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Why beat cops are key to domestic counterterrorism

Attacks funded and orchestrated by a transnational terror groups such as al Qaeda, AQAP, al Shabaab, and ISIS merit consideration, but lone wolves and the grassroots Jihad remain the biggest threat


This still image from an undated video released by Islamic State militants purports to show journalist Steven Sotloff being held by the militant group. Imagine the chilling effect on the collective American psyche from some lone-wolf Jihadi kidnapping a random citizen on American soil and posting an online video of their beheading.

AP Image

While fears of a complex attack funded and orchestrated by transnational terror organization merit consideration, law enforcement must remain vigilant against lone-wolf attackers and small homegrown groups.

Two current storylines playing out in the mainstream media — ISIS operating in Mexico and missing airplanes in Libya — prompted me to have a discussion with terrorism expert Scott Stewart, who serves as Vice President of Analysis for geopolitical intelligence firm STRATFOR.

Stewart is a former Special Agent with the Diplomatic Security Service and has been involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations, most notably the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the follow-on New York City bomb plot investigation, during which he served as lead investigator for the U.S. State Department.

Addressing Two Terrorism Rumors
Stewart and his team at STRAFOR see no real evidence of ISIS operating in Mexico. Stewart wrote an analysis on the border issue after Governor Rick Perry sent National Guard troops to the border, essentially noting that the move was more political than practical.

“Quite frankly, if we’re going to be worried about a border, we need to worry about the Canadian border,” Stewart said. “There are over a million Muslims living within an hour drive of the U.S. border there. If even one half of one percent is radicalized, that’s a much larger threat than what we might have in Mexico, where there are only a few thousand Muslims living in the entire country.”

Regarding the aircraft allegedly gone missing in Libya, Stewart said, “We’ve seen the reports, and we wrote on it in August. At the time, we had the Moroccans and the Algerians increasing their air defenses, which led us to believe there might be some credence to it. Then we also saw the UAE do some interesting night bombing on targets at airports across Libya. I don’t have any proof, but I suspect that may be related to the same thing, just because of the targets and the timing.”

Because intelligence agencies in the U.S. and elsewhere have been looking at the potential problems posed by those planes for almost a month now, Stewart said that even if terrorists do have possession of those airplanes intact, he thinks “it would be extremely difficult for them to pull off an attack with them.”

Examining Grassroots Jihad
So, those things aside, where might there lurk a true terror threat to American citizens?
“Since 9/11, we haven’t see al Qaeda successfully be able to carry out a spectacular attack in the United States. The only people who have been able to pull off any attacks in the U.S. have been grassroots people,” Stewart explained.

Stewart stated further that because the threat has migrated to the grassroots, that makes the grassroots defenders — cops on the street — even more important.

“We have so many examples in the past of cops thwarting attacks just through good police work — whether that’s a traffic stop or questioning an individual,” Stewart said.

Remember the foiling of a plot hatched by Kevin James (a.k.a. Shaykh Shihab Murshid) and three others in 2005? Two of the men were arrested in connection with a string of armed robberies in and around Torrance (Calif.) — upon investigation, it was discovered that the men were planning attacks on synagogues and American military installations. The robberies were committed to fund their operations.

“Police officers are far more likely to run into these guys than an FBI agent. You have maybe twelve thousand FBI agents, and only a small portion of them are working CT, and only small number of that group is working the street,” Stewart said.

Compare that with the estimated 750,000 LEOs in the country and you quickly get a sense of how important the beat cop can be in counterterrorism efforts.

Shifting from Dramatic to Doable
Because of the repeated failure of individuals and small cells to pull off the ‘spectacular attack’ — think Mohamed Osman Mohamud, Faisal Shahzad, Najibullah Zazi and the abovementioned foursome in California — I’ve often wondered what’s preventing these guys from going low tech.

For example, imagine the chilling effect on the collective American psyche from some lone-wolf Jihadi kidnapping a random citizen and posting an online video of their beheading. Logically, that would be a tactical shift that radical Islamists in the U.S. would benefit from, but realistically, it hasn’t happened.

“That was a forecast I did in 2010, and I was wrong. I said, ‘Listen, these guys keep botching these huge attacks. They’ve got to go to the simple attacks that work.’ Even the ideologues say, ‘Brothers, emulate Major Hassan.’ But they don’t do it — they keep trying to do these spectacular attacks,” Stewart said.

“I don’t know if it’s just the mentality of the type of person that is drawn to that kind of radical Islam that they want to do the spectacular thing, of it’s just ‘Hey, if I’m going to give up my life for something it’s got to be a big bang not a little bang’.”

It’s a good thing that for the most part, these attackers haven’t figured this out, because it is so easy to kill people. Obviously, the Tsarnaev brothers got it, and they were successful, but those are few and far between compare to the guys who want to blow up Wall Street.

“Look how long the Beltway snipers went around. Just with some old clunker car and an AR-15 you can create massive mayhem,” Stewart said

Terrorism is a Tactic, Not a Tribe
Dating back to Sun Tzu and Genghis Kahn, terrorism is a tactic not unique to groups like al Qaeda, AQAP, al Shabaab, and ISIS. It is the calculated use of violence — or threat of violence — to coerce or intimidate governments or groups into action (or inaction) that matches a prescribed goal that is generally political, religious, and/or ideological.

“We can’t do the whole profiling thing because profiling doesn’t work. Terrorism comes from different actors — it’s not all radical Islamic actors. We have to worry about domestic terrorism, whether it’s neo-Nazis or some of the environmentalist causes, or Sovereign Citizens. Terrorism doesn’t have a face, but there are operational activities that all these guys have to do — they’ve got to do the surveillance and they have to acquire their weapons. That’s where cops really can focus and make a difference.”

It’s increasingly difficult for anyone to acquire the ingredients to build a large bomb, but as we saw in Boston obtaining the requisite precursors for a couple of relatively small ones remains doable — there will always be legitimate needs for ordinary citizens to buy ordinary household items from Sally Beauty Supply, Home Depot, and Radio Shack.

On patrol, establish good connections with the proprietors of retailers and suppliers who sell weapon precursors, letting them know to contact you if they see something ‘hinky’ in their stores.

“We can’t protect everything, and that’s where the public needs to help us because they have a lot more eyes than the cops do,” Stewart concluded. “We don’t want to live in a police state, so we really have to all work together to help our security — on every level.”

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.