'No 100% secure solution' to prevent terror attacks, experts say

In this photo provided by Ralph Usbeck an unidentified traveller runs in a smoke filled terminal at Brussels Airport, in Brussels after explosions Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Authorities locked down the Belgian capital on Tuesday after explosions rocked the Brussels airport and subway system, killing a number of people and injuring many more. Belgium raised its terror alert to its highest level, diverting arriving planes and trains and ordering people to stay where they were. Airports across Europe tightened security. (Ralph Usbeck via AP)

Authorities stepped up counterterrorism efforts in major U.S. cities in the wake of terrorist attacks in Brussels Tuesday, but experts warn that there are limits to what law enforcement can realistically do.

"We refuse to be afraid and we refuse to change who we are, but we are going to respond to [terrorists'] efforts to create chaos by showing them order, by showing our society functioning, our city functioning," New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference Tuesday, urging the public to go about its business.

"The terrorists, by definition, try to use death as their tool. Their aim is to spread death. We answer them with life," de Blasio said.

While Homeland Security officials say there is no specific, credible threat against U.S. targets, terrorism experts agree that vigilance by the government and the American public is called for.

"People need to understand that they need to accept responsibility for their own security," said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis for Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm.

Tightened security measures can divert terrorists away from a potential target or force them to delay an attack until the police presence cools down, but it would be a mistake to assume law enforcement and intelligence agencies can stop all attacks.

"There is no 100 percent secure solution," said Dr. Erroll Southers, a professor at the University of South Carolina and former Homeland Security official, but he added, "there's always more that can be done."

Christian Beckner, deputy director of the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, said increased security following a terrorist attack can be a deterrent to any follow-up plots that are being planned, but it can also lead attackers to seek less protected soft targets where they can cause similar levels of destruction.

Beckner pointed to several steps the U.S. government could now take to further secure airports:

  1. Increase investment in domestic intelligence and law enforcement
  2. Improve information sharing between law enforcement agencies, including those with jurisdiction over airports
  3. Expand canine explosive detection teams to fill any gaps in coverage at major airports
  4. Promote "see something, say something" programs to encourage vigilance

Senate Democrats said Tuesday that they will attempt to attach new airport security measures to a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill. In addition to requiring improved screening of airport workers, the new priorities would include tightening security at airport perimeters.

Anthony Roman, a counterterrorism analyst and CEO of Roman & Associates, pointed to the general lack of security in the areas outside of airports in the U.S. and many other countries as a particularly disconcerting issue.

"These cars are not screened at all, they're not monitored at all," he said, noting that vehicles containing bombs could easily get "within a blast-zone area" of many terminals. He recommended stopping vehicles further from the building and transporting passengers to the terminal by shuttle or walkways.

"The building structures themselves should be reevaluated and improved to withstand smaller suicide bombs' blast effects," he added.

Southers noted that Los Angeles International Airport uses vehicle checkpoints and has bomb-sniffing dogs in the curbside passenger drop-off area, and measures like that can reduce the threat to civilians.

"Terrorists don't do random," he said. "They pick their targets."

According to Stewart, efforts to increase security by creating more checkpoints can inadvertently create more targets.

"The problem is wherever you have your security checkpoints," he said, "you're going to have a waiting line there, so you're going to have a pool of potential victims."

Rail stations and subway stations present similar complications for any attempt to fully secure them.

According to Southers, train stations are frequent targets of terrorism abroad and the U.S. is fortunate its stations have not been hit. There is not much that authorities can do to secure them other than to increase armed police presence, employ state of the art surveillance technology, and remain alert for unattended bags or suspicious people.

"It's all about presence," he said. "We'll never be able to go to a system that screens passengers and bags."

"It is inherently difficult to fully protect mass transit systems given their open nature," Beckner said.

He observed that federal mass transit security grant funding has been greatly reduced in recent years and could be increased to provide funds for physical security and law enforcement staffing at rail and subway stations.

Stewart also sees challenges in tightening train station security.

"Because of the flow and the sheer number of people who take the subway, trying to institute some type of TSA-style checks is very difficult," he said.

Such efforts would create the same problems seen at airports: long security lines themselves could become targets. However, Stewart cautioned against relying too heavily on securing specific types of targets because terrorists will always find another one.

"You lock down embassies, and all of a sudden hotels become a target," he said.

He recommended "more of a focus on trying to be proactive and trying to identify terrorist operatives at earlier points in the terrorist planning cycle." Disrupting plots early can be more effective than bulking up defenses at likely targets.

"There's an old maxim in the security world," Stewart said. "If you try to protect everything, you protect nothing."

Experts emphasize that the U.S. faces a different terrorist threat than Belgium, and law enforcement and intelligence agencies may be better prepared here.

"Belgium is not the United States," Abrahms said. "The U.S. vulnerability to Islamic State is different than Belgian vulnerability."

It is much harder to organize large-scale, coordinated attacks of the kind seen in Paris and Brussels. As ISIS-inspired attacks and attempts in the U.S. have demonstrated, though, "a single person can commit a lot of damage."

Abrahms argued one of the most effective things the U.S. and other western nations can do to stop domestic ISIS-related terrorism is to defeat Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria.

"Our success against Islamic State makes it harder for the group to recruit," he said.

He also warned that cracking down too harshly on Muslim communities in the U.S. could be counter-productive and produce more radicalization.

"The best way the United States can reduce a) by having good border security, as we do already, and b) not overreacting by punishing non-violent people in the name of counterterrorism."

The massive number of potential targets across the country, coupled with Islamic State's tendency to seek opportunistic targets more than symbolic ones, makes protecting all targets an insurmountable task.

"If you harden one target, they will simply strike another one," Abrahms said.

"Islamic State is happy to strike almost any target, anywhere, anytime."

According to Roman, U.S. intelligence operatives have been more successful in dealing with Islamic terrorist groups than Belgian authorities.

"I think the US is doing a much better job on the intelligence front," Roman said. "We have deep penetration and broad-based penetration into the radical elements on the technological and human resource level."

He observed that authorities in the New York metropolitan area have proven especially proficient at preventing attacks and disrupting plots, in part through enhanced cooperation between the police, the FBI, and the CIA.

"Although you can't prevent every attack...we've been very effective as a result of this multi-pronged, multi-layered approach," Roman said.

All of the experts agreed that stopping all terrorist attacks is ultimately impossible, but acknowledging the reality that attacks will occur is not the same as resigning oneself to failure to stop them.

"This is not about accepting fear or accepting defeat," Southers said. "It's about accepting the fact that things happen."

Beckner said the likelihood of future attacks should not excuse government officials from doing everything possible to prevent them and to reduce risk to the public.

"The American people, and citizens of other nations, should reasonably expect that their political leaders provide their nation's law enforcement and intelligence agencies with the resources and authorities that they need to do their jobs effectively," he said.

"And even if attacks are inevitable, it is necessary to have a constructive policy dialogue after attacks about how to improve preparedness and protect against the next attack."

Stewart said the public also has an important role to play in counterterrorism efforts. People must be more aware of potential threats around them in airports and on public transportation and take action if they see something.

"It's not difficult," he said. The clothing, demeanor, and movements of terrorists often stand out before they strike. "You automatically can pick that up."

The problem he has seen is that citizens do not pay enough attention to their surroundings.

"We have our noses in our papers, our books, our electronic devices, and we're not watching people," he said.

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