The Lessons of London


Jul 17, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on July 17, 2005.

Riding London's tube was unnecessary. For me, it was a gesture – a rolling prayer for the victims of July 7, an expression of solidarity with the British people, a small act of defiance against the terror the bombers hoped to create.

There was little sense of apprehension. Thirty years of tracking terrorism teaches one to calculate the odds. I am in far greater danger at home in California driving the freeway. Thirty years also teaches one to comprehend the terrible logic behind the terrorist attack, and to appreciate the limits of intelligence and security. London offers hard lessons about terrorism, first, that it will continue.

Undeniable progress has been made against al-Qaeda and its jihadist affiliates since Sept. 11, 2001. Its asylum in Afghanistan has been destroyed, its training camps dispersed, its ranks decimated, many of its key operational planners captured or dead, its finances squeezed, its leaders on the run. The jihadists have been driven deeper underground, forced to recruit more circumspectly; the operational environment is more hostile, transactions have become more dangerous – a telephone call, a transfer of funds, crossing a border, all riskier.

But while we have damaged the jihadists' network, we have not dented their determination. Al-Qaeda today is an ideology that transcends the original organization to inspire many little al-Qaedas. Comprising old veterans and new volunteers, the jihadists communicate on a thousand more Web sites, train at secret locations, continue to plan and prepare attacks.

Continued operations are imperative for them. These are not determined by strategic objectives – operations themselves are the objective. We understandably see terrorist attacks in terms of what they do to us, but terrorists carry out attacks primarily to help their own cause. In their view, successful attacks demonstrate capability, prowess, offer hope to the terrorists' perceived constituents, inspire others to take up arms, reveal vulnerabilities, attract recruits and financial contributions.

No sequential strategy links one attack to another. Terrorists are opportunists, striking wherever they have capability. We see warfare as a finite undertaking with a beginning and an end; jihadists view warfare as a perpetual condition. Fighting brings its own rewards – a chance to demonstrate conviction, courage, end humiliation, restore honor, defend the devout, awaken the community, attain paradise. There will be more Londons.

Despite the intense pressure on their network, since Sept. 11, 2001, jihadists from Southeast Asia to Southeast England have carried out operations at an average of one major attack somewhere in the world every three months, not counting ongoing campaigns in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq, or the Caucasus. Fortunately, all of the attacks have been pre-9/11 scenarios. Still, nearly a thousand have died, thousands more have been injured.

The terrorists have attacked primarily soft targets: tourist sites, resorts, restaurants, hotels, residential compounds, synagogues, city streets, buses, trains, subways. The same targets are vulnerable in the United States. Body count is the sole criterion.

For terrorists determined to kill in quantity and willing to kill indiscriminately, public transportation is an ideal target. It offers terrorists ease of access and escape. Crowds of strangers guarantee anonymity. Contained environments enhance the effect of explosives. Attacks on public transport also cause disruption and alarm – traditional terrorist goals.

Public transportation is a killing ground: 37 percent of terrorist attacks on trains and buses result in fatalities – much higher than the percentage for terrorist attacks in general; 74 percent of the fatal incidents involve multiple fatalities, 28 percent involve 10 or more fatalities. London fits this deadly pattern.

Could it happen here?

Of course. A plot to carry out suicide bombings on New York's subways was thwarted in 1997 when one of the conspirators got cold feet and tipped off police. Last year, a successful NYPD intelligence operation uncovered another plot to bomb subway stations in mid-Manhattan.

Intelligence operations have been successful on many occasions, but cannot be successful every time. While the United States has been pre-occupied reviewing and reorganizing intelligence in the wake of perceived intelligence failures, American and allied intelligence services, benefiting from an unprecedented unity of effort, have foiled 30 to 40 large-scale terrorist attacks. We hear about the failures, not the successes. British authorities reportedly have uncovered eight terrorist plots since that fateful Sept. 11. This time, they missed.

It appears now that the London bombers were young men, born and educated in England, recruited and radicalized locally, although possibly by a foreign handler. In Northern California, an individual went off to a terrorist training camp in Pakistan and returned alone. This is "Johnny Appleseed jihad," broadcasting the seeds of terrorism with very little organization.

We confront a highly adaptive foe. Terrorists now pay more attention to operational security. They operate in smaller cells that are below the intelligence radar. No intelligence service is going to be so omnipresent as to pick up every little conspiracy. The greater likelihood of operations at local initiative, however, does change where and how we look for information.

The declining al-Qaeda center means less reliance on communications intercepts and surveillance at frontiers. It increases the likelihood that local police rather than national services may detect suspicious activity. America has more than 600,000 sworn police officers. Engaging even one percent of them in counter-terrorism would field a powerful domestic collection capacity. To be effective they will need support, training, and a means of rapid communication. We have barely started in this direction.

Twenty-five years of experience with the IRA's terrorist campaign, which frequently targeted London's subway system, prompted British authorities to develop a sophisticated security system. Thousands of cameras cover the stations, trains, and buses. The system also depends heavily on public vigilance, and apart from Israel, there may be no more vigilant population. Authorities remain confident that they will be notified promptly of suspicious objects within minutes. Communications facilities are readily available and Transport Police will respond. The objective is to save lives as well as reduce the disruption caused by bomb threats and forgotten packages. Few systems in the world match the security of London's public transport. But no system can promise 100 percent security. Public transportation cannot be a refuge from risk.

Protecting public places is difficult because they are public places. Perimeter controls that restrict access, create delays and add dollars to a subway fare would destroy urban transit. Aviation security cannot be the model.

Moreover, protecting one public place does not prevent terrorism. It merely displaces the risk to another public place. If train stations and bus depots are protected, terrorists will shift their sights to the lines of passengers waiting to get through security portals, or to supermarkets and shopping malls. There is little net security benefit.

This does not mean that the situation is hopeless, that any attempt of protection is futile, until we solve all of the world's discontents. Much has been done since 9/11, and the London attacks will assist those arguing for further improvements, and there is nothing wrong in this. Much is often accomplished in the wake of tragedy.

Critics ask, isn't this fighting the last war? Certainly tomorrow's terrorists will strike elsewhere. Possibly, although terrorists tend to stick to proven playbooks. To a certain extent, security is always reactive.

Terrorists can attack anything, anywhere, any time. We cannot protect everything, everywhere, all the time. We must, of course, take steps to prevent easy repetition of attacks that have occurred. Not to do so would be irresponsible. Can anyone imagine not improving aviation security after 9/11?

At the same time, we cannot be distracted by infinite vulnerabilities: Airport screening gets poor grades. Air cargo is vulnerable. Our ports are at peril. Our borders are porous. Chemical plants are inviting targets. Hazardous materials and tank cars are rolling bombs. Nuclear reactors are exposed. Our agriculture and food supply chains are wide open. All compete for attention and resources.

So how much security is enough? How do we measure effectiveness? Is the absence of attack the sole criterion? Does the fact that the United States has not been attacked again since 9/11 mean that our security is adequate?

We have yet to formulate a national strategy that establishes what the minimum budget for homeland security should be, determines priorities, and defines residual risk. Effective allocation requires cold-blooded analysis but what we do is the product of uncertainty, budget constraints, political process, specific threat, differing ideologies, home district pork barrel politics. Everybody has an agenda.

Risk management means accepting risk, and for political leaders, that is a harder sell than banging the podium for better security. But I think the citizens get it. Fortunately, the risk to the individual citizen from terrorism is minuscule.

That's good news for us as individuals. But it is equally important to prevent large-scale terrorist events that may have hardly any effect on the statistics of individual mortality, but can have profound societal effects.

That too is within our power to combat. Security from terrorism is more than security from terrorists. It is not succumbing to terror. And that is accomplished not with perimeters of concrete and steel, but with realistic assessments of the dangers we face and the courage to confront them. Here too, we can learn a lesson from London.

Jenkins is a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation. He also directs the National Transportation Security Center at the Mineta Transportation Institute.

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