The Threat to Air and Ground Transportation Posed by Mentally Disordered Assailants

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While few in number, attacks by persons with mental disorders in public surface transportation and commercial aviation venues can be lethal and pose special security challenges. This report reviews the history of attacks by mentally ill persons in these two domains.

Attacks by mentally disordered persons in surface transportation facilities have increased sharply in recent years. The average lethality of these is lower than those carried out by jihadist terrorists, but can still generate major fatalities. The greater number and most lethal attacks are concentrated in different geographic regions from terrorist and major criminal attacks. The attack methods also differ.

The number of all attacks against airliners and commercial airports since 9/11 has been relatively low compared with earlier decades, indicating considerable success in aviation security. These numbers are particularly low when looking at attacks conducted within secured areas of the airport terminal and airport tarmac, and even lower when looking at attacks in western countries. However, attacks in the public areas of the airports have been growing. Against this backdrop, there have been a considerable number of attacks by persons with mental disorders, including hijackings with hoax devices that result in no fatalities, suicidal pilots intentionally crashing their aircraft, killing all on board, and shootings in public areas of airports.

Decades of psychological analysis suggest that the mental stability of those who operate as members of terrorist organizations is not that much different than the general population, whereas those who are inspired by terrorist propaganda to act alone may have more psychological problems – blurring the line between terrorist and disordered person attacks.

The challenges of dealing with potential attackers with mental disorders are considerable. Stigmatizing rather than treating mental disorders clearly is not the answer. Nor is there any effective way of screening such persons at transportation sites. Police, who are often on the front line in dealing with the mentally ill, face difficult choices when required to intervene in violent situations. To protect others and themselves, they are required to quickly neutralize an unpredictable attacker who may be suicidal.



Brian Michael Jenkins is the director of the Mineta Transportation Institute’s National Transportation Center and since 1997 has directed the Institute’s continuing research on protecting surface transportation against terrorism and other serious forms of crime.

He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in fine arts and a Masters degree in history, both from UCLA. He also studied at the University of Guanajuato, Mexico, and in the Department of Humanities at the University of San Carlos, Guatemala, where he was a Fulbright Fellow and received a second fellowship from the Organization of American States.

Commissioned in the infantry at the age of 19, Mr. Jenkins became a paratrooper and ultimately a captain in the Green Berets. He is a decorated combat veteran, having served in the Seventh Special Forces Group in the Dominican Republic during the American intervention and later as a member of the Fifth Special Forces Group in Vietnam (1966–1967). He returned to Vietnam on a special assignment in 1968 to serve as a member of the Long Range Planning Task Group; he remained with the Group until the end of 1969, receiving the Department of the Army’s highest award for his service. Mr. Jenkins returned to Vietnam on an additional special assignment in 1971.

In 1983, Mr. Jenkins served as an advisor to the Long Commission, convened to examine the circumstances and response to the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon. In 1984, he assisted the Inman Panel in examining the security of American diplomatic facilities abroad. In 1985–1986, he served as a member of the Committee of the Embassy of the Future, which established new guidelines for the construction of U.S. diplomatic posts. In 1989, Mr. Jenkins served as an advisor to the national commission established to review terrorist threats following the bombing of Pan Am 103. In 1993, he served as a member of the team contracted by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey to review threats and develop new security measures for the World Trade Center following the bombing in February of that year. In 1996, President Clinton appointed Mr. Jenkins to the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. From 1999 to 2000, he served as an advisor to the National Commission on Terrorism, and since 2000, he has been a member of the U.S. Comptroller General’s Advisory Board.

Mr. Jenkins serves as a Senior Advisor to the President of the RAND Corporation. He is a Special Advisor to the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and a member of the advisory board of the ICC’s investigative arm, the Commercial Crime Services. Over the years, he has served as a consultant to or carried out assignments for a number of government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security. As part of its international project to create a global strategy to combat terrorism, the Club of Madrid in 2004 appointed Mr. Jenkins to lead an international working group on the role of intelligence. Mr. Jenkins is the author of numerous published research reports, books, and articles on terrorism and security.


Bruce Butterworth has had a distinguished government career, working at congressional, senior policy, and operational levels. Between 1975 and 1980, as a professional staff member for the House Government Operations Committee, he ran investigations and hearings on many transportation-safety issues, particularly in aviation. He spent 11 years in the Department of Transportation, eight of them in the Office of the Secretary. He managed negotiations on air and maritime services in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) (now the World Trade Organization [WTO ]), chaired U.S. delegations to United Nations committees, dealt with transport and aviation issues related to border inspections, and was part of the response to the bombing of Pan Am 103.

Mr. Butterworth held two executive posts in aviation security and in both worked closely with Congress as the informal but primary liaison. He was Director of Policy and Planning (1991–1995), establishing strategic, long-term, and contingency plans and federal rules. As Director of Operations (1995–2000), he was responsible for federal air marshals, hijacking response, and 900 field agents; he worked to improve security and the performance of security measures at U.S. airports and by U.S. airlines worldwide. He ran the FAA’s aviation command center, successfully managing the resolution of hijackings and security emergencies. He launched a successful program of dangerous-goods regulation and cargo security after the 1995 ValuJet crash, oversaw the conversion of the air-marshal program to a full-time program with high standards, was a key player in the response to the ValuJet and TWA 800 accidents, and was a frequent media spokesperson. He worked closely with Congress, the National Security Council staff, the intelligence community, law enforcement agencies, and authorities of other nations.

From 2000 to 2003, he was an associate director at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, responsible for security and building operations. He designed and implemented a “best practice” procedure to deal with mail that could contain anthrax, and he developed and conducted new, comprehensive emergency planning procedures and exercises. Between January 2003 and September 2007, he was one of two deputy directors in a 1,300-person engineering directorate at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, managing workforce planning, budgeting, and human-capital management for complex robotics space missions, substantially reducing overhead and improving workplace safety there. He also worked with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on information sharing.

Mr. Butterworth is a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute. In this capacity, he has co-authored several reports with Brian Michael Jenkins, including one for the State of California on security risks created by highway-borne hazardous materials. In February 2009, he published with Mr. Jenkins an opinion piece on information sharing, and on March 23, 2010, he published an article in the Washington Post on intelligence and aviation security.

In 2011, his leading role in creating MTI’s unique database of attacks on public surface transportation and in creating and delivering nearly all the briefings to the Transportation Safety Administration’s (TSA’s) front-line bomb-appraisal officers was recognized in a DHS High Impact award.

Mr. Butterworth received a Master of Science degree from the London School of Economics in 1974 and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of the Pacific in 1972 (magna cum laude). He was a California State Scholar and a Rotary Foundation Fellow. He has received numerous special achievement and performance awards.

March 2017
Ground transportation
Public transit
Air Transportation
Mental disorder



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