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Address the vulnerabilities in your backyard: Terrorism preparedness for rural agencies

Terrorists need three things to be able to act: intention, capability and opportunity. And those can all be interrupted by vigilant policing

Swan Falls powerhouse in Idaho

Dams, hydroelectric plants, geothermal and biomass plants, and oil and natural gas pipelines are located by necessity in places urban cops fly over on their way to vacations.

Photo/Kathleen Dias

Rural communities aren’t the first thought when our nation looks back over 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks to evaluate risks for the future. Nevertheless, rural communities and rural law enforcement must be part of any serious analysis.

Consider the scale of potential exposure: vast swaths of our borders are rural areas. Rural places produce most of the food consumed in our nation and supply most of its drinkable water. Sixty-eight percent of the nation’s roads run through rural areas; anything scary transported by road will probably pass through a rural area at some point. (That goes for people, too. Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, but he was arrested and jailed in rural Noble County, where the entire population is fewer than 12,000 residents.) Bridges are both chokepoints and opportunities to cut off urban areas from supplies and transportation.

Chemical stockpiles and missile silos are situated in the country, not in cities. Dams, hydroelectric plants, geothermal and biomass plants, and oil and natural gas pipelines are located by necessity in places urban cops fly over on their way to vacations. Even the smallest hospitals harbor enough hazardous materials to create risk. Government buildings, including remote ones and research facilities in small towns, have been targeted, posing threats to both the public and law enforcement.

Many physical attacks against energy infrastructure in both urban and rural settings have been documented; there is an inherent officer safety risk in these attacks since they tend to be linked to larger anti-establishment or anti-government philosophies. In 2020, an offender who had committed multiple small-scale attacks on wind turbines and tanker trucks escalated to murder when a Nevada highway patrol sergeant stopped to check on him along a remote highway near the Utah border.

Railroads are an attractive target as well. Last year, a BNSF train derailed and its cargo of Bakken crude created an inferno in a tiny Washington town north of Bellingham. Railroad employees believe sabotage caused the wreck, citing the arrest three weeks earlier of two women charged with terrorism after allegedly placing “shunts” on nearby tracks. The FBI has investigated dozens of similar sabotage incidents in Washington alone. A writer on an anarchist website claimed credit for some, linking them to protests of an oil pipeline.

Community policing is counterterrorism

To gain a better understanding of this topic, I reached out to Ken Pennington, a counterterrorism expert who honed his craft over 30 years serving with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Besides the training and consulting Pennington does all around the world, much of his experience during Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” involved country people and rural places.

Among the things he learned during his career is that community policing is counterterrorism – and community policing, of course, is one of the things that come naturally in rural policing. It’s communicating. It’s knowing your locals; it’s spending time with your neighbors and supporting their businesses. Officers who learn their beats thoroughly will recognize, as Pennington describes it, “the absence of the normal, the presence of the abnormal.”

Trust is imperative; integrity is everything. Pennington explained that Irish policing is grounded in the Peelian Principles, and he quoted from #7: that the police are the community, and the community are the police. Cops just happen to be the ones paid to devote full-time attention to the matter. Further, he said, “People will differentiate between ‘police’ and ‘our police’.”

Be “our police,” and people will talk with you when you need them to. The information may save lives.

I asked Pennington for input beyond identifying critical infrastructure and potential targets. He responded by saying, “Large, rural areas? Where there’s nothing happening? That’s where they (terrorists) are training.” And in recent history in the US that has proven true, in Oregon, New Mexico, Georgia and California to name just a few places. Then he followed up by stating that terrorist organizations also use “quiet places” to gather funds, and that “after 9/11, no (terrorist) aircraft will use an urban field again.” Unusual activity on both fronts should be noted and investigated. Pennington also mentioned that cold, rural places, like the northern Plains and Intermountain West, may be attractive for activity requiring large servers necessary for moving funds and money laundering. As he put it, “Terrorists can do things in rural areas they can’t in more populated places.”

How to prepare and train

Then I asked the obvious: what now? What can rural departments do to prepare and train? Pennington, of course, had answers, beginning with things that need to be done far in advance of adverse events.

First things first, he advised, saying, “You need to know the people you need to know before you need to know them. Once you need them, it’s too late.” Connections and trust take time to develop. Consistency and communications take work and can’t be improvised once events are in motion. When it happens, you will need to know not just who people are, but what resources are available: Do you know right now how to get help from nearby agencies? How about the next state over? The National Guard? If the answer is ‘no’, start fixing that.

Terrorists need three things to be able to act: intention, capability and opportunity. “All can be disrupted,” Pennington said. Understanding that and understanding what you’re looking at ahead of time, are key.

Pennington trains agencies to actively solicit outside input. He calls it “two spare chairs” in the planning, one for someone “on the ground” and one for someone from a discipline outside law enforcement. When your department trains for critical incidents, that line-officer perspective and outsider perspective are invaluable for preventing administrative tunnel vision. He suggests inviting someone from a different state agency, or even a specialty like human resources, because their job isn’t to be experts, it’s to ask questions: “Why are you doing this? Why aren’t you doing that?” “Outsiders” and ground-level officers may well see holes in planning that people close to the plan overlook.

Once adverse events are in motion, Pennington advised, “Always ask ‘where’s the other one?’ Assume ‘plus one’ – bombs, bad guys, whatever.” The first incident may be a diversion or intended to draw in first responders for a secondary attack. The first visible bad guy may have a co-conspirator backing him up.

“Understand that in a rural area, it’s you,” Pennington continued. “Don’t wait for the professionals. That’s you. The first consideration is always ‘how do I stop this getting worse?’ Then, who else needs to know? And, who else might need to know?”

Three steps to addressing vulnerabilities

With this information in mind, what must rural agencies and rural officers do to address vulnerabilities and deficits in preparedness? Here are three important steps:

1. Overcome normalcy bias (this has never happened here, therefore it will not happen here) by working to raise awareness of potential threats and recognition of current weaknesses. Resistance linked to complacency and cost may be tempered by connecting concepts of responsibility and liability to preparedness. After all, in the case of a failure to respond well to a critical incident, lives are on the line, but also reputations and commercial viability. Pennington described terrorism as a low-probability, high-impact occurrence. “Push back,” he said. “Make people understand that all threats are not the same. We have responsibilities. I don’t want to be responsible for explaining someone died because of money.”

2. Devote time and attention to cultivating relationships, in the community and outward as well. Specific concerns must be addressed to coordinate among agencies and departments. Undeveloped lines of communication and cooperation between state, local and tribal agencies may have been simple oversights, but once leadership is aware of the faults, they must take steps to remediate them. Patrol officers and investigators don’t have to wait for leadership to open formal lines of communication. Get out and talk to people- teachers, coaches, business owners, kids in the park, the transient on the corner, patrol and detention officers from neighboring departments, the game warden and the park ranger. Remember Pennington’s adage “Know the people you need to know before you need to know them.” Just in time is too late.

3. Train. There is no replacement for it. Train to recognize a terrorism event when it’s happening, and to recognize the significance of the abnormal. Train on what to do in case of the unthinkable. Pennington emphasized that many skills – firearms proficiency, emergency driving, tactical medicine – are perishable and must be constantly reinforced. Training requires repetition and physical presence and cannot be accomplished by distance learning. Instruction can, but instruction is not training. Pennington said, “People don’t follow instructions. You have to train it in.” He used the example of famous photos of United Flight 1549, the “Miracle on the Hudson": all those passengers on the wings of that plane without their life jackets had, literally minutes before, sat through instruction on what to do in the event of a water landing. But they hadn’t trained for it, and it showed.

There is no-cost and low-cost training available for small and rural law enforcement agencies. One source is a set of DHS-sponsored counterterrorism courses at New Mexico Tech, and another is a grant-funded series of terrorism prevention and response courses called State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training. Hopefully, future programs will also help officers access these trainings by helping their agencies manage costs involved with travel, accommodations and backfilling positions during training. Some of the courses are available on-site, provided departments can provide a venue. This is another situation where collaborating and cooperating with neighboring law enforcement agencies will help.

In the aftermath of the most serious attack on our soil by foreign actors since Pearl Harbor, federal studies assessed the risks and roles of rural hospitals and first responders in the event of attacks from abroad and from within. While those researchers found a lot of deficits, there are more resources available now to try to mitigate them. The bigger current problem is that too few rural agencies make use of them. Rural first responders must train to look beyond the overwhelming coverage of large-scale urban attacks and see clearly what vulnerabilities exist in their own backyards.

Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.