Friday, April 20, 2007

Local First Preventers

To extend the thoughts in the previous post on preventing jihadist recruiting, it's easy to say that we should intervene to stop radicalization and recruitment into terrorist causes and organizations. But how to do it?

An excellent summary of how to enact local prevention efforts was published a few months ago by George Kelling and William Bratton, in their article "Policing Terrorism" in the Manhattan Institute's Civic Bulletin. Kelling is a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers, and Bratton is the Los Angeles Chief of Police. Understandably, their focus is on law enforcement - though there is certainly cause for others to collaborate and share information to recognize threats.

Kelling and Bratton argue that local efforts are critical - but underutilized:

Our shared knowledge of both the theory and practice of policing has convinced us that local law enforcement is a vital yet underutilized resource in the war on terror.

Because the homeland-security debate has, so far, focused on federal capacities, our national counterterrorist strategy has failed to incorporate hundreds of thousands of capable cops. Local law enforcement officers are primarily viewed as "first responders" to incidents rather than as potential "first preventers" of terrorism. As a result, the United States remains far more vulnerable than it should be.

Above all, we must expand our national strategy to give a larger role to local police. Local police departments in the U.S. have not traditionally seen themselves as part of the national security apparatus. This needs to change. Homeland security is less dependent on appointing a national intelligence czar than it is on empowering local police. Massachusetts state police chief Ed Flynn calls this "hometown security."
(Hey, so do I!)

Kelling and Bratton offer three strategies for engaging local police in the prevention of terrorism:
Local police can be leveraged in this war in three key ways.

First, we can train police in the problem-solving techniques that will make them effective first preventers of terrorism.

Second, we can use computer statistics (Compstat) and technology to enhance data sharing and to catalyze intelligence-led counterterrorist policing.

Finally, and most vitally, the theory of order maintenance commonly called "broken windows," which police in New York City have used so successfully in the war on crime, can be adapted for the war on terror.
Being local - in and of itself - is critical. Local "first preventers" have an advantage in both numbers and familiarity with their environment:
The counterterrorist potential of local police is partly a function of numbers. More than 700,000 local law enforcement officers work in the continental U.S, compared with just 12,000 FBI agents. Based on numbers alone, local law enforcement personnel are much more likely than feds to cross paths with terrorists.

It is the local police, too, who are most often obliged to probe citizen tips. A major terrorist attack in London was disrupted last year in just that way. When a grandmother smelled something strange wafting from an adjacent flat, she notified police. She told them she'd noticed a group of young men frequenting the flat, which, she said, contained no furniture. Inside, police discovered a makeshift ricin gas factory. The "young men" actually constituted a terror cell preparing a poison-gas attack, which could have killed thousands.

The presence of police in our communities sensitizes them to anomalies and yields counterterrorist data valuable to other agencies.

Only an effective local police establishment that has the confidence of citizens," former CIA director James Woolsey testified to Congress in 2004, "is going to be likely to hear from, say, a local merchant in a part of town containing a number of new immigrants that a group of young men from abroad have recently moved into a nearby apartment and are acting suspiciously."
(Also see this post.)

Suspicious "local young men" may be engaged in radicalization, recruitment, or any other type of terrorist activity. But to find this type, you have to look for it:
But to fully realize the potential of local police in counterterrorism, we first need a philosophical shift, as occurred in criminal policing during the 1990s. Instead of merely reacting to individual "incidents," police must proactively solve general problems.

[LAPD counterterrorism] training is already paying off. In the Torrance case, the officers who executed the search had been trained by the Los Angeles area's joint counterterrorism program to look for possible links to terrorism, and they quickly found them. The NYPD's proactive Operation Nexus uncovered an al-Qaeda plan to smuggle weapons into the city through a garment-district shipping business. Counterterrorist training led police in Rhode Island to net jihadists in a routine traffic stop.

At the very least, officers who are taught to identify the support structures of potential terrorists are more able to create an environment in which terrorists will not feel comfortable.
As I've noted a number of times before, one of the key terrorist vulnerabilities is the nexus between terrorism and more "common" criminal activity:
Application of broken-windows theory in counterterrorist policing has two components: the first is creating a hostile environment for terrorists; the second is recognizing that terrorism's equivalents to subway fare beating are illegal border crossings, forged documents, and other relatively minor precursor crimes that terrorists often commit to fund the operations to prepare their attacks.

Criminals commit many crimes; as it turns out, so do terrorists. While it is possible that all the activities leading up to a terrorist act could be conducted perfectly legally, the combination of specific activities (e.g., large number of males using a rented apartment irregularly) can present, if not a recognizable pattern, at least an anomalous or a suspicious one. In the recent London bombings, for example, large amounts of hydrogen peroxide were purchased for the purpose of bomb making. Similarly, a terrorist may get tripped up by a law enforcement or private security encounter that has nothing to do with his terrorist activities or intent...

Many terrorists, especially foreigners who are in the U.S. illegally, have to live a fugitive lifestyle—that is, they have to commit crimes not just to carry out an attack but simply to sustain themselves. They maintain themselves with illegal documents, committing burglary and robbery, dealing drugs, committing fraud, and so on.
While terrorist criminal activity remains a significant vulnerability, there is much that local "first preventers" can do to make targets more difficult to exploit. This presents opportunities for working with other public agencies, as well as the private sector. Sharing information is critical:
LAPD's Operation Archangel ... works proactively with private and public partners to assess the vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure. Owners and operators of commercial buildings are asked to contribute detailed, up-to-date infrastructure information to Archangel—floor plans, HVAC systems, entrances and exits, and so on. This information is then entered into a database management system that assesses threats and devises deterrence and prevention strategies, as well as emergency response plans.
In March, the Governor's Guide to Homeland Security also emphasized the importance of collaborating with both public- and private-sector entities on prevention, preparedness, and response. (Also see my post.)

Citizens at all levels - like the grandmother in the London apartment - can be involved. It can be especially useful to establish partnerships with those who live and work close to potential targets or avenues for attack:
We've worked with Los Angeles business owners who sell products or services that could possibly be used by terrorists—truck-rental facilities, for example—to make sure that they are aware of the threat. We've also reached out to doormen, private security guards, and transit workers.
This type of information-sharing is not common, but there are some positive developments:
Although the need to share data is not new, exchanging information across jurisdictions and levels of government is more critical in the current threat environment than it ever was in the war on crime.

Since 9/11, information sharing between the federal government and state and locals has improved. Most of the improvement has come through the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) ...

Despite this progress, the level of cooperation seems to vary greatly, depending on the personalities of individual bureau and police chiefs.

Instead of relying solely on the federal government for intelligence, many state and local departments have now taken it upon themselves to create their own systems. Among other things, they are assembling databases, sharing information, and setting up their own DNA labs. The NYPD's intelligence operation is widely regarded as the gold standard.
But it's not enough to share information within a single network. Information must be shared across networks if it is to be most useful:
Once law enforcement has the information, it needs to make sense of it and share it immediately. It is critical that—both horizontally and vertically—law enforcement overcomes its traditional reluctance to share information in a meaningful and timely fashion.

[W]e must not forget that information must flow both ways. It is just as important that local police are sharing information with the feds—a point that is often overlooked by those involved in the FBI's JTTF.

Information is the best weapon we have against terrorism, but it must be made available to those who can best use it. In many cases, they will be local law enforcement.
Despite all the progress, there is a long way to go:
The unfortunate reality is that law enforcement—federal, state, and local—is very far behind the private sector in terms of the ability to use technology to gather, analyze, and disseminate information.

The federal government simply has to do a better job of collecting, analyzing, and sharing intelligence. The government's failure at "connecting the dots," as the 9/11 commission put it, was key to al-Qaeda's fateful hijackings in 2001. Five years later, it is not clear that much has changed.
Kelling and Bratton summarize:
Counterterrorism has to be woven into the everyday workings of every department. It should be included on the agenda of every meeting, and this new role must be imparted to officers on the street so that terrorism prevention becomes part of their everyday thinking.

We need to train local police to be aware of terrorist indicators and precursor crimes so that they can be effective "first preventers." We need to overcome the petty rivalries and technological barriers that are hampering the collection and sharing of important intelligence.

America's genius has been and always will be its empowerment of local institutions. ... Empowering local police to act as the front line for homeland security is how we can win the war on terror.
Another expert who has recently chimed in on possible ways that local "first preventers" can exploit terrorist activity is Raymond Foster, a retired Police Chief of Los Angeles. Writing for, Foster's article "Terrorism Organizational and Communication Strategies" focuses on how local police can exploit terrorist groups based on their organizational structures and communication techniques. First, he argues in favor of better information sharing:
Intelligence gathering is the first line of defense against terrorism. Through use of intelligence, law enforcement and military operations can be designed to disrupt terrorist organizations and preempt their operations.

Moreover, while our focus is on international terrorist organizations, there are many domestic groups that use similar methods of organizing and communicating. Understanding some of their organization and communication methods may help you see evidence, information and intelligence you might have overlooked otherwise.
The first type of terrorist organization is the "single-cell":
In the realm of terrorism, the single-cell organism is referred to as the "Lone Wolf terrorist" or "leaderless resistance." This can be a critical concept in understanding the development of terrorist organizations. The Lone Wolf terrorist does not receive direct instructions from a central organization. Rather, he or she receives inspiration from an idea or perhaps a remote subversive political figure.

Single-cell or disconnected cellular groups have the benefit of maximum operational security because communication is limited or non-existent. There are few, if any, opportunities for an intelligence service to intercept communications or penetrate the group. On the other hand, single-cell or disconnected cellular groups also are limited in their ability to carry out operations.
These can be difficult to disrupt, but there are some means of doing so. (Note how this fits nicely with Kelling and Bratton's call to develop relationships with local businesses who provide goods and services that may be of interest, and to exploit the terrorist vulnerability of "common crime"):
In the instance of Lone Wolves, state and local law enforcement officials should be aware of the purchase of certain materials, monitor suspicious actions of individuals and devise ways to share seemingly low-level suspicious activities with other jurisdictions.
A "multi-cellular" organization is larger, so it tends to work hard to maintain operational secrecy:
With terrorist organizations, the purpose of a true cellular organization is to increase the operational security of the larger group and to capitalize on specialization. It is a mistake to believe that one member of the cell necessarily leads to other cells. Rather, operational security is enhanced because most of the members of the cell do not know anyone in the organization outside of the cell.
This has an effect on its communication strategies:
As a terrorist organization becomes more specialized and cellular, its communications scheme becomes more complex.

Terrorists have tried to mask or disguise their use of e-mail by having relatively anonymous [e-mail] accounts provided free by various services. But, any message you send over the e-mail account is susceptible to interception.

While terrorists are using technology to communicate, it is likely that they mostly are relying on time-tested spy "tradecraft" like dead drops. A dead drop is a pre-determined location where messages or materials are left so that cell members do not have to meet face to face. Or, in areas where there is significant social support for their movements, face-to-face meetings.

Whatever their means of communication, as the complexity of their cellular structure grows, so does the complexity of their communication schemes and the likelihood of interception.
In terms of preventing terrorist recruiting, communication strategies and techniques are very important. An Internet-based scheme is likely to motivate Lone Wolf terrorists, who are harder to detect but less capable of doing significant damage.

But for a terrorist organization to develop a more powerful cell, more personal recruitment is required. As these two posts indicate, this is a significant vulnerability for terrorists, because they, like first preventers, need to develop deep, trusting relationships. They cannot do this without exposing themselves and their communications.

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