10 years after 9/11: Police counterterrorism, then and now

Terrorists will continue to refine their tactics and improve their operational capabilities, so we’re not going to have much of that 'luck' left to rely upon

Three nights ago, I attended a panel discussion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The program featured former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, and former United States Attorney General Michael Mukasey. The dais was moderated by nationally-syndicated radio talk show host Michael Medved. The most intriguing inquiry of the night — and it was a night of incredibly intriguing inquiries indeed — was whether or not these men were surprised that America has not been struck by terrorists in a major way since 9/11.

“I could not have hoped or prayed that we might have lasted a decade without a major successful attack in America,” Rumsfeld declared. “What the terrorist has as an enormous advantage is that he can attack anytime, anywhere, at any time of day. It’s physically impossible to defend everywhere at every moment of every day.”

At some point down the line, I may write in much greater detail about that remarkable conversation — admittedly, my notes are chicken scratch, so perhaps that event was just for me — but I recount that particular query now by way of introduction to the conversation I had on Friday afternoon with retired FBI agent Wesley Wong. On that fateful day in September 2001, Wes Wong — a long-time agent in the New York Office — was an Assistant Special Agent in Charge. I asked him straight away: “Are you at all surprised that we — with the exception of Fort Hood and a handful of tragic but relatively-minor assaults — haven’t had a significant successful radical Islamist attack on American soil in the ten years since 9/11?”

FBI ASAC Wesly Wong (right) and a group of FDNY firefighters were found the very first listed victim of 9/11 — Father Mychal Judge, the beloved Chaplain of the FDNY.
FBI ASAC Wesly Wong (right) and a group of FDNY firefighters were found the very first listed victim of 9/11 — Father Mychal Judge, the beloved Chaplain of the FDNY.

Two Ingredients for Success
“Absolutely, I am surprised that we haven’t been attacked,” Wong told me. “I think if you talked to any FBI agents back on Wednesday, September 12th, 2001, they would all say the same thing that I’m about to tell you. We — in New York especially — felt that 9/11 was just the start of a rolling series of attacks, so in our minds there were going to be more attacks. We just weren’t sure if it was going to be in New York, or would they hit the Sears Tower in Chicago, or the Space Needle in Seattle, or someplace here in New York again. But we definitely felt that this was not a one-shot deal — that this was the start of a series of attacks.”

As I have previously written, I believe that our counterterrorism success here in the United States is based upon two basic ingredients — well, three if you count the incredibly important work being done overseas by our uniformed armed forces, our intelligence officers, and our special ops warriors like the Navy SEALs, the Greenie Beanies, and others. But here in the United States, those two ingredients are:

1.) Law enforcement’s outstanding infiltration, investigation, interdiction, and prevention of terrorists’ plots — from the infiltration into the Newburg Four in New York to the investigation and interdiction of the Pioneer Square plot in Oregon.
2.) The terrorists’ uncanny ability to simply fail in their efforts, building bombs that don’t go ‘bang’ and ‘outing’ themselves on Internet message boards — from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari.

Terrorists will continue to refine their tactics and improve their operational capabilities, so pretty soon we’re not going to have much of that second ingredient left to rely upon. It’s a good thing, then, that we have an abundant — and steadily growing — supply of that first vital ingredient.

Mindset, Mechanisms, and Mission
It’s my belief that many people are alive today that otherwise would have been killed in a terrorist attack because law enforcement — the FBI in particular, but myriad local agencies as well — has become very good at inserting itself into and disrupting developing plots. These counterterrorism capabilities have been honed finely in the last ten years, and I think that just about everyone in law enforcement would concede that prior to 9/11, we simply did not have the mechanisms in place — much less the mindset — to stop terrorism.

The mindset changed the instant those planes hit those buildings and that field in Pennsylvania. We all knew we were at war.

The mechanisms have been buttressed during the past decade. I’m thinking specifically of the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), and the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), the largest and most comprehensive watch list of known or suspected terrorists in the world — but there are other policies and procedures in place today that have proved invaluable tools in American counterterrorism.

Importantly, says Wong, prior to 9/11 we also didn’t have the mission we have today.

“Shortly after 9/11, the FBI, the CIA, and a bunch of other agencies really took a beating by Congress and the press. ‘Why didn’t the FBI know about Osama bin Laden?’ Well, we knew about him. We had put bin Laden on the top ten most wanted list in the 90s and we had gone to Congress in the 90s and said that bin Laden was going to be the number threat to America. Congress’ response at the time was, ‘What could he do to us?’”

After 9/11, Congress said the culture of the FBI had to change. But it wasn’t the culture of the FBI that needed to change, it was the mission.

“In the 70s the mission was to break organized crime. Everybody said, ‘You’re never going to penetrate the Mafia — they’re too closed-knit. But we got Joe Pistone. At one time in the 80s we had all five heads of the Mafia families in New York in jail. We had gone from ‘you guys will never break the mob’ to the point where we’d decimated them. Our thought after 9/11 was, ‘Just tell us what the mission is. If it’s to infiltrate these groups or to stop further terrorist attacks, we’ll do it.’ But prior to 9/11, that was not our primary mission.”

One Small Step for Cops
The first Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) was established in New York City in 1980, and according to Wong, the NYPD, the PAPD, and the FBI all worked well together from the beginning. “From day one, we had an excellent working relationship even before the World Trade Center bombing in 1993,” Wong said. “There were turf wars, sure, and other difficulies, but those were overcome.”

Establish one person in your agency — well as a person who used to fly a little bit and who still to this day always desires operational redundancy, two people — as liaison to the JTTF in your area. Given the budget constraints every agency in America is dealing with, this is not likely to be a full-time job for most departments. But having a person in place who has a regular dialog with the JTTF can have a number of positive effects:

The FBI will know who to call when they get a credible piece of ‘intel’ on terrorist activities potentially taking place in your jurisdiction and AOR
Every cop in your PD will know to route their observation of suspicious-looking activity through their JTTFl iaison, so it will be seriously investigated
There will be better rapport — less territorialism and infighting — between your PD and ‘the Feds’ in all manner of other investigations and operations!

Not a bad ‘net-net’ for the investment.

Three May Keep a Secret...
The more individuals involved in a plot, the more opportunities law enforcement have to exploit — particularly in the planning stage of an attack. Benjamin Franklin once famously said, “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead,” and in my view, truer words have never been spoken. I’d venture to say that Wes Wong would agree.

“The more people you have, the more communication they’re going to have happening, and that opens up for us some avenues to explore — whether they’re using cell phones or they’re using email,” said Wong. “It’s not only that when you have more people there’s more chance that one of them may speak something to someone that they shouldn’t, but there’s also the possibility that there’ll be some kind of communication that we can pick up on, and hone in on. It’s just like a traditional criminal case. You have one wiretap, and you start listening. All of a sudden, it’s like a spider web, it starts to grow.”

Even as the FBI and local law enforcement uncovers and dismantles widespread terrorist networks and mid-sized local terrorist cells, we must continue to be mindful of the Lone Wolf. As was witnessed this summer in Oslo, an individual with the motivation and mindset to unleash hell on earth can be very successful if not stopped very early in his mission. Had there been even one armed law enforcer on that island, the death toll of young innocent people may have been seriously mitigated. I need only say the name Justin Garner to prove my point on that argument.

Terror is a Tactic, Not a Tribe
Let’s not ignore the simple fact that terrorism is a tactic. I’ve been studying this stuff for more than two decades. My first “desk job” was as a low-level analyst with the U.S. Department of State in the immediate aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait — my focus was terrorist and military activity in the Middle East. In fact, in the commission of that job, oh so many years ago, I occasionally came across a name that years later would be synonymous with terrorism — only back then, his initials were “UBL.”

Nobody on my immediate team of analysts really knew what to make of him back then, but Seal Team Six made him into fish food back in May 2011.

I’ve dedicated a significant portion of my life to educating myself about the changing landscape of terrorism, and I hope you do likewise. So, as I sit in my Times Square hotel room two days before the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, writing this PoliceOne column six floors above a swarm of NYPD squad cars and ESU personnel on the lookout for radical Islamist terrorists who may seek to once again hit us on 9/11, I offer this thought...

The tactic of terror is available to a wide variety of groups — not just Jihadis — and an even greater number of Lone Wolf nutjobs. My good friend and PoliceOne colleague Lance Eldridge has rightly called Anders Behring Breivik “Norway’s version of Timothy McVeigh.” And Lance is absolutely right.

We have myriad radicalized groups — as many if not more organized groups on the militant right as there exist in the Jihadi universe — about whom we must be mindful. Consequently, counterterrorism in American law enforcement must be done from what amounts to being an all-hazards approach. We must remain vigilant against the indicators of terrorist tactics as much as we are against the groups and individuals who would carry out unspeakable acts of violence.

Watch for the Warning Signs
In a sense, it’s an extension of the mantra put forth years ago by my friend and PoliceOne colleague Dave Smith: “Watch the hands!” Having an understanding of who those hands belong to is certainly telling, but it’s the hands that are the immediate danger, not that person’s personal psychological or psychopathic malfunction.

Why they want to hurt you is infinitely less important than how they want to hurt you. The “why” is only really important in the aftermath.

Law enforcers engaged in counterterrorism have to be successful every time, everywhere, every day, while those who would use terrorism to alter our way of live have to be successful just once in a great while to achieve their objective. Remember, three of the 9/11 hijackers — Mohammed Atta, Ziad Jarrah, and Hani Hanjour — were stopped by state or local law enforcement for traffic violations in the days leading up to the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history.

I lay no blame at the feet of those cops who made those stops. However, I lay down at the feet of every law enforcer — and indeed every right-minded citizen — the challenge, the opportunity, the gauntlet, to see every interpersonal encounter as a possible counterterrorism event.

Let’s go get ‘em.

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