Hawaii: Hard Target

May, 2003

Terrorism’s new modus operandi of doing the unthinkable by using the unimaginable has opened a Pandora’s Box of paradoxes: The invulnerable are now vulnerable; the obscure and the peaceful suddenly are targets of opportunity.

“Defense is always a harder job than offense,” Baker says. “When you’re in the business of protecting people and property, you have to keep watch over everything, but terrorists have the advantage of being free to concentrate on a single weakness.”

Where does Hawaii stand in this new universe of seeming contradictions? With the Bali bombing, the discovery of an al-Qaeda cell in Singapore and the continual unrest of the Philippines’ Muslim population, it would seem that Hawaii, at the far western edge of the United States, would be particularly vulnerable. In addition, being the home of the Pacific Fleet, the Islands’ provide terrorists with multiple targets of high symbolic value. Then again, being home to the Pacific Fleet also means that the Navy provides a security zone that extends far beyond the state’s shores. Perhaps more importantly, the Islands’ relative isolation and small population make it much more difficult for terrorists to penetrate with any effectiveness.

“You could say that Hawaii is safer, because we are farther away from the Mainland. But you could also argue that it is more dangerous,” says Rear Adm. Ralph D. Utley, who is district commander of the 14th U.S. Coast Guard District that is based in Hawaii. “Because we are so small and isolated, it makes it more difficult for terrorists to come in. Yet, if there is something that happens here, the cavalry isn’t over the hill.”

Maj. Gen. Craig B. Whelden, deputy commanding general, U.S. Army Pacific, believes that Hawaii’s location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and its importance to the security of the entire region give it a distinct advantage over the rest of the country in preventing terrorism and reacting to acts of terrorism. With only one international airport, one seaport and no true interstate highways, the flow of people, goods and information is far easier to control and observe than anywhere else in the country.

“Terrorism isn’t an impulsive sport. It is a well-planned, choreographed and thought-out act,” Whelden says. “You have to have access to explosives or chemical or biological weapons. You have to have the training. As small as this state is, it is difficult to do things without getting noticed.”

“Terrorism relies on its logistic and command capability,” Baker says. “The ‘skill people’ don’t kill themselves in attacks. Even if you truly hate your enemy, you have to weigh your chances of success.”

Unlike the Mainland, the movement of goods to Hawaii is overwhelmingly from ships, which unload their cargo at one port. Ninety-five percent of all goods entering the Hawaiian Islands pass through Honolulu Harbor, nearly 5,000 containers a week. The overwhelming majority of that cargo comes from ports on the West Coast.

The U.S. Coast Guard, the lead maritime agency for homeland security, has the primary responsibility of protecting the country against the movement of hazardous materials. Nationwide, it has gone through a fundamental change in the way it performs its duties.

Pre-Sept. 11, ships’ captains were required to give 24-hour notice of their arrival into port. Now, they are required to give 96-hour notice and provide crew, passenger and cargo manifests and other information, such as last port of call. The information is run through databases in Washington. If the ship is determined to be a vessel of high interest, the Coast Guard boards it on the high seas with a detachment of armed Sea Marshals. The marshals ensure that the vessel is what its captain says it is, the people are who they say they are, and determine if there is any danger to the United States.

“We’ve gone from a fire-house mentality to a cop-on-the-beat mentality,” Utley says. “We used to wait for the bell to go off and then jump into the boat and take off for search and rescue. Now, we are out there on patrol. Our new homeland security role has actually improved our response time. We’re doing a better job at search and rescue now.”

According to Utley, on Sept. 10, 2001, only 2 percent of the Coast Guard’s effort was devoted to homeland security. Two days later, the level of that activity shot up to 58 percent. Today, his personnel devote about 20 percent to 25 percent of their time to homeland security efforts. In 2004, U.S. Coast Guard personnel in Hawaii will grow from 2,200 to a little more than 4,000 strong. This would include the addition of waterborne SWAT teams, 71 active-duty personnel assigned to six boats. Moreover, over the next 20 years, the Coast Guard will be going through a major overhaul, a $17 billion recapitalization of its ships, boats and aircraft. “We’re getting bigger and better,” Utley says.

Hawaii’s small size, relative isolation and longtime military importance to the country have also contributed to creating close working relationships among the military and municipal, state and federal agencies. Prior to Sept. 11, these officials (including Utley and Whelden) met on a regular basis to discuss safety concerns, mostly involving natural disasters. Now called the Hawaii Preparedness Executive Council, the group, which meets monthly, made a relatively easy transition to focusing on homeland security issues.

The result is superior information gathering and dissemination, an essential element in preventing terrorism and responding to attacks.

Finally, Hawaii may be safer than many cities on the Mainland, because it is generally considered a “hard” or difficult target by many military planners. Since terrorists try to create terror in the most dramatic way possible, they participate in what military planners call asymmetrical warfare, avoiding an engagement with the military head-on. Instead, they concentrate on “soft” targets, unprotected areas, such as quiet Kuta Beach. Like Bali, Hawaii’s resort areas may seem a world away. Unlike Bali, the state has a heavy military presence.

“We have the largest concentration of military of any geographical footprint in the United States,” Whelden says. “We have all the services here and the unified command in Adm. Thomas Fargo. What that brings to the table is a depth of resources and capabilities that most communities don’t have.”

The result, according to Whelden, is a situation of diminishing returns for terrorists. Pearl Harbor and the other military installations in the Islands have significant symbolic value, but at what cost? Hawaii is a hard place to infiltrate. It’s a difficult location from which to move people and material. The Mainland has many more lucrative targets that are far more accessible. For instance, Washington, D.C., will always be a target, along with other critical national assets, such as dams and nuclear power plants.

“If you’re a terrorist, are you going to sacrifice yourself to bomb Ala Moana Shopping Center?” Whelden says. “That’s not likely to happen for any number of reasons.

“I would be extremely surprised if the next big terrorist event that occurs in the United States—and I believe there will be one—takes place in Hawaii,” Whelden continues. “Quite frankly, there are many other targets that have bigger payoffs for terrorists.”

The East-West Center’s Baker agrees. Hawaii is probably safer than just about any city on the Mainland. There are no borders to police and no crossings, where a huge polyglot of people come and go. “We are a blessed community,” Baker says. “But then again, that’s probably how people in Hawaii felt on Dec. 6, 1941.”

Related Stories

On Newsstands Now

October 2017

HB October 2017


David K. Choo