Most Important Way to Protect All Our Infrastructure from
An unglamorous and old-fashioned but
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.
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
The Key Ingredient for Better
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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2 Apr 2010, last update
30 May 2021
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