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Old fashioned detective work - and supplemented by the latest high tech monitoring and surveillance equipment - can help us find terrorists long before they blow themselves up in our subways.

Although such actions are invisible and so less obvious or reassuring to the general public, they are our best response to the challenges posed by suicide bombers.

 
 
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The Most Important Way to Protect All Our Infrastructure from Terrorist Attack

An unglamorous and old-fashioned but essential approach
 

As tempting as technological solutions may seem, and as reassuring as an armed uniformed policeman riding in the carriage with you may feel, the best approach to security involves traditional intelligence work to detect terrorists long before they strike.

 

 

There is maybe less than five minutes between when a suicide bomber enters a subway station and when he or she activates their bomb.

It is extremely difficult to be able to detect and then apprehend/neutralize an anonymous suicide bomber, lost in a crowd of hundreds/thousands of other commuters, in such a short time period.

But that same suicide bomber has probably spent many months preparing for their act of terror.  Our main focus should be on detecting and neutralizing such people long before they strap on their bomb belt and buy their subway ticket.

Introduction

This is part five of a series on the risks in mass transit systems and how to protect against them.  If you've directly landed on this page from a search engine, you might wish to start at the beginning of the series and read forward.

The Key Ingredient for Better Security

It is true that terrorists do not necessarily give any indication of the threat they represent between when they enter a subway station and the time, a few short minutes later, when they choose to blow up themselves and as many nearby passengers.

Any and all systems designed to detect terrorists once they get into a mass transit system are racing against time and struggling to beat the odds of finding a single terrorist hidden amongst millions of ordinary innocent commuters.  As has been famously said, the counter-terror techniques have to be 100% successful, all the time.  The terrorists, in return, only need to be successful once.

However, while a terrorist needs only a few minutes undetected inside the mass transit system, and while they can merge anonymously with hundreds and thousands of other commuters around them, all doing much the same sort of thing, that is absolutely not the truth prior to their entry into the mass transit system.

Prior to then they have been doing unusual things, for months or possibly even years, and have been giving away lots of possible clues about their evil intent.

Almost without exception, the people who have executed any type of terror attack have had contact with known terrorist organizations.  They may have attended some type of terrorist training school.  They have been given money, they have been given explosives, they have been given advice and instruction.

They may have trained, they may have done 'dummy runs', and they quite possibly have not been leading ordinary boring normal lives.  They have probably talked amongst themselves, with other terrorist cells, and with terrorist leaders - not just in person, but also on the phone, via text message, email, webchat, via Twitter and Facebook, and all the other ways people stay in contact with each other these days.

Each of these steps as someone transitions from ordinary person to successful suicide bomber leaves a footprint behind.

The best time and place to detect and apprehend a bomber isn't when they're on the platform and liable to blow themselves up at any second.  It is hours, days, weeks and months before that penultimate moment.

We need to focus our resources not on impossible attempts to secure subway trains and stations - attempts that on the one hand subject millions of innocent people to massive inconvenience and cost, and that on the other hand are unlikely to be successful.

We need to focus our resources on finding terrorists before they get to the station and board a train.  Rather than hiring tens of thousands of extra transit police, we need to hire thousands (or even tens of thousands) of extra counter-intelligence operatives, reporting to the CIA, the NSA, and the FBI, as well as to military and other intelligence groups.  We need to hunt down the sources and incubators of terrorists and mercilessly eradicate them before they become fully developed threats.

A Layered Approach to Security

In advocating the deployment of extra resources into counter-terrorism activities designed to catch terrorists long before they get to their chosen spot for blowing themselves up, we are not saying that other prudent protective measures (such as discussed here) should be entirely abandoned.

Instead we're advocating multiple layers of defense, with the emphasis on a 'forward defense' that catches terrorists before they become active and head out the door with a one way ticket and an explosive belt.  But in the certain knowledge that some terrorists will slip through our best counter-terror activities, it remains necessary to have some level of last-resort defense too.

Why Haven't We Had More Subway Attacks

Perhaps this question should be enlarged to 'Why haven't we had more terrorist attacks of any kind at all?'.  It is a puzzling question.

Our enemy seems to be omnipresent

We seem to be waging war against an enemy that is implacable in its hatred for us; an enemy comprising an unknown number of tens or hundreds of thousands of individuals (possibly even many millions) and spread out over many different countries and regions, even including enemies in unlikely places closely integrated within our own society (eg the Muslim Army Major who killed 13 people in Fort Hood).

The enemy's campaign of choice - domestic terrorism - requires very little to carry out.  It requires neither large numbers of combatants, large amounts of skill or training or intelligence, or special materials and supplies.  As the Israelis have shown time and time again, while they might be great at protecting El Al, they have no chance of successfully preventing determined suicide bombers, no matter how hard they try, and we, in a freer more open country are vastly more exposed to the types of terrorist attacks already being suffered in Israel, in Russia, and elsewhere in the world.

Britain too has experience with terrorism.  For decades it suffered regular domestic attacks by the IRA and its various offshoots, and no matter how hard Britain tried, and how aggressively it mounted counter-terrorist campaigns, the bombings continued.

So whether it is Israel with the Palestinians, Russia with the Muslims, or Britain with the IRA; in all three cases we've seen a level of counter-terrorism at least as vigorous as that mounted by the US, and in all three cases, we've seen ongoing acts of terror that each state was unable to prevent.

We've been puzzlingly fortunate in the US

The amazing good fortune we've had in the US - with the Fort Hood killings as the only successful terrorist act since the 9/11 airplane crashes that essentially started this new page in our history - is hard to understand in its overall totality, let alone at the various levels of specific detail.

(Note - we are not including the still unexplained anthrax mailing scare in this statement, and we're open minded as to if the DC sniper gunmen duo in 2002 should be considered terrorists or not.)

Maybe it could be argued, albeit with little conviction, that the reason our aviation system has not been successfully attacked in the nine years since 2001 is due to the TSA doing its job properly and making our aviation system invulnerable.  Alas, by every measure, and from every source, that is clearly not the case at all, with abundant vulnerabilities remaining.

However, if it were true, and even if it isn't, why aren't terrorists also seeking to disrupt our commuter transport services such as New York's subway, buses, etc?  They are 'soft' and unprotected targets and offer the potential for high profile 'successes' for terrorists.

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the different social culture in the US.  Air travel is the most important travel 'freedom' for most Americans.  Although some city mass transit systems carry lots of commuters, most of us use our car for most normal short distance travel, and so an attack on a subway would be less impactful on us than is any attack on a plane.

When we learn of a plane that crashes, for any reason and anywhere, most of us think 'There but for the grace of God goes I'.  But if we hear of a subway attack in a far away city, on the radio while driving in our car to work, there's much less personal impact.

In Russia, and particularly Moscow, as the numbers indicate, their metro system is the key element of personal transportation for local residents, and an attack on the metro there is more impactful than an attack on any airplane would be, affecting not only local commuters, but also commuters in other cities who worry 'it could be our turn next'.

In Israel, suicide bombers seemed to adopt the 'nowhere is safe from us' approach to where and how they'd blow themselves up.

At the risk of ascribing too much thought and rationality to our terrorist enemies, maybe they have decided, in the US, that aviation is the 'sweet spot' where they can have the greatest impact.  Maybe that is so, but it surely isn't our only point of vulnerability.

Our society is full of tempting terrorist targets

Viewed dispassionately, any infrastructure component of our society, the loss of which would pose an inconvenience or harm to many people, is at risk.  People need not even be present - attacks on water supplies, electricity supplies, or other parts of society's infrastructure can all instill fear and inconvenience and cost (and possibly death too) in the population as a whole.

Any place where people gather and concentrate in a small area, such as to make a small bomb inflict large casualties, is again at risk.

School assembly halls in particular must surely be tempting targets - what more emotional an act could there be than to kill our children in the expected safety of their schools?

In reality, we have a million - maybe many more - tempting targets for terrorists, and any attempt to protect any category of targets may do no more than cause a determined terrorist to shift their focus to the next category of targets.  If not school assembly halls, then why not theatres and concert halls?  If not planes, if not trains/subways/buses, why not bridges or tunnels?  What about sports stadiums?  Churches?  Amusement parks?  And so on and so on.

Counter-Terrorism Uniquely Protects All Our Infrastructure

Here's a key point.  If you station guards outside the entrance to a building, all you have done is (imperfectly) protect one entrance to one building.  The rest of the building remains at risk, and all of the adjacent building is also at unchanged risk.

But if you instead add to the counter-terrorism task forces, they may detect and neutralize any and all sorts of terrorists, whether they are planning on attacking a defended or an undefended target.

We can never hope to defend every vulnerable aspect of our western civilized life.  Maybe we also can't neutralize every terrorist before they do something bad, but in general, hunting down terrorists is much more effective than trying to defend everything in our society.

At Last - A Summary and 'Take Home' Conclusion

This impossibly long list of vulnerable targets returns us back to the most important point of this entire series.

Our best response to the terrorist threat is not to attempt to catch them just as they're about to wreak havoc on their target, whatever/wherever/whenever it is.  Our best response is to catch them days, weeks or months in advance, and neutralize them before they become viable threats.

This action poses problems when we choose to prosecute terrorists under normal criminal law.  It is not always possible or prudent to reveal all the information that has been obtained against a terrorist, for fear of compromising one's intelligence sources.  Students of history will recall how in World War 2 British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill had to allow Coventry to be attacked and destroyed by German bombers, rather than anticipate and defend against the attack, for fear of revealing the English' ability to decode and read German commands.

These days, our choice is different.  Do we give terrorists the presumption of innocence and the benefit of the doubt, and require prosecutors, in open public court, to reveal sensitive intelligence sources and capabilities in an always difficult attempt to prove the intent to commit a future act of terror (for which the penalty may or may not be severe, being as how no act of terror actually transpired)?

Or do we authorize and encourage our counter-terror forces to put terrorists down wherever they are found, without ceremony or complication?

Perhaps don't answer that question now.  But think about it next time you're riding public mass transit.  The life our counter-intel forces might save, if properly equipped and authorized, may well be your own.

 

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Originally published 2 Apr 2010, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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