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After London subway explosion, experts fear vulnerabilities in U.S. transit security

A police forensic officer stands at right near the train, at left, where an incident happened that police say they are investigating as a terrorist attack, at Parsons Green subway station in London, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

As authorities in London investigate an apparent terrorist attack on a subway train that left dozens injured, security experts warn that mass transit systems across the U.S. are vulnerable to similar violence.

“You certainly could bring that kind of improvised explosive device” into a subway station here, said Fred Burton, chief security officer for global intelligence firm Stratfor and a former State Department counterterrorism official.

He expects local law enforcement in major cities will step up security efforts in light of the London attack, and New York City is among the communities that have already announced plans to do so.

“NYPD probably reacts quicker and better to these kinds of global events,” he said. “The farther you get away from the East Coast, the less rapid response you have from domestic law enforcement.”

Anthony Roman, founder and CEO of Roman & Associates, applauded the NYPD for its counterterror measures in general, but he emphasized that no police department can prevent every attack.

“Prevent is a very strong word,” he said. “There is no 100 percent prevention against a terror attack. That’s done by minimizing the risk. It’s done by layered security.”

In New York, that means a network of human and cybersecurity resources and sophisticated surveillance technology that can track a suspicious vehicle through the city.

“A lot of the prevention is done long before they reach the subway,” Roman said.

Within stations, there are police, military, and counterterror officers patrolling, radiation detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs, and physical bag searches all geared toward ferreting out potential threats.

“You have an enormous amount of technological capabilities that exist that are not necessarily visible,” Roman said.

London has similar surveillance measures in place and strong intelligence services, but this attacker still made it onto a train with an explosive device. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack, though the terrorist group has provided no evidence of a connection.

Officials say it appears the bomb was intended to produce significantly more damage than it did, and subway attacks in Europe have proven disastrous before. In 2005, bombers on three Underground trains and a bus killed 52 people in London. The year before that, ten bombs on trains in Madrid left 191 people dead and 1,500 wounded.

According to the Associated Press, al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine recently advised followers to target trains, so the tactic is unlikely it go away anytime soon.

“We have to be very smart, and we have to be very, very tough, which perhaps we're not nearly tough enough,” President Donald Trump said after the bombing Friday, but the realistic options for smarter and tougher protection of mass transit systems are fairly limited.

“A key challenge Congress faces is balancing the desire for increased rail passenger security with the efficient functioning of transit systems, with the potential costs and damages of an attack, and with other federal priorities,” a 2016 Congressional Research Service report stated.

The report acknowledged that it is “impractical” to attempt to screen all train and bus passengers like airports do with fliers, and as a result, transit security “tends to emphasize managing the consequences of an attack” instead of preventing one.

Still, the CRS report listed a number of steps that can be taken to mitigate the risk: “vulnerability assessments; emergency planning; emergency response training and drilling of transit personnel (ideally in coordination with police, fire, and emergency medical personnel); increasing the number of transit security personnel; installing video surveillance equipment in vehicles and stations; and conducting random inspections of bags, platforms, and trains.”

Challenging as it may be to protect the millions of passengers riding the rails each day, the report stated that feat is “dwarfed” by the difficulty of securing the 76,000 buses that carry 19 million passengers every day throughout the country.

Burton is surprised terrorists have not exploited weaknesses in U.S. public transportation security more effectively.

“Most of us in the counterterrorism world are somewhat befuddled as to why we have not seen that kind of attack here,” he said. “Like anything, it’s a matter of time.”

That is not to say none have tried. According to Fox News, more than 50 plots against surface transportation systems in the U.S. have been foiled since the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks, including several attempts to attack the New York City subway.

However, Burton noted that the failure of the London device demonstrates the difficulty of building explosives that work.

“When you look at this, it’s a heck of a lot easier just to pick up a gun and shoot somebody than it is to manufacture a bomb,” he said.

Most police departments believe an increased law enforcement presence at a location is a clear deterrent to crime and terrorism, and experts say that is generally true if they are deployed strategically.

“It’s inherently a deterrent if it's properly used, if it has an element of unpredictability,” Roman said.

If officers are in the same station at the same time every day, terrorists will just target a different station. If police can use intelligence and threat assessment to determine where the danger is greatest on any given day and direct resources there, it is harder for suspects to anticipate and adapt.

“It becomes like a moving goal post,” he said.

“The whole notion of having a very physical, overt law enforcement presence, the standard wisdom is that it’s deterrence,” Burton said, although he added that calculation is a bit more complicated in the current environment.

“Think about it in concert with law enforcement being a target,” he said.

In Paris on Friday, police were investigating the attempted stabbing of a soldier patrolling a subway interchange. Several other recent attacks have also zeroed in on officers protecting public places in Europe.

According to research by Prof. Arnold Barnett of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, only about 10 percent of terrorist attacks against transportation systems between 2002 and 2011 targeted aviation. Just over 200 air passengers were killed by terrorists in that period, but 425 were killed on long-distance trains and 906 died on subways and commuter lines.

Still, while passenger rail systems in the U.S. carry five times as many people as airlines each day, the TSA devotes the vast majority of its budget to aviation security and only a small percentage to railways. To an extent, this is explained by the fact that federal officers are on the front lines of airport protection, but state and local authorities handle the brunt of responsibility for rail and bus security.

“It’s important to be extremely focused on aviation,” Roman said.

According to Burton, the 9/11 attacks and past airplane bombings made aviation the priority because they illustrated an urgent need.

“Governments react,” he said. “It’s very hard to articulate the need for resources or technology or manpower before the problem.”

It is simply the reality of bureaucracy that it often takes a tragedy to force change. As a result, Burton fears mass transit security will not become a priority in the U.S. until it is too late for at least one busload or trainload of Americans.

“Unfortunately that’s just the nature of the beast,” he said. “It’s going to take a bombing to get money thrown at the problem.”

However much money is eventually thrown at it, Burton and Roman both underscored the fact that nothing in life is completely safe, including methods of transportation.

“People have to realize that the soft targets in general far surpass capacity for public safety to protect,” Burton said. “So there’s inherent risk to day-to-day life and there are certain things you’re not going to be able to protect.”

Ultimately, according to Roman, the best one can hope for is that security measures keep that risk within acceptable limits.

“100 percent is not the ideal,” he said. “The ideal is to make it safe enough that we can carry on with business and personal activity within reasonable bounds of security.”

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