The bombings in London earlier this month of three subway cars and a bus are only the latest attacks in what will clearly be a long and difficult war. The ineffective repeat bombings two weeks later provided a second warning signal, but it is the first set of bombings that is addressed here. The bombers, in the first attacks, were four young Britons, three of them of Pakistani origin, and one (the only one of the four born abroad) a Jamaican convert to Islam.
The four earlier bombings, which traumatized Great Britain unlike anything since the darkest days of the blitz during World War II, were suicide/homicide attacks. Today, according to the Washington Post, suicide bombings of the type that rocked London on 7 July are “the most common method of terrorism in the world.” Moreover, the Post reported, citing a recent Rand study, “three quarters of all suicide bombings” have been launched since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the Pentagon and the World Trade Center Towers in New York City.
Large and Vulnerable Targets, 24/7
What makes suicide attacks particularly insidious is that they are so difficult to prevent – particularly when, as in London, the target is both extremely large and extremely vulnerable. That description fits almost all bus, subway, and other mass-transit systems, which – because of the sheer volume of passengers and the frequent stops they make – are virtually impossible to protect all the time at all points of vulnerability.
In the immediate aftermath of the first round of London bombings, the police presence in the New York City and Washington, D.C., subway systems, as well as in many other mass-transit systems both in the United States and overseas, was stepped up dramatically. Gun-toting anti-terrorist SWAT teams, some of them accompanied by bomb-sniffing dogs, fanned out throughout many of the subway systems. The Washington, D.C., Metro even went so far as to lock all of its station bathrooms.
Many of the actions taken, though, were carried out more to reassure commuters, and the general public, than to interdict would-be attackers, especially suicide bombers – the added patrols, locked doors, and other measures ordered to be taken were in most cases only temporary, and unlikely to prevent or deter an actual terrorist attack.
One reason that such actions almost have to be of a temporary nature is that a long-term expansion of the police and security presence would be prohibitively expensive. The U.S. government agreed, for the time being, to pay the $2 million per week cost for extra protection for the New York City subway system. But DHS (Department of Homeland Security) Secretary Michael Chertoff has made it clear that the nation’s cities will have to assume this financial burden in the future.
Improving Mass Transit Security
There are other and more effective ways of security mass-transit systems, but few if any of these are likely to be adopted. Requiring each passenger to pass through a magnetometer and have his or her parcels, backpacks, purses, and briefcases x-rayed would be extraordinarily expensive and, given the time required to screen all passengers, could bring some transit systems to a standstill. An estimated 32 million people use U.S. mass-transit systems every workday, according to William Miller, president of the American Public Transport Association. About three fifths of them commute by bus; the other two fifths commute by subway. In contrast, only about two million people per day take airline flights.
Despite these difficult statistics, authorities agree that mass-transit security can certainly be improved, in a number of ways, in many locales. Additional police and bomb dogs, the use of clear Lucite trash bins, and the installation of more and better surveillance systems all will help. Great Britain has set the pace by installing an estimated 44,000 surveillance cameras in various public places – it was from such cameras, in fact, that the images, and ultimately theentities, of the 7 July bombers were determined.
However, surveillance cameras are a better investigative tool than they are a preventive measure, because it is only after a terrorist incident that the police and other law-enforcement authorities have the time and manpower needed to review all of the images collected by the cameras at or near the scene of the incident. In the future, it may be possible to use sophisticated facial-recognition technologies to match known terrorists in real time with the images captured by surveillance cameras, but such technologies have a long way to go before they can be ready for implementation on a broad scale. This would be particularly true if the subject has changed his appearance somehow – e.g., by wearing a hat or shaving his beard – of if he has his head bowed or is in someone else’s shadow.
In any case, such technologies would not have prevented the London bombings, because none of the bombers had a known criminal or terrorist background, and therefore would not have been in the database.
The ACLU and other civil-liberties organizations, it should be noted, oppose the greatly increased use of surveillance systems – which, they say, are not only invasive but also, in some situations, unconstitutional.
Vigilance, Intelligence, and Political Controversy
In an earlier T.I.P.S. column, this author described certain behavioral characteristics displayed by suicide bombers. Use of those characteristics to “profile” potential terrorists has been very effective in Israel, but would be much less practical in the United States if only because of this nation’s enormous size and complexity.
There are, nonetheless, certain facts that must be faced. One is that there is simply no way that everyone boarding a bus or entering a market or café in this country could be profiled. It would be equally impossible to have trained personnel stationed at all times at every potential terrorist target. Moreover, unlike Israel, the United States is an extremely diverse nation – in which many if not all Arabs accept, if only grudgingly, that the might be profiled and singled out for extra attention by security guards, at checkpoints, and by those monitoring CCTV cameras.
In his controversial new book Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition, Robert W. Merry argues that, “It is naïve to believe that the country [i.e., the United States] can assimilate and protect itself from large numbers of Muslims entering the country as the civilizational war continues.” New restrictions on immigration, he further argues, are one of the only ways available to really protect Americans from potential Muslim terrorists.
Additional terrorist attacks in the United States could result in the adoption of the new restrictions discussed by Merry, but it seems obvious that the nation has not yet reached that critical tipping point.
In the final analysis, though, it will be impossible to protect every mass-transit system in the United States 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Thus, the only real “answers” at this time, probably, are greater vigilance by passengers (in reporting unattended baggage and other items, and suspicious behavior by other passengers), improved intelligence of all types, and an intensification of the war against terrorists – wherever they are found, and before they can launch new and maybe even more devastating attacks against the United States.
Another answer, it seems obvious – less than four weeks after the first London mass-transit bombings, but almost four years after the 9/11 attacks – is that it is time to end the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing over what all evidence suggests have been only minor slights to terrorists, and occasionally the Koran, at the prison in Guantanamo Bay.
Those who charge, moreover, that government officials and law-enforcement authorities are violating civil liberties at home must recognize that this nation, the United States, is engaged in a real war that still has no end in sight.
In any war involving not just constitutional rights but the very survival of the nation, interrogation tactics must be as severe as required – so long as they are effective. Moreover, not only terrorists themselves but also those – including the bankers and foreign politicians who support them financially, facilitate their murderous plots, and otherwise aid and abet them – should be attacked relentlessly. Finally, countries that do not cooperate, fully, in what must be a truly global war against international terrorism also should find themselves in the crosshairs.
As the bombings in London clearly demonstrated – again – terrorists will show no mercy to anyone, men, women, or even children, who get in their way. For that reason alone, the terrorists themselves deserve no mercy from any nation, including the United States that they are trying to destroy.
Neil C. Livingstone
Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.