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Monday, November 23, 2015

State Department Issues World-Wide Travel Alert For Terror Threats

State Department Issues World-Wide Travel Alert
For Terror Threats

This Is The First Alert In Nearly A Year And Expires Feb. 24, 2016

The State Department on Monday issued a world-wide travel alert following a month of deadly terrorist attacks on three continents that have killed hundreds of people, including Americans.

The alert, the first in nearly a year, expires on Feb. 24. It comes during the busiest U.S. travel week of the year, with millions of Americans hitting the roads and airways for the Thanksgiving holiday.

The State Department, in its warning, said terror groups including Islamic State and Boko Haram “continue to plan terrorist attacks in multiple regions. These attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics, using conventional and nonconventional weapons and targeting both official and private interests.”

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The State Department often issues travel warnings, but alerts are more uncommon, reserved for short-term events, whereas warnings can be indefinite and resulting from general instability.

Nonetheless, an alert doesn’t mean a terror attack is imminent. It more likely reflects recent events—such as the spate of terror attacks—and the need for heightened caution.

A top concern for many intelligence officials is the risk posed by Islamic State militants who traveled to fight and train in Syria and Iraq and then returned to their home countries in Europe or elsewhere.

“Additionally, there is a continuing threat from unaffiliated persons planning attacks inspired by major terrorist organizations but conducted on an individual basis,” the alert said.


It said terror attacks in the past have targeted sporting events, theaters, markets, airports and airplanes.

Following the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., the government has struggled at times to warn citizens of the dangers of possible threats. The Department of Homeland Security for a time used a color-coded warning system, but that system was eventually scrapped.

The State Department last issued a world-wide travel alert in December 2014, following a terror attack in Australia. The terror attack in Paris that targeted the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine came just a few weeks later.

In the past several months, Islamic State-aligned militants are believed to have carried out multiple terror attacks in France, Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon. A separate attack in Mali on Friday, believed to have been carried out by a group that claims ties to al Qaeda, left more than 30 dead. Combined, the attacks have killed more than 400 people, including at least two Americans.

U.S. officials have stressed in recent days that they haven’t detected imminent plans by terror groups to carry out a Paris-style terror attack on U.S. soil, but police and national-security officials have been operating on heightened alert status.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Monday addressed the elevated risk and acknowledged “anxiety across our country.”

“As we approach the holiday season, it is important to note that, at present, we know of no credible and specific intelligence indicating a Paris-like plot on the U.S. homeland,” he wrote on the agency’s website. “But, the public should know that those of us in national security, homeland security, and law enforcement are working overtime to monitor threats, continually evaluate our security posture, and guard the homeland.”

We Review A ‘Fire Alarm’ For Terror Attacks

As the attacks on Paris, Beirut, Mumbai, Mali, Kenya and elsewhere demonstrate, we live in a world in which law enforcement must constantly be on guard. Far too many of us will at some point be forced to react when preventive measures fail.

Metropolises like New York City and London have created elite antiterrorism rapid response teams, but there is a problem—how can authorities know, as quickly as possible, that an attack is under way?

In the U.S., the nature of the 911 system can lead to significant delays in understanding what is going on in a Paris-style attack. First, those who are closest to the event are the least likely to call, since they are probably running and seeking cover. Those who do call are at a remove, and so may not know the precise location or nature of the attack. Then there are the mechanics of a 911 call itself—dispatchers attempting to extract information from frantic callers, the time it takes a call to be escalated, etcetera.

But there is a better way, says Ralph Clark, president and chief executive of SST Inc. For nearly 20 years, his company has been perfecting a technology called ShotSpotter, which has been rolled out in 90 cities, towns and suburbs world-wide. It uses Internet-connected microphones to pinpoint, through triangulation, the exact location of a gunshot or explosion.

“What we can provide is a total awareness point of view on outdoor shootings,” says Mr. Clark. Authorities are alerted within 30 to 45 seconds of the first shot in an attack, he adds, as opposed to the minutes it can take to pinpoint an attack using conventional means.

To date, the expense of rolling out ShotSpotter has meant that it has only been used to cover areas of high gun crime—a few square miles within a typical city. But thanks to the usual forces of miniaturization and falling prices, plus a recently announced deal with General Electric Co., ShotSpotter will soon be capable of covering entire cities, says Mr. Clark.


The key, believe it or not, is street lamps. GE has been pushing its “smart cities” gear hard, arguing that as long as cities are updating old-style streetlights to LED lights to save money on electricity and bulb replacement costs, they might as well opt for models that are also laden with sensors suitable for tracking everything from traffic to air quality.

When ShotSpotter started talking to GE, says Mr. Clark, he was surprised that GE’s smart streetlights already had everything on board required to become ShotSpotter sensors—save ShotSpotter’s software and an inexpensive microphone. “A typical European city doesn’t have gun violence” on a regular basis, says Mr. Clark. “But what they are increasingly more concerned about is a Mumbai-style attack.”

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ShotSpotter works by listening all the time, using machine learning algorithms to discriminate between gunfire and ambient noise. Precise time- and location-stamped data is sent to servers in the cloud that can use this data to figure out exactly where a sound comes from, as long as it is picked up on at least three microphones.

Thus, a technology originally developed to help police respond to and reduce the amount of gun violence in America’s inner cities now has the potential to be deployed all over the world to cope with a very different kind of gun violence.

“We can’t prevent a Mumbai-style attack with this technology, but what we can do is be a very fast, precise alarm to mitigate the downstream consequences of an active shooter scenario,” says Mr. Clark, who calls the system a “fire alarm for gunshots.”

As long as we are talking about covering cities, what about the entire globe? That is one thing David Bray, in his role as an executive in residence at Harvard University, has been thinking about as he contemplates parallels between the attack in Paris and what he saw in Afghanistan, where he was a special adviser for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s International Security Assistance Force.

Why wouldn’t it be possible, he told me, to use the microphones on all the cellphones everyone is carrying around to create a ShotSpotter-like system that anyone could opt into?

After all, we already have cellphones that listen all the time—for activating phrases like “OK, Google”. And with the advent of “beacons” our phones will soon be able to locate themselves in space with centimeter accuracy, even indoors.


Of course, creating such a system would require the cooperation of the public and companies like Google Inc., which didn’t respond to a request for comment, and Facebook Inc., which declined to comment. But Facebook’s “Safety Check” system, which was instrumental in communicating about the fate of Parisians immediately after the attacks, suggests there are ways to stitch all of our mobile technology into an inexpensive, flexible and ubiquitous early-warning system for terrorism.

Getting there won’t be easy, warns Mr. Bray, and could require public-private partnerships of the sort that have worked for creating, for example, self-driving cars.

Concerns about privacy aside—any such system would have to be completely open-source so that security experts could probe its potential for misuse—it is hard to contemplate living in a world in which we are asked to digest fresh atrocities seemingly every week without at least talking about how we might use the technology in our pockets to mitigate their horrific effects.

Your questions and comments are greatly appreciated.

Monty Henry, Owner


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