Officials converge on 'soft-target-rich' Jersey City to review terrorism preparedness

IndustriesAssociated Press

How would the city that is home to New Jersey's financial center react to a terror attack on its mass transit system, or a "lone wolf" attack by individual or multiple gunmen? What if those events occurred simultaneously and in conjunction with an attack that involved hazardous chemicals and shut down part of the New Jersey Turnpike?

Those scenarios and others were at the heart of a two-day terrorism preparedness conference that kicked off Wednesday in Jersey City and involved about 200 agencies representing law enforcement and the public and private sector. It is sponsored by the federal Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and FEMA and is the largest of more than a dozen such exercises held in cities around the country over the last several years, according to Mayor Steven Fulop.

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The location of the conference, at the Goldman Sachs building that dominates the waterfront across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center site, was significant.

"This building has been on target lists before," Fulop said. "It's a very prominent building. From Jersey City's standpoint, we're happy they selected us, and it's a huge event."

The bulk of the conference was closed to the public, but in opening remarks Wednesday several speakers noted that the nature of terror threats has changed since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., and that northeastern New Jersey remains a high-level target. Theodore Macklin, a consultant with DHS and FEMA, called Hudson County a "soft-target-rich" region.

Chris Rodriguez, head of New Jersey's Department of Homeland Security, referred to recent attacks in Sydney, Copenhagen, Paris and at the Boston Marathon as evidence that lone wolf or "main street" terrorism is becoming the new norm.

"They all show us that terrorists are employing unconventional tactics and methods designed to instill unprecedented fear in free and open societies," he said. "This exercise combines facets of all these attacks, and challenges us to think and act anew in the face of a determined and evil foe."

The conference's goal is to identify any gaps in the region's plans for reacting to several scenarios, said W. Greg Kierce, director of Jersey City's Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. They included an attack on mass transit; a separate attack on the city's waterfront; an attack on the New Jersey Turnpike involving hazardous chemicals; and shifting of an attack from Jersey City to a neighboring municipality.