Forget those big cities with their millions of people, billions of dollars in capital investments, and their globally recognizable landmarks. Two Muslim youths on a road trip between Florida and North Carolina earlier this summer made a diversion to Goose Creek with a home-made explosive devise in the trunk — right by the sunscreen and beach chairs, no doubt. No terror plot has been revealed, but Ahmed Mohamed has been charged with making a bomb and teaching others how to do it. The two were arrested within miles of the Naval Weapons Station — a fact that's been underlined in news coverage of the event. The weapons station has a wealth of terror collateral and even housed several terror suspects — Jose Padilla and Yasir Hamdi — potentially making it a prime target for terrorists.
But it's not alone. Being a popular port city and tourist destination, Charleston has a whole handful of terror targets. A coordinated attack here seems unlikely, but there's still the threat of an individual inspired by organized terror groups acting alone, says Charleston County Sheriff Al Canon, who coordinates regional counter-terror measures.
"It doesn't take very many and they can be very committed individuals," he says.
The Goose Creek incident likely opened the eyes of local police and residents who assume that we aren't a terror target.
"Some of it has to do with a mindset that this is a small pace and that it isn't going to happen here," Cannon says.
Cannon notes that some terror targets, like elementary schools, aren't site specific.
"There is nothing about that particular target that would make New York more attractive than Charleston," he says.
The Department of Homeland Security's National Asset Database, a secret list of potential targets from local sporting good stores to international airline hubs, lists 308 potential South Carolina targets among its exhaustive list of 77,000 sites (though other states have been criticized for overestimating the value of, say, potato festivals).
Naval Weapons Station Charleston
With a stockpile of weapons, military fuel lines, and its role in the chemical disposal route, the Naval Weapons Station in Hanahan is more than a modest target. And with its recent role as a brig imprisoning alleged terror suspects, it's certainly received national attention. Other potential targets include the Charleston Air Force Base, which provides C-17s for cargo transport to Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the Naval Weapons Station and other military bases prepare for any eventuality with well-trained, well-equipped security, says Naval Station spokesman Scott Bassett.
"Most military installations would be a hard target to get to," he says. "You don't want to beat up the 250-pound eighth grader, you want to beat up the 50-pound eighth grader."
Port of Charleston
The federal government has awarded nearly $24 million in port protection money to the State Ports Authority over the past few years, but authority spokesman Byron Miller says the primary concern is what's coming into the port for potential malicious use elsewhere.
"Ports should be considered less as targets and more as vectors, where things could be brought in," he says.
To that measure, the local port has every container scanned using state-of-the-art radiation portal monitors, something that has not been fully implemented in many other ports. Other machines are available to x-ray containers.
Charleston also has Project Seahawk, the secretive clandestine security collaborative that includes port police and other local law enforcement, Coast Guard, military, customs agents, and other federal officials to coordinate security monitoring at the port. The local pilot program has also been green-lighted for other ports once funding becomes available.
Savannah River Site
Home to a variety of nuclear programs, the SRS has often been dramatically cited for potential catastrophe. The Associated Press reported last week on federal plans to ship plutonium from Washington state, San Francisco, and New Mexico to the Savannah River facility. Getting rid of the nuclear waste was cause for celebration out West, particularly in California, where activists have stressed the danger of the plutonium being a terrorist target. James Rispoli, assistant energy secretary, told the AP that the SRS is being prepared with heightened security in mind.
Arthur Ravenel Bridge
Yes, there are bigger, fancier, busier bridges, but if there's a 21st century symbol of Charleston, it's the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. As the bridge collapse in Minneapolis this summer showed, the country is easily consumed by bridge stories, particularly those where innocent people plunge to their deaths. The Ravenel Bridge was designed prior to Sept. 11, but it was built to withstand earthquakes similar to the 1886 earthquake and wind speeds of up to 190 mph (because one natural calamity isn't enough). Security on the bridge is much improved from the previous spans, with cameras monitoring traffic over and under the bridge. It's also designed so that one of the 128 cables suspending the bridge could be replaced with traffic still driving on it.
Airports and public transportation are also areas of concern, but it would be surprising if the Charleston Airport was a solitary target and, while CARTA may be a lifeline for a few of Charleston's less mobile working class, it is far from the linchpin in the region's economy that say subways in New York and ferries in Seattle might be.
Charleston itself may be a landmark of historic significance, but few of our favorite buildings and monuments have the prominence of others in larger cities. Height restrictions keep tall towers from being a concern. And while locals can recite the importance of The Battery, the Charleston Harbor, or City Hall, attacks at these locations would account nationally as a significant event at a largely insignificant place.
Sports venues are a recognized concern, but Joe Riley Stadium likely doesn't have the kind of crowd a terrorist is looking for, and if you can even name one of our other local professional sporting teams, you're better off than most residents, much less terrorists.
Special events are also a concern, and there's few in South Carolina more recognized than Charleston's three-week-long Spoleto Festival. But the near-constant dispersion of attendees would likely dilute the impact of a terror attack.
Water and power plants are a concern for anyone who has missed a shower when the water was out or put different colored socks on in the dark and have upped security over the past few years.
Schools can also be a target.
"One of our greatest vulnerabilities are our children," Cannon says. "Those kinds of things keep me awake at night."
Last spring's massacre at Virginia Tech proved Muslim extremists aren't the only ones with a delusional grudge. While lives were lost, it provided tragic lessons about coordination and quick response.
What We Haven't Thought Of
And the last most likely target is the one we haven't thought of yet. What we consider a target may differ from what a terrorist sees as a target, notes Clint Whitehurst, a Strom Thurmond Institute fellow, in a 2003 study.
"Over time their objectives can be expected to change depending upon circumstances, which in turn will change their choice of targets; changes which can not be accurately forecast," he writes. "A terrorist has the advantage of flexibility in target selection as well as flexibility in allocating the necessary resources to attack the target."