Last month, during the transition between the Bush and Obama Administrations, there was a major homeland security "war game." For two-and-a half hours on a day in mid-January, senior federal officials reacted to a series of simulated, terrorist bombings across the country, responding to medical needs, managing the investigative process and ensuring that protective forces were deployed.
The exercise was unique for a couple of reasons. First, the Bush team allowed their Obama counterparts to "sit in" on the exercise and ask questions, giving them a foundation for their own drills and policies in the future. Secondly, the war game scenario was based on a familiar threat, one that remains at the forefront of homeland security concerns. According to Jake Tapper of ABC News (one of the few journalists to write about the event), the half-day exercise condensed two days of IED attacks, targeting economic and transportation centers across America.
Obviously, there's no potential shortage of threats for a homeland security exercise, from a nuclear blast in a U.S. city, to a sudden anthrax epidemic unleashed by terrorists. That's why the IED focus is particularly illustrative. Almost almost eight years of combat in Afghanistan--and nearly six years into the Iraq mission--security officials are acutely familiar with the threat from improvised explosive devices, and they remain concerned about similar attacks here in the homeland.
We're written about the IED threat in the past, most recently in 2007 after a "mass graduation" of Al Qaida suicide bombers at a training camp in Afghanistan. More than 300 terrorists participated in the ceremony, which was recorded by a Pakistani journalist. The tape included warnings in English that some of the bombers were destined for targets in the west.
Fortunately, those attacks failed to pan out. Many of the suicide bombers were probably diverted to Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they were killed by allied forces. Others were rolled up by domestic security operations between Pakistan's tribal regions and their intended targets.
But those measures aren't 100% effective. Sooner or later, a suicide bomber or IED cell will slip through and launch a bloody campaign on American soil. And, in many respects, the domestic end represents the weakest link in the security chain. Our nation is filled with thousands of potential targets, including shopping malls; "big box" retailers, transit stations, schools, community centers, hotels, churches, hospitals and other locations were Americans gather, work or shop in large numbers.
Protecting all of these facilities is virtually impossible. But it's more disconcerting that security many of these stores (and other public facilities) ranges from lax to virtually non-existent. Admittedly, members of the general populace aren't privy to all protection measures--nor should they be. But anyone familiar with basics of physical security can get a general grasp of the plan at their local mall, "box" retailer or other public place.
Many of these institutions have invested heavily in security cameras that cover the interior and exterior of the building. There's also (typically) a uniformed security staff and a few undercover store detectives as well. But these precautions are aimed more at shoplifting than the terrorist threat.
Clearly, no one expects the security staff of a store or public building to stop a terrorist attack by themselves. That's where local, state and even federal authorities come in. But getting them to respond quickly can be problematic; potential terror targets are sometimes located on the edge of town, or in high-traffic areas.
A determined psychopath or a team of terrorists can inflict a lot of damage before the local SWAT team arrives. That was painfully evident when a lone gunman, with a history of mental problems, opened fire in an Omaha mall two years ago. Police officers responded in less than 10 minutes but by that time, the gunman had killed eight people, including himself. A few months earlier, an 18-year-old man shot and killed five individuals at a Salt Lake City Mall. Only the quick actions an armed, off-duty police kept the carnage from being much worse.
According to a RAND Corporation study (released before the Omaha massacre), shopping malls and big box outlets could reduce their vulnerability to such attacks by implementing a series of security measures. The cost? Between $500,000 and $2 million per location.
That may seem like a relatively small price to pay, but no one's rushing to add new layers of security. The commercial real estate and retail sectors are hurting in the economic slowdown; mall owners and their tenants would balk at the cost of new security measures, which would further impact their bottom line.
But defeating domestic terror requires more than effective physical security at the site of a potential attack. It requires planning and coordination with local law enforcement, and periodic response drills. Unfortunately, such exercises occur infrequently; there's the matter of cost, and no one wants to really highlight the fact that a local store, mall, school or hospital could be a terror target.
And, as The Wall Street Journal observed in 2005, there's the matter of national priorities and leadership. During the first half of the decade, Israel suffered though the latest--and bloodiest-- Palestinian intifada; more than 1,000 civilians died at the hands of terrorists, mostly through suicide bombings.
When diplomatic overtures failed to produce any results, the Israeli government took more tangible steps. Palestinians suspected of supporting the terror campaign were locked up; the leaders of bomb cells were targeted for assassinations. Physical barriers between Israeli and Palestinian population centers made it much for difficult for terrorists to reach their targets.
Those measures reduced the number of bombings--and civilian casualties--by more than 90%. As you might expect, the Israel anti-terror campaign was widely criticized by law and human rights advocates. But the crack-down achieved its desired results.
Here in the U.S., we haven't faced the threat endured by Israelis. But suicide bombings are IED attacks in the homeland are not a matter of "if," but "when." It's no surprise that such threats formed the scenario for last month's homeland security drill. Experts believe that type is almost inevitable in the coming years.
At some point, the Obama Administration must tell the public how it will deal with such threats, and prevent them in the future. Hopefully, the Obama team will realize that the bomber threat requires more than a "law enforcement" response--before that first explosive device goes off.