Certain terrorist organizations — particularly al Qaeda, but other groups as well — have a penchant for anniversaries. For example, among the information gleaned from the “treasure trove” of intelligence gathered at Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad was evidence that al Qaeda had hoped to attack the American rail system on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11.
Well, it just so happens that tomorrow is the seven-year milestone in an incident known in England as 7/7. In those attacks, three highly-coordinated explosions shook the London Underground railway system at precisely 0850 hours, and another explosion decimated a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square less than an hour later. Those four suicide/homicide bombers killed 52 people and injured more than 700 others.
It also just so happens that in the small hours of the morning yesterday, British cops conducted a series of raids in what they called a “pre-planned” operation, arresting at least six “British Muslims” ranging in age from 18 to 30 years old.
10 years after 9/11: 8 pre-attack indicators of terrorist activity
By Doug Wyllie, PoliceOne Editor in Chief
There are observable behaviors and activities prior to a terrorist attack which generally represent the best opportunity to detect and disrupt the terrorists’ plans. What follows is a synthesis of versions of this list that can be found online as well as information gleaned from a variety of books I’ve read on the subject. This is far from a complete or comprehensive list — it’s a starting point for a much larger discussion — so add your own thoughts on this in the comments area.
1.) Financing Activities — Watch out for evidence of transactions involving large cash payments, deposits, or withdrawals. These are not just signs of criminal enterprise, but also may indicate terrorist funding efforts. Collection/solicitation of financial donations and “white-collar” criminal activities are potential warning signs.
2.) Surveillance — Not just glassing a target with a pair of binoculars, a long camera lens, or a laser range finder, this can include timing the movement of vehicles and persons within an area, as well as simply transiting the area at various times of day and recording the activity levels at the target. Evidence of surveillance operations can also be found at totally different locations — if there are hand-drawn diagrams or building plans in the house you just did a warrant entry on, ask yourself “Why is this here? What could this be used for?”
During the 7/7 attacks, three highly-coordinated explosions shook the London Underground railway system at precisely 0850 hours, and another explosion decimated a double-decker bus (shown above) in Tavistock Square less than an hour later. Those four suicide/homicide bombers killed 52 people and injured more than 700 others. (AP Photo)
American cops are "force multipliers in counterterrorism," says Fred Burton, one of the world’s foremost authorities on terrorists and terrorist organizations.
What Does 7/7 Mean for American LEOs?
Some in the media have made the assumption that yesterday’s arrests were made as part of the run-up to the upcoming Olympic Games, but to me, the timing so close to 7/7 is just too coincidental to ignore.
In fact, I flat out don’t believe in coincidences.
According to analysis of information gathered at bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, some believe that the 7/7 attacks were bin Laden’s “last successful operation.” While there reportedly exists no “ironclad proof” to that effect, the attacks themselves bear all the hallmarks of an al Qaeda operation.
• Timed for multiple, near-simultaneous, suicide/homicide bomb detonations: check • Timed to coincide with the beginning of the business day (local time): check • Timed to coincide with a high-profile event (in the case of 7/7, the G8 summit): check
Almost exactly a year ago, one US intelligence official told Reuters, “We have every reason to believe that [bin Laden] was aware of al Qaida’s major plots during the planning phase, including the airline plot in 2006 and the London 7/7 attacks.”
That being the case — and I personally tend to believe it more than I disbelieve it — we must heed the other notable hallmark of an al Qaeda operation:
• Timed to coincide with the anniversary of an important event, like a previous attack
Um, ah, hum, hah ...what!?
What does this all mean for American law enforcement?
I’d been planning on writing this column on what I’ve been privately calling “7Y7/7” long before yesterday’s counterterrorism efforts.
In fact, as I so often do when working on the counterterrorism topic, I connected a few weeks ago with my good friend Fred Burton. Frequent readers of this space will recall that Burton, who now serves as Vice President for Intelligence at STRATFOR, is widely considered to be one of the world’s foremost authorities on terrorists and terrorist organizations.
“The London 7/7 and Madrid 3/11 attacks laser-focused the threat and highlights the vulnerability. Could we see a similar attack here? Frankly, I’m surprised we haven’t,” Burton told me.
I wholeheartedly agree — it’s really quite remarkable such an attack has not occurred here in the United States.
The targets are just too tempting to be left alone.
In places like Israel and Indonesia, busses are a common target, and in places like Tokyo, Madrid, Mumbai, and of course London, terrorists have successfully hit numerous passenger trains.
According to a 2007 report by Eben Kaplan of the Council on Foreign Relations, Americans make more than 3.5 billion trips on intercity trains, commuter rails, and subways every year.
“On a given day in New York City,” Kaplan wrote, “more people pass through Penn Station than all three major airports servicing the region combined.”
I’m not even sure such statistics are even available for commuter busses. That number has got to be staggering.
Increasing Training, Sharing Intelligence
“Pro-active and forward thinking measures by some domestic law enforcement — like DC and New York — to mitigate the public transportation threat have certainly helped,” Burton said.
Indeed, just last week Operation RAIL SAFE, a massive, multi-jurisdictional law enforcement readiness exercise was conducted by some 190 agencies in 38 states. Developed by the Amtrak Police Department, New York City Police Department, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Operation RAIL SAFE included increased security presence onboard trains, explosives detection K-9 sweeps, random passenger screening, and counter-surveillance to enhance protection of our nation’s rail and transit systems.
Furthermore, every time I attend Urban Shield here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the exercise includes a variety of potential public transit targets. I have to believe that other regions are also conducting similar training operations. You can’t prove a negative, but I suggest that this increased focus on training and preparedness has had a positive effect.
But that’s not enough. The sharing of tactical intelligence to street cops is critical, and that’s probably still not happening enough.
“I’m afraid we still have a long way to go on that front,” Burton told me.
During our many conversations over the years, one of the recurring lamentations Burton and I share is that there still are too many Americans — a number of police officers included — who think:
A.) that a terrorist attack won’t happen here, in my city, in my town, or B.) that counterterrorism is “somebody else’s job” — like FBI or CIA
The fact is, as I have written on numerous occasions, American police officers are the front lines in domestic counterterrorism.
Burton echoed that thought when he told me a few weeks ago: “Some departments fail to recognize that street cops (not the FBI) will be critical to thwarting terror plots, but the signals can be very subtle, like pre-operational surveillance of HVTs.”
So, Where Does This All Leave Us?
According to reports, the British authorities currently have no plans to elevate the UK terrorism threat level from “substantial” to either of two higher levels — “substantial” means a terrorist attack is a strong possibility, whereas “severe” indicates an attack is highly likely, and “critical” is used when an attack is imminently expected.
Here in the United States, the only time that the DHS Terror Alert Level has changed was when the agency unveiled its new two-level terror alert system, replacing the often-confusing five-level color-coded version it had been using for years. Even when they changed that, the actual threat level remained exactly the same — “elevated.”
Given the new system, where the only alternative to “elevated” is “imminent” — indicating a “credible, specific, and impending terrorist threat against the United States” — I don’t imagine we’re going to budge from “yellow” for quite a while.
But just because the official threat level remains the same, that doesn’t mean that it should be business as usual for officers on the beat.
Anniversaries matter, and to some terrorists — lone wolves as well as far-flung organizations — anniversaries matter A LOT.
Hell, even Timothy McVeigh’s attack in Oklahoma City was timed for the anniversary of the raid on the Waco (Texas) ranch of the Branch Davidians.
And remember, terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology. That tactic has been successfully used in centuries of asymmetric warfare dating back to Genghis Khan. Today we face the prospect of terrorist operations being conducted by wildly disparate groups — everyone from al Shabaab and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to so-called U.S. Sovereign Citizens such as the Hutaree.
The American railroad has been the target of outlaws dating back to the Wild West, and transit busses are packed to the gunwales with “pickpockets and loose women.”
There is not a single reason to believe that we’re impervious to terrorist attacks like those which rocked our friends in England seven years ago tomorrow.
I strongly encourage you to review the sidebar above and to the left, in which I summarize eight common pre-attack indicators of terrorist activity.
Who knows, you may end up giving a fellow cop out there the one tool he or she may need tomorrow, the next day, or someday down the road, to prevent a catastrophic terrorist attack.
Stay safe out there my friends.
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. In addition to his editorial and managerial responsibilities, Doug has authored more than 700 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), and an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association. He is also a member of the Public Safety Writers Association, and is a two-time (2011 and 2012) Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" Finalist in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. 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.
Read more articles by PoliceOne Editor in Chief Doug Wyllie by clicking here.