On Wednesday, armed groups of terrorists equipped with a variety
of weapons and explosives fanned out across the Indian city of
Mumbai. In coordinated assaults, they attacked areas frequented by
foreigners, killing indiscriminately and taking hostages. While the
rationale and responsibility for the attacks are still under
investigation, the incident raises questions about U.S. Domestic
security. It is unwise to draw specific lessons and suggest trends
based on any one particular incident, particularly when all the
facts are not known. Nevertheless, there are do's and don'ts that
should be followed in thinking about the unthinkable--armed
assaults in America.
Unthinkable, but Possible
While the armed assaults in Mumbai are horrific, they are not
unprecedented. Russia, for example, has experienced a string of
such incidents perpetrated by Chechen separatists. For instance, in
1995, 1,000 hospital patients were held captive at Budyonnovsk,
near the border with Chechnya. Russian troops stormed the hospital
twice, a battle that resulted in 100 civilian deaths.
In October 2002, 50 heavily armed Chechen rebels seized a Moscow
theater and held hundreds hostage. The rebels booby-trapped
entrances with mines and rigged an explosive bomb in the center of
the theater. Russian special forces pumped the theater full of gas;
over 100 captives died from the effects of the gas.
On September 1, 2004, a well-armed group of Chechen rebels
invaded a school at Beslan in the North Caucasus. Armed with
automatic weapons and explosives, they took more than 1,000
hostages. After a bloody stand-off, 334 hostages were killed.
Even the United States has not been immune from the danger of
planned armed assaults. For instance, in August 2005, a Pakistani
national was arrested as part of a terrorism investigation into a
possible plot to attack the Israeli consulate, California National
Guard facilities, and other targets in southern California. In
2007, the FBI arrested six men from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, for
allegedly planning an armed assault on Fort Dix.
Is the U.S. at Risk?
On the one hand, there is no question that the United States is
a much "harder" target for transnational terrorism than it was
before 9/11. Likewise, federal, state, and local law enforcement
agencies have paid much more attention to the threat of "homegrown"
terrorism. Since the September 11 attacks, government agencies have
thwarted over 19 conspiracies aimed at killing Americans on U.S.
Nevertheless, it is unrealistic to believe that all homeland
security efforts will deny every attack every time. In particular,
armed assaults and vehicle-borne explosive attacks are tactics that
are not beyond the reach of any modestly funded and committed
What Not to Do
If and when the next attack occurs, there are things that the
U.S. should not do:
Throw money at the problem. If another terrorist attack
occurs, shrill cries will dominate the public discourse, claiming
that this new attack occurred because our nation was not spending
enough. But few problems can be solved by money alone. If fact, our
nation is still not doing a very good job spending the money
already allocated. The government knows, for example, that it needs
to do a better job spending the money already allocated to
emergency responders. A study cited in Time magazine, for
example, found that most grants to state and local governments have
been distributed "with no regard for the threats, vulnerabilities
and potential consequences faced by each region." Our nation needs
a system that will spend the money allocated for homeland defense
efficiently and effectively.
Trade safety for civil liberties. Calls for new security
measures that require temporary impositions on basic civil
liberties will also dominate the aftermath of any hypothetical
future attack. Yet this argument is almost devoid of logic. On the
other hand, Americans should beware that, despite hysterical claims
to the contrary, not every government action to fight terrorism is
a slap at the Constitution. The USA PATRIOT Act is a case in point:
Its detractors have yet to identify a single abuse or prove that
any of its provisions are unconstitutional. The debate over the
balance between civil liberties and security warrants thoughtful
debate, not knee-jerk histrionics.
Blame America. If there is another attack, one
explanation will be that the U.S. deserved it. Critics might offer
any number of reasons supporting such claims, but generally these
assertions should be summarily dismissed. No nation is perfect, but
our country strives to be a force for good in the world. Some may
not like American politics or policy--or even our pop music, for
that matter--but nothing the United States has done justifies
terrorist acts aimed against innocent people.
Say the U.S. is on the wrong course. In all wars there
are advances and setbacks, victories and casualties: Every such
incident is not a call for change in strategy. There is a reason
why the United States has not been attacked since 9/11. It is not
because there is no threat or that the nation has just been lucky.
In many respects, U.S. counterterrorism programs are working--and
not just at home, either. While there has been a flare-up of
terrorism in India and the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, as
a recent report by the Human Security Project shows that, globally,
the trend in transnational terrorist attacks and the appeal of the
radical Bin Laden agenda have been declining for several years.
What to Do
No administration can guarantee it will stop every attack
everywhere. But if our nation assumes the offensive, the U.S. can
take the initiative away from the terrorists, lessen their chances
of success, and mitigate the damage they cause. Consequently,
Washington should continue to:
Emphasize cooperation and information sharing between federal,
state, and local law enforcement;
Retain an integrated approach to homeland security. When an
explosion happens, the government cannot wait until it knows if the
incident was a terrorist attack or an industrial accident. Rather,
our nation needs to respond with alacrity, and that means taking an
integrated "all-hazards" approach from the local to the national
level. As such, the Federal Emergency Management Agency must remain
an integral part of the Homeland Security Department; and
Maintain valuable terrorism-fighting tools established under
legislation like the USA PATRIOT Act and the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Amendments Act of 2008.
Now is not the time to grow complacent about homeland
James Jay Carafano,
Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom
Davis Institute for International Studies and Senior Research
Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas
and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage