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How local and state cops fit into counterterrorism

We must conduct proactive investigations — beginning with learning the pre-attack indicators of terrorists


A firefighters enters Pennsylvania Station during an emergency preparedness drill conducted by the NYC Office of Emergency Management (OEM), Sunday, Aug. 26, 2007, in New York. The multi-agency drill tested the effectiveness of emergency operations plans when responding to a terrorist incident within a train station.

AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano

This article was updated on January 29, 2017.

By Matt Ernst, Police1 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. 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. 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. 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 arrest of Terry Loewen, who plotted to bomb the airport in Wichita, Kan. is a perfect example of this. 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, Virginia, Chicago, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, and Wyoming.

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.

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, Florida, area developed a plot in which one of their targets was the Willis Tower in Chicago.
  • Rezwan Ferdaus, from Ashland, Massachusetts, planned to attack the Pentagon in Washington D.C.
  • Ehsanul Islam Sadequee and Syed Haris Ahmed, residents of Atlanta, plotted to attack buildings in Washington, DC.
  • 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.
  • Iyman Faris, living in Columbus, Ohio, plotted to attack the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC.
  • Eight residents of North Carolina were arrested after plotting attacks in Virginia.
  • Naser Abdo, a U.S. military member stationed in Kentucky, plotted to attack the Ft. Hood military base in Texas.

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, and Flint, Michigan, 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.

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, Ohio, 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. 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.

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. 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
  • Rolling up the pants legs
  • Adopting customs of the Prophet Muhammad, such as chewing miswak, a stick used for cleaning one‘s teeth.

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.

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