New Mexico Plays Home To Terror Town, U.S.A.

Subduing a Terrorist
Sheriff's deputies subdue a "terrorist" on the ground during a training exercise at the Playas Homeland Security Training Center in December. (Greg Sorber - Albuquerque Journal via AP)
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2005

PLAYAS, N.M.-- With its pristine Spanish-style houses and flowering gardens, this remote town seems an unlikely place to be the most dangerous spot in the United States. But for the past six months it has been under siege by terrorists.

First, a man took some hostages and holed up inside No. 1 Mesquite St., threatening to blow up the place. A SWAT team had to shoot its way inside and take him out. Then came the discovery of a pipe-bomb factory in a neighbor's kitchen, and an explosion on a bus in which eight were killed or wounded.

The attacks are simulations, part of a national training program for emergency personnel such as police, paramedics and border patrol officers. For the roughly 20 families who live in this government-contracted town and the several dozen others who live on the outskirts, however, the events are sometimes almost too real.

"It feels like I'm in war," said Trent Johnson, 17, who was born and raised here. Helicopters fly overhead in the middle of the night. Sometimes while he is going to school or running errands he and his parents must make their way past a maze of ambulances, fire engines and Humvees. "It's kind of freaky to see people in uniform walking down your street with M-4s."

Mercifully, evidence of the attacks does not last long. After each crisis, a cleanup crew arrives, quietly sweeping up shattered glass, replacing smashed doors, patching cracked walls. Their job is to rewind the clock, returning the town to the way it was before the attack, as if nothing had happened.

Next come a few quiet days, sometimes a few quiet weeks. Then the attacks begin all over again.

Life has been this way since December, when the first trainees began arriving from across the country. Nicknamed "terror town" by locals, Playas is part of a multibillion-dollar initiative by the federal government to prepare for what some think is inevitable: another attack on U.S. soil.

While the government's efforts to prevent terrorism -- extra security at airports and at the borders, the roundup of suspect combatants -- have been the most visible, it also has dedicated significant resources to trying to predict and respond to worst-case scenarios. The cornerstone of that effort involves simulations.

"You'll never fight the scenario you train against but the fact that you've been exposed to similar conditions in a synthetic environment -- one where there's no penalty or harm for making a mistake -- is the best opportunity you're going to have to learn," said Corey Gruber, director of policy for the Office for Domestic Preparedness in the Homeland Security Department.

The challenge for those who design the simulations is to create something that is more than a flashy Hollywood act. Some critics have questioned the cost and usefulness of simulations, saying that trying to get a handle on the infinite number of variables involved in any possible attack is pointless and the government might be better off putting its resources into other projects. Another worry is the danger that enemies of the United States may be able to use data from the exercises as a playbook for targets.

Some simulations, like the ones in Playas, are narrowly focused on one problem and involve only several dozen participants. Others are elaborate multi-state, multi-agency efforts with professional actors, fake blood and props. Last month, for example, hospital emergency rooms in New Jersey were flooded with "patients" who were infected with pneumonic plague while a car bomb filled with toxic chemicals detonated at a waterfront festival in Connecticut. More than 23,000 trainees participated.

The most complex, involving thousands or even millions of virtual deaths, can only be conducted inside the brain of a computer. In secured rooms at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Naval Postgraduate School, Virginia Tech and other research institutions, the machines are modeling disasters such as the contamination of the water supply, a smallpox release, and a hacker attack on our Internet infrastructure.

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