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What the post-9/11 evolution of Islamic terror means for police

If we don’t keep pace with the current threat, we’ll be no better off than we were on September 10, 2001


A man pays his respects at the Wall of Names at the United Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 10, 2017.

AP Photo/Fred Vuich

It was 16 years ago today that Islamic terrorists commandeered four commercial aircraft and used them as weapons in the most deadly terror attack on U. S. soil. A battered and shocked America soon dusted itself off and struck back against the enemy’s strongholds in Afghanistan in the opening blows of a campaign against Islamic terrorism that remains unfinished.

America has changed significantly in the intervening years. Our enemies have changed as well, and the threat of Islamic terrorism has evolved in ways that Americans couldn’t have comprehended as they stood in the rubble of the World Trade Center or Pentagon, or in the charred soil of a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, 16 years ago.

In order to fulfill our public safety mission, the law enforcement community must understand the changes in the Islamic terror threat so that we’re prepared to defend against it. If we don’t keep pace with the current threat, we’ll be no better off than we were on September 10, 2001, the day before the “unthinkable” happened.


Some of the notable changes in the Islamic terror threat since 9/11 include:

1. Decentralized control

In the 9/11 era, terrorists established small cells that operated with a lot of autonomy but still interfaced with the organization and its leaders to coordinate critical items like funding, logistics and date/time of mission execution. Since these communication links allowed us to locate and terminate many key figures, the organizations have taken steps to further decentralize control.

Nowadays terrorists may run through the planning and execution cycle without interacting with a handler or the organization’s leadership. Terror leaders may simply identify a target (or even a broad goal) in a secure announcement, and expect that dedicated followers will organize and execute their own fully independent efforts to comply with the direction. This makes it increasingly difficult for law enforcement and intelligence services to identify and locate potential terrorists before they attack.

2. Recruiting sources

In the 9/11 era, terrorists were largely sourced from foreign locations and trained overseas before they were sent to the target country to conduct operations.

Since then, Islamic terror organizations have emphasized the radicalization and recruiting of “homegrown” terrorists most often through social media. This provides cost and logistical advantages, and also makes it more difficult to identify and locate potential terrorists before they attack, particularly if they already have “insider access” to potential targets.

3. Target location

In the 9/11 era, the logistics of getting trained foreign personnel into America helped prevent terrorists from being able to strike targets here. This was especially true during the period when the U.S. military was actively engaged in combat operations overseas. As a result, many terror attacks were launched against U.S. interests in foreign countries at locations such as embassies and deployed U.S. military assets.

Since that time, the recruiting of home-grown terrorists, the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the easing of military pressure on the enemy made it more practical to target locations on American soil.

4. Target selection

In the 9/11 era, there was an emphasis on hitting “hard” targets such as government buildings, military assets or critical infrastructure like transportation systems.

Since then, Islamic terror groups have switched focus to “soft” targets with less rigorous security measures and greater vulnerabilities such as shopping malls, schools, churches, nightclubs, businesses and cultural attractions. “Soft” areas of “hard” targets (such as security queues) are also more likely to be hit.

5. Weapons

In the 9/11 era, there was an emphasis on using weapons that required a relatively high degree of sophistication (hijacked aircraft, explosives, chemical or biological weapons). Since these weapons required advanced training to employ, made logistics more complicated and increased the risk of detection (during acquisition, transportation, and employment), they were unsuitable for the next generation of homegrown, unsophisticated attackers that were being recruited. It was easier for radicalized, self-trained, homegrown terrorists to acquire and successfully use fire, a vehicle, a knife or a gun without being detected beforehand.

6. Complex, Coordinated Attack (CCA)

Prior to 9/11, most terror attacks were executed against a single target, but the success of the 9/11 attack showed that even the mightiest of nations could be temporarily paralyzed by a series of closely-spaced, coordinated attacks that were executed by multiple teams across many target locations. The trend toward complex, coordinated attack methodology has increased rapidly over the last several years, and we should expect it to continue.


In order to guarantee our ability to defeat these attackers, law enforcement should focus on the following areas:

1. Study the threat

Law enforcement has an obligation to keep abreast of changes and trends in terrorist activity, and to share this information with the larger public safety community (EMS, fire and private security). We cannot allow our understanding of the threat to grow stale – we need to constantly seek intelligence, analyze it and synthesize it into a continuously evolving action plan.

2. Education and training

We must push for continuous education and training for public safety professionals, and be careful not to overlook the critical needs of agency and civic leaders.

Training efforts frequently focus on “the troops” while neglecting civic leaders and agency command staffs, creating a weak link that will doom any emergency response.

Rigorous training and practice in Incident Command System (ICS) skills – to include frequent tabletop exercises for key civic and department leaders – are an essential part of the training and education effort.

3. Focus on skills, not equipment

Enhanced equipment such as night vision, armored rescue vehicles and patrol rifles are important force multipliers, but no amount of technology can make up for deficiencies in training and education. A highly trained and tactically proficient officer equipped with standard patrol gear is a greater asset in a terror attack than a kitted-out officer with no training in tactical movement and team operations.

4. Enhance flexibility

We must remain flexible in our tactics, techniques and procedures for dealing with an ever-evolving terror threat. If we practice the same things and plan for the same set of fixed scenarios, we will be unprepared to deal with new and unanticipated developments.

No two terror attacks are identical, and we must be flexible enough to adapt to the unique circumstances of any attack. Agencies should focus on building the core capabilities that are necessary in any emergency response (independent thinking, communications, command and control, individual skill with weapons and equipment, transportation, logistics, interagency coordination and casualty care) and avoid investing too much effort on the development of specific contingency plans and tactics that could easily be overcome by events.

5. Stay light

It’s easy for specialized teams such as SWAT to become so big and heavy that they lose their mobility and responsiveness. Armored rescue vehicles are an important asset, but may not allow a SWAT team to keep up with highly mobile attackers using hit-and-run tactics in a CCA. Ensure that tactical teams retain their agility and the ability to quickly deploy where they are needed.

6. Have a reserve

In an environment where CCA tactics are likely to be used, it’s important to have a force in reserve. Committing all of an agency’s assets to a single location may leave that agency unprepared to respond to an attack elsewhere. Additionally, it makes us vulnerable to a secondary attack at the original scene, which could decimate our capabilities.

It requires a substantial commitment in resources and training to have enough trained personnel and equipment to maintain reserves, and it also requires special training and education for leaders to understand how to deploy available forces wisely. Agencies should consider adopting a training program like the National Tactical Officers Association Advanced Response Patrol Officer program to enhance the training of selected patrol officers so that they can provide an intermediate level of capability between patrol and SWAT.

7. Protect assets

Ensure that critical assets such as police stations and communications towers are hardened and secured against attack. Disperse critical assets so that an attack on a single location cannot eliminate them en toto or prevent them from being accessible if key transportation arteries are blocked. Similarly, ensure redundancy for critical assets by having more than one of anything that’s important (teams, equipment, communication systems and leadership).

8. Focus on cyberspace

The online environment is where recruiting, resource acquisition and the planning cycle are conducted in the modern era of terrorism. Every agency needs trained personnel who can operate in this arena, extract the best intelligence from it, use it to communicate with the public and make the greatest use of this vital tool. Most agencies are deficient in the amount of resources they have committed to this critical area.

9. Improve interagency capabilities

The day of public safety “stovepipes” is over – it’s no longer possible for police to focus on “police stuff” and fire to focus on “fire stuff.” All public safety agencies need to be able to work together and combine assets in the tactical environment. They need to cultivate common language and common tactics, and be able to integrate command and control structures so that “blue” and “red” forces can migrate toward a “purple” operational capability.

In a similar vein, law enforcement agencies must work closely with allied law enforcement agencies from surrounding areas so that they can seamlessly integrate when the situation demands cooperation. In the era of CCA tactics, no one agency can supply enough manpower to deal with a terror attack – outside help will be required.

10. Work with the community

The communities we serve are the eyes and ears of our operations. We need to encourage heightened public awareness and foster relationships that enable a two-way transfer of information.

Community members are the real “first responders” and need to have the training, mindset and equipment necessary to defend themselves and save lives while they wait for public safety professionals to respond. We need to partner with the community and share our expertise to help them improve their self-sufficiency, because there simply aren’t enough of us to help all of them, particularly in the wake of a major incident.

We have a responsibility to train the public in disaster preparedness and response, first aid, active shooter response and the lawful use of force in self-defense so that they can reduce their vulnerabilities to attack and aid in recovery efforts. If we want to fulfill our mandate to protect and serve the public, then we need to ensure that the public, civic leaders and agency leaders understand the role they play in their own safety, and cannot rely solely on government to protect them. We need to support them in that effort.


The threat of Islamic terrorism has evolved since the 9/11 attack 16 years ago, and so must our response to defending the public from it.

This is a process, not a destination. There will never be a time or place where we will be able to declare total readiness and retire our efforts because the threat is constantly changing and our training and preparations require continuous effort and updates to keep them viable.

It’s been said that the military is always preparing to fight the last war, and it’s likely that the public safety community is in jeopardy of doing the same. On this sixteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, let’s agree to prevent that mindset from taking hold, and commit ourselves to keeping pace with the changing threat.

Never forget. God bless you all and be safe out there.

Mike Wood is the son of a 30-year California Highway Patrolman and the author of “Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis,” the highly-acclaimed study of the 1970 California Highway Patrol gunfight in Newhall, California. Mike is an Honor Graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, a graduate of the US Army Airborne School, and a retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with over 26 years of service. He’s a National Rifle Association (NRA) Law Enforcement Division-certified firearms instructor, senior editor at, and has been a featured guest on the Excellence In Training Academy and American Warrior Society podcasts, as well as several radio and television programs. He’s grateful for the opportunity to serve and learn from the men and women of law enforcement.