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America at Risk: "Soft Targets"

Recent world terrorism events make it apparent that terrorist missions against targets like the World Trade Center may be less likely than targets of opportunity that require less resources and planning, and which can be carried out by al Qaeda clones. It has been observed that since September 11th, the larger, symbolic targets have become “hardened” with security, while myriad soft targets are more vulnerable.

"The federal government might instruct state and local authorities to protect every bridge, dam, power plant and mass-transit system in their jurisdiction, but the reality on the ground is that there are not nearly enough resources to protect them all, much less every shopping mall, state fair, Jewish Community Center, football game or other potential soft target where people concentrate."

Our vulnerability is illustrated by the recent, albeit, failed attacks in the UK, or the aborted plot to blow up the fuel tanks at JFK Airport in New York City. Radical Islamic terrorists (or their clone, wannabe jihadist franchises) still want to attack the West. The question must be asked (as it was in this article written by Senators Lieberman and Collins) why legislation to improve our security against terrorism languishes in both Houses. The bill would:

● offer “fixes” to deter terrorists from crossing our borders
● assist first responders in preventing attacks and help them respond more effectively
● improve security on all forms of transportation
● move to strengthen the visa waiver program by requiring an electronic check against terrorist watch lists of potential visitors
● require rapid reporting of lost or stolen passports
● strengthen homeland security intelligence sharing and coordination by promoting state, local, and regional fusion centers
● establish intelligence training for state, local, and tribal officials

Stratfor expresses the belief that we are overdue for a jihadist attack in the United States, while concluding that the attack would not approach the magnitude or complexity of the September 11th attacks.

What is an example of a soft, vulnerable target in the United States? Try looking at the Texas port city of Houston. Despite receiving an increase of 50% in federal anti-terrorism grants (to $25 million designated for planning, equipment, training and exercises), a concern exists that a relatively low-tech U.S.S. Cole-type attack could sink a ship in the Ship Channel, interrupting traffic for weeks or months, or for that matter:

"...attacks on Houston-area chemical plants and refineries could be lethal to lives and wounding of the U.S. economy. Terrorists, already have a history of using chemical bombs and tank trucks. It is but a short leap to attacking the chemical plants themselves."

As stated in a recent edition of Homeland Security Today, because of the Houston area's oil and gas off-loading, distribution and refining infrastructure, it is considered a prime target for terrorism. A major attack on any of these petroleum infrastructure could cripple both imported crude distribution and reduce refining capacity, which is already operating at less than 100-percent capacity. Technologies are available to protect harbors and ships from terrorist approach. The question, as always, will be whether they will be deployed.

Other “soft targets” and their vulnerabilities will be summarized in future entries.