Surface transportation systems remain a target for terrorists, leading researchers to study such attacks to determine which deterrents are most successful.
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.
“The unprecedented unanimity of focus and cooperation among the intelligence services and law enforcement organizations worldwide...has made the terrorist operating environment way more hostile,” he says.
Still, the numbers around the world show that intelligence has its limits. To see what else can be done, Jenkins and his coauthors looked for lessons from the data gathered about incidents that have occurred and those that have failed. In April, Jenkins and coauthors published a report called Carnage Interrupted, which analyzed 16 failed plots to attack surface transportation targets around the world. The report empirically shows that terrorists concentrate on attacking surface transportation targets during rush hours.
Other lessons Jenkins and his coauthors drew from their analysis is how terrorists choose their targets and what measures can be put in place to harden a surface transportation target. According to the cases, CCTV has some deterrent value, although not for suicide bombers.
“It is, of course, more difficult to deter suicide bombers, but they are harder to recruit than individuals who plan to escape alive,” the report explains. “CCTV thus contributes to security indirectly, by raising the threshold for recruiting attackers.” CCTV also helps authorities nab the attackers when they’re not suicide bombers, which occurred in a 2006 attack against two trains in Germany, when the terrorists’ suitcase bombs failed to explode.
Jenkins and his coauthors concluded that none of the security measures in use beyond CCTV lead terrorists to terminate their plans. “Where awareness of security does appear in the plots, it is a cause for caution, perhaps a reason to modify a date or location, not a reason to call off the attack,” they write.
DHS transit security grants have plummeted from $253 million in fiscal year 2010 to $87.5 million in fiscal year 2012, a 65 percent decrease in funding for owners and operators of transit systems. “The reason for the decrease is simply the budget cuts across the federal government,” said a federal security official who was not authorized to speak to the media. The official noted that “basically, the amount that Congress has appropriated each year for the program has decreased.”
Thus, the goal now is to find security strategies that are both effective and affordable. Israel, according to Jenkins, has a cost-effective security model worth emulating. In another report, Jenkins and two coauthors studied 16 cases of terrorist attacks, both lethal and nonlethal, against Israeli buses and bus stations during the Second Intifada. What Jenkins discovered is that many of the attacks were defeated or mitigated by alert bus drivers and an aware citizenry—a cost-effective counterterrorism tool that can be adopted by public transportation security stakeholders in other countries.
Ganor Boaz, director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel, says the challenge of the Israeli approach is that it starts early by educating children in security awareness. “When I was a kid, even in the kindergarten, they taught us to be aware of abandoned and suspicious objects,” he says, which triggers an “embryonic instinct” to look around for suspicious objects when he hears overhead security announcements. That awareness was also stoked by the very real danger of bombings that became the fabric of everyday life in Israel and has produced a young, resilient population. That kind of awareness hasn’t permeated the American consciousness.
Israeli bus drivers also receive specific security training, such as suspicious-behavior recognition-training. And this approach has paid off, says Boaz. In one memorable incident, a bus driver in Tel Aviv realized that a suspicious passenger was boarding the bus. “He pushed him out” and the suspicious passenger fell out of the bus on his back. During the fall, his hands came out of his pockets. Two youths from the front row of the bus jumped out and held his hands to prevent him from triggering a bomb that he was carrying with him. The bus took off and the youngsters eventually fled in different directions. Immediately, the passenger got up, found a woman in the station and detonated himself, killing them both.
“Although there was a woman who died in this attack, it’s still regarded as a magnificent success of those security procedures,” he says.
That same sort of engaged staff and citizens also helped Great Britain thwart Irish Republican Army bombings against surface transportation targets from the 1970s into the 1990s.
Some of those strategies might be transferable to the United States. By knowing the most “lucrative” times and targets terrorists want to hit, notes Jenkins, security and an aware citizenry can help deter attacks at certain locations and times to reduce the casualty count. “Would we rather push them away from the centers of the city where they are going to cause the most disruption out to areas where fewer people are going to be imperiled?” he asks. “The answer is yes, we would.”
In an effort to bring cost-effective security awareness to bus operators, MTI has developed a training video to educate them about the terrorist threat. Jenkins also applauded DHS’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign to elicit terrorism tips from the public.
Going forward, Jenkins would like to see surface transportation stations and carriages designed with counterterrorism in mind. “There are ways to design stations that facilitate security measures—open spaces, not a lot of hidden nooks and crannies—which also reduce crime,” and facilitate surveillance, he explains. And there are ways to design buses and subway and train cars to mitigate injuries, he notes.