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14 years after 9/11: Assessing the terrorist threat (and how cops should prepare)

AQAP and ISIS attackers are a clear and present danger to the security of the American people — they’re different, but each is an adversary about which we must be cognizant


Mohammed Emwazi (a.k.a. “Jihadi John”) — a Kuwaiti-British man who has made some heinous home movies — is basically the ISIS poster child.

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In separate, unrelated, and even competing publicity campaigns, the media relations departments of two jihadist militant groups this week issued a series of messages encouraging lone-wolf and small-cell terrorist attacks on Americans and American interests abroad.

The dispatches from al-Qaeda (AQAP) and the Islamic State (ISIS) both appear to be somewhat hastily assembled regurgitations of messages the groups have previously issued — put out in time to get the attention of like-minded radicals before today’s anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Both groups call for the “assassination” of police, military, political, and economic figures — such as former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and wealthy entrepreneurs like Bill Gates. Nothing in the terrorists’ communiques about the targets is new, but looking deeper into the recent chatter reveals some interesting information about the differences law enforcement might look for when encountering adversaries from both sides.

Different Groups, Different Tactics, Different Threats
Beyond the obvious — that radical Islamist terrorists still want to bring death, destruction (and ultimately, Sharia law) to America — one of the most important conclusions we can make today is that there are fundamental differences between al Qaeda core and the Islamic State.

While their shared hatred of Americans represent a somewhat similar problem, the differences in philosophies, strategies — and to some degree, tactics — have important meaning for the cops out on the streets of the United States.

First, let’s briefly explore the rivalry. Earlier this week, Ayman al-Zawahiri — the current leader of al-Qaeda — unleashed a barrage of disparaging remarks about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State in an audio message.

The next day, al-Hayat Media Center — the Islamic State’s media arm — responded with the release of the 11th edition of the English-language Dabiq magazine. The ‘Foreword’ section of publication “contained a scathing assault on the Taliban and al Qaeda, calling the cover-up of Mullah Omar’s death an unprecedented hoax,” according to a report from the intelligence firm STRATFOR.

The animus between the two groups is well-documented, but beyond the clannish rivalry, the tactics and the targets of the two groups differ. For those of you patrolling the streets of this great country, those differences are enormously important. Why? Because the ISIS adversary you may one day meet on “Main Street, USA” might be much different from the “homegrown violent extremist” inspired by al-Qaeda. Let’s explore.

AQAP, HVEs and the ISIS “Veteran Fighter” vs. American Law Enforcement
The Islamic State’s stated strategic aim is to lure Muslims to leave their homes in the United States and Europe, and fight in the sandbox (primarily Syria) in order to prepare for bringing the fight back to their homelands. Mohammed Emwazi (a.k.a. “Jihadi John”) — a Kuwaiti-British man who has made some heinous home movies — is basically the ISIS poster child for foreign fighters.

For ISIS, getting one of those characters back into the country of origin (ours or another) is becoming more difficult because our intelligence community is increasingly wiser about the “who, what, where, why, and when” of their sojourns abroad. But ISIS knows that while we’re presently winning this phase of battle, one day we will “lose” — they are determined to re-introduce one of their trainees into a Western country, and our borders are simply too porous to prevent it.

The first truly hardened jihadist to leak back into their country of origin will undoubtedly do some horrible damage before you as a police officer even get the call from dispatch.

What you do after the radio call will be supremely important for what happens the next time.

Your response in that moment as a patrol officer, shift lieutenant, on-duty captain or chief of police will be bigger than you can really imagine today.

Simply said, that will be your 9/11. Think about it now, before it happens.

Conversely, al Qaeda — and in particular, AQAP’s Inspire Magazine — is all about radicalizing jihadists who live in Western countries and who have no desire or ability to go overseas. They have the aspiration to wreak havoc, but they’re woefully lacking in the tradecraft to fulfil their dreams of virgins in the afterlife. Simply stated, they’re usually simpletons with weapons.

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (the Boston Marathon bombing brothers) and Nidal Malik Hasan (the Fort Hood attacker) are the poster children for this model. They inflicted horrible damage, but they were, by all reasonable accounts, amateur fighters. None of the three (that we can presently prove) had combat experience.

Dangerous? Of course they were! Hasan killed 13 people and injured more than 30 others and the Tsarnaev brothers killed three and injured roughly 264 others. But was any one of the three assailants (a psychologist and two wannnabe jihadis) a truly battle-hardened terrorist? The answer is no.

If you’ve been on the job more than a couple of years, you’ve encountered someone at a traffic stop who was harder, more capable, and more motivated than all three of those guys combined.

Others who have used Inspire Magazine to become radicalized and self-taught in rudimentary tradecraft include Jose Pimentel (who failed in his attempted bombing in New York City) and Abdel Daoud (who failed in his attempted bombing in Chicago). Will one day a homegrown violent extremist (HVE) influenced by Inspire carry out a spectacular attack? Perhaps, but thus far, those have been the work of men who trained in the sandbox.

American Cops: The Front Line Defense
Make no mistake: AQAP and ISIS attackers are a clear and present danger to the security of the American people — they’re different, but each is an adversary about which we must be cognizant. You as a police officer may — today, or one day in the future — be the person to have to deal with the issue.

Ask Sergeants Kimberly Munley and Mark Todd, who ended Hasan’s attack on Fort Hood. Ask the still unnamed cop from the Garland (Texas) Police Department about his experience stopping the assault on the “Draw Mohamed” contest in May.

Probably the most significant takeaway from these incidents is the fact that you — the American police officer — remain on the front line of counterterrorism in this country. Take this occasion to review the pre-attack indicators almost all terrorists (and active shooters) exhibit. They are:

1. Financing Activities
2. Surveillance
3. Active Elicitation
4. Probing Security
5. Acquiring Supplies
6. Suspicious Persons
7. Conducting Dry Runs
8. Deploying Assets

What’s Next? Looking Ahead to 9/11/XXXX
On September 10th, 2001, hundreds of people packed their bags for a flight they’d take the next day not knowing they’d never unpack those bags. Thousands of people kissed a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife, a partner goodnight, not knowing that’d be the last time they’d ever see their beloved. More than three million Americans went to sleep not knowing that their world would completely change before breakfast.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring? But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Those in law enforcement need to forever remember these five things:

1. Train hard in all of your skills — you will never be told in advance that “today is game day”
2. Study your adversary — know the enemy better than they know you, or know themselves
3. When you leave for your tour, tell your family you love them completely and unconditionally
4. Respect everyone you meet, but have a plan to quickly kill them if that’s what’s required
5. Know that when the day comes, you are a warrior and a guardian — you’re an American cop

Each year, 9/11 is, by all accounts, a terrible day. For anyone who was not alive on December 7, 1941 — or perhaps November 22, 1963 — it is the worst day in our collective memory. As Americans on this day, we come together, we reflect and we mourn. But we must also continue to learn.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.