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After Christmas market attack, experts urge alertness, not fear

Firefighters stand next to a damaged truck in Berlin, Germany,Tuesday Dec. 20, 2016. The truck ran into a crowded Christmas market the evening before and killed several people. ( Michael Kappeler/dpa via AP)

Shoppers at Christmas markets in major U.S. cities saw an increased law enforcement presence Tuesday following a terrorist attack on an outdoor market in Berlin.

At least 12 people were killed in the attack on Monday evening when a suspect deliberately rammed a semi-truck into a crowd at the market outside Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Police are still searching for the driver, but the ISIS news agency has declared him a soldier of the Islamic State.

A bomb was detonated at a Christmas tree-lighting event in Aleppo, Syria on Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but it provided yet another reminder of the vulnerability of crowded holiday celebrations and the sheer amount of potential soft targets for attacks.

Counterterrorism experts say preventing attacks by individuals inspired by ISIS or other lone wolf actors can be challenging in the best of circumstances.

“These lone wolf attacks are difficult, if not impossible, to stop,” said Dr. Erroll Southers, associate director of National Homeland Security Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events. With people congregating more than usual for holiday events, it becomes even harder.

“It makes for a more lucrative target for a person who’s going to try to do something like this… I can’t think of any other time of the year where you have this many people out,” he said.

Frank Cilluffo, director of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University, said the difficulty of stopping a terrorist attack at the moment of impact is exactly why authorities are so focused on catching suspects before they act.

“Physical security and countermeasures are the last line of defense, not the first,” he said.

The low-tech nature of the recent waves of attacks adds another obstacle. There is not much law enforcement can do to stop a truck once it is barreling toward a crowd like in Berlin, or Nice in July. Experts recommend setting up markets and other outdoor activities in areas that a speeding vehicle cannot get to, either by installing barricades or moving them away from the street.

“In terms of preventing the particular terrorist tactic seen in Berlin and Nice, this is particularly difficult to defend against, but additional steps can be taken for a short duration to limit access into specific areas,” Cilluffo said.

Anthony Roman, a counterterrorism analyst and CEO of Roman & Associates, said some measures could be implemented to protect outdoor events, including removing trash cans, not allowing backpacks, and requiring vendors to use see-through bags. An overseas attack should also trigger increased alertness in case of copycat attacks.

New York Police Department Deputy Commissioner John Miller told MSNBC Tuesday that the city’s heavy traffic offers some level of built-in protection.

“The good news here is we have the density of traffic. So, it’s actually hard to get up to speed to run anybody over," Miller said.

ISIS has urged supporters to use any weapon they can find to attack westerners, and its magazine has highlighted vehicles as one effective option.

“To be honest with you, the best thing to do at this point is to really consider the location of these events,” said Southers, now director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at the University of Southern California.

The key is to look at the event and imagine how a successful attack on it could take place, then figure out how it would be stopped.

“You really have to reverse-engineer this,” he said.

A layered defense also includes good intelligence that prevents plots from taking shape.

“The objective is to intervene left of boom, before the attack occurs,” Cilluffo said.

That intelligence effort continues to be hampered by the evolution of the terrorist threat into a leaderless resistance model that produces fewer of the traditional footprints that investigators are trained to follow.

“They’re looking for those connections, those communications, and in many cases they don’t exist,” said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence firm.

A violent attack in Europe in the final week before Christmas may leave Americans nervous about shopping and traveling in the days ahead, but Southers said they should not give in to fear.

“We don’t want people to change what they would normally do this time of year, or else the terrorists win,” he said.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio rejected the idea of shutting down the city’s outdoor markets for safety.

“We are not going to let terrorists intimidate us. We’re not going to let them change our way of life,” he said, according to Politico.

Experts distinguish between a state of high alert and situational awareness and one of paranoia and fear.

“The public doesn’t need to be afraid, but they need to be aware,” said John Cohen, former counterterrorism coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security.

This includes warning law enforcement of anything that seems suspicious or out of place.

“America’s getting better at ‘see something, say something,’” Southers said.

Over the last 15 years, Americans have also become more comfortable with the presence of heavily armed law enforcement officers in public places.

“Unlike in the past when people had concerns when they saw law enforcement or canines…now when people see that, it’s a confidence level,” he said.

Cilluffo said that “a visible show of force and police” can serve as a deterrent.

Most protective measures do have drawbacks as well, so calibrating the risk becomes both a political concern and a security issue.

“While you can harden a particular target or venue, it will impact the ease of people's ability to visit the Christmas markets,” he said.

The prevalence of potential soft targets further complicates that calculation.

“Of course if you simply harden one target, you displace risk and force the terrorist to seek other targets,” Cilluffo said.

Eventually, a dedicated attacker will find a target that is not secure, whether it is a park, a shopping mall, a movie theater, or an outdoor holiday market.

“This again underscores the significance and importance of good intelligence and situational awareness,” he added.

Although experts readily acknowledge that not every threat can be stopped, Southers doubts that the public clearly understands that reality.

“It’s not a character flaw of America,” he explained. “This is a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S. when we compare ourselves to other countries.”

Relying on each other to recognize and report suspicious behavior is important because no amount of personnel and resources will reduce the risk level to zero.

“There is no such thing as ‘totally secure,’” Southers said.

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