Street Corner Counterterrorism: The Role of Police in Combating Terrorism

The United States counterterrorism community has evolved significantly in the nine years since the attacks on September 11, 2001 but questions persist about the intelligence community’s ability to prevent the next attack. Terrorism is just as much, if not a greater threat today than before the attacks. Leon Panetta, current director of the Central Intelligence Agency, in a 2009 address reaffirmed al Qaeda’s status as the preeminent threat to the United States homeland and interests abroad. Therefore, local law enforcement agencies need to increase their efforts to combat terrorism in the United States in response to current threats.

While terrorist threats from al-Qaeda senior leadership remain real, recent statements by current and former national security officials portray a shift from large-scale operations, directed by al-Qaeda senior leaders to small-scale, fairly autonomous attacks. General Michael Hayden, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, in a CNN editorial that stated U.S. efforts to combat al-Qaeda are so effective that al-Qaeda leadership is more concerned with personal survival than directing operations against the United States. The implication of this change is likely going to be a rise in small-scale, autonomous attacks inspired by the al-Qaeda ethos. The impact is already evident in recent attacks inspired by the propaganda disseminated by al-Qaeda senior leadership and affiliated groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb. Examples of such attacks are the shooting at Fort Hood in November 2009, the Christmas Day attempted attack on Northwest Flight 253, and the May 1, 2010 failed car bomb placed in Times Square, New York.

Individuals planning attacks with little or no direct links to foreign terrorist groups are significantly more difficult to detect before an attack has actually taken place. For this reason it is crucial for local police to understand what activities and signals to look for and for where to look for in terms of possible terrorist activity. Activities associated with terrorist operations range from pre-operational target casing to acquiring material (e.g. weapons, vehicles, communications equipment) to conducting dry runs of the attack.  Police patrolmen should learn these warning signs because they have the local knowledge to notice irregularities in their areas of operations.

The New York Police Department has one of the most highly developed and active counterterrorism divisions in the country. The NYPD established a very unique program named Operation Nexus, a partnership between the NYPD and local business owners. The NYPD encourages businesses to report suspicious behavior to NYPD counterterrorism detectives assigned to Operation Nexus. For example, a beauty supply store would pay close attention to individuals purchasing large quantities of acetone and peroxide – precursors for Triacetone-Triperoxide, a common explosive favored by terrorist organizations around the world for a variety of applications, from car bombs to suicide vests. As a partner in Operation Nexus, the aforementioned beauty supply store would report suspicious behavior and purchases to NYPD detectives assigned to the counterterrorism division.

Community interaction is critical in combating domestic terrorism because it is easy for terrorists to maintain a low profile and avoid law enforcement scrutiny in the pre-operational planning stage. Much like police patrolmen, neighborhood denizens know intuitively when something is out of the ordinary in their area. Detectives assigned to Operation Nexus are engaging local businesses to increase awareness of pre-attack indicators. Other cities in the U.S. may have outreach programs but not to the same extent and degree as the NYPD’s Operation Nexus. Outreach programs present low-risk, high-reward opportunities for law enforcement agencies to educate the general public. Adam Serwer, a blogger for The American Prospect, highlights eleven terrorist plots from October 2001 to this past October that were discovered or foiled with the help of ordinary citizens. Many of the plots were discovered by way of anonymous tips to local law enforcement agencies. A knowledgeable and prepared public clearly benefits counterterrorism efforts by helping to inform and local and federal orient law enforcement agencies.

More metropolitan police departments need to develop programs of their own modeled after Operation Nexus, to combat terrorist activity within their jurisdictions. But police departments that have not been impacted by terrorism as directly as the NYPD are not likely to see the utility in a program like Operation Nexus in addition to using traditional confidential informants.

Many police departments around the country also need more anti-terrorism and counterterrorism training. Recent assessments of law enforcement capacities to respond to terrorist attacks show the majority of police departments in the country are vastly under trained and under equipped for such serious incidents. Many major cities have advanced counterterrorism divisions, but beyond large metropolises funding and training for terrorism prevention is not as readily available. NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly suggested reapportioning “pork-barrel” money in the Department of Homeland Security to provide funding for this training. Although small cities and towns are less likely to be targeted by terrorist plots, terrorists often take advantage of quiet towns to plot and train for violent operations to avoid law enforcement scrutiny.

One example occurred in 2001 where several extremists – later termed the Portland Seven – conducted firearms training in a rural town in Washington before attempting to travel to Afghanistan to attack U.S. and NATO forces.  Fortunately, this group was discovered by a local deputy sheriff and ultimately thwarted by the FBI. It was luck and chance that led to discovering this plot and we cannot count on always being this lucky.

The NYPD uses civilian analysts to support law enforcement investigations and operations. In the wake of 9/11, the NYPD expanded its Intelligence Division, under the leadership of CIA veteran (and Northeastern University alumnus) David Cohen, to provide background and analysis for the Department’s experienced detectives. Bringing analysts into a police department was a critical addition to augment traditional law enforcement investigations. Analysts use their knowledge and expertise to uncover leads and better focus investigations.

Within hours of the May 1 bombing attempt in Times Square, for example, the NYPD analysts discovered a strong lead on the culprit by scouring Internet forums for any mention of the attempted bombing. This is the kind of value-added support analysts provide police officers – these analysts knew where, and how, to look for this information.

The lack of communication between national intelligence agencies and local law enforcement is an issue of extreme importance. The 9/11 Commission Report highlights many of the communication failures that led, in part, to the attacks. Communication is crucial in combating terrorism and since 9/11 efforts have been made to improve communication throughout the counterterrorism community. The Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) program, which was created to connect local law enforcement agencies with FBI field offices, has expanded dramatically since 9/11. Unfortunately, JTTFs are often bottlenecks where the information police departments send filters up to the FBI and the FBI reports very little back to different police departments or even other JTTFs. For example the Philadelphia police department could discover details of a terrorist plot targeting New York City and provide the intelligence to the Philadelphia-based JTTF, however there is no guarantee the information will make it to the appropriate authorities in New York. The counterterrorism community as a whole needs to improve intelligence sharing because collaboration provides a better picture of a terrorist plot.

Similarly, law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, need to share information with national level intelligence agencies whenever necessary and applicable. The reason for this may be a cultural difference between analysts and agents, as former NYPD Analytic Unit chief Samuel J. Rascoff put it, “FBI agents sometimes look at their analysts and say, ‘So, basically, we do the same job, but I carry a gun and kick down doors while you sit at your desk all day.’”  The NYPD Intelligence Division had to fight tooth and nail with the FBI to obtain access to relevant classified documents, before turning to the Department of Defense for help constructing a secure facility the NYPD could call home.

Law enforcement officers are the most likely to be first responders and are the first line of defense in a terrorist attack, yet police departments often receive less funding, which could be used for counterterrorism training, than other government agencies or military units – which only interact with terrorists in extreme situations. By way of comparison, the 2010 budget for the Department of Defense was $693 billion and the budget for the National Intelligence Program was $49.8 billion in 2009, while the 2010 budget for the entire NYPD was only $4.3 billion. Combating terrorism is a multifaceted task, but it can be made more effective by adding knowledgeable analysts to enhance law enforcement officers’ investigations, increase counterterrorism training, and working with the general public and local businesses. Further, more police departments should create outreach programs like NYPD’s Operation Nexus to interface with the general public. A final suggestion is to break down the communication barriers between the FBI, local police departments, and national level intelligence agencies that hinder effective counterterrorism efforts.

Law enforcement agencies can only treat the symptoms of terrorism, while policy makers in Washington are responsible for handling the causes of terrorism. Despite the division of responsibility, law enforcement agencies need to understand the root causes of terrorism to combat terrorism more effectively and prevent the next attack.


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Daggett, Stephen. The U.S. Intelligence Budget: A Basic Overview. Report for Congress. Washington, D.C.: Federation of American Scientists, 2004.

Dickey, Christopher. Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counterterror Force–The NYPD. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI — Homepage. 22 October 2010

Feuer, Alan. “The Terror Translators.” New York Times 17 September 2010.

Finance Division, The Council of the City of New York. Hearing on the Fiscal 2010 Executive Budget for the Police Department. Budget Hearing. New York: Finance Division, The Council of the City of New York, 2009.

Jacobson, Michael. The West at War: U.S. and European Counterterrorism Efforts, Post-September 11. Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2006.

McCormack, William. “State and Local Law Enforcement Contributions to Terrorism Prevention.” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (2009).

NYPD. NYPD SHIELD Operation Nexus. 26 August 2010

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Panetta, Leon. “Address to the Pacific Council on International Policy.” Los Angeles, 2009.

Serwer, Adam. “Terror Plots Foiled With The Assistance Of The American Muslim Community.” 29 October 2010. The American Prospect. 31 October 2010

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