The New Terrorist Threat

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As millions mourned in the streets of Madrid, counterterrorism officials around the world struggled to analyze the implications of the attacks for their own cities. None of the lessons are comforting. If the assaults were not by al-Qaeda, it means that other groups think they have to mount an attack that slaughters hundreds of innocents to get attention. If those responsible for the outrage in Madrid were not Osama bin Laden's foot soldiers, others have learned that such attacks are not very difficult to stage. Equally troublesome, however, is the possibility that 3/11 was an al-Qaeda — related attack; that would be another indication that President George W. Bush's claim to have crushed bin Laden's network is false.

Most modern nations, including the U.S., have had some form of indigenous terrorist group. But now security officials are concerned that the calculations of these often unknown groups have changed. They may think they must create mass casualties or risk being ignored by the media. The Internet is replete with recipes for potent bombs whose ingredients are easily procured in hardware stores. Worse concoctions — from plastic high explosives to radioactive material — are available on the international gray and black markets.

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Madrid joins the list of cities — including Moscow, Paris and Tokyo — whose subways and trains have been turned into scenes of carnage. For transportation-security officials in Boston, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia, there will be many sleepless nights ahead. In New York City, with more than 4 million rail and subway commuters daily, security has become an obsession. Although city officials have stepped up police patrols and introduced closed-circuit cameras in stations, they believe they cannot frisk rail commuters in the way that federal authorities screen air travelers.

U.S. security experts noted an inventive variation in the Madrid bombings. Rather than employing a large truck bomb, against which some defensive techniques work, the attackers used small charges in backpacks. Palestinian terrorists using satchels on Israeli buses have killed dozens of passengers. But in Madrid, the bombers caused some 200 deaths and more than 1,500 other casualties with just 10 bags. The terrorists achieved the effect of a large-scale attack with a hand-carried weapon that easily avoids detection.

The dirty little secret among security experts is that our society and economy are fragile. Shopping malls, casinos, theme parks and stadiums share a vulnerability to the sort of attacks seen in Madrid. In all these places, as with train stations, tens of thousands of people push through essentially unguarded portals in short periods of time. Since 9/11, owners of these facilities have feared that a few such attacks, indeed even just one, would keep customers away long enough to bring bankruptcy. The financial cost of adequately protecting the thousands of such venues, assuming that was feasible, would put a large dent in profits or tax revenues. The effects of such attacks on the U.S. economy could be devastating. For bin Laden, who has called upon his followers to destroy the American economy, such considerations surely fit with the goal of sweeping away the superpower to make way for a global theocracy.

Analysts call the calculations inherent in the Madrid attacks an "offense preference equation." Defense against such attacks is so disproportionately difficult that even setting up costly protection does not assure success. The attacker has the advantage. In such circumstances, security officials cannot just play defense. They must not wait to pick the terrorist out of the crowd at Grand Central Terminal in the minutes before he sets the timer. Terrorist cells must be infiltrated overseas. Terrorists have to be picked up at the border or found among the hundreds of millions of people on our streets.

Unfortunately, the CIA and the FBI have found al-Qaeda a hard target to infiltrate. Worse, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld mused in an internal Pentagon memo, radicals who hate America are being turned out faster than we can arrest or kill them. Whatever we do to the original members of al-Qaeda, a new generation of terrorists similar to them is growing. So, in addition to placing more cameras on our subway platforms, maybe we should be asking why the terrorists hate us. If we do not focus on the reasons for terrorism as well as the terrorists, the body searches we accept at airports may be only the beginning of life in the new fortress America.

Richard A. Clarke is a former presidential adviser and author of the forthcoming book Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terrorism