Cities grapple with how to protect soft targets from new attacks

Cities grapple with how to protect soft targets from new attacks
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U.S. cities and lawmakers are grappling with the difficult question of how best to keep people safe in public spaces after the deadly truck attack on a New York City bike path.

The attack, which left eight people dead, has ratcheted up calls to implement new safety measures that can thwart attacks on so-called soft targets, where there is often little or no security.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) warned the trucking industry months ago that terrorists are increasingly turning to unsophisticated weapons and tactics like vehicle-ramming, especially as security in traditional areas like aviation has been strengthened in recent years. 

Several major cities have begun installing physical barriers to protect pedestrians on crowded streets. They have also ramped up the police presence in high-profile areas during busy events. 

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But officials, policymakers and transportation planners are being confronted with a frustrating, sobering reality: there is no silver-bullet solution to prevent every single vehicle attack.

‘There’s not a lot you can do to prevent these type of car-ramming attacks. That’s why there’s been a significant increase in these types of attacks in recent years,” said Victor Asal, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Albany and an expert in terrorism and homeland security.

“This has been the serious, serious conundrum for trying to combat a type of terrorism that has no easy solutions.”

New York law enforcement officials have vowed to explore new security measures after a suspected terrorist mowed down pedestrians on a crowded bike path using a pick-up truck near the World Trade Center, killing eight people and injuring 11 others. Officials are calling it the deadliest terrorist attack in New York City since 9/11.

But the horrific incident is just the latest example of terrorists using trucks, vans and cars as killing machines, though the tactic has been far more common abroad. There has been a wave of deadly vehicle-ramming incidents carried out in London; Berlin; the French city of Nice; Barcelona, Spain; and throughout Israel in recent years.

From 2014 to early 2017, terrorists carried out 17 known vehicle-ramming attacks worldwide, resulting in 173 fatalities and 667 injuries, according to the TSA.

The TSA issued a warning in April to truck and bus companies and other transportation stakeholders in the U.S. to alert them about the rise in vehicle-ramming attacks.

Officials are advising the public to stay vigilant, but also encouraging people to carry on with their normal lives.

“Unfortunately, we have recently seen a rise in such senseless attacks across the globe and face a persistent terror threat here at home,” Elaine Duke, acting secretary of Homeland Security, said in a statement Wednesday. “DHS and our partners remain alert in the wake of this attack and committed to keeping America safe.”

The increase in car attacks represents a significant shift from the type of attacks that al Qaeda and other groups have orchestrated in recent years. Terrorism experts say that’s because vehicles are far easier to obtain than weapons and explosives, they can easily inflict mass casualties and it requires virtually no training.

Meanwhile, the global aviation community has increasingly stepped up its security efforts, including stricter screening measures that were rolled out this summer.

“Terrorists have figured out that we’ve made it very difficult to get on that plane,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee.

U.S. cities have already been preparing for potential car-ramming attacks, including investing in new tools, using landscapes to create buffers, deploying more police units during big events and shutting down streets where there is heavy foot traffic.

The most common measure gaining steam in cities like Washington, Las Vegas, New York City and Los Angeles is erecting bollards, or physical barriers, to serve as a guardrail between vehicles and pedestrians.

But counterterrorism experts warn that as barriers go up in one area, new attacks will inevitably crop up in other unprotected spaces. Reports from this week’s deadly NYC incident suggest that the suspect purposely targeted a section of the bath pike where he knew there were no barriers.

And it’s just not feasible to build costly barriers in every single spot in a city, with officials pointing out that there still needs to be room for crosswalks.

“There are certainly some places where barriers are very appropriate,” said Sen. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersGOP chairman warns of ISIS's ‘cyber caliphate’ Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Senate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank MORE (D-Mich.) “But obviously it’s difficult to put barriers everywhere.”

Growing push for action on Capitol Hill

Despite the challenges, this week’s deadly incident is intensifying calls on Capitol Hill to boost sidewalk security and take other steps to protect pedestrians and cyclists.

The issue could surface in upcoming spending legislation or in a long-term aviation bill that deals with the TSA.

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandDemocrats turn on Al Franken Report: Franken will resign Thursday Minnesota's largest newspaper calls on Franken to resign MORE (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation on Wednesday that would create a grant program to help local governments install traffic barriers and other protective measures.

The House also passed a Department of Homeland Security reauthorization bill earlier this year that includes several grant programs that are designed to help state and local law enforcement harden so-called soft targets, which bill sponsors argue could help with erecting more street barriers. The measure is still awaiting Senate action.

“We’re going to have to look at that. It’s becoming a more common way for terrorists to attack people, and it has been fairly successful,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Overnight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids Dems push for more money for opioid fight MORE (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “They’re always coming up with new ways to be lethal. And we’ve got to do everything we can to stop them.”