WASHINGTON — The face of terrorism has evolved from the coordinated, carefully plotted events of 9/11 to a helter-skelter approach where lone wolves use low-tech means to attack soft targets, according to one of the officials charged with keeping the traveling public safe.
“We face ambitious adversaries who are continuously looking for a point of attack and waiting for us to slip up,” Transportation Security Administration chief David Pekoske said in remarks prepared for delivery at George Washington University on Wednesday.
Adapting his agency to grapple with solo operators who may claim allegiance to a cause without having genuine connections to a terrorist group has been Pekoske’s focus since taking over as head of the TSA in August.
“Today we are confronted by a current of less-sophisticated techniques and tactics, where lone wolves, radicalized on the Internet, are using inexpensive, low-tech methods to target civilians,” Pekoske said, describing his vision of an increasing need to be nimble in response to threats.
The emergence of vehicles plowing into crowds in London, Barcelona and Nice, France, in acts of terrorism has underscored the public’s vulnerability. Three U.S. incidents in the past 18 months — on the Ohio State University campus, during a white-nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, and in New York City — have demonstrated that terrorists in the United States have embraced the use of vehicles as weapons.
The public face of the 60,000-member TSA is at airport security checkpoints, but the agency’s mandate is to protect all modes of transportation against attacks, monitoring rail stations, transit systems and bus terminals.
A January 2017 attack taught the TSA another lesson when an arriving passenger in the airport in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, picked up a checked bag, loaded a handgun in the adjacent restroom, and emerged to shoot and kill five people and wound six more.
In an attack almost a year earlier in the Brussels airport, suicide bombers exploded devices in the unsecured check-in lines, killing more than 20 passengers headed for flights.
“We can no longer focus only on preventing the bad guys from getting into the secure area of an airport,” Pekoske said in the prepared remarks. “We must focus on both sides of the checkpoint and in the public areas where airport and surface transportation systems intersect.”
Behind the scenes, the agency also maintains a worldwide intelligence network coordinated with other federal agencies, including the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency.
That intelligence capacity was nurtured under two previous TSA administrators — Peter V. Neffenger and former FBI deputy director John S. Pistole — and Pekoske said he would continue to rely on the intelligence apparatus in shaping the TSA’s strategies.
“When our adversaries evolve, they concede that we have been successful today and that they have not given up on attacking us tomorrow,” Pekoske said.
Terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins, who advises the Rand Corp. and co-wrote “The Long Shadow of 9/11: America’s Response to Terrorism,” said it is difficult to explain why the United States has not seen the sort of terrorist attacks Europe has experienced.
“The question as to why something hasn’t happened is harder to answer than why something has,” he said in an interview last year. “We’re actually living in comparatively tranquil times [in the United States]. We haven’t seen anything up to the level of Madrid or London or Brussels.”
Jenkins said that the chance of falling victim to terrorism in the United States is slender but that each attack has the effect desired by the terrorist.
“When you look at the odds of being a victim of terrorism, you’re talking about lottery odds,” he said. “You’re put in a situation of apprehension. The message is that nowhere is safe. It has a tremendous psychological effect. That’s what terrorism is all about.”