Protecting Detroit From Terrorists: How a Softer Approach Overseas Could Help

The prospect of a terrorist assault against the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel has been considered by academics, law enforcement, and counter-terror planners in government. This lurking catastrophe has been analyzed at Wayne State University and evaluated at the University of Windsor as the implications would have profound and lasting political and economic consequences. Regrettably, it remains a possibility requiring carefully reasoned articulation by policymakers in both the U.S. and Canada.

As an academic who has devoted much of his work to understanding the sources and origins of terrorism and its underlying patterns, here is the scenario along with a set of counter-terror practices we could employ to protect ourselves. It's an unsettling story but one that needs to be heard.

The explosions that detonated the Ambassador Bridge, the Detroit-Windsor tunnel, and Orchestra Hall, home to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on October 14, 2015 were devastating. Explosives were placed at critical structural junctures on the bridge and detonated with trucks and automobiles plunging hundreds of feet into the Detroit River. Almost simultaneously, a suicide bomber with an explosives laden car made his way into the Detroit-River tunnel from the American side and detonated his vehicle midway, where the Canadian and American flags decorate the white tile wall. The Detroit River swirled through the tunnel, drowning at least 150 daily commuters.

Likewise, some 20 minutes beforehand, a terrorist wielding an Uzi sub-machine gun and hand grenades opened fire in Orchestra Hall where the Detroit Symphony was performing Brahms's Fourth Symphony. In the ensuing melee 60 people of the nearly 2,000 in attendance were killed while some 200 were injured.

Along with the enormous political and emotional effects of those terrorist assaults, glaring economic effects resonated throughout the nation. The Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor tunnel are two of the most critical infrastructure choke points along the American-Canadian border, a border with the largest amount of cross border economic traffic in the world.

Automobiles, trucks, vans and SUV's manufactured in Detroit-Windsor area could not be delivered leading to a massive decline in automotive sales and sales from `Big Three' supplier companies. Still rebounding from the so-called "Great Recession" of 2008, the ripple effects sent the stock market to its lowest point in seven years and the region's unemployment rate rising.

Later, it was determined that a group of terrorists -- posing as college students enjoying the river bank at night -- had scoped out the Ambassador Bridge's vulnerabilities from the Canadian side. In retrospect, counter-terror planners, analysts, policymakers, and academics understood that the assault against Orchestra Hall was diversionary against a "soft target." It was symbolic because classical music represents Western political, military, and cultural predominance to Islamic revivalist extremists. The perpetrators were, most likely, not directly linked to al-Qaeda, but inspired by its anti-American, anti-Israel, and anti-Western political messages.

Clearly, there were security breakdowns within, and between, federal, state, and local police agencies that allowed the terrorists to acquire and use their weapons. But such underlying tactical security breaches are part of a broader story. As analysis in Washington, D.C. tried to make sense of those events, they considered whether it would be possible to trace the detonation of those bombs to a time and geographical locales far away.

The discussion unfolds where leaders suggest that perhaps more proactive and integrative counter-terror efforts, combining "hard-line" and "soft-line" practices within foreign policy objectives could have been employed. Efforts to provide a "holistic" approach to counterterrorism would offset factors such as economic blight, an example being social services provided to potential constituent groups associated with terrorist group formation. A broad array of U.S. departmental agencies would be involved: the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of State, Department of Energy Department of Homeland Security, and even the Department of Education in efforts to influence the thinking of potential supporters of terrorist organizations.

Another approach some scholars suggest is emphasis on "smaller units of governance", and the provision of security packages tailor-made to specific clusters of neighborhoods. This broadens traditional notions of security and includes access to education and employment opportunities, not to replace national, state, or local government but to provide a sense of empowerment or "agency" to citizens. The underlying aim is to provide a greater allure or incentive to participate in larger political processes. As some counter-terror specialists suggest, this would help to establish an additional set of social identification ties to help offset the more destructive effects of racial and ethnic politics, recently illustrated with the aftermath of Trayvon Martin's death in Florida.

Human security issues would be tackled and at the international level this means dealing with internally displaced refugees, immigration, economic backwater conditions, disease, children soldiers, women's rights and sub-standard education. These security products would be packaged with traditional peace-keeping functions entirely consistent with what scholars of Conflict Resolution (CR) such as Ramsbotham, Woodhouse, and Miall, call "third generation peacekeeping." In the process, specific geographical demographic and other "attributes" of neighborhoods would be analyzed, resulting in the provision of services such as hydroelectric power for example, and broader security services in non-traditional formats, avoiding almost singular focus on military or police emphasis. In ways that closely parallel how aircraft companies design aircraft to specific customer specifications, some in the business community have suggested such business practices might serve as a template for security provision efforts.

In the wake of October 14, 2015 events, further questions plagued Washington, D.C. leadership such as if a program like this had been embraced in 2012, would potential constituent supporters of terrorist groups have felt more involved in the political system in their respective countries and less inclined to lash out? Would that have changed conflict conditions from the grass-roots levels upwards, working in tandem with national efforts? In turn, could the United States have relied less on more forceful counter-terror measures and more on those with a productive return in the realms of education and health care, efforts that themselves would have promoted broader national integration?

Nowadays, in a world where we are hopeful that such a Detroit disaster will never happen, increasingly sophisticated approaches to counter-terror practices as described above have been embraced by organizations such as the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR). They require a broader definition of national security, greater articulation of counter-terror efforts with "softer-line" emphasis to work in conjunction with more traditional "hard-line" efforts, and most importantly, effective and sustained actions. It's a project that can galvanize members of various communities and one in which we all have a vested interest.