The worst terrorist attack ever committed on American soil – indeed, perhaps the worst attack, military or otherwise, in America’s history – did not involve nuclear weapons, chemical or biological agents, or even explosives and bullets.

It came down to a handful of knives and four airplanes.

The realization that terrorists armed only with knives could hijack and use commercial jet aircraft as lethal weapons to commit mass murder has put America’s transportation networks in a new light. Never before have the vehicles used to transport both passengers and cargo in this country been even remotely considered for the killing potential they possess.

That may be changing after two separate terrorist attacks destroyed the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center and damaged nerve center of the United States military – the Pentagon – in Washington, D.C.

“Security has seemed to get the last dollar spent at most transportation companies,” says Steve Lawson, president of Steve Lawson Investigations in Aliso Viejo, CA. “The events of this week, however, might give us cause to look at security spending again much more closely.”

Lawson – a former member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office who helped found the CargoCats anti-cargo crime law enforcement agency in 1990 – says cargo security has remained below the public’s radar screen. Though this week’s terrorist attacks used commercial passenger jet aircraft, he stresses that the incident underscores the need for tighter security across a range of transportation modes.

“Cargo security and cargo theft are two very complex problems that involve a range of issues that can’t be solved overnight,” Lawson explains. “When you see a catastrophe like this, you wonder, how can they get in? As baggage handlers? As cargo staff? It is very frustrating for us in law enforcement when you see the gaps in our transportation networks that exist today. It will take a lot of help from a lot of people to solve.”

Unheeded warnings

One of the greatest tragedies of the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon is that experts have for years sounded warning after warning for the potential of the U.S. transportation system to be compromised – to fatal effect.

“Among the legacies of our era are the U.S. domestic transportation networks that are the envy of the world for efficiency and safety,” wrote Stephen Flynn, senior fellow at the National Security Studies Program with the Council on Foreign Relations, last year. “But another legacy is that these networks have virtually no security safeguards beyond the occasional guard, gate, and chain link fence.”

In an article entitled “Transportation Security: Agenda for the 21st Century” written for the Transportation Research Board in December 2000, Flynn said U.S. transportation policy makers, engineers, regulators, and others must adapt to the reality that transportation security can no longer be treated as a secondary or even tertiary issue.

“With the changing nature of conflict in the world, the United States must be mindful of the vulnerability of its critical infrastructure,” he said. “Much of the physical plant, information, communications, power, and cargo handling sectors of the marine, surface, and aviation systems are unprotected or are equipped with security sufficient to deter only amateur vandals, thieves, or hackers. These measures reflect an environment perceived as low threat and a market focused on efficiencies to reduce cost.”

Flynn added that because capital costs in the transportation sector are high, concentrating operations and maximizing synergies among transportation components have been the primary ways used to reduce transportation overhead.

“Another way,” he said, “has been to sidestep security measures – unless mandated by law or insurers – that could interfere with the bottom line and threaten competitiveness by introducing costs and delays.”

That mindset, said Flynn at the time, could have disastrous consequences – ones that may have only become fully apparent in light of recent events.

“Without changes that raise awareness of the security imperative and that lead the transportation community to embrace an ambitious and comprehensive strategy, America’s transportation structure may become the national Achilles’ heel, risking lives and property,” he said.

Planes as weapons

The horror of using aircraft as guided missiles this week seems to illustrate Flynn’s point.

Desperate cellular phone calls from passengers and flight attendants on the four aircraft involved in the terrorist attacks – two Boeing 757 and two 767 jets owned by American Airlines and United Airlines – indicate that terrorists masquerading as passengers used knives and ‘box cutters’ to gain control of the aircraft. Only three of the aircraft succeeded in the attacks – one jet crashed in Pennsylvania, after what has been speculated to be a sustained struggle between the hijackers, passengers, and crew.

For the most part, however, it seems that the concept of hijackers using coerced aircraft for suicide missions had not been contemplated. Flynn and others expressed much of their concern over the use of America’s transportation networks to smuggle in weapons of mass destruction, such as nerve gas or nuclear devices.

“Most worrisome is the possibility that America’s adversaries could exploit the transportation system to smuggle weapons of mass destruction,” wrote Flynn.

“Hypothetically, Osama bin Laden could have a front company in Pakistan, load a biological agent into a container destined for Newark, New Jersey, with minimal risk of interception,” he said. “[Osama] could use a Pakistani exporter with an established record of trade with the United States. The container could travel via Singapore or Hong Kong and mingle into the 1 million containers handled by these two ports each month. It would arrive via the Port of Long Beach or Los Angeles and be loaded directly onto a bonded railroad or truck for the transcontinental trip.”

Current regulations do not require an importer to file a manifest with U.S. Customs until the cargo reaches the port of entry – in this case, Newark – and the trip to the East Coast takes 30 days. Flynn said the contents of the container could be diverted or activated anywhere along that route before its contents have even been officially identified as having entered the country.

In a final, sad note of irony, it is Osama bin Laden himself who is the primary suspect in orchestrating the suicide attacks on the World Trade center and Pentagon this week.

What to do?

Preventing attacks such as the one launched this week, however, are not impossible. They do require more time, effort, and resources, plus a lot of patience, as the U.S. has an enormous network of planes, trucks, ships, and trains that operate every day around the country.

Flynn said one of the first critical steps is to work on a global – not national – basis, as all domestic transportation modes are now linked to the world’s economies.

“Transportation security measures must be developed and harmonized globally,” he wrote. “Unilateral efforts to tighten security within one nation’s transportation infrastructure without commensurate efforts in neighboring countries may lead carriers, shippers, and exporters to ‘port shop’ – move business to entry points that clear goods quickly.”

A layered-defense approach is essential, he added, or illicit activities may get pushed to other points in the transportation and logistics systems that are less certain to detect and stop them.

Second, “transparency” of both goods and passenger movements is essential. “New tagging, tracking, communications, and database technologies can promote transparency – especially through public-private information sharing,” Flynn said. “Authorities can then monitor transportation flows of goods and people and develop robust risk-management practices.”

He added that achieving in-transit visibility of trade and passenger flows is “not science fiction.”

“The technologies fueling the supply chain management revolution have provided the means for companies to maintain greater levels of oversight and control within international transportation networks,” Flynn wrote.

Finally, resources and expertise must be committed so there is no national “weak link” in transportation security.

“The combination of excessive delays from inefficient terminal operations with poorly executed inspection and enforcement activities creates a high-risk security environment,” he said. “Streamlining government procedures, reforming obsolete labor practices, and upgrading transportation facilities are critical. Because security can no longer be a neglected element of the transportation system.”