9/12/01: Experts at UI remark on degree of coordination

This story originally appeared on Sept. 12, 2001.

Sept. 11, 2001 may end up being "the bloodiest day in American military history," and it may not be the last such day, John Lynn says.

"How are we going to keep this from happening in the future?" the University of Illinois history professor and military historian said Tuesday. "What are we going to do the next time a plane is hijacked, shoot it down?"

Lynn has no hesitation placing the apparent terrorist acts in the realm of military history.

"This is an act of war," he said, noting the nation's responses, including the evacuation of the White House and sending the fleet to sea.

But unlike Pearl Harbor, the situation presents a challenge for national leaders to identify and retaliate against the aggressors.

"I wonder whether we're a blind giant," he said. "I want a response. I don't want a flailing."

Other UI experts said the obviously huge amount of planning and coordination in the attack makes a repeat unlikely, but not impossible.

"The main message from this is that this is a very unusual event," said Cliff Singer, director of the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the UI.

"The thing that stands out about this is the coordination it took to do this," Singer said. "That's uncharacteristic of events like the Oklahoma City bombing where two or three people were involved. It's unprecedented that something in this scope has been carried out, apparently without prior detection."

Singer noted that former FBI director Louis Freeh said in a recent televised interview that, more often than not, U.S. intelligence services intercept intended terrorist attacks on American soil.

Julian Palmore, a University of Illinois math professor and national security specialist, said it's surprising that a group was able to avoid airport security and hijack at least three airplanes.

"There are counter-terrorism activities, intelligence activities," said Palmore, a member of the UI Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security who co-taught a class on protecting against terrorism.

"The surprising thing is this has happened without any warning whatsoever, with a large-scale organization that would require years of planning, I think, to keep it secret," he said.

"You've got to have terrorists who can fly aircraft, specific aircraft," he continued. "You have to have very careful synchronization of activities. Everything took place within an hour. Lots of things had to be coordinated, and clearly this is not people mixing up explosives in 55-gallon drums and driving a truck into the World Trade Center."

Palmore has been questioning the Bush administration's prioritization of a national defense system against intercontinental ballistic missiles, a threat he views as extremely limited compared to methods of attack like the nation saw Tuesday.

"It's just so far beyond any scenario that could have been dreamed up," he said. "But it isn't improbable if you have a group aiming toward that. There are a lot of threats out there."

 

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