President Bush’s outgoing Homeland Security Adviser, Ken Wainstein, told an audience this week that Mumbai-style attacks could happen “in any American city.” A well written piece in the UK Reuters explains the growing concern amid the counter-terrorism community that the brazen assault on civilians in tourist centers attractive to Westerners could be a sign of what’s to come.
Since 9/11, most analysis of the terrorist threat has been focused on al Qaeda’s apparent focus on catastrophic and high-casualty attacks on the unarmed. As a result, analysts have suggested that low-intensity assaults with automatic weapons or car bombs are less likely than attacks on the scale of 9/11, or worse.
However, attacks like those on the rail systems in Madrid, the nightclub in Bali, the mass transit system in London, and now the hotels and urban centers of Mumbai, among others, suggest a shift that has been underway from targeting military and government entities toward more vulnerable “soft targets” populated by civilians.
The three days of gun-and-grenade attacks on Mumbai killed 179 people. “That’s the kind of thing that is all too realistic anywhere in the world,” Wainstein said to the group assembled for an event at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee holds a hearing this afternoon (1300 EST) on the Indian government’s response to the Mumbai attacks and what is needed to prevent such an attack here in the U.S. Scheduled witnesses include:
• Charles E. Allen, Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis and Chief Intelligence Officer , U.S. Department of Homeland Security
• Donald N. Van Duyn , Chief Intelligence Officer, Directorate of Intelligence, National Security Branch, Federal Bureau of Investigation , U.S. Department of Justice
• The Honorable Raymond W. Kelly, Police Commissioner, City of New York
You can watch a webcast of the hearing here.
According to Senator Lieberman:
“We need to understand the implications of some of the tactics used successfully in these attacks. For example, we know that the attackers traveled undetected from Karachi to Mumbai by boat. What are the implications of this attack from the water for our own homeland security here in the United States? We need to look at the targets of this attack and determine whether we are doing as much as we should be doing to appropriately protect our own “soft” targets, a term given to facilities that are not traditionally subject to a high level of security, such as nuclear power plants and defense installations, and that would include hotels, sports arenas, and shopping malls. While there are practical limits to protecting soft targets in an open society, it is imperative that we take smart, cost-effective security measures, through means such as security awareness training, exercises focused on soft targets, and improved information-sharing about potential threats. And we need to examine how we can strengthen our homeland security cooperation with the Government of India and other allied governments in the wake of this attack.”
Another challenge is that the killers that perpetrated the Mumbai attacks used easily obtained automatic rifles, grenades, and GPS devices.
Wainstein suggested the Mumbai assaults indicate the value of sharing better information and intelligence with hotels and other similar facilities. However, this focus misses a larger point that the Senate hearing may also miss. Rather than focus on ways to defuse or end rampages on urban civilian populations, it is important first to understand how to prevent them.
Delegitimizing terrorist acts – especially those that murder unarmed civilians – cannot be accomplished by intelligence and police work alone. The Senate hearing’s title states that it is focused on how “to prevent such attacks in the United States.” To do so would require hearing from authorities from the region (i.e. India, Pakistan) and experts in root causes of terrorism and political extremism. Today’s hearing is important, but it should follow a focus on what it takes to prevent another Mumbai, London, Madrid, or Bali.