The truck attack that killed more than 80 people in France serves as an ominous reminder of the damage a lone terrorist can accomplish as the U.S. prepares for political conventions.
Plowing a large vehicle through a crowd, as happened in Nice, demonstrates the high level of damage that can be inflicted in open spaces that are difficult to defend against agile, one-person attacks.
The Nice mayor’s office confirmed Friday that Mohamed Bouhlel, 31, a resident of the French seaside city, is the main suspect in the attack. Bouhlel, who was killed in a shootout with police, does not appear to have been known to intelligence services and was not on a terrorism watch list.
The Nice attack came as federal authorities and big-city police departments heightened security after shooting attacks in Dallas, Orlando and San Bernardino, and in the wake of Islamic State-linked bombings at airports in Istanbul and Brussels.
More than 3,000 federal security officials are heading to the Republican National Convention that starts Monday in Cleveland and the Democratic National Convention the following week in Philadelphia.
Thousands of state and local officers will also patrol the conventions. Extra steps for the convention include Cleveland police staffing two officers in each patrol car rather than one. Visible security measures in place for months at public events include searches of bags, more teams of bomb-sniffing dogs circulating and more screening equipment, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
But while federal and local authorities are monitoring security conditions, they say there are no specific threats against the conventions or big cities.
“We have been on heightened alert since Dallas,’’ Cleveland police Sgt. Jennifer Ciaccia said Friday, referring to the deadly ambush of five police officers last week during a protest against the use of force by law enforcement authorities.
The main street bordering the Quicken Loans Arena, the headquarters for the Cleveland convention, will be closed to vehicle traffic for the duration of the event. Since Wednesday, authorities also have been erecting barricades around the arena’s perimeter as an additional precaution.
Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, will tour the security command center in Cleveland on Friday. At a House hearing Thursday, Johnson said homegrown violent extremism is what keeps him up at night.
“It is difficult for our law enforcement and our intelligence community to detect the self-radicalized actor,” he said.
The chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, opened the hearing by noting federal authorities have arrested more than 90 Islamic State supporters in the U.S.
“Although our nation is shielded by two oceans, geography alone cannot protect us from this mortal threat,” he said.
Earlier this week, Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy, who is overseeing the massive security effort at both national political conventions, said in an interview with USA TODAY that the yearlong preparations accounted for a range of worst-case scenarios, including planning for “similar elements” to the Dallas ambush.
Clancy said he was “confident in the planning” but that the Cleveland convention presented “difficult challenges” because of the densely packed downtown, with businesses and residential neighborhoods near the secure convention zone.
“I am always re-evaluating what we are doing,” he said.
Police in big cities such as Boston and New York are also monitoring the developments in Nice.
Boston Police Department spokesman Lt. Michael McCarthy said the Nice attack prompted a boost in protection for a Friday evening Bastille Day celebration in the city’s Back Bay neighborhood.
“The Boston Regional Intelligence Center has been monitoring developments since yesterday,’’ McCarthy said. “You’ll certainly see an increased police presence in the Back Bay.”
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said Friday the department will remain vigilant while monitoring intelligence reports and events around the world. She urged residents to stay alert and report suspicious behavior.
“Being the law enforcement agency that provides public safety to the nation’s capital, we continue be prepared with appropriate resources,” Lanier said. “We will actively work in our coordination with both local and federal law enforcement partners, as well as homeland security agencies to monitor and ensure residents’ safety.”
There were no specific threats to New York City, the New York Police Department said in a statement Friday.
“We will monitor and deploy our personnel as needed. Once again, we ask the public to be vigilant and if you see something, say something.”
New York police found a car bomb in Times Square in 2010 after street vendors reported smoke coming from the vehicle.
The difficulty defending against terrorists in open plazas, or even bus or train stations, is that they are built for easy access. Blocking entrances would increase crowds at the remaining gates. Matching airport security at subway or train stations is considered too costly, even if the equipment could be installed.
That’s why Rep. Pete King of New York, a Republican member of the Intelligence and Homeland Security committees, said the key is gathering more intelligence through police and security agencies. He acknowledged that closer surveillance of Muslim communities is controversial, but he argued it is necessary.
“The reality we have to face is that it’s very difficult to protect people at an open location once the terrorist has arrived there. Even if you stop him, he’s going to kill or wound a number of people,” King said. “To have any hope of stopping these attacks, we need to have intelligence to stop the attack before it starts.”
FBI Director James Comey said Thursday that authorities foiled attacks planned around July 4, a holiday comparable to France’s Bastille Day celebration, by arresting more than 10 people in the month before.
The massive threat of a relatively inexpensive bomb in a box truck was illustrated in 1995 in Oklahoma City, where 168 people were killed and a federal building was destroyed. That threat spurred the closure of two blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.
The terrorist hijackings on Sept. 11, 2001, prompted the installation of more bollards – reinforced posts that block vehicles – around the White House, the U.S. Capitol, federal buildings, airport terminals and local government buildings nationwide.
Brian Michael Jenkins, director of the Mineta Transportation Institute’s National Transportation Safety and Security Center, said the policy debate is over how strictly to block or screen vehicles, while still allowing commerce and traffic to flow.
London installed a “ring of steel” around its financial district to combat terrorism during the 1990s. But barriers and checkpoints have since become more a ring of surveillance with closed-circuit television and license-plate checks, Jenkins said.
In the U.S., streets are closed temporarily with dump trucks or other obstacles for a parade or fireworks on the National Mall or for the presidential inauguration. Police in Washington routinely stop unmarked trucks within blocks of high-profile buildings, to check the identification of drivers and cargo.
Security measures could become more intrusive. One option would be to subject anyone renting a truck to the same watch lists as airline travel, Jenkins said. But searching every truck headed into New York City would back up traffic to Pennsylvania, he said.
“The problem with a vehicle as weapon is that it’s so accessible – you don’t have to acquire an arsenal or build a bomb,” Jenkins said. “It is a vulnerability of modern society.”
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