The Terrorist Threat to the New York City Subway and Mass Transit

On a seemingly normal weekday afternoon in New York City, a young, adult male enters a major Manhattan subway station where three different lines connect.  The male is wearing a chest rig containing two separate explosive devices wired to a triggering mechanism that runs inside his jacket sleeve into his hand.  The male walks to the center of the station mezzanine and squeezes the trigger, detonating the explosives.  This type of incident is considered a nightmare scenario by security and law enforcement experts, as well as the commuting public.  The fact is, however, this narrative is not a hypothetical possibility – it actually happened.

On October 20, 1988 I was the sergeant at the scene when an unidentified Middle Eastern male walked onto the center of the mezzanine on the 125th Street and Lexington Avenue subway station and detonated explosives that he was wearing in a chest rig.  Miraculously, the mezzanine was empty at the time of the explosion, and the only casualty was the bomber, who was killed by the blast.  The incident made the headlines for a day or two, but then quickly slipped away from the public’s consciousness.  The event was looked upon primarily as an isolated criminal incident that disrupted train service, and not as a potentially devastating terrorist attack.  This mindset had a lot to do with America’s overall view of terrorism right up to the first World Trade Center attack in 1993.  Terrorism seemed like something that happened somewhere else – and somewhere else a safe distance over the horizon.  And then on September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center in New York City became Ground Zero.

   This former mindset regarding terrorism was also media driven.  During this time period most of the terrorist events around the world got little or no attention from the American media, and hence, they did not exist in the minds of most people. In today’s environment, where the threat of terrorism is front and center in the minds of law enforcement and the public, how is a target like the New York City Subway adequately defended, when some experts assert that the environment is indefensible.

 Shortly after a 2010 terrorist attack on the Moscow subway system, Konstantin Kosachev, Internal Affairs Committee Chairman of the Russian State Duma, told CNN, “The subway is a vulnerable system, you can never protect it 100 percent. It is absolutely unpredictable. Former NYPD Police Commissioner William Bratton characterized the NYC Subway by stating, “It’s really a potentially very vulnerable environment – one that you can’t totally protect. That’s the reality of it. … It’s a unique challenge.

What makes subways such an attractive target for terrorists?  Protecting mass transit from terrorism is an even more challenging task than protecting the nation’s air traffic network. Unlike an airplane, a bus, subway, or commuter train is in a constant state of flux, with passengers boarding and departing from numerous entry and exit points; and transit facilities rely on open architecture and the rapid and easy movement of patrons. In addition, the sheer volume of riders also makes it impractical to subject users of mass transit to the same intensive screening that airline passengers undergo. In the wake of several international attacks, it is clear that al Qaeda regards mass transit as a primary target.

The New York City Subway System presents an attractive target because it is the largest in the United States with more than 6,000 scheduled trains per day carrying over 3 million passengers.

What strategy would be the most appropriate to deal with the terrorist threat in an environment as vulnerable as the NYC subway system?  First, it is incumbent upon the United States to stop taking the approach that we are fighting a “war” on terrorism domestically and that we can prevent every single terrorist attack. That is simply not the case. The purported “war” on crime certainly did not prevent every single incident of criminal activity from taking place. What can be done is to take a realistic, proven, crime-fighting approach to the threat of a terrorist attack, specifically against the train and subway systems. This crime-fighting strategic approach is appropriate because terrorists are, after all, criminals.  The fact that terrorism is a crime makes it susceptible to a crime prevention strategy. Under this premise, proper utilization of local police resources and adaptation of proven law enforcement techniques can reduce the threat of terrorism           In New York City, the cornerstone of crime-fighting strategy is “CompStat.”

CompStat, short for “Computer Comparison Statistics,” is a multifaceted system for managing police operations.  As a problem-solving model, the CompStat process directs employees to identify problems, formulate and carry out solutions, and analyze results for effectiveness. Created around this model, the process’s business management model consists of four principles, which together define the strategy for driving down crime as well as creating internal procedural economies and efficiencies. The principles are equally applicable to addressing community crime problems, quality-of-life issues, and internal risk management incidents and policies. During weekly recurring meetings and inspections, led by the chief of police or other assigned high-ranking command or staff officers, the application of these principles to specific agency commands is reviewed, examined, and discussed.

The four CompStat principles are as follows:
·         Accurate and timely intelligence: Know what is happening.
·         Effective tactics: Have a plan.
·         Rapid deployment: Do it quickly.

·         Relentless follow-up and assessment: If it works, do more. If not, do something else.

Accurate and Timely Intelligence:
The need to be innovative and bold in their protection of their citizens led the
NYPD to develop a Counterterrorism Bureau and redirect the focus of the Intelligence
Division. One of the most significant changes the NYPD made was to increase the
officers assigned to collect intelligence both inside the city, but also outside. In fact the

NYPD has assigned officers overseas to collect intelligence.

Effective Tactics:

The public has been a vital part in crime reduction by reporting the crimes they witness as well as the suspicious behavior they observe. This has not only occurred in New York City, but across the entire nation. They are needed in the current time whenthe specter of terrorism looms, especially in the subway and train systems. By utilizing the public as a ‘detection’ system, an agency can exponentially increase the chance of detecting suspicious persons and packages. Another aspect of detection and information gathering involves the millions of passengers who commute each day on the train system. In New York, it is estimated that 5.1 million people ride the subway each day.  In order to use those passengers to help in the fight against terrorism, a public awareness campaign has been implemented. The “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign is a public relations program that informs the public that they should contact the authorities if they spot any suspicious packages or person.

Rapid Deployment:

The NYPD has several deployment strategies to address threats of terrorism in the subway system. The Hercules teams are one of the most strikingly visual units in the NYPD. These teams consist of an intelligence officer, a canine unit, a highway patrol unit and a small squad of heavily armed police officers who travel throughout the city. They are meant to work as both a method of keeping the teams prepared in case of an emergency and as a visual reminder that the NYPD is present and prepared for the worst case scenario.

Relentless Follow up and Assessment:
If the CompStat techniques of fighting crime are to be applied to combating terrorism, an examination of how criminals are apprehended is required. Whereas the police attempt to prevent crime by intelligently deploying their resources to areas of concern, serious and terrible crimes still occur. When these crimes do occur, an intense investigation takes place. Resources are dedicated until the perpetrators of the crime are apprehended — before they commit another similar crime. One such recent crime occurred on April 13, 2007, when a Columbia graduate student was accosted in her hallway and forced into her apartment. She was raped and brutalized for nineteen hours before the perpetrators tied her up and set the apartment on fire. She managed to survive
the attack, but the perpetrator escaped. By scouring the neighborhood for witnesses, searching all video cameras in the neighborhood and checking past criminal records, a suspect was identified. When the perpetrator was arrested for a different crime, his name and description identified him as a suspect in the rape. The relentless follow-up lead to the suspect being arrested for the brutal rape seven days after it occurred. The same holds true for terrorism incidents. Once an incident has occurred or a suspected plot has been uncovered, the follow-up investigation is critical to apprehending those responsible in order to prevent future attacks.
Terrorism is a crime, and just as every crime cannot be prevented, it is unrealistic to expect that a strategy could be developed and deployed that would prevent every act of terrorism.  The fact that terrorism is a crime, however, makes it susceptible to a crime prevention strategy  New York City was the birthplace of CompStat, a tried and tested crime fighting strategy that has since spread all over the country. The same strengths that make CompStat work to reduce crime or to manage an entire city can easily be brought to bear on the threat of terrorism, with the same potential for success.  Even if CompStat generated security measures prevent only the largest-scale attacks, they could significantly reduce the human costs associated with this threat.  Given past large-scale attacks on rail systems in Madrid, London, and Mumbai, coupled with the desire of contemporary terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda, to produce mass-casualty events, the importance of preventing these macroterrorist events takes on added magnitude.

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Robert Bryan

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