10 years after 9/11: Counterterrorism and American policing

We've had dozens of attempted attacks by radicalized Islamist terrorists here in the United States since 9/11, and only in the case of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan was there any degree of 'success' on the part of the attacker


We’re in “T-Minus” territory now. March 11, 2011 is exactly six months from the day that we’ll solemnly mark the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed almost 3,000 Americans. Since those attacks on lower Manhattan, northern Virginia, and southwestern Pennsylvania, our state, local, and federal law enforcers have been taking the fight to the enemy here in the United States. In their effort to root out and defeat those who would willingly kill innocents as a means of advancing a twisted extremist agenda, American law enforcers have had some well-publicized successes — the infiltration of the Newburgh Four, the rapid apprehension of Faisal Shahzad, the heroics of Sgt. Kimberly Munley and Senior Sgt. Mark Todd at Fort Hood, and the prevention of a massacre at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Oregon, to name just a few.

Those are just a handful of the successes we’re privy to — there are countless others in which American law enforcement has moved in the shadows, keeping vigilant and secret watch against terrorist attacks.

However, while we’ve been effective, we’ve also been fortunate.

Good Is Way Better Than Lucky
In many cases, we’ve pretty much been up against the “al Qaeda B Team” and more often than not, we’ve been up against lone-wolf attackers with minimal or questionable operational capabilities. For example, when a Saudi student tried to build and deploy improvised bombs against targets in the United States — including former President George W. Bush’s Dallas home — sloppy tradecraft led to his capture. A 19-year-old Jordanian who allegedly plotted to plant a bomb in a Dallas skyscraper all but ‘outed’ himself to law enforcement by posting violent rants in extremist chat rooms being monitored by the FBI.

“Whether it’s Times Square or the Wells Fargo Bank building in Dallas, or this latest case in Lubbock, these individuals have put themselves out there in the various chat rooms. That has enabled the FBI to be successful in identifying them,” my friend Fred Burton told me when we spoke earlier this week.

Regular readers of PoliceOne will recall that Burton is one of the country’s top experts on counterterrorism. Burton had been a Maryland cop when he joined the Diplomatic Security Service of the U.S. Department of State in November 1985 — around the time terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro — and eventually became deputy chief of the agency’s Counterterrorism Division. Notably, Burton orchestrated the arrest of Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and has served our great nation in ways that may remain secret forever. Burton is also my go-to guy when I want an update on where we are in the fight against radical Jihadists.

“Compare that to the efforts on Abdul the Nigerian [a.k.a. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a.k.a. Umar Abdul Mutallab], the Christmas Day bomber, which was a near-fatal miss. Meaning, absent a technical failure with the IED, that device could have detonated and blown that plane all over Detroit. So, although we have made strides in identifying some of the low-level operatives who have put themselves out there in chat rooms, I think that we still have a long way to identify the more capable [potential attackers]. Abdul the Nigerian is just one example of how far we still need to go,” Burton said.

Strides Made & Steps to Improve
“We’ve created a DHS monster with these Fusion Centers — I think there are over 70 of them now — and there still is this firewall between the Fusion Centers and the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces. Until we get the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces to share information with the Fusion Centers, I think the end loser — as opposed to the end user — is your police officer on patrol. I talk to a lot of cops, and having been a cop and having been a counterterrorism agent, I’m not so sure your average street cop — outside of specific locations such as New York City — is any better off today with tactical terrorism intelligence that can help him or her do their jobs than they were on September the 10th 2001.”

While there remain some serious issues in information sharing for prevention of a terrorist attack, one of the positive byproducts of 9/11 has been the creation of some very robust emergency action plans — and the preparedness training that goes along with that — for an integrated response from local police and fire as well as federal emergency managers.

“Our ability to respond to a crisis is better, but... that’s all after the fact,” Burton explains. “That’s after the building has been hit or after the terrorists attack. Getting back to your officer pushing a patrol car around the city — are they any better off with tactical intelligence to identify the pre-operational act of surveillance by a terrorist organization? I’m not so sure they are. I’m afraid that very little guidance is given to the average street cop on what to look for.”

So, let’s assume for the moment that you’re not getting actionable tactical intelligence from the JTTF. What can the ‘average street cop’ — in Burton’s vernacular — do on a shift that can aid America’s counterterrorism efforts?

1.) Read Open-Source Intel  — During our discussion, Burton pointed to one thing available to every cop in America who wants it. “Every time the FBI takes down one of these individuals... I would strongly recommend that you go over the indictment with a fine-tooth comb. You’ll always learn something.” Burton suggested asking yourself a series of questions as you read. “How did these terrorists conduct their pre-operational surveillance? How were they recruited? How were they radicalized? What was the behavior that caused the individuals to come to the attention of law enforcement? How can I apply that to my eight or ten hours I’m pushing around my police car or in the course of my investigation to look for those kinds of warnings or indicators?”

To begin, I’ve posted the indictment of the Newburgh Four — the case known officially as U.S. v. Cromitie, 7:09-cr-00558-CM, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan) — here on PoliceOne. Whenever possible, we’ll continue to do that so you have access to these documents in one central location.

While our coverage of this stuff on PoliceOne is pretty darned good — for example, in case you missed it, my September 2010 article on the Terrorist Screening Center and the TSDB has some helpful tips on how to leverage information about known or suspected terrorists, and how you can update that constantly-changing database — there are some other excellent sites out there. I regularly visit PlanetData, the Long War Journal, the Homeland Security Newswire, the Investigative Project on Terrorism, and of course, STRATFOR. Most of these sites are free or virtually free — even STRATFOR’s top membership works out to about a buck a day I think.

2.) Get Formal Training — You can send yourself to some training even if your PD cant (or won’t) finance it. Granted, this option can be pretty expensive, and it takes up a lot of your spare time, so it’s really for the most highly motivated individuals. There are lots of programs out there, but a handful immediately spring to mind — first among them are Henley Putnam University, and American Military University. Then there are the various campuses and programs of Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, and resources from FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness.

A good friend of mine raves about the counterterrorism training at program at Henley Putnam. He’s one of the busiest guys I know, and he was still able to work full time, raise his family, and complete his advanced degree from Henley Putnam. There are many others — too many to list here — so if you’re sufficiently moved to do some exploring you’ll almost certainly discover something suits you and your budget.

3.) Observe & Report — Every patrol officer has the opportunity to develop their own intelligence pertaining to their patrol area — it’s merely a matter of actively thinking about it. Get to know where the high-value targets are located, and don’t just think about your traditional HVTs.

For example, there are a limited number of railway bridges — five, I think — that cross the Mississippi river. What do you suppose the impact would be on the American economy if just one of those was taken out? Pretty significant, right? There are literally thousands of small manufacturing plants that serve as subcontractors to the “military-industrial complex” which the Jihadis would gleefully strike. Is there such a facility in your county or city? Have your toured it or visited with the plant managers to discuss security there?

And of course, there are the places of worship which either are targets or potential locations for radicalization.

“Have you made any effort to stop by and chat with either the Imam of the local Mosque or the Rabbi of the local Synagogue just to touch base to see what issues may be affecting that religious institution,” Burton offered. “That sort of information can help shape threat perceptions in the area. I think first and foremost, your average street cop has to make a very aggressive effort to collect information to learn and understand the culture, the demographics, the high-value targets in their area, especially if they’re not getting anything from their intelligence division to help them do their job.”

4.) Know the Pre-Attack Indicators — I recently had the privilege and the pleasure of participating in a series of about nine active-shooter training scenarios with a group of teams from a large police agency here in the San Francisco Bay Area — yeah, that’s actually how I spend a lot of my “off” time.

At the mid-way point we all sat down for a 12-minute video aimed at helping cops better recognize pre-attack indicators of terrorist activity. I cannot presently pass along the video itself — I don’t have permission from the entity that produced it — but those indicators include financing and fund-raising, conducting surveillance, eliciting information, probing security, acquiring supplies, practicing dry runs, and finally, deploying attack assets.

I’ve summarized what I saw in the sidebar (above and left) and encourage you to check that out.

5.) This Page Intentionally Left Blank — Those are just four things. Add what you think the fifth (or the fifth, sixth, and seventh) item(s) should be in the comments area below.

Adapt, Adjust, and Overcome
When I connected with him for an article I did back on September 11th 2009, Burton said that he sees American cops as being on front lines of the preemption of a terrorist attack on our soil. Strictly from a data-collection perspective — and all police officers are data-collectors — cops are “our best eyes and ears for detecting pre-operational surveillance by anybody. If you could marshal those assets nationally, from sea to shining sea, you could have a much better picture of events from a real-time surveillance perspective than we currently do,” he said.

As I’ve written on previous occasions, while “regular” and Spec Ops branches of the United States military heroically conduct operations overseas, American police officers are on the front lines in counterterrorism here at home. There have been dozens of attacks or attempted attacks by radicalized Islamist terrorists here in the United States since 9/11, and only in the case of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan was there any degree of “success” on the part of the attacker. Even in that case, because the servicemen and women who came under fire at the Soldier Readiness Center at Fort Hood had been recently trained in self-care and buddy-care, the death toll was considerably lower than it could have otherwise been.

Just like traditional criminal enterprises, the enemy is evolving in its strategic objectives as well as in its tactical methodologies. Law enforcers must continue to adapt, adjust, and overcome.

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor in Chief of PoliceOne, responsible for setting the editorial direction of the website and managing the planned editorial features by our roster of expert writers. An award-winning columnist — he is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column — Doug has authored more than 800 feature articles and tactical tips on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA). Even in his "spare" time, he is active in his support for the law enforcement community, contributing his time and talents toward police-related charitable events as well as participating in force-on-force training, search-and-rescue training, and other scenario-based training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.

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