The one question everyone seems to be asking in the aftermath of the attacks in Mumbai, India, is whether such an attack could happen here. And it seems that even seven years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, American cities are still achingly vulnerable.
"We never say never in terms of any terrorist scenarios," says Paul Browne, deputy commissioner at the New York Police Department. "The major takeaway from Mumbai is that terrorist organizations are still intent on taking lives in spectacular ways, whether that is with hijacked planes or men on the ground."
Hard To Prevent
The NYPD has long been at the leading edge of efforts to combat terrorism in this country. On any given day, it has officers on land, in the air and in the waters around New York who are focused on preventing terrorist attacks on the city. Scenarios like the events that unfolded last week in Mumbai have been folded into exercises the NYPD has been running for the past six years, according to Browne. That said, an attack like the one that rocked India could still happen in New York.
"You can't prevent this type of attack," said Maj. Reid Sawyer, director of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "These are 10 individuals with small arms and a bunch of grenades that have killed nearly a couple hundred people and certainly wounded a large amount more.
"And this is why, at its base, that terrorism is so dangerous and really grips us at the very basic psychological level."
This leaves law enforcement in a difficult position. If a Mumbai-style attack cannot be prevented, police are faced with the question of what they do if and when it does happen.
Hostages As Pawns
Police discussed that issue Tuesday during a meeting at the FBI training center in Quantico, Va.
Miami Police Chief John Timoney was at the meeting. He said officials focused, among other things, on the sheer scope of the Mumbai attacks.
"In Mumbai, all told, you are talking about anywhere from 10 to a dozen separate locations" over a period of a few days, Timoney said. "That is something we have not seen, and something we need to factor in."
Consider the way the terrorists used hostages during the latest attack. They never intended to use people they seized to exact demands from Indian authorities. Instead, from the outset, the hostages were seen as pawns for media attention. Investigators said the terrorists killed the hostages early in the siege.
"The purpose of seizing hostages is not as a negotiating tool or bargaining chip," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. "Instead, they used them to prolong a terrorist incident, to keep a terrorist incident in the news for days at a time as opposed to a briefer period."
Law enforcement officials also said last week's attacks would have been difficult to fight because the terrorists were on the move, something known in law enforcement parlance as an "active shooter." Traditionally, when there is a shooter, police cordon off an area and then call in a S.W.A.T. team. But those traditional methods don't work if there are multiple shooters who don't stay in one place.
Timoney said Mumbai is reminiscent of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo.
"If you look at the issue in India, it is almost a Columbine redo except at a grander scale and at multiple locations," Timoney said. "Police departments learned a lot of lessons from Columbine.
"It required us to go back to the drawing board and rethink how we approach hostage-taking situations, especially when there is live fire," he said.
New Template For Terrorists
Georgetown's Hoffman says the Mumbai attacks have police officials all over the world rethinking their terrorism strategies.
"They have all questioned whether their police forces --either here or overseas — would have done as well," he says. "They may have been able to resolve it more quickly — it may not have dragged out over three days.
"But at least the initial response ... had many people shaking their heads and wondering just how well other cities — even cities with highly trained police forces — would have fared."
Hoffman expects to see more of these kinds of attacks. He says he worries that these low-tech operations could become a new template for terrorists.