The role of police air units in domestic counterterrorism

Airborne patrols can be discreet — working in more of an observation and detection role — or the patrols can be very active and visible in a deterrence role

Today the trial begins for four men accused of plotting to shoot down military aircraft with surface to air missiles at Newburgh, New York’s Stewart Airport (among other terrorist acts). This plot, foiled in 2009, is another warning and reminder to all agencies and personnel that the fight against terror is far from over and threats remain right here in the United States. Airborne law enforcement provides an invaluable tool and resource in this fight.

Three Approaches
Airborne law enforcement strategies should be viewed as part of a larger and more comprehensive counterterrorism strategy. When planning and directing the activities of airborne law enforcement, there are largely three approaches used by commanders.

1.) The directed patrols of airborne law enforcement is more random and general. Based on past history, tourist areas, ports, transportation hubs, critical infrastructure, and historic landmarks would be excellent locations to direct their airborne patrols. Airborne law enforcement crews are allowed to more or less select locations that in the past have been the target of attacks.

The NYPD performs a series of pre-planned visits to various such locations everyday. Using patrol officers and resources from the Emergency Services Unit (SWAT), Harbor and Aviation units, a particular location is “swarmed” with numerous, often heavily armed officers. This capability sends not only a deterrent message to terrorists and reassures the public, it provides a “quick strike” team should a terror attack actually occur.

2.) Patrols should be based on current world events. It is a known fact that terrorists like to wage multiple attacks on multiple locations at the same time. If a rail station in London is attacked, agencies should direct their efforts at these types of facilities within their jurisdictions. If a port in an American city is attacked, ports around the country should be on alert for the possibility of a simultaneous attack being attempted.

3.) Patrols should be directed based on credible intelligence and threats. If the agency has received information that a bridge will be targeted, then patrols directed at these locations could pay dividends.

In 2004, NYPD unknowingly thwarted a plot at the Brooklyn Bridge. Terrorists conducting pre-operation surveillance saw numerous police patrol vehicles — including maritime and aviation assets — patrolling this famous NY landmark. The terrorist tasked with attacking the bridge became discouraged, and in an intercepted email said he was unable to conduct the attack because “the weather was too hot” — a not very covert reference to the law enforcement presence.

Airborne patrols can be discreet — working in more of an observation and detection role — or the patrols can be very active and visible in a deterrence role. Some agencies have even begun to digitally record their flights with the recording being reviewed by analysts looking for anything that might escape the notice of the flight crew. Sometimes, intelligence is classified and does not work its way down to the flight crews, therefore a “second” look of the recording may prove valuable.

The four men involved in the Newburgh plot — James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams (no relation), and Laguerre Payen — not only wanted to bomb two synagogues in the Bronx, they wanted to fire shoulder-launched missiles at U.S. Air Force transport aircraft either arriving to or departing from the Air National Guard base near the Hudson River.

Shoulder-fired missiles, or Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS), are a very big concern for law enforcement. These devices have the potential to down an aircraft with a large loss of human life. Former Secretary of State General Colin Powell called MANPADS one of the biggest threats faced by the United States. Numerous terrorist organizations have these weapons and they have been used successfully in previous attacks primarily against smaller business type jets.

Once again, directed patrols are critical to prevent these attacks. Although it might seem that only airport police jurisdictions bordering airports are responsible to prevent MANPAD attacks, the reality is far greater. A study done by the RAND Corporation showed that the Los Angeles International Airport alone requires a patrol area of over 800 square miles. MANPADS can have an effective range of 15,000 feet and several miles. This makes aircraft departing and approaching from a considerable distance targets as well. For example, approaching and departing airliners in the New York metropolitan area are well within target range over New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut.

All law enforcement personnel should have a familiarity with not only a fully assembled MANPAD unit, but also with their individual components. If one of these components was discovered alone it could certainly have significant implications on a larger investigation. Agencies should plan pre-attack countermeasures in cooperation with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The TSA has already conducted surveys at many airports that could prove helpful when planning a counter-strategy.

Ground officers, airborne units, and marine assets are all patrolling, looking for persons conducting pre-operational surveillance, working for the chance to interrupt an actual attack in progress

The news on MANPADS is not all bad. Although often thought of as simply “fire and forget” missiles, the failed attacks on an Israeli passenger 757 in Mombasa, Kenya shows that some training and experience is required. It is believed the missile failed because the shooters did not properly deploy the weapon. While the airliner was being attacked a simultaneous and effective attack occurred at a hotel in they city itself. The hotel was the destination of Israel citizens that had just arrived on the now departing airliner enroute back to Israel.

The Effectiveness
It might seem that trying to prevent these types of attacks is almost impossible. However, Chiefs should be made aware and realize that these strategies not only have counter-terrorism as their objectives but also criminal activity as well. The local thief, looking around a rail yard for scrap items to steal will also be thwarted by aggressive directed patrol efforts.

Therefore, these strategies should not be sold only as counterterrorism strategies but rather, they should be “crime reduction” strategies of which terrorism is a part.

It’s been said that it is not a question of if, but when, a terrorist attack will again occur in the United States. What the public should know is that America’s law enforcement personnel on all levels are working diligently to identify and apprehend men like the Newburgh four before they can carry out their attacks. The public should know that cops across the country — in the air, on the water, and on the streets — are doing the job of counterterrorism.

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