Much of the coverage of America’s exit from Afghanistan has focused on the chaos at the Kabul airport, the vital challenge of getting Americans and Afghans out of the country, and the lives saved. Of longer-term importance is how the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will affect Americans here in the United States. U.S. transportation networks, with their dependence on technology, are particularly vulnerable.
Afghanistan now gives terrorists a base to launch coordinated, sophisticated attacks against the United States, as was the case on September 11, 2001. Those attacks and many others targeted transportation systems.
America was the victim of coordinated plane attacks on 9/11. When the planes hit the World Trade Center I was in the office of the Director of the National Economic Council in the West Wing of the White House. We were told to leave in case the fourth plane, which passengers took down in Pennsylvania, hit the White House. Throughout the day, the federal government defined the threat as attacks on airliners. Civil aviation in America and around the world was halted for a week.
Terrorists have targeted transportation systems in other countries. Spain suffered explosions on four commuter trains on March 11, 2004, killing almost 200 people and injuring another 2,000. Britain had bus and subway bombings on July 7, 2005, which killed 56 people and injured 700. Fortunately, some transportation attacks were thwarted, including one on a French high-speed train in 2015, prevented by three Americans. Investigators found enough explosives to kill 300 people.
As Brookings Institution senior fellow Robert Kagan wrote in the Washington Post this month, “For better or for worse, it was fear that drove the United States into Afghanistan — fear of another attack by al-Qaeda, which was then firmly ensconced in the Taliban-controlled country…. fear of other sleeper cells already hiding in the United States. Experts warned that it was just a matter of time before the next big attack.”
The destruction of terrorist cells during America’s years in Afghanistan shielded us from another 9/11. That shield is now gone. Now that the Taliban control Afghanistan, we need to work out how to protect our vulnerable networks.
The attacks of 9/11 jolted America into increasing security on transportation. Congress authorized the Department of Homeland Security and, within it, the Transportation Security Administration. Passengers and their shoes and luggage at airports are now checked using advanced technologies, some modern and some ancient. For example, dogs have been trained to find explosives and can be seen in airports and train stations.
Although America has made much progress in detecting threats to transportation systems, we cannot be fighting the last war. America is not sufficiently prepared to deal with new attacks on transportation, including our Global Positioning System satellite navigation systems. GPS, which provides positioning, navigation, and timing services through a system of satellites, has become increasingly central to our economy and our daily lives, and tools to disrupt it have become more common over the past 20 years.
Harm to GPS systems could come from intended damage to satellites; electromagnetic storms; hacking and spoofing; and interference from activities close to the GPS band. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, lists vulnerabilities of GPS for different U.S. critical infrastructure sectors, including transportation, communications, energy, financial services, and food and agriculture.
The economic consequences of disrupting each of these sectors are so large as to be immeasurable. GPS vulnerabilities specifically listed for transportation are in aviation, maritime, pipelines, rail, and roadway. That is why GPS needs to be protected from terrorists and complements and backups to the GPS system put in place.
Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Bryan Clark, director of Hudson’s Center for Defense Concepts and Technology, explained to me in a phone conversation why Afghanistan is a prime location for terrorists to disrupt air traffic. In much of the region of Afghanistan, commercial planes are out of range of Air Traffic Control, and depend on satellite navigation, he said. Terrorists based in Afghanistan can jam and spoof GPS and radio signals so that planes don’t know where they are going. Systems to jam satellites and the electromagnetic spectrum can be purchased relatively easily, Clark told me.
Clark, an expert in electronic warfare and autonomous systems, said that with Afghanistan as a safe haven, terrorists can plan coordinated, complex attacks on transportation networks as they did in the United States, Madrid, London, and all too many regions of the world. If Afghanistan is the source of disruption, the United States may one day again have to use air operations to clean out the terrorists.
The meaning of “infrastructure” today is elastic and covers a wide range of government spending. Terrorists do not need an elastic view of “infrastructure” to target vulnerable assets whose destruction will lead to widespread fear and panic. Those targets may well be transportation systems that have been attacked countless times in the past and that remain susceptible.
The $1 trillion infrastructure bill and the $3.5 trillion budget plan were drafted when it was assumed that the Afghan government would remain in place. The bills provide few funds to defend transportation. They should be modified to reflect today’s terrorist reality and the new vulnerability of our transportation systems.