Faced with the sustained threat of terrorist attacks against its interests and citizens, the U.S. 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, Mass., 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 U.S. 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 organizations that wish to harm the U.S. 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 Inc. (ANSER) of Arlington, Va., a public-service research institute.
The dynamic and competitive U.S. 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 U.S. 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 recognize 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 analyze 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 U.S. 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.