The 21st century has ushered in many challenges and issues for law enforcement. One of these is the increased fielding of directed energy devices and weapons by both law enforcement and non-state groups. While Tasers, intense white lights, and laser dazzlers may be familiar tools to many police officers, similar devices can just as readily be employed against them. Lasers are of specific interest in this regard.
For some time now, the migration of counter-optical laser TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures) between non-state groups has become an increasing concern. To date, laser pointers and other forms of lasers used in a counter-optical role have been employed by criminals, insurgents, and narco-traffickers against police and military forces. The rogue state of North Korea has also employed a blinding laser system and even the infamous Aum Shrinkyo cult of Japan, as early as the 1990s, attempted to utilize a blinding laser system against Tokyo police but failed.
Recent events in Athens, Greece in December 2008 represent a major firebreak crossed in regards to counter-optical TTP migration. During the rioting in Athens, a band of protesters utilized green lasers in a coordinated manner against Greek riot-control police.1
In retrospect, the migration of counter-optical laser use to non-state groups is not unexpected. Early red teaming analysis in the late 1990s among Emerging Threats Subcommittee members of the Los Angeles Terrorism Early Warning Group focused on counter-optical and other potential uses of lasers. These exercises were combined with follow-on Counter-OPFOR Program, National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center-West (NLECTC-West) training and countermeasures initiatives and even later projects conducted in support of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)/Police Futurists International (PFI) Futures Working Group (FWG).
While such analysis was being conducted, directed energy weapons developments were also taking place. The earliest recorded incident of protesters using lasers dates back to 29 November 1999 at the so-called “Battle for Seattle”:
“6:30 PM: A labor group of several hundred protesters joins the Kingdome group, and the combined groups begin to push against the security fencing, throw rocks at officers, and direct laser pointers towards police. At police request, AFL-CIO protest organizers try to urge non-violence, but are drowned out by the crowd. (After-Action Report)”2
Weak red lasers were undoubtedly employed given the time period. The incident seems to be forgotten in protest lore and has not been picked up in any of the Web stories or blogs in the mainstream or activist media concerning the recent Athens incident.
Events in Genoa, Italy in 2001 marked a major evolutionary step in the path to directed energy use by protesters. In this case, the protesters reflected the glare from the sun using 1,000 cheap mirrors. It may have been amateurish, but from an operational perspective it represented the ready acceptance of a new concept of operations: focusing directed energy in mass.
Speculation and musings over the use of laser pointers in a counter-electro-optical role were noted as early as September 2002 in a posting under the heading “PHOTINT Photographic Intelligence Operatives” at the activist site www.indymedia.org:
“laser pointers and digital cameras
30 Sep 2002
Date Edited: 30 Sep 2002 11:16:14 PM
I wonder what one of those laser pointers that puts out a bright red laser beam would do to a digital camera, especially if the photographer used one of those big telephoto lenses – I don’t think there is a filter made which will be able to simultaneously filter out the laser wavelength while still allowing pictures to be taken. This probably is true for any camera which uses a CCD (like a video camera). Plus, the pointers are so small, it would be nearly impossible to detect them in a crowd, unless there were lots and lots of tear gas or smoke in the air, which would also screw up photographers.”3.
This posting was followed, conceivably, by an entry on p. 136 in the undated work Anarchism in Action: Methods, Tactics, Skills, and Ideas written in the United Kingdom by Shawn Ewald. A notation determined that such laser use was impractical (which in actuality is inaccurate):
Fairly powerful laser pointers can be purchased for low cost (20.00GBP)
Laser pointers of <5mWatt or more can temporarily blind and may even permanently damage CCTV cameras. For guaranteed destruction a more powerful laser would be required. But hazard of damaging eyes from misdirected pointing or reflection from the camera lens cover. Also, very difficult to keep laser beam precisely still from any reasonable distance. Can be attached to binoculars for better aiming.
No indication of inoperability of camera. Would not recommend this method.”
An April 2005 alert mentioned in the press concerning anarchists and directed energy is by far the most ominous of all. The original article by Nick Hopkins was posted at thisislondon.co.uk and titled “Hunt for May Day Anarchist Laser Weapon.” It was later reposted on www.indymedia.org.uk. The two most important paragraphs are as follows:
“Police are today desperately hunting for three London anarchists believed to be in possession of a class four industrial laser. The three are suspected of plotting to bring down a police helicopter in connection with the coming anti-capitalist demonstrations on May 1st.
The powerful 500+ milliwatt device is manufactured by American company GSI Lumonics. Intended for use in high precision welding and cutting, the laser was bought from an industrial wholesaler in the Limehouse area using a forged cheque. Police Special Branch were brought in after initial fraud investigations led to an abandoned activist squat in Stoke Newington.”
The story above suggests that at least some have come to realize the true potential of lasers as weapons. Luckily, most rioters and protesters are less sophisticated and far less homicidal in their thinking. Still, dangerous trends are now afoot. It has taken a little more than 7 years since Genoa, but rioters have now discovered by means of actual field deployment (or rediscovered it, if Seattle is considered) that laser pointers, especially green ones, have far better vision disruption abilities than handheld mirrors.
The implications of events in Athens for law enforcement are self-evident. With all the media notice of this incident, we can now expect this TTP to begin to spread to other riots and direct actions taking place in Europe and North America in the future. An article discussing the use of lasers in Athens has already been posted on indymedia.org.uk, and numerous Web sites in Europe and the United States have picked it up.
Because of the low cost and easy availability of laser systems, protesters are likely to employ multiple rather than single systems. This TTP was not apparent in many of the news photos of the Athens incident, although at least one photo plainly shows three green laser pointers being used. Further, counter-optical laser systems work best at night when the human eye is dilated to concentrate light for vision purposes. For this reason, we can expect laser use to predominate during night rioting as is seen with the Athens incident and, of course, was also seen in Seattle in 1999. Of concern is the fact that such lasers provide the rioters with a stand-off less-lethal weapon with a greater range than that of responding riot control police forces. For the moment, the initiative and technological edge is now with the rioters.
Fortunately, the early red teaming activities resulted in a number of dividends for law enforcement. Resources exist, such as the 2000 International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) training key on laser threats to law enforcement, which provide an overview of the threat of counter-optical laser use and officer response protocols. Of note is the use of films and treatments applied to goggles and visors which can negate threat laser frequencies such as those emanating from green and red laser systems.
Dedicated law enforcement booklets on threat laser devices and weapons have also been published over the years, along with tactically focused articles for Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) officers. More recently, FBI-related publications have been produced to better educate law enforcement officers regarding counter-optical threats.4
While law enforcement may currently be a half-step behind rioters based on the Athens incident, it should be much better positioned to catch up readily due to past red teaming efforts. Police officers will benefit immediately from the products produced by earlier red teaming and analysis focused on violent non-state actor counter-optical laser use and potentials. These initiatives, when combined with protective directed energy devices that in the future will be fielded by law enforcement (including the millimeter wave based Area Denial System (ADS) and the infra-red PhaSR), should help to negate any advantage laser-wielding rioters may have recently gained against law enforcement and the democratic societies that they are sworn to protect and defend.
© February 2009 Counter-OPFOR Corporation
Dr. Robert J. Bunker is CEO of the Counter-OPFOR Corporation, a security consulting company focusing on strategies to mitigate and respond to threats posed by non-state opposing forces (OPFORs). Dr. Bunker served as 2006-2007 Futurist in Residence (FIR), FBI Academy, Quantico, VA, and was a founding member of the Los Angeles Terrorism Early Warning (TEW) Group. He is a former consultant to the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC) West; past Fellow, Institute of Land Warfare (ILW), Association of the U.S. Army; and former Adjunct Professor, National Security Studies Program, California State University, San Bernardino. His publications include the edited works Non-State Threats and Future Wars; Networks, Terrorism and Global Insurgency; and Criminal-States and Criminal-Soldiers. He can be reached at pradatorius at counter-OPFOR dot com.
- A search on “rioters Greece lasers” will return several images of event. [↩]
- See this citation and the full timeline at seattle.gov [↩]
- The original post is available atdc.indymedia.org. [↩]
- See, for example, the 2007 FBI library subject bibliography Laser Devices and Weapons and the 2008 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin special issue on laser threats. For a more academic treatment of this topic, see “Terrorists and Laser Weapons Use: An Emergent Threat,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol. 31, No. 5, May 2008: 434-455. [↩]