While aviation security continues to attract the most attention worldwide, terrorist attacks against surface transportation targets have increased sharply since 9-11, representing a shift in terrorist target selection, according to a prominent terrorism expert.
Since 9-11, terrorists have targeted airliners and airports 75 times resulting in 157 deaths, according to Brian Michael Jenkins, director of the National Transportation Security Center at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)-supported Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI). During that same time period, terrorists have targeted surface transportation targets, such as buses and trains, more than 1,800 times, killing more than 3,900 people.
In the vast majority of those attacks, the number of fatalities has been small. But 11 of these attacks, such as the 2005 London bombings, have killed approximately 50 people each. Three caused incredible carnage, averaging 200 dead per attack, notes Jenkins. These attacks roughly equal seven commercial airplanes being destroyed by terrorists. “Since 9-11, if we had seen [the equivalent of] seven commercial airliners go down as a result of terrorist bombs, we’d be going crazy,” he says. “This tells you that terrorists see surface transportation as a killing field.”
Jenkins notes that surface transportation cannot be protected in the same manner as the commercial aviation system, where security is front-loaded at checkpoints. “In surface transportation...it’s more difficult to do all the security at the front end because of the volume of passengers [and] limitations on security resources,” he says. “We’re not going to put airport-style security into subway stations. We’d kill the system.”
Which leaves security professionals asking: “What can be done about it?” One tool is intelligence. Inside the United States, people are not as conscious of the terrorist threat to surface transportation because there hasn’t been a successful attack.
There have been at least six failed plots, however. The unsung hero, says Jenkins, is America’s intelligence capability, which he says has improved incredibly since 9-11. Of almost 40 homegrown terrorism plots since 9-11, only three have gone operational, leaving 14 dead.