Are LA's trains and subways
targets for terror?


This appeared in the LA Daily News, on Sunday, November 28, 2004:

Are L.A.'s trains and subways targets for terror?

by Arthur A. Jones and Robin Wiseman
email to:

The world remembers the horrific bomb attacks on 10 commuter trains March 11 in Madrid, Spain, where terrorists killed nearly 200 innocent passengers and wounded 1,800 more. Should this have been a wake-up call for Los Angeles city and county? Absolutely. There is a growing body of evidence that points to one or more terrorist strikes on public transportation in Southern California in the very near future.

Despite some success in the War on Terror abroad, we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent. The CIA warns that before the end of 2005, one or several terrorist attacks on rail or bus transportation in this region will be inevitable. Most independent experts agree with that assessment. Others call it too mild.

In late October, police raided an apartment in Zurich, Switzerland, and arrested Mohammed Ashra, the high-ranking al-Qaida terrorist who planned and orchestrated the Madrid train bombings. At the time of his arrest, Ashra had reserved a flight to Mexico. In his apartment, police found proof that Ashra had been sending money and instructions to his terrorist cells in the United States.

Remember, this man is the grand master of train bombing. And it appears clear that he was taking his act on the road to America. We don't know precisely how far his plans had advanced when he was arrested, but we must assume the worst.

We also know that Middle East terrorists are flying into Mexico and are staying there long enough to learn Spanish. Many already learned French in school, so Spanish is relatively easy for them to acquire. Then, using forged identification _ or none whatsoever - they slip across the border into Arizona or California, disguised as Mexican farm laborers. They can then join up with their terrorist support cells in the United States or start new ones.

This is not to imply that U.S. officials, including the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, have been less than vigilant. They are, in fact, working wonders on a minimal budget.

But experts agree that, to make our trains as safe from terrorist attack as we know how, we will need to allocate and spend more than $62 billion between now and mid-2005 on rail, bus and other land transport infrastructure. Much of that money, if it were appropriated, would be concentrated in several main hubs such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and other densely populated areas of train and bus passengers.

In addition to more video surveillance cameras and other electronic hardware, we urgently need to hire and educate a large staff of employees capable of responding to disasters quickly and efficiently, as well as preventing them.
How much are we spending now? Over the past two years, federal funds appropriated for protection of railways nationwide totaled only $120 million. Next year's budget will be even smaller. At this time, the war in Iraq consumes more money in a week than spent on homeland infrastructure defense in a year.

Clearly, the best direction we can take is to make miracles happen by sheer efficiency. This means sharing information between police agencies, using every ``force multiplier'' of cooperation we can identify, and using new technologies to their fullest.

Also, we can review the recent anti-terrorist successes in Europe and consider adopting some of the improved approaches placed into effect by police forces in the European Union in the wake of the Madrid train disaster. After all, Europe has a tradition of making the most of scarce resources.

For example, European police are heavily committed to the philosophy of community policing. Within the 25 countries of the EU, foot-patrol officers pound the beat in the heart of neighborhoods where they know - and are known by - the residents. They communicate with residents as partners and as familiar allies. They develop confidence and trust. They also develop a keen instinct for unusual activities that may be related to terrorism but which no amount of high-tech surveillance will detect. They develop human intelligence and combine it at command level with bits of information their colleagues in other cities and countries have contributed.

Community policing helped Spanish police on March 11 to find and defuse four additional bombs before they could explode, thus saving many lives through effective prevention. Since March 11, Spanish police have arrested 85 terrorist suspects in connection with the Madrid train bombings. French police have arrested 45 terrorist suspects in the same period. Each month, Italian police have been arresting 15 to 20 terrorists - most of them train-bombing experts and nearly all of them allied with al-Qaida. Twenty-five more have been arrested or killed thus far in November.

Europe has not hesitated to spend the money to equip its police forces with several high-tech weapons. Among them are digital voice communications networks that link up many kinds of police across borders of countries and enable all of them to talk at any moment with central command offices and make quick decisions. Large numbers of global positioning system or GPS locator units are being installed in patrol cars. The unit sends an electronic message of the car's exact location by satellite at all times.

That information is then programmed into new computer mapping software that shows all the players and their movements, from Stockholm to Palermo, from Warsaw to London. In Italy alone, more than 4,000 police patrol cars are now equipped with GPS units. Adjusted for size of population, this is like having more than 700 GPS-equipped patrol cars in Los Angeles County.

Despite the lack of adequate funding, preparations and terrorist prevention efforts are speeding up here at home. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has been installing scores of patrol cars with GPS locator units, and it's making its dispatch computers compatible with new software technologies such as XML (extendible markup language), which allows all participants in a pursuit or a disaster response to communicate with each other and with command centers quickly and reliably. Deputies are being trained in new skills and anti-stress methods that will make them more effective and aggressive in discovering and eliminating terrorist cells.

But much more needs to be done. Los Angeles will remain vulnerable because of its sheer size. Combined, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Metrolink operate more than 500 miles of commuter rails in Los Angeles County. Every mile must be protected to the maximum.

Just as European countries were forced by the events of March 11 to unite their forces, we must also use these and more force-multiplier methods to achieve top efficiency on limited budgets. Properly deployed, community policing can help make Los Angeles a much tougher target for terrorism. It can also help remove the allure of terrorism, stop recruitment and cut it off at its international roots.


--- Arthur A. Jones and Robin Wiseman are international human rights lawyers with legal educations in the United States and Europe. They are consultants and authors on international policing, social policy and human rights, and regular contributors to the forum here at LA Community Policing.

For more of their work, please see the
Think Tank.

For additional information or a complete list of references, contact:

Dr. Arthur Jones