Still on Track After All These Years
Long-Standing Database Helps in Securing America’s Railroads
To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the RAND Corporation, which was established as a nonprofit institution in 1948, stories about “RAND Then and Now” will appear in RAND Review through 2008.
Two bloody terrorist incidents in 1972 — the attack by the Japanese Red Army on passengers at Lod (later Ben Gurion) International Airport in Israel and the murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics — signaled to the world that a new mode of warfare had begun. In response, RAND analysts began tracking and categorizing terrorist attacks around the world by means of a simple card catalog.
Today, the database that RAND began more than 35 years ago has become an indispensable resource for studies of diverse aspects of international and domestic terrorism, including a recent study that looks at how to secure America’s passenger-rail systems.
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As Brian Jenkins, who launched RAND’s terrorism research program, has argued: “Knowledge is the antidote to anxiety.” In 1972, he began tracking terrorist attacks on 3-by-5–inch index cards.
That early effort has grown into the RAND Worldwide Terrorism Incident Database. This database integrates data from multiple sources: the RAND Terrorism Chronology Database (documenting international terrorist incidents between 1968 and 1997), the RAND-MIPT Terrorism Incident Database (recording domestic and international terrorist incidents from 1998 to March 31, 2008, as documented by the Oklahoma City-based Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism), the Terrorism Indictment database (from researchers at the University of Arkansas), and DeticaDFI’s research on terrorist organizations (culled from terrorism specialists and regional experts who compile comprehensive profiles of each group and key leaders based on the most recent and relevant literature available).
As such, the database serves as a one-stop shop where policymakers, journalists, first responders, and the general public can find comprehensive information on terrorism. The database averages more than 100,000 requests a month from more than 65,000 users. Members of the U.S. Congress often cite statistics from the database, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is the largest civilian user. To learn more about gaining access to the database, please refer to www.rand.org/ise/projects/terrorismdatabase/.
Guarding the Rails
While there have been no successful attacks on U.S. rail systems recently, attacks on passenger-rail systems around the world — such as in Madrid in 2004, on the London Underground in 2005, and in Delhi in 2007 — highlight the vulnerability of rail travel and the importance of rail security.
“Millions ride the nation’s railways every day, and it is critical to protect them from terrorist attacks. But we need ways to do so while getting the most for the money we invest,” said Jeremy Wilson, lead author of Securing America’s Passenger-Rail Systems. “By design, rail systems are open and accessible to large numbers of people and, for this reason, are difficult to secure.”
Drawing on data from the RAND-MIPT Terrorist Incident Database (now the RAND Worldwide Terrorism Incident Database), researchers found that bombings are the most prevalent terrorist threat to rail systems, that most such attacks produce few fatalities or injuries, and that attacks in densely packed rail cars and train stations are of particular concern because of the casualties that can result. Not all such attacks come from explosives, so security measures must address the possibility of other attack modes as well. But given the damage from a relatively small number of large attacks, security measures that prevent only the largest-scale attacks could significantly reduce the associated human costs.
To understand how to protect people from such attacks, researchers examined eleven potential attack locations in a rail system and subjected them to eight potential attack modes. Each of the 88 scenarios was then categorized as high, medium, low, or no risk. (The latter occurs when the target-attack combination is not possible.) The figure summarizes the results.
“Some rail-attack modes are more of a concern than others,” said coauthor Brian Jackson. “The use of small explosives is a high or medium risk for most targets, while hoaxes or threats pose a risk for only a few targets. Likewise, some targets are more of a concern than others. The system-operation and power infrastructure is a high or medium risk for seven of the eight attack modes. The underground infrastructure is less of a target in comparison.”
The study used a composite passenger-rail system to avoid disclosing confidential details about any specific U.S. rail system. In examining how to defend such a system against the threats, the study compared the cost-effectiveness of adding different security measures onto the system’s baseline security. Four broad categories of cost-effective security measures emerged:
“While such options are specific to the particular system and to a particular point in time, the framework itself is useful for planning across all options,” noted study coauthor Jack Riley.
Since the modern face of terrorism emerged in 1972, the threats posed by it are constantly changing and evolving, taking on new, often more lethal forms designed to avoid government countermeasures. Continuous data collection is crucial for staying one step ahead of the trends. The passenger-rail study is but one of a series of recent studies in which RAND researchers have used such data to get “inside the terrorist mind” and to understand how to outsmart it.
Breaching the Fortress Wall: Understanding Terrorist Efforts to Overcome Defensive Technologies, Brian A. Jackson, Peter Chalk, Kim Cragin, Bruce Newsome, John V. Parachini, William Rosenau, Erin M. Simpson, Melanie Sisson, Donald Temple, RAND/MG-481-DHS, 2007, 182 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-3914-9.
Securing America’s Passenger-Rail Systems, Jeremy M. Wilson, Brian A. Jackson, Mel Eisman, Paul Steinberg, K. Jack Riley, RAND/MG-705-NIJ, 2007, 142 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-4117-3.
Sharing the Dragon’s Teeth: Terrorist Groups and the Exchange of New Technologies, Kim Cragin, Peter Chalk, Sara A. Daly, Brian A. Jackson, RAND/MG-485-DHS, 2007, 136 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-3915-6.
Stealing the Sword: Limiting Terrorist Use of Advanced Conventional Weapons, James Bonomo, Giacomo Bergamo, David R. Frelinger, John Gordon IV, Brian A. Jackson, RAND/MG-510-DHS, 2007, 154 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-3965-1.