Terrorist Forest Fires?

I caught a lot of flak a few months back when I speculated about why terrorists don’t carry out a wide array of simple but devastating terrorist plots. (For fear of another flood of hate mail, I don’t dare link to those earlier posts, but if you are interested you can easily find them.)

I’m pretty sure that forest fires would be a uniquely ineffective form of terrorism, but apparently setting fires was one of the scenarios that al Qaeda terrorists had considered.

From a terrorist’s perspective, there are some good points to the forest fire plot: it is incredibly easy, it only takes a few terrorists, it costs almost no money to carry out, and it imposes some non-trivial costs on the United States to fight the fires. On the other hand, it completely misses the main points of terrorism: to scare large numbers of people, and to disrupt everyday life. Almost nobody lives in areas likely to be affected by these fires. They would be an annoyance, but they likely wouldn’t evoke much terror.

(Hat tip: Pete Adams.)


This all seems to be missing the main point: you can't have an effective terrorist act if you don't have terrorists claiming credit for it. If it looks natural, it is totally ineffective, regardless of the damage it causes, because it does not cause terror (outside of the immediate effect of the event - if an earthquake had taken down the Twin Towers, the reaction would have been markedly different). Thus, even if terrorists did start these fires, they do a horrible job of terrorism.


"They would be an annoyance, but they likely wouldn't evoke much terror."

This takes the cake in terms of insensitivity.

Right Now: A million people displaced. Thousands losing their homes and all their possessions. People are dying. Firefighters are risking their lives.

What in God's name could you be thinking in making this post???


The reader comments to a story posted on the Orange County (CA) Register web site yesterday couldn't have been more conclusive: the fire in Orange County is arson (three separate ignition points on opposite sides of the road, according to the fire authorities), therefore it must have been Al Qaeda.

I'd be much more interested in trying to understand the thought processes of the people who came to that conclusion. How and why do they take a single piece of data and come to such an absurd and unwarranted conclusion?


an off topic comment on #6:

i recall listening to a story once on an all-black tank (battalion? squadron? group?) in WWII, which was held back in the states. however, they were continually training, and wound up knowing their tanks better than anyone. when they eventually went to germany, they ran circles around the technologically superior german tanks due to their high level of training. they also outperformed equivalent white american tank units in terms of damage dealt compared to damage suffered.


"On the other hand, it completely misses the main points of terrorism: to scare large numbers of people, and to disrupt everyday life."

I'm going to have to agree with the previous comments #1,2,3,4,5... and others: I think this wins Thoughtless Post of the Week, Levitt. If you don't think the fires in SoCal are scary and disruptive, I think it's because you're a couple thousand miles away from them right now, unlike some of your readers.

Mike S.

The terrorist plot he refers to is in unpopulated areas, not So-Cal. Click the link he provides.


I think the terrorist group would have already 'claimed their fame' (so to speak in the sick way they think), if this is what was going on in So Cal.


I would agree with post #7

Forest fires require certian conditions to be true for them to start. You canot just light a match in the winter and expect a forest fire to develop.


At the very least, it is certainly naive to not consider the possibility of a terrorist initiated attack in San Diego county caused by a seemingly natural event. It would be grossly negligent, of course, if the federal government would not consider such a cause in their investigation. Although a terrorist cannot cause a hurricane, he or she can cause a fire of disastrous proportion at the right time of the year.

Why would San Diego county have been chosen as a target by Al Quaeda ? First, approximately 95,000 uniformed military personnel are stationed there and a total of 175,000, if one includes family members. The Navy, including the Marine Corps, operate seven bases in the area. Second, originally, the 9/11 attack in the East Coast was to be accompanied by a concurrent attack in the West Coast. Three, two of the original 9/11 hijackers had made their base in San Diego. Four, Al Quaeda memmbers consider themselves to be "soldiers" (and not terrorists) in a "holy" mandated war against the infidels; as such, the greater the destruction of materiel, lives, and land in their war the closer they are to their supposed "salvation."

Unless, one considers ALL the possibilities of what may have caused a horrific disaster such as this one, one will be powerless from preventing them from occuring in the future.



What I think most of you don't really understand is that while the fires in California are big and have definitely cost a lot of money and time and aggrevation, most people in the U.S. aren't scared of a forest fire.
The point Levitt is trying to make (I think) is that terrorists want people to be scared because the terrorist act could happen anywhere. Are people in NYC scared of a forest fire? Probably not. Earlier this year Florida had over 300 fires that were going at the same time and I'm sure most of the country was thinking, "Wow that sucks to be them," not "Oh my God, that could happen here, run for the hills." The point of the previous blog articles was that terrorists want small (or large in the case of 9/11) acts that could happen in any city in the U.S. That would be much scarier than setting forest fires in select cities.


Funny how no news groups are asking the question: "Did someone start these fires?" Instead we are all conditioned to accept these wildfires as exactly that: wild fires.


This morning while listening to the Mexican equivalent of NPR there was an interesting note relating the Fires to the unbearable increase in mortage payments. They mentioned how a certain area of Rancho Sta Fe was an area specially affected by the rise in mortage payments and specially lagging behind in mortgage payments and how many of the houses on fire might have not been directly realted to the forest fire but rather to people trying to escape impossible payments and also make a little gain from insurance coverage. What do you think?


Uh, yeah, Jacob, except for the fact that at least one of the fires has officially been declared an arson. That fact has been reported widely. If you're going to make a comment on the media -- which I often do myself -- at least check out available media before doing so.


Forest fires don't scare people. I live in Southern California - the only reason this fire is different is because the winds were abnormally strong for an abnormally long time.

Normally, Al Quaeda could set all the fires they want and I wouldn't give a rat's a** about it.

I suppose they could make it their strategy to scare us whenever a huge Santa Ana wind system came to California but that would be a pretty sad act of "terrorism."

Add this to the fact that it requires a lot of uncleared brush and so forth to maintain a fire and this is a recipe for a pathetic Richard Reid shoe bomb attempt. California has had it's budget for clearing those areas cut during the current administration but that is unlikely to be the case going forward.

Dr. Troy Camplin

Now supposed that the fires resulted in the evacuation of a million people . . . And then it became known that al Qaida had set the fires . . .


I'm here in San Diego and have experienced more than three major wildfires. The last one in 2003 burned down my property in Julian, CA. The recent one came about 1.5 miles near where I currently live. There was a voluntary evacuation ordered yesterday which was rescinded later. It is the weather that drove these wild fires and the lack of rain for several years. It was the "perfect storm" conditions - low humidity, high winds and presence of highly combustible brush that led to this events.

As for terrorists causing it is possible but highly improbable since the outcome is unpredictable. Also, the point of origin for most (if not all) of the fires were in very remote areas and someone has to have access and quick exit if they start the fires. I do not give much credibility to such theories and there are more vulnerable targets to attain their objectives.


It really doesn't matter who *started* the fires -- arson, accident, natural causes, it doesn't matter. Uncleared brush, dry weather, and high winds blowing in the wrong direction are what spread the destruction from wee little fires to half of San Diego.


about levitt and insensitive remarks:

well he has been quoted as saying that global warming would be good for canada...


of course, levitt might have a penchant for the ironical...


The very goal of Al-Qaeda is to not only to terrorize the public, but also to inflict massive economic damage to the American infrastructure. This is a war, and Al-Qaeda is going to take full advantage of every opportunity.


Forest fires would cause the desired level of fear and panic if we knew they had been set intentionally and with an agenda.

When the bridge in Minnesota collapsed a couple months ago it was newsworthy for a few days. Had a group claimed responsibility for it, we would still be talking about it and thinking twice each time we crossed a bridge.