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March 20, 2014
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PoliceOne Special Contributors P1 First Person
with PoliceOne Special Contributors

How local and state cops fit into counterterrorism

While we will always need to train to respond to an attack, we will be much more effective by conducting proactive investigations — investigations which begin with learning the pre-attack indicators of terrorists

Editor’s Note: This week’s PoliceOne First Person essay is from PoliceOne Member Matt Ernst, who encourages all officers to begin their counterterrorism efforts by learning the non-criminal indicators of terrorism. In PoliceOne "First Person" essays, our Members and Columnists candidly share their own unique view of the world. This is a platform from which individual officers can share their own personal insights on issues confronting cops today, as well as opinions, observations, and advice on living life behind the thin blue line. If you want to share your own perspective with other P1 Members, simply send us an email with your story.

By Matt Ernst, PoliceOne Member

If you’re like most cops, combating terrorism is not one of your daily concerns — and understandably so. Unless you’re assigned to a Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), you spend the great majority of your shifts dealing with drunks, domestics, car accidents, assaults, mental illness, drugs, etc. Given the law of averages, you are simply much more likely to deal with those types of incidents than a terrorism investigation.

I have found that many cops think only cities like New York City and Los Angeles have to worry about terrorists. While our high-profile cities will always be the popular targets, we need to recognize that terrorists are living all over the U.S. and they can be plotting an attack against a target even while living several states away. Terrorists are mobile and travel the nation’s highways in order to recruit, raise funds, purchase resources, conduct surveillance, and ultimately carry-out an attack.

Thus, as law enforcement officers, we need to focus our training not only on responding to an attack, but on learning the non-criminal indicators of terrorism. It is these indicators that we are much more likely to encounter on traffic stops or while handling those everyday calls.  

In 2010, the FBI confirmed that 4,876 alleged terrorists had contacts with U.S. law enforcement, usually for reasons not related to terrorism.[i] It has also been estimated that 20,000 - 30,000 known terrorists who are on the Terrorist Watchlist are in the U.S. at any given time.[ii] Based on my research, 36 U.S. states have either been the intended target of a terrorist plot, or have been the location where terrorists have been arrested, lived, attended college, etc.[iii] The quickest way to visualize this is through this interactive map

There are two key points that street cops should understand:

1.) Adherents to a radical Islamic ideology are all over the U.S.(they’re not living in just NYC or L.A.) The recent arrest of Terry Loewen, who plotted to bomb the airport in Wichita, KS is a perfect example of this.[iv] Perhaps the best example of having an entrenched network all across the U.S. is the Somali terror group Al-Shabaab, which has had supporters arrested in California, Alabama, Minnesota, Seattle (Wash.), Columbus (Ohio), Maryland, Virginina, Chicago, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, and Wyoming.[v]


2.) The radicalization process, terrorist financing, and training activities, may not take place in the same location as the intended target of an attack. Perhaps the best example of this is Najibullah Zazi, who plotted to attack the NYC subway system while living in Aurora (Colo.). Zazi purchased bomb-making chemicals in Denver and then drove a rental car from Denver to NYC. Thankfully, Zazi was ultimately arrested and the plot foiled.[vi]

But forgotten in the analysis of this case is how many potential terrorist targets exist between Denver and NYC. Zazi would have passed through eight states during his travels and could’ve very easily changed his intended target to somewhere other than NYC.  

Let’s consider other cases with similar circumstances:

  • Seven people from the Miami, FL area developed a plot in which one of their targets was the Willis Tower in Chicago.[vii]
  • Rezwan Ferdaus, from Ashland, Massachusetts, planned to attack the Pentagon in Washington D.C.[viii]
  • Ehsanul Islam Sadequee and Syed Haris Ahmed, residents of Atlanta, plotted to attack buildings in Washington, DC.[ix]
  • Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, living in Lubbock, Texas was plotting attacks against various targets, some of which were thought to be in Colorado and California.[x]
  • Iyman Faris, living in Columbus, OH, plotted to attack the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC.[xi]
  • Eight residents of North Carolina were arrested after plotting attacks in Virginia.[xii]
  • Naser Abdo, a U.S. military member stationed in Kentucky, plotted to attack the Ft. Hood military base in Texas.[xiii]

Aside from these examples, there have been countless other examples of people who have left the U.S., including from low-profile cities such as Cary, NC[xiv] and Flint, MI [xv], to join terrorist groups overseas.

There is also the example of two New Orleans residents who sold State of Mississippi drivers licenses, birth certificates, and social security cards to members of the Phillipines-based terrorist group, Abu Saayaf.[xvi]

Not only are Islamic-inspired terrorists living all over the U.S. but they are going through the radicalization process right here in our cities and towns. Radical Islamic mosques exist all over the U.S. Using this interactive map once again, you can see that these mosques are in locations we normally wouldn’t think of as being incubators for terrorism — locations such as Springfield (Mo.) and Rome (Ga.).

The Columbus, OH mosque Masjid Omar Ibn El Khattab has contributed to the radicalization of at least four separate terrorists.

Terrorism financing is occurring all over the U.S. as well. Terrorist groups are profiting from a wide variety of street crimes — crimes that local officers investigate -- and then sending that money overseas to radical Islamic terrorist groups.

For a perfect example of this, we can once again look to Al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab has been using profits from Khat (an illegal narcotic common in eastern Africa) sales, to send back to fund jihadists in Somalia.[xvii] So if you are street cop, and you contact someone in possession of khat, there is a very good possibility that there is a lot of intel that you can acquire from that person. If that same person is in possession of a large amount of cash, a real possibility exists for that money to end up back in Somalia.

The San Diego Police Department has figured this out and developed an impressive intelligence collection system to infiltrate Al-Shabaab.

There have also been numerous examples of drug traffickers in Afghanistan that are using hawalas in the U.S. to help move and hide the profits -- profits which are ultimately being used to fund the Taliban.[xviii]

The Focus of Terrorism Training Needs to Change

Since 9/11 there has been constant discussion of the need for local law enforcement officers to be involved in the domestic counterterrorism efforts. A lot of emphasis has been placed on responding to an attack. But not enough emphasis has been placed on recognizing the indicators of terrorism.

Now we need to start equipping officers with the knowledge of how to identify terrorists and conduct investigations. Street cops should begin attempting to answer these types of questions:

Do we know what a hawala is? Do we know what khat is? Do we know where the closest radical mosques are to our jurisdiction? Do we know which U.S cities have large populations of Somali-Americans with known ties to Al-Shabaab? How much do we know about the refugee populations in our jurisdiction? Have we ever taken the time to check someone’s international travel history through the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC)? Do we even have an EPIC account so that we can further investigate such matters?

One thing we have learned is that terrorism and fake identification documents go hand in hand.[xix] Could we identify a fake passport? How often do we fingerprint people who we are suspicious about? Is your agency moving towards using biometrics as a way to verify someone’s identity?  

In 2007, the NYPD released Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat, which is an excellent guide for learning the characteristics of someone going through the radicalization process. Some of the common characteristics include:

  • Males between the ages of 15 - 35
  • Begins growing a beard
  • Recent convert to Islam, which could include a name change
  • Withdrawal from his normal mosque or begins attending a Salafi mosque
  • Travel abroad to attend a training camp in a war-torn nation
  • Chemical odors coming from the house or apartment
  • Trains in firearms, martial arts, and participates in paintball games or other firearm exercises[xx]
  • Rolling up the pants legs[xxi]
  • Adopting customs of the Prophet Muhammad, such as chewing miswak, a stick used for cleaning one‘s teeth.[xxii]

While we will always need to train to respond to an attack, we will be much more effective by conducting proactive investigations — investigations which begin with learning the pre-attack indicators of terrorists.  


[i] Update: Most Terrorist Incidents in the Past Five Years Committed by Foreign-Born Individuals. Janice Kephart. Center for Immigration Studies. April 19, 2013. (Accessed January 30, 2014).

[ii] Connecting the Dots. Janice Kephart. Center for Immigration Studies. December 2011. (Accessed January 31, 2014).

[iii] The states are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Hawaii, Kentucky, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, New Jersey, Nebraska, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Washington DC, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Sources include: the IPT Map, American Jihadist Terrorism: Combating a Complex Threat. Jerome P. Bjelopera. Congressional Research Service., Jan. 23rd, 2013, Appendix A, The untold story of Hasanville's shadowy past: (Part 2). Lee Berthiaume. Ottawa Citizen. May 4, 2002; and my personal knowledge of terrorism investigations.     

[iv] Local man planned suicide attack at Wichita, Kansas, airport, feds say. Elliot McLaughlin. December 13, 2013. (Accessed January 31, 2014).

[v] Al Shabaab’s American Recruits. ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE. October, 2013. (Accessed February 4, 2014). Two Indicted in Missouri on Charges of Providing Material Support to a Terrorist Organization A Third Defendant is Charged with Structuring Violations. Department of Justice. Press Release. November 3, 2010. (Accessed February 4, 2014)

[vi] American Jihadist Terrorism: Combating a Complex Threat. Jerome P. Bjelopera. Congressional Research Service., Jan. 23rd, 2013.Pg. 95. (Accessed February 2, 2014)

[vii] Ibid, Pg. 112,

[viii] Ibid, Pg. 68.

[ix] Ibid, Pg. 113.

[x] Texas Resident Arrested on Charge of Attempted Use of Weapon of Mass Destruction. Department of Justice Press Release. February 24, 2011. (Accessed February 3, 2014).

[xi] American Jihadist Terrorism: Combating a Complex Threat. Jerome P. Bjelopera. Congressional Research Service., Jan. 23rd, 2013.Pg. 120. (Accessed February 2, 2014)

[xii] Ibid. Pg. 100.

[xiii] Naser Abdo, an AWOL soldier, accused of plotting Fort Hood attack. Peter Finn and Jason Ukman. THE WASHINGTON POST. July 28, 2011. (Accessed February 3, 2014)

[xiv] North Carolina Man Charged with Support to Al-Qaida in Iraq. Abha Shankar. INVESTIGATIVE PROJECT ON TERRORISM BLOG. November 13, 2013. (Accessed February 3, 2014).

[xv] American, European Jihadists in Syria Raise New Domestic Terror Fears. Bill Gertz. WASHINGTON FREE BEACON. August. 20, 2013. (Accessed February 3, 2014).

[xvi] U.S. vs. Ranson & Carpenter. Criminal Complaint. Dunn Lampton, U.S. Attorney. Feb. 18, 2005. (Accessed February 3, 2014).

[xvii] Running a Three-Legged Race: The San Diego Police Department, The Intelligence Community, and Counterterrorism. Andrew G. Mills and Joseph R.Clark. THE HOMELAND SECURITY POLICY INSTITUTE. August 1, 2011. (Accessed February 8, 2014).

[xviii] Treasury adds Afghan heroin trafficker to narcotics kingpin list. Bill Roggio. THE LONG WAR JOURNAL. Feb. 12, 2014. (Accessed Feb. 13, 2014).

[xix] This has been learned from extensive analysis of terrorism investigations. A few examples include:

1. U.S. vs. Ranson & Carpenter. Criminal Complaint. Dunn Lampton, U.S. Attorney. Feb. 18, 2005. (Accessed February 13, 2014).

2. Al Qaeda had an office of passports in the Khandar airport that altered passports, visas, and identification cards. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on the Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. W.W. Norton and Company. July 22, 2004. Pg. 169. (Accessed Nov. 18, 2013)

3. AQ-affiliated groups in Syria are collecting European passports and re-distributing them to similar-looking Jihadists. Return of Jihadists Threatens Europe. THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. Siobhan Gorman, Cassell Bryan-Low, Maria Abi-Habib. Dec. 4, 2013. (Accessed Dec. 7, 2013).

4. And Israeli intelligence recently uncovered a plot by Al Qaeda to attack Israel through the use of foreign fighters who were going to be brought into Israel by using fake Russian passports. Zawahiri's Servant in Gaza Orchestrated Plots for Mega Terror Attacks. Special to IPT News. Yaakov Lappin. January 28, 2014. (Accessed January 30, 2014).

5. A DEA investigation revealed that the Dino Bouterse, counterterrorism commander in Suriname, had plotted with Hezbollah to bring Hezbollah operatives to Suriname. Once in Suriname, these operatives would conduct attacks against U.S. targets, and provide protection for Bouterse. In exchange, Bouterse would supply false passports to the operatives for the purpose of entering the U.S.

6. Enemies at the gate. Richard Greenberg, Adam Ciralsky, Stone Phillips. DATELINE NBC. Dec. 28, 2007. (Accessed Feb. 13, 2014).

[xx] Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. Mitchell Silber and Arvin Bhatt. New York Police Department, Intelligence Division, 2007. Pgs. 23, 31, 43 (Accessed Feb. 13, 2014).

[xxi] Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad (Carlos Bledsoe): A Case Study in Lone Wolf Terrorism. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. JIHADOLOGY.NET. Dec. 23, 2013. (Accessed Feb. 13, 2014).

[xxii] Ibid.

About the author

P1 First Person essays are the place where P1 Members candidly share their own unique view of the world. This is a platform from which our members can share their own personal insights on issues confronting cops today, as well as opinions, observations, and advice on living life behind the thin blue line. Want to share your own perspective with other P1 Members? Send us an e-mail with your story.

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