Transit and Rail Security: A Critical Assessment Of What Works
Project Number: 1130
Improve the transportation communities understanding of how, and how well, security measures work against terrorism.
Brian Michael Jenkins, Director, Mineta Transportation Institute, National Transportation Security Center of Excellence (MTI NTSCOE)
Paul Hernandez, MTI Student Assistant, San José State University
It is difficult to assess the effectiveness of security against terrorism. Unlike ordinary crime, terrorist attacks are statistically rare events, although a successful terrorist attack can have enormous consequences. Strict cost-benefit analysis, therefore, is not easily applied. Yet we now have several decades of security experience documented in detailed case studies of terrorist attacks and campaigns--enough to discern trends, analyses of terrorist plots and failed attempts (including in some cases what terrorists themselves have said), and a detailed database recording thousands of terrorist attacks coded in detail--enough for statistical confidence. This empirical data can be analyzed to provide evidence-based insights into what works and how it works, directly and indirectly. Any assessment must be realistic. A preliminary review suggests that security measures may not prevent determined terrorists from carrying out attacks, but that they can complicate terrorist planning, increase the terrorists' operational difficulties, and sometimes deflect them from the most lucrative targets, thereby saving lives.
- Review any existing research aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of security measures against terrorism. This will include an assessment of material offered by the security industry to support various claims.
- Describe the unique challenges faced in assessing the effectiveness of counterterrorist security measures. Terrorist attacks are statistically rare and random, therefore not easily quantified, making it difficult to evaluate security measures. There are no obvious, reliable measures of the effectiveness of security. At the same time, the consequences of a terrorist attack can be significant, and, owing to the effectiveness of terrorists in creating fear, the perceived risks are often exaggerated. Strict cost-benefit analysis does not work. Moreover, the illusion of security, although derided by critics, can affect terrorist planning. The ability of terrorists to shift targets and venues makes direct confrontations with security unlikely—identifiable preventions are rare. Instead, we are forced to look at other sources of information and indirect indicators, which is the next task.
- Identify relevant sources of empirical information. These will include what can be distilled from case studies of actual terrorist attacks and continuing terrorist campaigns, which allow observations of trends over time. MTI’s Data Base of Attacks on Surface Transportation looks at terrorist attacks that have occurred, in other words, at those instances were, by definition, security has failed, yet this too offers insights into efforts made by terrorists to avoid detection, conceal explosives, etc. and therefore provides indirect evidence of how terrorists perceived security measures. Terrorist plots, those attacks that were prevented or failed, offer additional observations about how terrorists assessed security measures. Augmenting these are terrorist training manuals and other instructional material. Analogous examples may also be examined, including four decades of airport security experience and relevant crime statistics.
- Compile empirical information according to categories of counterterrorist measures. Security measures work as a whole, nonetheless, an effort will be made to sort the material according to broad functional portfolios of security measures. These include: intelligence; physical barriers and access control systems; surveillance and detection measures; police and security staff presence; the role of passengers and staff; and passenger screening.
- Identify conclusions. These will then be circulated to selected transportation security officials, not only for purposes of review, but to elicit additional thoughts and capture anecdotal and more impressionistic observations.
- Complete final report.
Demonstration of how MTI Data Base can be utilized to evaluate the effectiveness of security measures.
The results will be disseminated through, at a minimum, the following mechanisms:
- The research report and a 2-page summary will be posted on the MTI website for free download.
- MTI’s communication staff will distribute notice of the results to media representatives.
- The results will be submitted for presentation at future professional conferences, such as the Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board.
Potential Benefits of Project
Insofar as is known, there has been no comprehensive effort to empirically measure the effectiveness of rail and transit counterterrorist security measures.