Tuesday, December 21, 2010
NYPD Trains for New Type of Attack
Earlier this month the New York Police Department ran an antiterrorism exercise simulating an attack on the city.
A team of terrorists unleashed a coordinated series of bombings and gun attacks around the city in the simulation. At one point, terrorists attacked New York police officials visiting wounded officers in a hospital. By the time the daylong attacks were over, dozens of people had been killed and many more wounded.
The NYPD simulation was different from any of the terrorist incidents that have actually hit New York, such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks where terrorists hijacked planes to destroy the World Trade Center, or the foiled Times Square car-bombing attempt in May of this year.
Instead, the simulation deliberately mirrored the 2008 massacre in Mumbai. Within minutes of one another on the night of Nov. 26, 2008, 10 gunmen attacked various locations in the Indian capital, including two luxury hotels, a hospital and a railway station. The attack stretched on for three days as hostages were taken at several of the locations. Ultimately, 174 people were killed.
Until Mumbai, NYPD counterterrorism officials felt reasonably comfortable that they were prepared for any type of terrorist attack. But that comfort level was built on preparing for a single event, not a series of coordinated attacks that would terrorize a city for days on end.
"The Mumbai attack two years ago was a bit of a game changer," Mitchell Silber, head of the NYPD's intelligence analysis division, said. "It was a model that most counterterrorism practitioners hadn't really considered. The armed gunmen roaming around the city taking hostages, that wasn't something we had seen by any jihadist group. That was a real eye-opener." Mr. Silber said the more NYPD officials learned about the Mumbai attacks "the more similarities we saw between Mumbai city and New York City." Both, he said, are financial centers; both are surrounded by water on three sides; both get intense media attention.
The latest simulation made additional sense, he said, in light of the rumors this past fall that jihadists were planning another "Mumbai-style" attack somewhere in Europe.
So on Dec. 3, the NYPD's top brass gathered inside the department's headquarters in downtown Manhattan, in the Police Academy on East 20th Street and a third location, which police don't want to identify, that will be activated in the event police headquarters is destroyed. More than 40 senior commanders took part, and a facilitator introduced "injects," or new complications, into the exercise.
According to a memo reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, the police were given a fictional scenario that began with President Barack Obama visiting New York for a bill signing. At the same time, convicted Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad was scheduled to appear in federal court. The attacks began with bombings in downtown that resulted in 18 dead and dozens injured. The president went ahead with the bill signing at the World Trade Center site, when another bomb went off nearby. He was whisked away.
The attack wasn't over. Six gunmen piled out of a van at Herald Square and opened fire on shoppers and pedestrians. They then entered the Macy's department store and took 26 hostages.
As in Mumbai, police in the simulation had trouble containing and anticipating the terrorists. At one point, police who tried to rescue hostages were shot by snipers. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Chief of Department Joseph Esposito went to Bellevue Hospital to visit wounded police officers, then both were incapacitated when a bomb exploded inside the emergency room, according to the simulation.
This is the eighth such large-scale tabletop exercise held by the NYPD since Mumbai, according to Paul Browne, the NYPD's spokesman. He said this exercise provided several valuable lessons. For instance, conventional wisdom was that the best way to deal with multiple subway bombings was to shut down all mass transportation and evacuate everyone by foot, Mr. Browne said. But the exercise showed the advantage of continuing to use buses during an attack to shepherd civilians out of lower Manhattan.
The exercise also showed that the first responding officers to Macy's shouldn't have evacuated people and waited for reinforcements, the traditional response in a hostage situation. Instead, the police could have minimized casualties by quickly finding and killing the terrorists who were shooting people.
Mr. Browne said the exercise also served as a reminder that the NYPD needs to obtain or update floor plans of the city's large department stores in case hostage-taking or some other standoff occurs there. Currently, the NYPD keeps floor plan copies for all of the city's major hotels and many popular buildings.
The department has taken other steps to prepare for a similar attack. Since Mumbai, Mr. Browne said, the NYPD has trained and equipped an addition 375 officers to use "heavy weapons" for a prolonged siege situation. The heavy weapons—MP5 submachine guns and Mini-14 semiautomatic carbine rifles—are needed to counteract military-style assault weapons like the ones used in Mumbai.
Lastly, police are preparing for more chaos. They now assume that when they advise civilians to "shelter in place," many will flee the island on foot as they did during the last major power blackout. That means police will need to protect pedestrians leaving Manhattan via the East River bridges or ferries.