Skip to main content

Terror-Fighting Hotbed: San Diego Is Key Battle Ground in Fight Against Terrorists

January 3, 2003
By: Kim McDonald

San Diego may not seem like a counter-terrorism hot spot, but look closer and you'll find U.S. Coast Guard helicopters buzzing overhead and scientists developing a device that analyzes the facial expressions of airline passengers before they board.

When the local office of U.S. Homeland Security opens up in March, only the city of New York will have more personnel than San Diego, where various agencies, research labs and universities will be part of the fight against terrorism.

San Diego may seem like a vulnerable terrorist target, since it is home to 100,000 Marines and sailors and 700 Coast Guardsmen stationed on the city's seven military bases. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, the city took steps to stop terror.

The Coast Guard assigned a dozen armed sea marshals to randomly examine commercial boats and cruise ships before they enter San Diego Bay. During the Super Bowl this Sunday, U.S. Customs aircraft will patrol the skies and help sort, intercept and track any suspect aircraft approaching the temporary flight restriction airspace during the big game. But even on normal days, Coast Guard helicopters buzz regularly overhead.

"A helicopter flying at 1,000 feet and see a lot further than we can, and they're a great asset," Coast Guard Lt. John Bitterman said. The city - which is on an ocean, near a desert, and minutes from the border of a foreign country - is also close to the San Onofre nuclear power plant, and one of several cities that some of the Sept. 11 terrorists called home.

Terrorists Lived Here

"After 9/11, we dedicated a lot more resources to counter-terrorism," said FBI agent Bill Gore, who is based in San Diego.

Federal authorities previously identified three hijackers with San Diego connections: Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi and Hani Hanjour were on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, according to the FBI. After the attacks, authorities also arrested four people from San Diego as material witnesses and charged three of them with various crimes. The fourth was released.

Meanwhile, San Diego scientists are working on ways to try to stop terrorists in their tracks. Behind the walls of San Diego universities, researchers are developing a first-in-the-nation oral drug to treat smallpox, and "smart dust" - silicon crystals that change color from green to red when they're exposed to deadly gas. San Diego's international airport is, so far, the only one testing a unique machine that detects not just weapons, but chemical explosives, hidden in luggage.

In a few years, it is possible that you will find a one-of-a-kind airport detector, now under development at the University of California at San Diego and the Salk Institute. It records facial expressions of passengers, before they board a plane, and is designed to show us how inappropriate facial expressions might uncover potential terrorists.

Detecting a Guilty Face

Terry Sejnowski, of the Salk Institute, demonstrated the device for Good Morning America at the San Diego International Airport.

"Why is it that you bought a one-way ticket this morning with cash?" he asked ABCNEWS' Robin Roberts. She reacted with a surprised expression.

"Oh, look at that!" Sejnowski said. "You clearly weren't expecting the question. You were surprised, which is normal. I don't see any fear here. The computer would have recognized this is a normal expression."

It's not a lie detector test.

"It only tells you what the subject is feeling. It can't tell you why the subject felt it," Sejnowski said. If Roberts had given an expression of disgust when she was asked the question that would have been a normal reaction to the expression, too. Terrorists are trained to keep cool under pressure, but the system is sensitive enough to counter-act that.

"It's true - if you're a good actor, you can defeat any system - however, under pressure, even the best actors cannot prevent micro-expressions," Sejnowski said. "You might not even notice it, but the computer would be able to pick it up and thereby flag that this is an inappropriate reaction - even if they were highly trained."

If the device does spot troubled passengers in a terminal, they'd be red flagged and stopped before boarding a plane, he said. The project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, is years away from being approved and set up in airports.