Experts say some vulnerabilities in transit security impossible to avoid

Police secure Eighth Avenue outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal following an explosion near New York's Times Square on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Chuck Zoeller)

After an explosive device was detonated near New York City’s Port Authority bus terminal early Monday in an apparent terrorist act, experts on security and transportation policy said that a much more devastating attack on public transit could be difficult, if not impossible, to stop.

Despite going off in a crowded underground walkway in the middle of the Monday morning rush, the explosion caused minimal damage and few injuries. The suspected bomber, 27-year-old Akayed Ullah, was hospitalized for burns and laceration and three others were treated for headaches and ringing in their ears.

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“If this bomb had been constructed in a more effective, professional manner, this would have been a more serious attack,” said Anthony Roman, president of global investigation and risk management firm Roman & Associates.

He added, however, that a successful attack is not evidence that the subway system’s security procedures are lax.

“That does not mean that the systems and precautions in place are inadequate,” he said. “It simply means you cannot protect against every single attack.”

Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a non-profit think tank, was hesitant to call the attack a “wake-up call” because cities have been awake to the threats their mass transit systems face for years.

“This is definitely a top priority for transit officials around the country,” he said. “They’re not in reactive mode. They’ve been proactive.”

While U.S. transportation systems have not gone nearly as far as some in other countries have been able to, cities here have invested heavily in security equipment and staffing, and they have taken steps to mitigate the damage when an attack occurs.

Officials have not officially confirmed a motive for the bombing. Initial reports suggested Ullah made statements supportive of ISIS, and CNN reported that he cited Israeli action in Gaza as the reason for the attack. There were no immediate reports of ties to a larger cell.

Pro-ISIS social media accounts applauded the attack. One post obtained by the SITE Intelligence Group showed a hand holding a bomb in Times Square, alongside text stating that “dog” President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital “will make us recognize explosives as the capital of your country.”

Monday’s attack came just weeks after an Uzbek immigrant allegedly drove a rented truck through a lower Manhattan bike path on Halloween, killing eight people.

FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before Congress Thursday that the agency currently has about 1,000 active ISIS investigations in all 50 states. He claimed hundreds of attacks have been prevented and cited 176 domestic terror-related arrests in the last year.

“The loss of the terrorist safe haven that ISIS once enjoyed is forcing the group the shift tactics and strategies,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said in a statement last week accompanying his monthly “Terror Threat Snapshot” report. “We can already see these changes evidenced by their calls for violence in America and Europe during this holiday season.”

Roman cautioned against reading too heavily into the proximity in time of Monday’s event to the Halloween attack. Although authorities have warned of the risk of ISIS fighters returning to their home countries and plotting attacks after their military losses in the Middle East, these two incidents are not necessarily signs the threat is accelerating.

“We’re not talking about an organized sequence of attacks,” he said. “We’re talking about sole individuals who are inspired by militant propaganda and many of them are emotionally-disturbed individuals and might have perpetrated violent attacks if they had not been inspired.”

He also observed that many of the deadliest mass casualty attacks on soft targets in recent years—including the recent Las Vegas shooting, the Sutherland Springs church shooting, the Sandy Hook school shooting, and the Aurora theater shooting—have been committed by men with no known terrorist ties at all.

“They were all perpetrated by emotionally-disturbed individuals without inspiration by militant groups,” he said.

As is often the case with ISIS-inspired attacks in the U.S., Ullah’s device appears to have been homemade and low-tech.

“Self-inspired individuals without former military or terror tactic training generally put together devices that are not as effective as they can be,” Roman said.

In contrast, one of the Boston Marathon bombers did have overseas training, and their improvised explosives caused many more casualties.

Though it is still unclear when or how Ullah was radicalized, the White House has already seized on his legal entry to the country under a family visa in 2011 as evidence that rules must be changed to prevent chain migration.

Sebastian Gorka, a former deputy assistant to President Trump, also pointed to Ullah’s Bangladeshi nationality to underscore the need to reform immigration policies.

“Why shouldn’t America have an immigration policy that really looks at who you are and whether you’re a potential threat to the United States?” he asked.

If mass transportation systems are going to be expected to transport masses of people, they will always have inherent vulnerabilities.

“Transit systems are wide open, and they pretty much have to be in order to do their jobs…. The system would just bog down and not be able to function,” said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation and a former adviser to four presidents.

He believes more can be done, but counterterror officials will still struggle to locate self-radicalized lone wolves who are not in active communication with a terrorist cell.

“More visible police presence in key access points is probably worthwhile, obviously intelligence work, but it’s hard for intelligence to find the amateurs,” he said.

Incidents like this tend to provoke demands for more airport-style security on mass transit, but slowing down commuters with additional screening is inconsistent with the flexible, convenient access to the city for which the system was designed.

“A transit subway system is not like an airport,” Puentes said.

The Port Authority in particular is a major hub for rail and bus passengers in the middle of the city one block from a heavily-trafficked tourist attraction.

“It has to be a functioning place,” Puentes said. “It has to be convenient and efficient and of course it has to be safe. So the challenge is how all of those things interact.”

Whatever its inevitable shortcomings, experts agree New York has one of the nation’s most secure transit systems.

“I think we probably have the best layered security in the world in New York City,” Roman said. “It’s complimented by a mixed agency task force, including NYPD detectives who are integrated with FBI, NSA, CIA, and other police agencies, ATF. They work in a combined effort, sharing intelligence and sharing investigation material.”

He also pointed to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program, which enabled officers to search people at transit stations based on behavioral profiling, as a measure that was helping until court challenges shut it down.

“Losing that is a significant loss in securing targets like the Port Authority, Grand Central,” he said.

According to Gorka, dozens of plots against New York City have been foiled since 2001.

“New York is a very seductive, very attractive target for any jihadi terrorist group…. Al Qaeda and ISIS have said again and again and again this is the type of city they want to attack,” he said.

Israel has long faced similar soft target attacks, and the public there has grown to tolerate metal detectors and magnetometers at places like train stations and shopping malls, but that has never been an element of day-to-day life in New York or anywhere in the U.S.

“This is the reality of one of the biggest, most-trafficked cities in the United States,” Gorka said. “It would probably be impossible to check everybody getting onto buses or metro, so he did it because it was possible.”

According to Poole, the attack illustrates how easy it can be to target soft targets where there is a large concentration of potential victims, including subway stations, shopping malls, and other public spaces. All require a degree of openness and freedom in order to function.

“The alternative is to have a totalitarian society really where all movements are monitored and there’s airport-type security anywhere that large numbers of people congregate,” he said.

The sheer number of such targets poses another seemingly insurmountable challenge.

“Every target that you do make some attempt to harden may divert terrorist attention to something that is softer like shopping malls or sidewalks,” Poole said.

That is not to say the American people are powerless in the grip of terror. Trite as it may seem, experts emphasize that if you see something suspicious, you really do need to say something.

“Don’t treat ‘see something, say something,’ as just a bromide, some kind of boilerplate,” Gorka said. “It really works.”

He cautioned against allowing terrorism to alter America’s way of life, a point others echoed. Poole pointed to the example of the British, who faced waves of deadly, organized, and effective attacks from the Irish Republican Army over the course of decades.

“Ordinary Brits carried on with their lives. They did not let this intimidate them from going out, going shopping, etcetera,” he said.

The American people panicking and cowering in fear at the thought of entering a subway station is likely exactly what the terrorists want.

“The reason they do this is because it’s very effective,” Puentes said. “It’s designed to strike terror.”

Hard as it may be in the immediate aftermath, the danger must be kept in perspective. The risk of dying in a terrorist attack on mass transit remains extremely low, while the risk of dying in a traffic crash if you choose to drive instead is spiking.

“It’s still relatively safe,” he said. “Once we get to the point where folks have to be more alarmed, we’ll know it, but we’re not there yet.”

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