Impact of Terrorism on Transportation and Distribution Systems

2278 words (9 pages) Essay

18th May 2020 Transportation Reference this

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The transportation sector has always been subjected to terrorist’s threats and attacks. This usually derives from its presumed exposure due to its large network and infrastructure. Sadly we have experienced and witnessed some of those threats materialize, such in the case of the 9-11 terrorist attacks in New York City and the Pentagon in Virginia. After these terrorist attack, the United States waged a war against terror and all its supporters. In response to the decade-long war, small and large terrorist groups have made it their mission to terrorize and weaken the national economy in a swift strike. Consequently, lawmakers and national defense agencies have had to continuously adjust their strategy to adapt to the constant threat. However, have we forever thwarted their extremist reach or will impending attacks be the new norm for the transportation industry?


According to the DOT’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) 2016 report, the “U.S. transportation systems accommodate approximately 695 million domestic and international aviation passengers per year; 751 million passengers traveling on buses each year; more than 10 billion passenger trips on mass transit per year; 24 million students daily on school buses traveling more than 4 million miles annually; nearly 800,000 shipments of hazardous materials transported every day (60 percent by truck); more than 140,000 miles of railroad track; 3.9 million miles of roads; 604,000 bridges each spanning over 20 feet; 366 highway tunnels each over 100 meters in length; and nearly 2.6 million miles of pipeline.” (Scovel, n.d.). Following the 9-11 attacks, transport professionals across the Continental United States (CONUS) had to come up with quick solutions to the imminent dangers its stretched network was facing. Most of the attention was devoted to the aviation sector while little was accomplished to counter terrorist groups from penetrating the freight network while goods and hazardous materials flow through the multiple distribution systems. Other transport modes cannot be protected the same way airlines do, so the question remains, is sufficient being done to eradicate safety concerns within the supply and chain domain?

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According to Johnstone (2007), “Before September 11, 2001, U.S. transportation security was limited in extent and purpose. Transit police and subway surveillance cameras sought to deter or detect criminal activity. Customs agents at ports looked for smugglers. In aviation, the only sector that had received significant security policy attention and resources from the federal government, the emphasis was overwhelmingly directed overseas. The events of 9/11 altered all of that. The federal government responded with a flurry of initiatives, including:

•    The Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001, which created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to be responsible for the security of all transportation modes and established deadlines for the implementation of specific aviation security measures.

•    The Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, which set security guidelines for ports and ships.

•    The Homeland Security Act of 2002, which established the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by combining 22 federal agencies, including TSA, the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

•    The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which turned many of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, including those relating to transportation security, into statutory mandates.”

Although all the previous cited organizations continue to maintain an active role in the security of the transportation industry, the most commonly known group to satisfy this role is the TSA. As TSA increases its presence throughout other non-aviation sectors, it has to look at how to strategically deploy its resources. The 9/11 Public Discourse Project (PDP), stated that, as of 2005, progress in implementing the 9/11 Commission’s transportation security recommendations rated a “C” for airport checkpoint screening for explosives; a “C–” for the National Strategy for Transportation Security, a “D” for checked bag and cargo screening, and an “F” for airline passenger pre-screening (Johnstone, 2007). Though safety proposals and eventual applications have turned it into a safer network the industry is still exposed, as in the case of the freight airliner bomb plot that took place on late 2010 when two packages destined for Chicago were found to contain explosives. Cyber-attacks aimed at transport centers also represent a continuous threat and can result in exposed networks accessible to terrorist organizations. This could lead to the manipulation of rail or air systems possibly causing physical collisions and the potential loss of life. Just in 2009 in light of recent threats, President Obama declared “digital infrastructure” a strategic national asset (Lehmacher, 2015). This strategic move will guarantee the attention put into infrastructures matches the potential threat the industry currently faces. Regardless of government involvement, distribution systems need to have a more active role while attempting to minimize terrorist’s access to their platforms. The private sector should also play a more active role, and the primary need is to accept that future attacks are still a possibility and not just a thing of the past. A report made available by the University of Tennessee’s Supply Chain Management Faculty stated that while 66 percent of supply chain companies employed risk managers, virtually all of those internal functions ignored supply chain risk. In light of the current global developments that is a risky position to take (Lehmacher, 2015).

While there have been acceptable advancements accomplished in the security of transport resources and infrastructures, the absence of a united drive concerning the equal protection of the transport and distribution systems has some areas more exposed than others within the industry. The emotional side of witnessing two airliners crash into the Twin Towers of Lower Manhattan has had a substantial influence on the budget and spending towards protecting the transportation infrastructure. A clear example of this practice was the imbalanced allocation of funds in 2007. By 2006, the budget had increased from under $200 million in 2001 to over $8.5 billion, an over 4,000 percent increase in response to the security concerns of the post 9/11 era. Even with the budget surge, 70% of the funding (close to $6 billion) was being destined to aviation security while the other areas received little backing. During the same period, just $317 million was budgeted for the security of surface transportation, which covers both, rail and road systems (Johnstone, 2007). Looking at it objectively, the requested Department of Defense’s budget for 2018 is $639.1 billion, a little over half of its post-9/11 levels. Compared to this, the Department of Homeland Security 2018 budget request was $44.1 billion, an increase of only $25 million over its $19.5 billion in 2002.

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Although aircraft can be weaponized with a high success and mortality rate, it does not renders other transport modes less lethal. Following the “September-11” a great deal of attention was given to the hazardous materials being moved over our roads and rail or flown over our airspace with fears of it being utilized for darker purposes. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), freight railroads heavily depend on information technology in their daily operations due to their enormous physical infrastructure. These systems are vulnerable to terrorist or hacker activity with a possible scenario being hazardous material control and eventual release. Through vulnerabilities within its network, terrorists could gain control of hazardous materials by cyber-attack and cause an accident, resulting in the release of hazardous materials (Tarr, McGurk, & Jones, 2005). Furthermore, a great number of trucks that carry hazardous freight could afford terrorist cells with an unlimited access to a weapon system that can be easily weaponized and can be inconspicuous enough to mask itself within our daily tasks. From tanker trucks across the CONUS who make close to 50,000 daily trips to dangerous materials haulers who supply laboratories or government facilities with items such as chlorine that could be easily released in public areas. Many of these trucks are often parked at gas stations with their engines running or deliver freight to isolated and unsecured areas exposing them to individuals looking at doing us harm. Another common occurrence that has become popular within the past few years is the use of ground transport vehicles as weapons by plowing into a crowds as was the case of Nice, France’s Bastille Day terror attack on July 2016, Berlin, Germany’s Christmas Market on December 2016, or the recent attack in Barcelona’s famous Las Ramblas where at least 14 people died on August of 2017. Similar events have taken place on other cities across the globe and the trend is on the rise (Yan, 2017). However, little attention has been redirected to this likely exposed sector with potentially disastrous consequences.

More than a decade after the 9/11 attacks the state of the transportation industry is still gloomy. Although the freight transportation system was born with both efficiency and productivity in mind as its goal and priority, its attention has been refocused at thwarting imminent attacks and reducing the existing vulnerabilities within its networks while attempting to maintain freight flowing through its many channels. Security measures include the protection of transport assets such as conveyance modes and infrastructure from a multitude of looming threats combined with keeping resources out of terrorist cells’ hands thus attacks in the future can be fully minimized. Unmistakably, the extensive and accessible freight network in the United States is still vulnerable to terrorism and the balance between efficiency, productivity, and transport security could be attained if the necessary steps are taken with that goal in mind. The trial for government lawmakers is to identify and treat the protection of the network as a national security priority but for this resources need to be aimed at that goal. Also, the budgets must be balanced across the multiple departments in addition to constant communication flow across the organizations responsible for the security of the distribution network. Regardless of the difference in approach required for counteracting the terrorist threat across the network, some experts’ suggestions, if adopted, will assist in establishing a much-needed baseline under which all key players can coexist:

•    Identify and repair the weakest links in vulnerable systems and infrastructures.

•    Build security into basic system designs where possible.

•    Build flexibility into systems so that they can be modified to address unforeseen threats. (Making the Nation Safer, 2002).

Some security concerns need an instant response while a few others can be added to the to-do-list with future deadlines. If executed well and in line with the realism of a post September-11 world in mind, safety processes can possibly augment efficacy while minimizing the horror dangers of the current period.


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