Planning for Terrorist Attacks Against U.S. Retailers

Planning for Terrorist Attacks Against U.S. Retailers

The attacks on America on September 11 revealed weaknesses in our systems for national security. The terrorists who carried out the atrocities on that day had moved freely in and out of the United States. They lived here for extended periods while taking flight training and gathering intelligence for their attacks. The breakdown of our intelligence system is, in part, the reason President Bush called for a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. Only time will tell whether the ambitious agenda for the new department will be effective in better protecting the U.S.

The federal government is making changes in national security based on assessments at the highest level of government. Retailers must also examine their security strategies in the face of uncommon threats by terrorists who vow to destroy America. Long-established policies and procedures may not be adequate to provide the level of security needed to protect physical assets, employees, and customers. Some retail companies have made significant improvements in their security programs. But, the retail industry as a whole must continue to assess security programs and make improvements as necessary.

Food Security

The supermarket industry was taken somewhat by surprise on January 9, 2002, the date the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its Food Security Guidelines. The term, food security, was new to practically everyone. I imagine the FDA folks were delighted with their creativity. But rather than create a groundswell of support, the FDA Food Security Guidelines bewildered food safety and security professionals alike. From my point of view and that of most security professionals, the guidelines were basic security points. But the FDA had never before issued security guidelines and many food safety heads argued that they should lead the food security agenda.

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From all indications, food security is now under the company loss prevention or security department in most companies…where it should be. Food security is not food safety. Food security is the application of traditional and contemporary security practices and procedures in the workplace. It is more important than ever before, however, for security executives to partner with companyrisk management, food safety, logistics, and human resource executives to develop and maintain a comprehensive security program. Every company faces security threats today, which were unthinkable before September 11th. Teamwork and commitment are  absolutely essential to protect personnel and assets.

The Threats

Threats uncommon to us come from people who are willing to die a martyr’s death and who want to kill as many Americans as possible. We saw martyrdom in a manner never before witnessed when the terrorists flew jet aircraft into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. But a terrorist may choose a different type of attack. We hear of“suicide bombers” in markets, buses, and public places in Israel almost weekly. Could this type of attack be carried out in a shopping mall, retail store, or subway in our country?

Consider the words in the al Qaeda document found in the personal papers of one of the five men arrested in Lackawanna, NY, on suspicion of being al Qaeda sympathizers:

“Martyrdom or self-sacrifice operations are those performed by one or more people against enemies far outstripping them in numbers and equipment. The form this usually takes nowadays is to wire up to one’s body, or a vehicle or suitcase with explosives, and then to enter into a conglomeration of the enemy, or in their vital facilities, and to detonate in an appropriate place  here in order to cause the maximum loss in enemy ranks” (The Washington Post, September 28, 2002).

It would be foolish to believe that we will not witness human bomb attacks in the United States. In fact, as other avenues of self-sacrifice are blocked by better security or improved security at airports and in air travel, terrorists will likely choose easier targets. The likely targets are places of public assembly that Americans visit every day without a thought about being killed by a bomb blast. There seems to be no defense against a human bomber that has a foolproof guidance system.


Those who question whether we have people in the U.S. who would commit such attacks should consider the foothold foreign terrorists already have here. The federal government reports there are 8,000,000 illegal immigrants in this country. The great majority are probably working, paying taxes, and keeping a low profile. But the CIA and the FBI believe there are numerous al Qaeda cells across the United States. Senator Richard C. Shelby (R-AL), vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has stated he believes there are many potential or active al Qaeda agents in the U.S. There are now upwards of 80,000 names worldwide on the FBI watch list, and it is believed that a number of these people are in the United States.

It is no secret that people from around the world and particularly from Middle Eastern countries have been entering our country illegally for years.

The Food Marketing Institute’s loss prevention staff worked closely with the FBI and state and local law enforcement agencies over five years ago to break up gangs and cells of Albanian illegal immigrants who burglarized supermarket safes and ATMs throughout the mid-Atlantic states and the east coast. There are far more dangerous threats from illegal immigrants today.

A federal program begun on September 11, 2002, has revealed a high number of unwanted and potentially dangerous people wanting to enter the U.S. The program originally required fingerprinting and photographs of citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria, wanting to enter the U.S. But recently, the Immigration and Naturalization Service ordered all males ages 16 to 45 from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Yemen, also to be fingerprinted and photographed.

In the first two months of the program, 179 of the 14,000 people who arrived here from the named countries were arrested by U.S. authorities. The arrestees either had serious criminal records, fled from U.S. authorities during previous visits, or were using fraudulent documents. If 179 potentially dangerous people were stopped from entering the U.S. in just two months, one wonders how many people with similar questionable histories have entered and remained here during the past ten years.The prospects are alarming.

Retailers Must Use Caution

Every retailer, large or small, should have a background screen done for every applicant who has met other employment criteria. Practically every security professional I know believes that good background screening is an invaluable security measure that protects the company against many types of loss. But background screening is not widely used in the retail industry, particularly in the supermarket industry. One of the reasons, it seems, is that some executives believe screening infringes on human rights and personal privacy, or that screening is too expensive. I have even been told by a top security executive that his company’s human resources executive doesn’t believe illegal immigrants pose any significant risk to the company.

Let’s discuss the resistance to background screening apparent in some retail companies. Choosing to not use background screening because of human rights or privacy issues is a weak argument. Background screening is commonplace and accepted in many current situations. For example, drug tests are performed on every applicant for a position requiring a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to operate a commercial vehicle over 26,000 pounds. Drug and alcohol testing continues at various trigger points for each such employed CDL driver. Many companies conduct criminal record checks and credit reports on driver applicants in addition to requiring drug and alcohol tests.

Every federal law enforcement agency and many other federal government agencies conduct full background checks on applicants. Many public school systems now require applicants to satisfy their background screening criteria.

Background screening is a widely-accepted process that assists management in making important decisions when considering applicants for employment. When conducted properly by a reputable company, background screening does not infringe on one’s human rights or privacy. Background screening offered by many providers is inexpensive and may be done, for the most part, on-line over the web at a reasonable cost.

One last comment on this subject: employing illegal aliens  presents more than a risk of terrorism. The practice violates federal and state laws, may harm the company’s reputation, and may lead to problems with company insurers and the IRS.

Major Federal Studies Assess Vulnerabilities

The Washington Post reported on October 10, 2002, that the Bush administration will later this year complete a “super critical list” of potential terrorist targets. A terrorist strike at the targets on the list would do the greatest damage to the U.S. in terms of lives, economy, national defense, and public confidence. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge is leading the team that developed the list and will issue a report of a verycomprehensive study done of the nation’s critical infrastructures. The report, however, is not expected to reveal information that could be used to plan an attack against us.

President George W. Bush, in his address to the nation on July 16, 2002, announced the release of the National Strategy for Homeland Security. Thirteen infrastructures in the U.S. are identified in the report, which was developed and published by the Office of Homeland Security. The critical infrastructures include the following:

  • Agriculture,
  • Food,
  • Water,
  • Public health,
  • Emergency services,
  • Government,
  • Defense industrial base,
  • Information and telecommunications,
  • Energy,
  • Transportation,
  • Banking and finance,
  • Chemical industry, and
  • Postal and shipping.

Certain information regarding the “super critical list” (due to be released in late 2002, after this article was written) is a companion report to the initial strategic report of July 16, 2002. Apparently, the report will suggest ways to mobilize government and businesses quickly, if credible intelligence reports indicate threats of terrorism.

The Rand Report on Homeland Security

In June 2002, Rand’s National Defense Research Institute released a report developed for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The report discusses the vulnerabilities of the physical infrastructures in the report by the Office of Homeland Security mentioned previously. Chapter nine of the Rand report discusses vulnerabilities of the food and agriculture infrastructures. The report mentions several times that vulnerabilities at retail include inadequate background screening, emphasis on food safety rather than food security, inadequate security in food transportation, and poor planning for risk communication and other emergency responses. In addition to recommending improvements in the perceived vulnerabilities in retail stores, the report suggests restricting access to critical areas in stores, plants, and distribution centers by using badging systems and other physical security measures.

Planning for Terrorist Attacks Against U.S. Retailers

The Road Ahead

The federal government will likely be involved in certain aspects of private industry security programs. We may see a standardized motor vehicle operator’s license, guidelines or regulations on background screening, federal security requirements for securing hazmat tankers, truck trailer, and shippingcontainers, as well as other guidelines and rules. Much emphasis will be placed on transportation security. The emphasis in 2002 was on air travel security and border security (see Securing the Supply Chain Against Terrorism). In 2003, federal andstate governments will turn their attention to land  ransportation security.

Some 800,000 loads of hazardous materials move every day over U.S. highways, many of these placarded loads move in or near cities and industrial complexes. More than 50,000 loads of gasoline are transported daily in the U.S. Some of the tank trucks hold as much fuel as a Boeing 757 aircraft. There is much work to be done by private industry and the government to improve land transportation security.

The U.S. is in an unfamiliar position today. The enemies of America have brought the fight to us, in our homeland. We face threats from groups we don’t understand. Yet these people are here in countless neighborhoods across America. This is not the time to reduce security budgets to offset lower  sales and profits.

In the months ahead, we will hear much about the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This new department will have over 170,000 employees from twenty-two agencies. The Transportation Security Administration, Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Secret Service, Coast Guard, and Federal Emergency Management Agency make up the new department.

As in any merger of companies or even major departments within a company, there will be internal battles, missteps, and questions about the agenda for the DHS. Getting the department up and running will be an enormous undertaking. Retailers should not be complacent while the departmenttakes shape. Retailers should evaluate very closely all company security rules, practices, and procedures. More terrorist attacks seem inevitable. Most will be very difficult to prevent. But, in any case, management must be able to look back and look ahead to see if they have done everything they could reasonably do to protect the company, its personnel, and its customers.


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