Terrorism's Soft Targets

By Clark Kent Ervin
Sunday, May 7, 2006

Nearly five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it is more difficult than ever for terrorists outside the United States to slip in and launch another attack by hijacking an airplane, smuggling a weapon of mass destruction into a seaport, blowing up a bus or a subway station, or poisoning our food or water supply. To varying degrees, such potential targets have been hardened, and the United States is somewhat more secure as a result.

The good news stops there. The bad news is that the hardening of these targets has increased the appeal of shopping malls, sports arenas, hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, movie theaters, housing complexes and other "soft" targets that remain relatively unprotected against terrorist attacks.

To be sure, al-Qaeda has a history of preferring plots for spectacular attacks that can kill thousands, or even millions, of people and cause millions of dollars in collateral economic damage. Not only is the pain and suffering inflicted on us "infidels" greater, but such attacks have an outsize shock-and-awe effect that serves to glorify the terrorists and the cause they serve. Such attacks can galvanize the global terrorist network and inspire cells hoping to take up the bloodstained jihadist banner on the soil of their chief enemy. Carrying out another 9/11-style attack in the United States would put the lie to all the whistling past the graveyard talk that al-Qaeda is a spent force, the homeland has been secured, and the war on terrorism here has been all but won.

But terrorists are nothing if not adaptable. If it is harder to strike one kind of target than another, they will eventually strike the easier target. Indeed, it is a marvel that terrorists haven't already struck soft targets in the United States.

These kinds of attacks are common throughout the Middle East and South Asia, and they are becoming increasingly routine in parts of Southeast Asia, Russia and Africa. Periodic intelligence reports raise concerns that terrorists have contemplated carrying out such attacks here and have plotted to do so.

For example, there were reports in October 2004 that U.S. troops in Iraq had discovered two computer disks containing photographs, an evacuation plan and other crisis-management-related information regarding eight school districts in six U.S. states. The districts identified were those in Fort Myers, Fla.; Salem, Ore.; Jones County, Ga.; Rumson and Franklin Township in New Jersey; Birch Run, Mich.; and San Diego. (The remaining district, in California, was not identified.) Authorities stressed at the time that no link to terrorism had been found. But alarm bells rang nonetheless, especially because the information surfaced around the time of the deadly siege of a school in Beslan, Russia, by Chechen terrorists, in which more than 340 people (mostly children) were killed. The FBI and the Department of Education have warned schools of terrorist casings and targeting activity.

Apartment complexes have been cased, and synagogues have been threatened. Intelligence analysts and law enforcement experts consider suicide bombings, car and truck bombs, and sniper fire particularly attractive means by which to attack softer U.S. targets.

Because there never has been a terrorist attack on a soft target in the United States, the psychological effect probably would be disastrous, even if the casualty toll were relatively low. If the attack were to take place outside the major cities already considered prime terrorist targets -- such as New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Chicago -- the collective national psyche would be especially traumatized. For the first time, every American, wherever he or she lived, would feel at risk. A single suicide bomber in a shopping center in Topeka, or a single bomb-carrying car rammed into a movie complex in Omaha, could bring the nation to its psychic knees.

Adding to the appeal such scenarios hold for terrorists is the reality that precious little can be done to prevent them in a society like ours that rightly values personal liberty so highly. Terrorist attacks in shopping malls, restaurants and the like are everyday, fact-of-life occurrences in Israel, and so the Israelis have come to accept countermeasures such as metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs, armed police patrols and undercover surveillance teams on the lookout for suspicious-looking people and suspicious behavior.

In America, the few security guards working at soft targets often are unarmed, untrained and unmotivated. Camera surveillance systems (when they are in place at all) tend to be monitored only irregularly, and when the cameras are monitored, the security guards usually focus more on potential thieves and troublemakers than on potential terrorists. Absent an attack on a soft target in this country, the American people simply won't tolerate the draconian countermeasures that Israelis accept without complaint.

The upshot is a deadly double irony. The very fact that there hasn't been an attack on a soft target in the United States increases the danger of one. And, the harder we harden hard targets, the more likely an attack on a soft target becomes.


Clark Kent Ervin is director of the Homeland Security Initiative at the Aspen Institute and former inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security. Excerpted from "Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack" (Palgrave Macmillan).

© 2006 The Washington Post Company