Trucks at Work
Are tanker trucks potential terrorist weapons?

Are tanker trucks potential terrorist weapons?

We consider gasoline tankers, and to a lesser extent, propane tankers to be the most attractive options for terrorists seeking to use highway-borne hazmat because they can create intense fires in public assemblies and residential properties.” –Brian Michael Jenkins, director of Mineta Transportation Institute’s National Transportation Security Center of Excellence

A new report from the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) about the potential use of gasoline tanker trucks are terrorist weapons is sure to raise the hackles – not to mention the ire – of many within the trucking industry.

I mean, fuel tankers perform a fundamentally crucial yet thankless service in this country; and if we start raising a ruckus about the security measures surrounding these kinds of trucks, all kinds of things could happen – especially a slow-down in deliveries, which will of course trigger a very different kind of public outcry.

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But let’s face it – the terrorist use of tankers shouldn’t be considered far-fetched. The author Larry Bond – a contemporary of Tom Clancy; they worked on the novel Red Strom Rising together – provided a fictional example of how a tanker could be used in a terrorist attack in his 1996 novel The Enemy Within.

In its opening pages, Muslim jihadists hijack a petroleum tanker truck, murder the driver, wire the big rig with explosives, and have a suicide bomber detonate on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Before you dismiss this as a mere plot device, remember this: In Tom Clancy’s novel Executive Orders a hijacked airliner is purposefully crashed into the White House; eerily presaging a similar attempt by the 9/11 terrorists aboard Flight 93, before a counter-attack by that plane’s passengers forced it into the ground outside Shanksville, PA.

So, back to MTI’s tanker truck report – compiled by its National Transportation Security Center of Excellence (NTSCOE) – given the almost unwieldy title of Potential Terrorist Uses of Highway-Borne Hazardous Materials.

Authored by Brian Michael Jenkins and Bruce R. Butterworth, along with Douglas Reeves, Billy Poe and Karl S. Shrum, the report analyzed a number of studies done on terrorists and their methods. It conclude (not surprisingly) that terrorists most often seek soft targets that yield significant casualties; that they prefer attacking public buildings and assemblies; and that they more often choose simple operations promising modest consequences rather than complex and uncertain operations promising catastrophic ones.

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Terrorists are discussing substituting fire for harder-to-acquire explosives, according to MTI’s analysis of counter-terrorism intelligence – and gasoline tankers are becoming more appealing because they can easily produce intense fires, operate in target-rich environments with predictable routes, and pose few security challenges.

As a result, MTI’s report calls for a clear strategy to increase and sustain tanker truck security, including: resolving significant jurisdictional issues between federal and state authorities; strengthening hazmat security measures in the field; plus implementing vehicle tracking technologies, panic alarms, and immobilization capabilities for vehicles carrying specific hazardous materials, including gasoline.

OK, lest you think the authors of this report are just some armchair general wannabes, consider this as well: Brian Michael Jenkins, director of MTI’s NTSCOE group and the principle investigator for this report, is a combat veteran – commissioned in the infantry at the age of 19, serving three tours in Vietnam as first a paratrooper and then a captain in the Green Berets. He’s also one of the leading authorities on terrorism and sophisticated crime, working with government agencies, international organizations, and multinational corporations as an analyst, investigator, and crisis-management consultant.

In short, a guy with these kinds of chops usually has a very good idea of what really poses a threat and what doesn’t. So note just some of the details from MTI’s report below:

• The number of significant jihadist terrorist attacks outside of Afghanistan and Iraq declined in 2007 and 2008, with a greater number of terrorist plots uncovered and thwarted in the early stages. Terrorist plots uncovered in the U.S. since 9/11 have been characterized by local planning and low skill levels.

• Al Qaeda-inspired terrorists, currently the most formidable terrorist threat, remain committed to large-scale bombings requiring vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs); these continue to be a preferred attack mode when high body counts and massive damage are the objectives.

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• The acquisition or manufacture of large quantities of explosives by terrorists is difficult, and it has been made more so by increased security and monitoring of ingredients such as ammonium nitrate fertilizer; a common ingredient in explosive devices when mixed with fuel oil.

• Terrorists, notably in Iraq, have attempted to increase the lethality of their devices by adding propane tanks or toxic chemicals to them. Reports indicate that terrorists have also discussed substituting available hazardous materials for explosives, although it is not clear whether these discussions relate exclusively to the continuing conflict in Iraq. This possibility has also been mentioned in recent U.S. threat assessments. Recent assessments also suggest that terrorists are considering how to weaponize gasoline tankers.

• While any specific type of terrorist attack against any specific category of target remains unpredictable, although of low statistical probability, the use of vehicles carrying hazardous-materials cargos as surrogate truck bombs must be considered a plausible mode of terrorist attack.

Now, most tanker truck fleets in the U.S. already maintain a high degree of security in and around their operations – they can’t afford not to. What this report should do, however, is help them look at where potential gaps in their security coverage might exist and how to fill them.

This isn’t to imply hordes of bearded, wild-eyed fanatics are hiding along highway on- and off-ramps, ready to spring out and grab any tanker truck they see. That would almost be too farcical. It surely such a report reiterates how vital security measures are for fuel carriers in this country. That’s a reminder we can all benefit from.