was fired against an American craft recently as well.  Can these missiles be transported here and easily obtained?  That’s another question.  A missile of this size can be conveniently concealed within a golf bag and carried from place to place.  There are a variety of areas that are unsafe around our nation’s 400-plus airports.  The question is, are there many of these available on the open market inside the United States?  I don’t think at this point they are, but we have to keep our guard up against that possibility in the near future. 

Should the average American be afraid of this type of terrorist attack, in other words, do you think people should think twice about flying?

No.  My advice is, get on a plane and fly wherever you need to go.  Certainly use discretion in flying to certain regions of the world where the State Department warns about travel, but this wouldn’t deter me from getting into a plane.  Even with the possibility of such a horrendous attack happening here, or against American assets someplace in the world, it’s still statistically the safest way to travel.  In fact, there is data to support that last year was the safest year we’ve ever had in civilian aviation history.  We had no fatalities, very few crashes which resulted in serious injury, and we had a diminished number of near misses.  So we made significant strides in safety in the air.  That said however, Americans certainly need to be vigilant.  We need to develop techniques to guard against possible missile attacks. 

Do you see airlines equipping their planes with anti-missile technology in the near future?

There is deterrent capability available.  The Israelis have some of their commercial aircraft equipped with these devices.  I believe our government will move to creating a competitive bidding system between various manufacturers to get the price down, so all new planes can be fitted with devices that can head off this type of disaster.  It all boils down to a matter of cost — dollars and cents.  I believe there should be some competitive incentive within the private sector to drive down the cost of outfitting our aircraft with this.  I do believe our craft should be equipped with this technology.  I don’t think it should be made public what percentage of aircraft have the technology.  I don’t think you want to give that information out to the general public, but I do think we have to take a close look and get some government funding to help the airline sector deal with this problem.

Do you see a scenario where airlines would equip some plane with this technology and then charge more to ride on those planes?

No!  That would be disastrous policy.  I think if the current commercial fleet now begins to be retrofitted and new production planes come out with it, you won’t see information that you’re on a plane that has it or doesn’t.  I don’t think you’ll know.  Similarly, I don’t think it’s good policy to continue to tell the public that not every flight has air marshals.  It’s something that should be kept highly confidential to the general public and especially to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on that information.

Is there anything else you’d like our FOX Fans to know?

If you want me to make a prediction I would say, [a surface-to-air attack] might occur.  The likelihood is against an American civil aviation asset, someplace other than inside the United States.  I think the risk is greater as you go overseas, it’s greater in regions of the world were there is heavy conflict, like the Middle East, the continent of East Africa, and in other regions.  If I had to put a figure on it, I would think there is about a 50% chance within the next 12 months for an attack like this to take place outside the United States.  For an attack inside the United States, I would say more like a 20 – 25% chance.