10 years after 9/11: Patrol's counterterrorism capabilities

As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, law enforcement’s primary defensive tool to combat terrorism remains in patrol and traditional policing methods

Since the tragedy of 9/11, many police agencies — especially in large urban areas — have developed dynamic counterterrorism capabilities. At least conceptually, these capabilities soon expanded into a broader framework of law enforcement’s response to a variety of “man-made disasters” — despite that term’s awkward use. However, law enforcement’s primary defensive tool to combat terrorism remains in patrol and in other more traditional policing methods.

Federal dollars accompanied and promoted these changes. Larger agencies honed their capabilities and smaller agencies developed, among other things, their own enhanced “counterterrorism” tactical teams.

Agencies often showcase these skills in well-planned and often-scripted exercises with other community first responders. These help assess organizational and communication interoperability and remain a high profile way for agencies to build organizational and community confidence.

To evaluate interoperability, these exercises often rely on scenarios that generate mass casualties (worse case) and not on the more likely case in which a patrol officer contacts an individual involved in terrorist activities. In small communities this is especially true where preparation is tethered to low threat perception. The reality of an individual officer’s meaningful effectiveness in combating terrorism, however, may be more mundane.

Here are a few examples:

• In October 1987, Richford, Vermont Police Chief Richard Jewett identified and help arrest members of a then unknown Lebanese terrorist group.

• In April 1988, New Jersey Trooper Robert Cieplensky discovered 3 live bombs in a car driven by Yu Kikumura, a member of the Japanese Red Army. Kikumura was likely en-route to a New York recruiting station where he planned on detonating the bombs.

• In April 1995, Oklahoma Trooper Charles J. Hanger arrested Timothy McVeigh. Several days later McVeigh was identified as the suspect in the Murrah Federal Building bombing.

• In early 1995, Detective Sergeant Robert Fromme spotted several “Middle Eastern individuals” carrying a large amount of cash in plastic bags. His investigation exposed a smuggling ring that used the profits to finance a Charlotte, North Carolina Hezbollah terrorist cell.

• In September 2001, Deputy Mark Mercer of Skamania, Washington contacted a group of men firing guns at a local gravel pit. His report came to the attention of the FBI, who in turn determined that they were members of a group that had tried to enter and fight in Afghanistan.

• Local or state police had contact with several of the 9/11 hijackers. These included Mohamed Atta, who local police reportedly contacted in both Georgia and Florida. Nawaf al Hazmi reportedly had contact with police in Oklahoma, Virginia, and New Jersey. A Maryland Trooper had stopped Ziad Jarrah for speeding.

• In May 2003, Officer Jeffrey Postell of the Murphy, North Carolina Police Department found and arrested Eric Rudolph, the “Olympic Park Bomber,” who was digging through a grocery store dumpster.

• In March 2007, Deputies in Goose Creek, South Carolina stopped a speeding vehicle and, during a consent search, found what they believed to have been bomb material. The two occupants were students at the University of Southern Florida, former academic home of convicted terrorist Sami Al-Arian and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah. Though the case resulted in a confusing investigation that involved federal authorities, one of the occupants, Ahmed Mohamad , eventually pled guilty to providing material support to terrorists.

• In March 2009, Fort Hood Police Officers Mark Todd and Kimberly Munley shot Nidal Hasan and stopped the killing

• In June 2009, an off-duty Washington, DC police officer shot and killed James W. von Brunn, a likely white supremacist, who had just murdered Holocaust Museum security guard Stephen T. Johns.

• In May 2010, NYPD Patrol Officer Wayne Rhatigan was first on the scene after Faisal Shahzad’s attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square.

These few examples do not capture the number of law enforcement contacts with what have popularly become known as “Lone Wolf” terrorists, such as Jerry and Joseph Kane. They murdered West Memphis, Arkansas officers Brandon Paudern and Bill Evans during a traffic stop. Police were forced to kill the Kanes in a Wal-Mart parking lot during a subsequent gun battle.

“Lone Wolf” terrorists act independently of known groups, making them difficult to track and their reaction to police contacts impossible to gauge.

To prepare patrol officers for a possible contact with terrorists of all types, departments need to consider multi-functional training that has both traditional law enforcement and counterterrorism applications.

• The majority will never perform true counterterrorism operations as police officers. Counterterrorism consists of offensive measures designed to respond to terrorism. More precisely, law enforcement performs “anti-terrorism” missions meant to be defensive but include limited response and containment.

• Drug interdiction training offers universal observation and safety skills that easily cross over from counter-drug to counterterrorism enforcement.

• Officers must approach each contact with the expectation that the encounter could rapidly turn deadly, and plan accordingly.

• Reporting and evidence collection skills, which also have multi-functional applications, are areas where departments can assist counterterrorism investigations. Though local police may initially believe they are making a routine report or processing a traditional crime scene, the circumstances may have implications far beyond the locality in which the incident occurred.

Police officers and deputies rightly understand they are the first line of defense against terrorist attacks. But this belief should not be grounded in tactical team membership or participation in a mass casualty drill. Instead, solid police work and persistence are the hallmarks of good policing as well as counterterrorism.

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