Opinion: Editorials

Examiner Editorial: Only you can prevent terrorists from starting forest fires

Photo - Nick Ut/AP
Justin Rendich, a firefighter from Santa Clarita, hoses a hot spot at a wildfire in Lancaster, Calif., earlier this month.
Nick Ut/AP Justin Rendich, a firefighter from Santa Clarita, hoses a hot spot at a wildfire in Lancaster, Calif., earlier this month.
Editorial,September 11 Terrorist Attacks,National Security,NSA

A few national security experts suggest that some of the forest fires being set in America may be lit by terrorists. Al Qaeda's online magazine, Inspire (the same magazine that claims to have inspired the Boston Marathon bombings), published an article in 2012 titled, "It is of your freedom to ignite a firebomb." The article described the immense damages wild fires have caused over the years in America, and gave instructions on how to create an "ember bomb" to ignite such a blaze. After citing several instances of historically large wild fires, the magazine encouraged its terrorist readers that they, too, could recreate such catastrophic damage "in a shorter time and with much bigger destructive impact."

In July 2012, former National Security Agency official and Aviation Week editor William Scott delivered an American Center for Democracy presentation on "Fire Wars" with a detailed discussion of how terrorists use fire as a weapon of war. "Perhaps the most simple form of economic warfare is wild land arson," Scott told a panel. "For any terrorists that are determined to inflict significant damage with very little investment or risk, fire is an extremely high-leverage weapon of mass effect." Scott said that Navy SEALs found documents after capturing Osama bin Laden that revealed a plot to set fires in America. "U.S. officials have pretty much determined that some of the fires that burned in California [in 2011] were ignited by al Qaeda operatives," Scott said.

So far this year there have been 19,894 fires in the U.S., and 16 large fires are currently burning in California, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. The cause of many of these fires has been reported as arson, but no official link has been claimed to al Qaeda. Even before 2012, the notion of terrorists setting wild fires was a possibility. In 2003, the FBI reported that a detained al Qaeda terrorist claimed to have masterminded a plot to set wild fires in the western U.S. Despite this warning, National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Rose Davis said that the officials noted the terrorist's confession, but for some reason felt no need to act on the claims.

The evidence is there to be concerned about this threat. Most of the large fires currently burning in the West are on federal lands and just miles from population centers. Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld of the American Center for Democracy's Economic Warfare Institute has followed this issue closely, and writes that "in California alone, during the first two weeks of June, wild land fires have already surpassed the total cost of the last two years of firefighting in rural areas." She also notes that, as our economy is recovering (slowly), natural disasters could "easily deplete state treasuries."

Those trying to downplay the threat of terrorism have dismissed such a possibility as paranoid. As Americans learned in 2001, and again as recently as 2012 in Benghazi and 2013 with the Boston Marathon bombing, terrorist threats are not something to take lightly.

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