Al-Qaida Pyromania?

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The Arizona Republic has unveiled a June 25 FBI memo, warning that, in the AR's paraphrase, "a senior al-Qaida detainee told federal investigators he had developed a plan to set midsummer forest fires in Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming." Western vulnerability to a group arson attack has always been an irrational worry of mine, given the weather conditions, number of people living near forests, and so on … though I suppose hikers would begin to notice if obvious non-backpackers kept showing up and sniffing around for the driest brush.

The article also contains this historical nugget:

America's national forests have been targeted before. On Sept. 9, 1942, a plane launched from a Japanese submarine flew over Oregon's forests dropping incendiary bombs. The plan was to cause massive conflagrations in the forests that would be hard to fight because of their size and the lack of manpower. But the weather didn't cooperate, and the fires the Japanese set didn't spread very far.

NEXT: Meow Tse Tung?

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  1. I think the “historical nugget” may be slightly inaccurate – I seem to recall that it was an unmanned balloon, not a plane.

  2. Screw the forests – two guys in a van could set all the areas surrounding Los Angeles ablaze in a couple hours in the middle of the night. And stand a fair chance of not geting caught. Thousands of expensive homes would be in danger, and hundreds could easily be lost.

  3. yeah, they could also put LSD in the water supply while they’re at it! that’d be a trip 😀

  4. Don’t get me wrong – that would suck – but it doesn’t exactly have the oomph of putting a pipe bomb in a bar.

  5. This is the first thing I’ve heard that since we’ve been at yellow alert (SNARK) that sounds credible. With the proper research, hundreds of thousands if not millions of acres of US woodland could be set ablaze with high reliability, at virtually no cost, and very low risk of getting caught.

  6. Looking at it crudely, it would seem like an obvious target — get 40 guys on 40 key brush-fire points near the foothills all over Southern California on a hot August day, and do your worst. Repeat scenario in five western states, preferably on the same day, and watch the emergency-resource response come up short. I’m sure there’s a reason why this would be extremely *difficult* to do, but I don’t know what it is, beyond the usual difficulty in organizing several score humans effectively without drawing attention to yourself. Any other suggestions?

  7. They were launching planes from submarines in 1942 ? Got to look this up.

  8. It would be at least a little ironic if terrorists attacked us by burning down our trees, thus denying us the opportunity to cut them down. Kind of amusing, in a fact-loose strange sort of way.

  9. The Japanese I400 class. If I recall correctly, the Japanese built them for a planned attack on the Panama Canal. Just a few torpedo hits on the locks might have closed the Canal for months or even years. Anyway, there’s a great I400 page by a US submariner here —

    http://www.pacerfarm.org/i-400/

  10. You know that stuff (powder, I think) that they drop on forest fires from helicopters? Well, DuPont (or some such company you’ve got stock in) could manufacture tons of such flame-retardant material, and fire-proof all the trees west of the Mississippi.

    Cheap, when you consider what the alternative costs.

  11. Let’s just build that giant dome over the whole country and leave it at that…

  12. Would Ashcroft reclassify these foreign terrorists as eco-terrorists or is that only reserved for eco-lefties?

  13. “there must be something else that makes this much harder to do.”

    What do you mean?

  14. They’re Arabs, from the desert. They don’t know what trees are.

  15. Besides, it wouldn’t be in line with terrorist aesthetics. Trees don’t bleed.

  16. On Thu or Fri there was a car chase in Hollywood. Looking to the skies, I saw about 8 helicopters and, strangely enough, 2 or 3 fixed-wing single engine planes. I doubt whether the fixed-wing planes were news media. They might be LAPD, but, then again, they might be some other agency…

    Given the large amount of aerial surveillance carried out in the L.A. area, one would think that brush fires, especially those started at night, would be noticed quite quickly. If they noticed several fires all starting at once, or a series being started one after the other, I’m sure they’d figure out it was a planned arson and not natural.

    I won’t go into details, but it would seem that trying to start several brush fires at once or in a series would result in the cops blocking roads (like the 2, Mulholland, etc.), making getting away in a car difficult. If they were trying to get back to city streets via hiking or biking, that would take a while.

    If a series of arsons started over several days that appeared to be terrorism, most likely they would just shut down those roads for the time being.

    Note also that in some places in the San Gabriels you (supposedly) need to get a specific day pass for the area (the Cucamonga Wilderness for instance).

    Note also that it’s usually pretty easy to distinguish between the various types visiting our local forests based on various factors such as their physical condition, clothing, equipment, how much or how little water they’re carrying, etc. Spotting Sierra Clubbers is pretty easy. Middle Eastern terrorists would look quite out of place unless they really worked at blending in. Plus, there are people living at various trailheads like the dead-end road to the Mt. Baldy area, Santa Anita canyon, etc.

    In more remote areas like WY, MT, etc. it would be easier to avoid detection, but a) they’d still need to deal with the fact that there’s probably a single road making a getaway difficult, and b) they’d need to deal with navigating and hiking in a remote, undeveloped area.

  17. ?Given the large amount of aerial surveillance carried out in the L.A. area, one would think that brush fires, especially those started at night, would be noticed quite quickly.?

    Don?t think so, Wacko. California is broke. And such activities would be pretty expensive. (You?d have to keep aircraft up there day after day, night after night.)

    Better to call in the satellite services.

    Some geek munching Doritos and gobbling root beer while her bloodshot eyes were scanning satellite monitors in some dinky L.A. office, would still be much more cost effective than burning flight fuel 24/7 among the gliding buzzards.

  18. It’s California. Let it burn.

  19. Maple trees do…or was that a Canadian? Hm…

  20. Yes, well, as I pointed out in my post, there were 2 or 3 fixed-wing aircraft flying over this car chase. Strangely, I don’t think they were scrambled just for this one chase; I’ve seen such aircraft flying over downtown when there were no chases. As I alluded to, perhaps they’re from the federales, not CA. The CHP also uses fixed-wing aircraft over the Central Valley and other areas, as do highway patrols elsewhere. I’m not advocating for their use, I’m just pointing out that they’re being used in addition to helicopters.

  21. Dear Guys and Gals:
    Hal Clement a.k.a. Harry Stubbs who was one of the guests of Honor at the world known Readercon (a veddy serious SF Convention you know writers and editors OH My!)Was assigned during the last years of WW2 to fly over the Northwest
    USA and shoot down the launched balloons that the Japanese sought to 1) burn down american forests and 2) improve their targetting (letting amer. newspapers tell them where they hit.)until they could plant ‘smut’ a grain disease on america’s wheat supply – It was hoped that this ‘smut’ wiould would cripple food suppy to the Pacific theater.
    People who would like to know more are welcome to get my newsletter on Unit 734 and the japanese A-BOMB at the e-mail address below.

    Michael Colpitts / vorgat@comcast.net

    Hal Celement wrote “Mission of Gravity” among others

  22. Is this what keeps you up at night? Pathetic.

  23. Terrorists have drills, Jetson.

  24. “40 guys”?!?

    1 van, 1 driver, 1 guy with a sling-shot, a lighter, and a bucket full of Tijuana firecrackers. There have to be hundreds of miles of freeways here that run within tens of feet of drybrush – areas that burn by themselves, one at a time, every few years, putting hundreds of families (and hundreds of millions of dollars in property at risk)

    In three hours huge areas of Glendale, Thousand Oaks, Malibu, etc could be in serious trouble.

    I don’t know if the fire deparments here do night-time aerial firespotting in these areas, but that would be the only way to catch this happening before it got out of hand.

    Like you said, there must be something else that makes this much harder to do. Either that, or there really aren’t very many motivated terrorists lurking out there.

  25. What is a “supercaliente portable little chicas?”

    Is that some very hot little coffee stove that’s small enough to be carried along on your hikes? And if so, why would Arizona have a monopoly on it? Surely, the market would make them available everywhere, no?

  26. A Japanese I-boat did indeed launch a plane that dropped fire bombs on the American NorthWest.

  27. Wouldn’t it be funny if some Arab terrorists tried to set Idaho or Montana on fire and ended up burning down a militia compound instead?

  28. “Yes, well, as I pointed out in my post, there were 2 or 3 fixed-wing aircraft flying over this car chase. Strangely, I don’t think they were scrambled just for this one chase; I’ve seen such aircraft flying over downtown when there were no chases. As I alluded to, perhaps they’re from the federales, not CA. The CHP also uses fixed-wing aircraft over the Central Valley and other areas, as do highway patrols elsewhere.”

    While I have no direct knowledge of the issue, I am almost certain that they areplanes used in anti-drug production enforcement (ie, to find fields of marijuani, as we just happen to have one plane and full-time pilot in my own county here.

  29. “A Japanese I-boat did indeed launch a plane that dropped fire bombs on the American NorthWest.”

    OK. So?

    An American airplane did indeed launch a “Fat Man” and a “Little Boy” that fire-bombed the Japanese SouthWest.

    Wanna mess with America? Just try.

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