WASHINGTON – Holidays in the U.S. always come with decorations and discounts, and now, tightened security.
In the wake of arrests in Europe and sting operations in the U.S., intelligence agencies have been on edge this season. While the public has remained heavily focused on airline security, American officials are concerned that terrorist organizations also are setting their sights on easier-to-hit targets, such as subways, trains and large public gatherings.
Federal and local authorities have responded with demonstrations of force and high-profile arrests to deter would-be plotters. More bomb-sniffing dogs checked passengers on Amtrak train platforms. Security bulletins told local police to be on guard for attacks against sporting events, parades and religious activities. Authorities in Washington randomly checked subway riders’ bags for explosives in the days leading up to Christmas, and some officers carried assault rifles as they patrolled Metro stations.
The “enhanced measures” were in response to a heightened threat against trains, subways and buses, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the day after Christmas. Napolitano also said that the department in the past year has provided training to counter threats against “so-called soft targets, the hotels, shopping malls, for example.”
Wary of a repeat of the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airplane last year, the Transportation Security Administration installed 483 full-body image scanners in 78 airports, implemented aggressive new pat-down procedures, and completed the launch of a sophisticated passenger data sharing system. The new methods will stay in place for now, Napolitano has emphasized, describing them as “just objectively safer for our traveling public.”
The FBI also has brought charges in three undercover sting operations in the past three months: Suspects in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Portland, attempted to collect explosives to bomb public places from people they thought were co-conspirators, only to be nabbed by undercover FBI agents who had posed as domestic terrorists.
Authorities said the bomb plots are evidence that terrorists are changing their game plan. Pressure from U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and financial sanctions on the al-Qaida network have “made it much more difficult for them to plan spectacular attacks,” said Rick Nelson, director of the homeland security and counterterrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“They are trying to expand their repertoire,” Nelson said, to attacks that are “a lot less sophisticated but easier to execute.”
On Wednesday, three men were arrested in Denmark for allegedly plotting to kill as many people as possible in the offices of a Copenhagen newspaper in retribution for the publication of a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in 2006.
Al-Qaida in Yemen has gone public in encouraging American citizens to attack their own country, recruiting potential bombers through Internet video speeches by American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and the publication of three issues of a slick English-language propaganda magazine called “Inspire.”
Authorities in Europe said the magazine was a factor in recruiting 12 men who were arrested Dec. 20 and accused of plotting to bomb targets in London. The proliferation of al-Awlaki’s speeches on YouTube was one of the reasons the site created a new category for users to flag videos that “promote terrorism.”
Inspire magazine discourages American Muslims from taking trips to training camps in Pakistan or Somalia that might land them on U.S. intelligence databases. Instead, articles encourage recruits to plan and launch attacks on American soil and offers examples of how to do it, such as using homemade bombs, ramming a truck into a crowd, or shooting into a crowded restaurant with a handgun.
The approach may seem hapless on the surface, said Steward Baker, the Department of Homeland Security’s first assistant secretary for policy and the author of “Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism,” but it cannot be ignored. The organizers of the al-Qaida branch in Yemen know that even a failed attack such as the foiled package bomb plot in October will scare Americans and bring more attention to their cause, Baker said.
“They are not haunted by the need to do something as spectacular as 9/11,” Baker said. “They seem completely unfazed by failure or looking stupid.”
Soft targets aren’t new targets, said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, but the success of the 2008 attacks on a posh hotel and other sites in Mumbai, India, gave militants new incentive to look at hitting things other than airplanes.
“The fact is, our surface transportation is not as secure as our air transportation,” said Cilluffo, who added that random searches, increased police presence and bomb-sniffing dogs can go a long way toward deterring attacks. “But all of this is predicated on good intelligence. Good intelligence is the lifeblood. As much as we can invest in that environment is money well spent.”
In order to collect and share information on tips, the Department of Homeland Security has helped fund and train 72 state and regional “fusion centers,” where law enforcement officials with top-secret clearance can read high-level intelligence and analyze reports of suspicious activity generated by local authorities.