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Last Updated: Friday, 9 January, 2004, 10:55 GMT
Playing terror games in Las Vegas
By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent in Las Vegas

Biohazard clean-up workers, AP
Many cities have tested their ability to cope with a biochemical attack
Las Vegas is known for its gaming but this week the games here are not just about blackjack and roulette.

US homeland security officials and technology specialists have been staging a mock terrorist exercise, snappily titled Terrorex 04.

The simulation is designed to get people thinking about the best way to use technology to fight terror.

It is part of the annual Government Convention on Emerging Technologies, which showcases hi-tech products developed for use in the fight against terror.

Exercise class

The participants at the conference have to role-play and respond to mock terrorist threats and actions, such as a biological or chemical attack.

To keep it as real as possible, the decisions made will then affect how the rest of the scenario plays out.

The teams have each been given specific roles, with some playing the part of the FBI, local fire and police or even what is called faith-based response.

Among the technologies on offer are advanced global positioning systems and advanced data collection and analysis

But some of the participants at the conference questioned the benefit of these simulations.

"You're looking at a computer-modelling device, not something that's based on what the intelligence of what Bin Laden's up to," said Professor Stephen Gale from the University of Pennsylvania and a Senior Fellow of the Center for Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security.

Osama Bin Laden, PA
Many nations fear a biochemical attack by Al Qaeda
"We're not thinking like the enemy. There's no reason to expect that scenarios we're creating are anything more than the kind of stage plays that we put together for a Bruce Willis film, where there's always going to be victory at the end."

"We've got to understand that it's someone who's supposed to think like Bin Laden, not like an American who would be interested in challenging a Bin Laden," he said.

Simple strategy

Professor Gale also suggested that any potential threat from terrorists would be much more low-tech than anticipated.

"They're gonna be looking at this point to use simple, inexpensive, undetectable type of events, not demonstration projects for their technological superiority, but that can sufficiently disrupt our economy and our society."

Others taking part in Terrorex 04 also expressed reservations about the exercise.

A UK intelligence officer, who did not want to be named, suggested a different approach was needed.

He said that the scenarios focused on creating contingency plans to deal with a specific terror attack.

By contrast, he said the UK approach was to focus on capabilities, so that the authorities could be ready to respond to any attack, regardless of what type of form it took.

The intelligence specialist, who is helping to simulate a British response to a threat, said the UK may be interested in running a joint simulation with the US at some point in the near future.

The Government Convention on Emerging Technologies is been held in Las Vegas to coincide with the Consumer Electronics Show.

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production

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