10 years after 9/11: American cops vigilant after death of bin Laden

In the aftermath of our special operations success in Abbottabad, Pakistan, law enforcement in the U.S. must remain vigilant for many years to come — one important battle has been won, but the war is far from over

Editor’s Note: We want to say a special word of thanks and praise to the members of the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six — widely considered to be the most elite among the elite troops of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command — who successfully assaulted Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan yesterday. Retired General Barry McCaffrey calls JSOC operators the “most dangerous people on the face of the earth.” We at PoliceOne call them heroes.

In a memo to staff throughout his agency, CIA director Leon Panetta today cautioned that “terrorists almost certainly will attempt to avenge” the killing of Osama bin Laden during a Special Operations raid yesterday in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Panetta said, in part, while Bin Laden is dead, “al Qaida is not.” The mere fact that the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was “buried at sea” may be cause enough for Lone Wolf and/or Sleeper Cell attacks to be launched against American cities and towns (some Islamic scholars interpreted the sea burial as a “humiliating disregard for the standard Muslim practice of placing the body in a grave with the head pointed toward the holy city of Mecca”).

Following the news that United States forces killed bin Laden, there was utter jubilation in the streets of Washington D.C., New York City, and myriad other cities and towns last night. At the same time, there was also a sense of renewed vigilance among law enforcers to respond to an active shooter (Mumbai-style) attack here in the United States.

We all know that when that sort of an attack happens, the callers on the phone to 911 call takers will not be saying “There’s a terrorist attack here!” They’ll be saying, “There are gunmen here shooting people!” They wont’ be saying, “Terrorists have planted bombs here!” There will simply be an explosion — or worse, a series of explosions — and the subsequent “Y’all come and come right now” type of police, fire, and EMS response.

The mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks has been killed, his body reportedly 'buried at sea.'
The mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks has been killed, his body reportedly 'buried at sea.' (AP Photo)

No Change in National Threat Level
In the wake bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Special Forces Operators — the Navy’s legendary SEAL Team Six killed bin Laden with a bullet just above his left eye, blowing off part his skull, according to Associated Press and other reports — the U.S. State Department issued a new Worldwide Travel Alert indicating “enhanced potential for anti-American violence.” Meanwhile here at home, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano indicated today that there are no plans to raise the terror alert level in the U.S. That hasn’t stopped police agencies across the country to institute significant increases in security and vigilance. The Associated Press reported this morning that:

New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly ordered cops on the midnight tour in the subway system to be held over into the morning rush-hour
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey added more police at the facilities it patrols “out of an abundance of caution”
Senate Sgt. At Arms Terrance Gainer said Congress' police force is on the lookout for any threat on the Capitol as lawmakers return from a two-week recess
Police in Philadelphia were on heightened alert, checking on mosques and synagogues and stepping up patrols at transportation hubs and historic places
Police in Los Angeles have ratcheted up their intelligence monitoring

Similar moves have been made by major metropolitan police departments as well as many small- and mid-sized agencies across the country. But with that uptick in vigilance and resolve today, we must also commit to increasing our preparedness training well into the future. Terrorist networks like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and al Shabaab do not map their tactical operations to a calendar year — they think and plan in terms of decades and in centuries.

Redoubling Our Resolve
Police1 Columnist Dick Fairburn told me this morning, “Radical ‘true believers’ tend to react badly to the loss of their leaders or other significant setbacks to their cause, as evidenced by Timothy McVeigh’s attack in Oklahoma City on the anniversary of the Waco/Branch Davidian debacle. Al Qaeda undoubtedly has multiple attacks against US interests in the planning stage at any given moment. We know several such attacks have been thwarted since 9/11, though the details remain classified. We also know that for every large, organized plot we uncover many more ‘lone wolf’ sympathizers with the cause may launch their own independent attacks. It may come by way of an improvised explosive device or a small arms attack like the one at Fort Hood, but our patrol officers will be on the front line of the immediate response. By all means, run to the sound of the guns when lives are at risk, but form yourselves into effective, cohesive teams as soon as possible. They expect you to arrive one at a time, so surprise them!”

Could a Mumbai-style or Beslan-style attack happen in Seattle or San Diego, Miami or Manhattan? You bet. Are American law enforcers preparing for the coming storm? Absolutely. As was correctly stated by Police1 Columnist Glenn French of the Sterling Heights (Mich.) Police Department, preparing for combat with one or more Jihadist extremists expecting to die while carrying out his/their attacks is one of the biggest problems facing law enforcement. As recently as three weeks ago, I wrote in this space about the need for American law enforcers to prepare for a Mumbai- or Beslan-style attack here on United States soil, and the steps being taken to address this need. 

During an afternoon session at ILEETA 2011 last month, Chief Jeff Chudwin of the Olympia Fields (Ill.) Police Department discussed patrol-level response to Mumbai, Beslan, and other types of terror attacks when — not if! — they occur here in the United States. Chudwin, who also serves as the President of Illinois Tactical Officers’ Association, said “Above all,” Chudwin said, “this will be a fight of the patrol officer in the first minutes of the attack. This type of matter is going to be settled in the first 20 minutes and it’s going to be affected by patrol. The event may still be ongoing, but by responding well and quickly, the severity of the attack can be seriously mitigated.”
Chudwin offered four essential thoughts to remember about the coming storm:

There is likely to be no specific warning in advance
Failure to immediately and effectively fight will result in slaughter of innocents
Lack of preparation and training ensures failure
Lack of command and leadership inspires failure

Police1 Contributor Kyle Lamb — who is no stranger to the fight against radical terrorists — told me today, “During these troubled times we should continue to train for the 1%ers that are out there. We will be attacked, but we don’t get to pick the time and the place. We must quickly get inside the terrorists decision making cycle when they initiate their attack or we will lose. Training for the average suspect or 99%er will not cut it — we must train for the absolute worst case scenario and beyond. Your prior successes do not dictate success when the threat is elevated or you now encounter a coordinated attack. Leaders and administrators should have the foresight to look at the events that have unfolded in our country since 9/11 and push their Officers to be trained, equipped, and motivated to face these severe attacks.”

Increasing Our Understanding
In an outstanding piece of analysis, STRATFOR said that its analysts had “long considered the possibility that bin Laden was already dead, and in terms of his impact on terrorist operations, he effectively was. That does not mean, however, that he was not an important ideological leader or that he was not someone the United States sought to capture or kill for his role in carrying out the most devastating terrorist attack in U.S. history.”

STRATFOR said also that while the confirmation of bin Laden’s death is an emotional victory for the United States, it is “irrelevant for al Qaeda and the wider jihadist movement from an operational perspective.”

Police1 Columnist Lance Eldridge echoed that sentiment when he told me today, “Though symbolic, the death of Osama bin Laden should have little or no influence over our domestic, law enforcement response to terrorism. Since September 11th, OBL has been more of an inspiration than an effective organizational leader. Despite the President’s well-meaning words, the world is not safer as a result of his death. Al Qaeda has never been a monolithic organization and threats still exist from emergent, like-minded terrorists working with or inspired by such groups as “al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula” or the Muslim Brotherhood. Radical clerics, such as Anwar al Awlaki and Abdullah el-Faisal will likely increase their passive yet effective internet-based recruitment efforts of what has become popularly known as ‘Lone Wolf’ terrorists. For many, OBL will become an important martyr in their fight against the West.”

“Justice delayed is just as sweet,” Police1 Columnist Dan Marcou told me this morning. “In moving forward I would like to remind everyone still working the beat of the words spoken by President George Bush as he held up the badge of fallen New York Port Authority Officer George Howard. George died in the towers on September 11th and his badge was given to the President by George's mother. The President held it up and said, ‘This is my reminder of lives that ended and a task that does not end.’ The task continues. We must temper our joy with vigilance.”

Among the hundreds who gathered outside the White House in the wee hours of Monday morning to mark the death of Osama bin Laden was Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Levin issued a statement today that said, in part, “This is a great victory in the fight against terrorism. But it is not the final victory.”

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) followed that theme when he told NBC’s “Today” show this morning that the al Qaida terrorist organization could “try to avenge this death” and said “we’ll have to be on full alert.”

In his memo to CIA employees, Panetta called bin Laden “the most infamous terrorist of our time” and said that “we have struck a heavy blow against the enemy.” Both of those are true statements, no doubt about it. But equally true is the fact that while one important battle has been won, the war is far from over.

Mission-Critical Conclusions
With the new system put in place last month, the Department of Homeland Security will issue elevated terror alerts only when the government has specific or credible intelligence it can share with the American public. It falls, then, to law enforcement agencies across the country to individually prepare — to constantly conduct active-shooter drills (which are, in effect, counterterrorism exercises).

For example, back in late December, the NYPD conducted a counterterrorism exercise simulating an attack on the city that deliberately mirrored the 2008 massacre in Mumbai in which fewer than a dozen gunmen attacked various locations, including two luxury hotels, a hospital, and a railway station, killing more than 170 and wounding more than 300.

We’ve have had plenty of prior warnings about the near certainty that a Mumbai-style or Beslan-style attack will happen in this country. Following the Mumbai attack, FBI Director Muller said that the terrorist attacks “reminds us that terrorists with large agendas and little money can use rudimentary weapons to maximize their impact” and that “the simplest of weapons can be deadly when combined with capability and intent.”

The fact is, we won’t know for certain that a terrorist attack is underway until well into the event. Recall that even on 9/11, before the second airplane hit the World Trade Center, the incident looked to many people — some first responders included — like a tragic accident.

Is your department ready for a team of rampaging Jihadis? Are you ready for that multi-target, active-shooter call? Are you ready for that suspicious package call? Are you ready to come to the aid of your neighboring agency when they have that “Y’all come and come right now” type of situation?

STRATFOR, PlanetData, The LongWar Journal, and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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