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Transit systems are frequent targets

By Henry Schuster

Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those.




Acts of terror

(CNN) -- London. Paris. Tokyo. Madrid. Moscow.

Terrorists like subway systems. They have targeted them for years.

Al Qaeda. Algerians. Chechens. Aum Shinrikyo. A variety of groups. A variety of weapons. But a common target.



"Ease of access. Because they are inherently public, you can inflict maximum damage. A closed environment, so there are casualties from the force of the blast, not just shrapnel from the bomb."

Bruce Hoffman, head of the Rand Corporation's Washington office and a noted counter-terrorism expert, ticked off the advantages that terrorists see in such targets.

He pointed out the psychological damage that terrorists can also inflict by attacking subways and buses.

"Look at 9/11. You could tell yourself that if you weren't at the World Trade Center or Pentagon or on those airplanes, you wouldn't have been affected," he said. "But everyone in Madrid or London who uses public transportation will feel they could be a victim. It has a much more psychologically corrosive effect."

Jerusalem doesn't have a subway system, but its buses have been frequent targets.

"That's the attraction of these targets. Everybody has to use them to get to work on a daily basis, even in Israel," says Hoffman.

He drew a distinction between these forms of mass transit and airports, noting that security can be tightened to an almost absolute level. But train and bus stations, let alone trains and buses, are inherently vulnerable.

The attacks in London shouldn't have been a surprise.

Irish terrorists have been attacking the London Underground for 100 years, Hoffman said. Thirty years ago, signs in the Tube warned passengers of the dangers of unattended packages.

But the threat receded until the 1990s, he said. Algerian terrorists attacked Parisian subways. The Aum Shinrikyo religious cult released sarin gas in Tokyo's subways.

What had been spasmodic became almost an annual event, enough to create regular fear on a worldwide basis, he said.

The suicide attacks in Madrid last year raised the stakes. "You can tell people to be alert for parcels, but once you get people paranoid about each other, then the terrorists are also succeeding," Hoffman said.

In the wake of the London attacks, the Department of Homeland Security raised the threat level for American mass transit systems.

Secretary Michael Chertoff said he took the action in part because of the threat of al Qaeda and in part for fear of copycat attacks.

Hoffman said U.S. mass transit systems are much more vulnerable than their European counterparts, but the difference is that this country lacks a terrorist infrastructure like exists in Britain, France and Spain.

Still, he said 9/11 shows the terrorists don't always need a large infrastructure.

"It is not to say we are completely defenseless, because the Israelis have shown you can counter suicide bombings. But shouldn't have unrealistic expectations that you can prevent all attacks," says Hoffman.

People might stay away from London's transit system for a day or two, but inside a week they will return in large numbers, Hoffman said. They have to, or there will be severe economic dislocation.

The fear will recede. But it will return, the next time and the next place the terrorists attack a subway or bus system.

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