Monday, May 07, 2007

Local Anti-Terrorism: The L.A. Model

GovExec has posted a story by Shane Harris, originally in the National Journal, detailing Los Angeles' efforts to share information about potential terrorist threats. Most of the info, naturally, is not useful. But some is, and the extent to which there is cooperation among the various agencies involved, the effort to prevent and/or respond can be enhanced or impaired. The story begins:

On April 23, 2004, a Friday, a man calling himself "Al" contacted the Homeland Security Department in Washington. He claimed that he knew a group of terrorists who were going to blow up a building. Al knew this, he said, because he was once a member of Al Qaeda.

Los Angeles, next Thursday, the 29th, Al said. A shopping mall near the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard and the close-by campus of UCLA. Al said that a cell of three terrorists would enter the country from Canada. He even gave names. This didn't sound like a crank.
The local Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) chased down down the leads:
Officials in Washington immediately called L.A.'s Joint Terrorism Task Force, a team of FBI agents, Homeland Security officials, and local police and sheriff's officers. ... [I]n L.A., partly owing to a long history of cooperating on anti-gang and drug squads, the local cops and the feds got along well.

FBI agents traced Al's call to a prepaid phone card. They tracked down the card seller, who gave agents a log of Al's calls. It turned out that his real name was Zameer Mohamed and that he had called in the bomb threat from Room 308 of a Comfort Inn in Calgary.

Hotel management told agents that a Samier Hussein had rented the room. Authorities ran the name and got a hit in federal records: Mohamed had used Hussein as an alias in Texas, where officials had investigated him the year before on a theft charge.

On Wednesday, the day before the threatened attack, city officials informed the shopping mall owners. On Thursday, [L.A. Police Chief William] Bratton stood before news cameras at the Grove and asked Angelinos for help. "We need the eyes, the ears" of the citizenry, he stressed.
A couple of points regarding mall security, which I've discussed before. First, it's notable that law enforcement waited until the day before to notify security officials at the mall. One day's notice isn't much, especially considering that the original call was made 5 days earlier. The unspoken assumption seems to be that notifying mall security earlier would be unhelpful or even detrimental. But couldn't mall security have taken steps to prepare for the threat if they had been notified earlier? And shouldn't they be involved in a coordinated attempt to prevent, mitigate, and/or respond to a potential attack.

It's worth remembering what the Department of Justice found in its recent study on mall security:
By a large majority (63%), mall security officials would welcome greater involvement of their state DHS and law enforcement officials in security planning.
DOJ favors collaboration between law enforcement and mall security, suggesting that they:
  • Develop and rehearse detailed and coordinated emergency response plans and involve stakeholders
  • Enhance partnerships with the public sector
Put simply, it is valuable for private security personnel to have a trusting relationship with local law enforcement. And this applies not just to major cities like L.A. and London, but to smaller cities as well. Mall plots have been uncovered in Columbus, Ohio (pop. 693,000) and Rockford, Illinois (pop. 150,000).

Yet it's not clear that this happened in L.A. To the contrary, the response of the security managers at the two threatened malls suggests that they were not on the same page as the JTTF:
"This just happens all the time.... This is no different than any anonymous bomb threat that gets called in," Gene Thompson, the head of corporate security for the Westside Pavilion's owners, told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. "Life goes on," said Tom Miles, the Grove's general manager.
It could be that the mall security guys were only trying to prevent a possible media frenzy. Or it could be that their messages were not coordinated with law enforcement. Otherwise, how to explain the fact that law enforcement was asking citizens to keep their eyes open, while the mall personnel were saying, "Nothing to see here, folks"?

Thankfully, this particular threat turned out well:
In fact, life did go on, unimpeded by a bomb or any other shopping disruptions. On the day Mohamed had warned that his Qaeda friends would strike, federal authorities apprehended him as he crossed the U.S.-Canadian border into Montana.

Mohamed confessed that he'd made the whole thing up. There was no bomb. Those supposed Qaeda operatives were actually friends of his girlfriend. Mohamed had called Homeland Security to get back at her for stealing his paycheck from a Toronto bank ... Mohamed said he picked the two malls because he knew the area.
A separate note on citizen involvement: When Chief Bratton asked for citizens to be on the lookout for suspicious activities, did they know what to look for? To be effective as "eyes and ears," citizens need to be both educated and vigilant, as they are in Israel. Jonathan Tucker has pointed out:
The vigilance of the Israeli public plays a key role in preventing terrorism. According to security experts, the average Israeli is highly aware of suspicious packages, individuals, and actions that could pose a threat to public safety and does not hesitate to notify the police. As a result, ordinary citizens foil more than 80% of attempted terrorist attacks in Israel...
But without knowing what to look for, citizens have only a minimal ability to recognize threats, at best:
[B]y officials' count, they have received more than 4,000 tips, leads, and other vague insinuations about possible terrorist attacks in the greater L.A. area in just the past three years.

Most of them turn out to be bogus. Anonymous callers see "Arabs" taking photographs of bridges. Electrical plant owners notice a van driving slowly by their security gates. Some concerned citizen sees "Middle Eastern-looking" men loading fertilizer onto a truck in her neighbor's driveway. Authorities have documented literally thousands of such leads in cities across the country, and few of them come to anything. The camera-toting terrorists are actually tourists; the driver of the van was lost; the men loading fertilizer were Mexican gardeners.

The rest of the story focuses on the role of L.A.'s fusion center, the Joint Regional Intelligence Center (JRIC), in recognizing terrorist threats. The JRIC does a good job of incorporating analysts from multiple agencies and fields of expertise into a collaborative mix:
JRIC's roster is a bureaucratic potpourri. It contains FBI agents, LAPD officers, L.A. County sheriff's deputies, public health experts, contract analysts who study radical Islam, a liaison from the Homeland Security Department, and officers detailed from other local law enforcement agencies across the Los Angeles region.

The region adheres to a pact of "mutual aid," which all but eliminates turf tensions. Cooperatively fighting terrorism fits right in with that culture.
The article also discusses the widely-cited JIS case, in which a group of would-be terrorists were arrested after they conducted a string of robberies. It raises the question of whether the JIS bust should really be considered a "major" bust, because the capabilities of that homegrown group were less than those of an international terrorist organization such as al Qaeda.

To some extent I think this is a red herring. The point is, JIS was both intent and capable of doing damage.

Even if they were not a "major" terrorist operation, the experience of finding, tracking, and prosecuting them is valuable experience. The next time, it may be al Qaeda or some other organization with even greater capabilities. Local law enforcement can use the lessons of the JIS case and other experience to recognize threats and intervene before they manifest themselves.

One problem that remains is the quantity and quality of information coming from federal agencies:

Today, some threat reporting comes from the Homeland Security Department and some from the FBI. Those entities have sparred over which should be the primary conduit for states and localities, and who should decide how much they get to know.

State and local officials, meanwhile, complain that threat reporting is inconsistent and that much of what they know comes from their own residents. Even in Los Angeles, where relations have remained congenial, Chief Bratton says that the federal agencies need to settle their disputes and to give the locals more information.

"How do we get the feds to make nice with each other -- that's still the big issue," Bratton says. From his perspective, local officials have already made a sizable investment in homeland-security policy. "I easily spend 40 percent of my time on terrorism matters," Bratton says, including talking to journalists and members of Congress. Of the federal agencies whose intelligence Bratton wants, he says, "Locals have to be accepted into what was a private club.... We're the new kids knocking on the door."

Implementing the Information Sharing Environment is an ongoing effort which has been slow to develop, though its intentions are good (see this post). More on information sharing later...

Cross-posted in IPS Blogs at the Institute for Preventive Strategies.

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