28 October 2009

All Terrorism Is Local

While the Special Operation Forces and assorted other “door kickers” of our nations military and other governmental agencies deservedly receive a lot of the counter-terrorism spotlight, counter-terrorism efforts at home are often overlooked even by those who are in the greatest position to come into contact with terrorists operating within the Homeland, local law enforcement officers.

When boiled down to it’s constituent elements, terrorism is nothing more than ordinary crime on a grand scale. A car bombing, when looked at objectively is not simply a terrorist act, but a series of smaller crimes. It may start with some sort of immigration fraud which allows for placement of support cell members within the US. Those members then may become involved in petty crime such as redemption fraud, cigarette smuggling, or the repackaging of expired baby formula. As the support cell moves its activities forward, they may commit additional immigration fraud such as arranging for sham marriages in order to bring the operations cell members into the US, theft of the vehicle to be used in the car bombing and theft or other procurement of the explosives themselves which all culminate in property damage, assault and in the worst cases murder. Any of these smaller crimes offer a good opportunity for local law enforcement to disrupt the terrorist activity.

An example of this local model of counter-terrorism is the disruption of several Hezbollah cigarette smuggling operations in 2004 which officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives estimate netted millions of dollars for the terrorist organization. As reported in the Washington Post, "The schemes provide terrorists millions of dollars which can be used to purchase firearms and explosives to use against the United States and others," said ATF Director Carl J. Truscott, who was appointed to head the agency two months ago after 22 years in the Secret Service.

Due to the nature of their work, local law enforcement officers are in the greatest position to notice incidents and actors that are out of place and may represent terrorist pre-operational activity. Nearly every terrorist plot which was disrupted in the Homeland has a local law enforcement officer as it’s primary contributor. Unfortunately there are just as many examples of law enforcement missing the cues of potential attack preparation or possible terrorist financing.

As a Regional Intelligence Analyst assigned to act as a liaison between local agencies in a rural area of the Pacific Northwest and State and Federal counter-terrorism officials, I saw this sort of opportunity passed by on a regular basis. On one occasion, a credit card fraud was reported in a small rural town. The theft was relatively minor monetarily speaking, comprised of several transactions all of less than $250. The shocking revelation was the one way airline tickets purchased on a Persian Gulf based regional air carrier. After some rudimentary investigation I was able to uncover a sophisticated money laundering scheme as well as to identify a suspect who was residing in Beruit, Lebannon. Because the monetary value was relatively low, the responding officer only took the most basic of details and conducted no further investigatory action because the credit card company was going to reimburse the victim. I am sure that this is a typical response to such minor credit card fraud, a response that terrorist organizations both abroad and at home count on in order to facilitate their operations.

On another occasion I received information that a subject was frequenting a rural discount retail establishment and purchasing large quantities of items that could be considered precursors for the construction of a chemical weapon. He would go in one day and purchase a large quantity of one precursor then return the next day to purchase a large quantity of another precursor chemical, always paying in cash. The rural discount store was suspicious so they reported the incident to the local police. The young responding officer checked the local criminal justice database for involvement in drug activity, but because the paradigm of this officer didn’t include the possibility that someone could be amassing material for a weapon of mass destruction, he took no further investigatory action after determining that the subject had no drug history. Later investigation showed that he was indeed creating the chemical weapon, as was the initial concern. His application was relatively benign however as he was using it for pest control in his capacity as a landscaper. While this incident wasn’t truly terrorist related, it illustrates how easily local law enforcement can miss an opportunity to deter a terrorist act.

In the 9/11 Commission Report, a determination was made that there was an unacceptably small amount of information sharing between federal and local officials. As a remedy the Commission recommended the establishment of state intelligence fusion centers which would act as a clearing house to assure that information developed by local authorities was brought to the attention of federal authorities and that information developed by the federal government was transmitted to local agencies who had a need and right to know in a secure manner. These intelligence fusion centers were making great strides in facilitating both criminal and counter-terrorism information sharing. But, just as they were beginning to hit their stride, federal funding was either drastically reduced or removed altogether. Once again resulting in a climate in which law enforcement information sharing is hampered by distrust, fear of loss of credit for the work and suspicion of the motives of outside agencies.

Law enforcement at all levels must realize that the global paradigm has changed and in order to counter the ever present threat of terrorism we must be mission oriented and team focused. Individual recognition must not be the consideration when thousands of lives may potentially hang in the balance. Federal authorities must recognize that they have a valuable resource in local authorities and local authorities must realize that despite the fact that they may be responsible for a rural area, they may be able to provide information on possible terrorist preoperational indicators.

1 comment:

  1. Secret Squirrel: Thanks for your insightful comments! I concur with the critical need to include local law enforcement in the sharing of important intelligence data and reporting. We have to overcome our default position of putting OPSEC over collaboration and accept some risk wrt sharing intelligence.

    A great model of successful local-federal cooperation is the FDNY-CIA/FBI relationship. Although NY is a huge city, their success is not due to their size but their mentality and practices. They are able to build strong HUMINT networks and utilize their large number of officers as sensors. They can offer this "local feel" as a bargaining chip to national agencies who have access to strategic reporting and SIGINT and IMINT databases. When these INTs are fused at the local level, that's where we make money. To better understand this relationship, I highly recommend the recent book "Securing the City" by Christopher Dickey, which details the NYPD's CT efforts.

    As far as state fusion cells, I wasn't aware these were being under-funded or closed? Do you have any reporting on this occuring? I think these centers (if properly trained and resourced) are a great idea and absolutely necessary.

    Thanks again for the great insight. Now to broaden the topic: If all terrorism is local, how can be better understand AQ and it's strategy/intentions by looking at it through a "local" lens?