Terrorism is Evolving—and so Are Responder Organizations

For many of us old enough to remember the world before the September 11 attacks, there is a tendency to view life in a before-and-after context. Even then, as the single most consequential date in contemporary American — and in terms of political impact, perhaps the modern world’s — history, there is no single way to measure the changes it wrought. Those murdered in the attacks (2,996, many of them first responders) provide one objective view of the day’s horror, as do those killed by exposure-related illnesses after the fact (1,300 and counting, with tens of thousands more alive but ill). Less quantifiable, the average American’s sense of domestic safety all but dematerialized in the space of one fall morning; initial support of the military campaign in Afghanistan (and, to a lesser degree, Iraq) reflected an unusual homogeneity of public opinion, borne almost unilaterally from the horrendous events of the day.

Then there are the billions of dollars spent developing and deploying new terror-fighting tools, techniques, and agencies, all of which reflect the public’s altered need for governance and leadership’s ongoing attempt to meet it. In many ways, this is the single most telling sign of public memory pertaining to 9/11. If the 2001 attacks were a gut-punch to an unaware nation, our new, visceral understanding of terror’s ways and means would only serve to magnify the demoralizing effects of a second attack.

This line of thinking leads to several pressing questions. Is the U.S. better prepared to ward off a large-scale terror event than it was in 2001? Moreover, if an attack manages to bypass our reinforced prevention measures, do responders at the federal, state, and local levels have the tools and training to substantially mitigate its effects? As with most matters of governance, opinions are divisive and objective answers are few — but recent achievements by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other agencies, along with extremely capable local response activity in the wake of post-9/11 terror attacks, suggest our nation is more capable now than ever.

Actions taken since 9/11 reflect nation’s philosophical shift towards better information sharing

International military actions notwithstanding, perhaps the most significant domestic actions taken in the name of stopping terror occurred within roughly a year of 9/11: the formation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA; formed November 2001) and the DHS (formed November 2002).

The DHS, now the third-largest Cabinet department, initially came from the merger of some 22 federal agencies and departments. Numerous others, including the TSA and (former) Immigration and Naturalization Service, fell under its command in years following. The speed with which these entities merged — a tremendous task for any group of organizations, let alone one with the procedural and bureaucratic inertia of the Federal Government — reflected a critical need for stronger information sharing. As the 9/11 Commission report would reaffirm some years later, a lack of interagency communication almost certainly played a role in the government’s lack of preventative action, suggesting critical data had to leap too many silo walls to fall into the right hands.

From an information-sharing standpoint, assimilating these loosely related departments and agencies into a unified being has seen significant success. Its creation and continued role in thwarting domestic terror represents improved information sharing across federal infrastructure and at each subsequent level of government. One online property run by the DHS, for instance, lists dozens of success stories from “fusion centers” found across the U.S.: in one notable example, a Colorado-based fusion center helped unravel a major plot to bomb the New York City subway system on the eight-year anniversary of 9/11.

Changing tactics leave government to fight domestic terror on a smaller scale

The NYC subway bombing plot presents telltale signs of the challenges all agencies face when attempting to foil or respond to present-day terror plots. Where the 9/11 attacks were the result of evil men having their grandiose — and in most circumstances, unrealistic — plans defy the odds, even the deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since then share certain commonalities. Comparatively speaking, attacks have been smaller in scale and required far less effort, knowledge, or technical skill than a plot to fly hijacked aircraft into buildings.

Terrorism is essentially an act of symbolism, and even an attack with a small death count can send a ripple of panic throughout the nation. Instead of downplaying their severity, the point is to illustrate the evolution of terror tactics in the post-9/11 world: the Federal Government “went big,” so to speak, leaving individuals and group-associated terrorists to “go small” with their plots in response.

This tactical pivot on the part of terrorists again reinforces the need for smart information sharing, whereby relevant data can trickle up, down, or laterally as needed. So-called “see something, say something” initiatives are also of critical importance in this era of small-scale terror. Among other notable examples, watchful citizens stopped a “crude” Times Square bombing attempt and prevented a radicalized Army private from enacting perceived revenge against his fellow soldiers simply by notifying police of suspicious activity.

“Low-level” government personnel have major role in stopping terror

Local-level responders are, in many ways, the most important element of all when it comes to stopping terror. This may sound like a platitude, but it is closer to a written-in-stone truth. Whether they respond to calls that result in the foiled terror plots, report information to the appropriate authorities, assist federal personnel on arrests and other functions, or simply are the first to respond at the scene of a successful attack, local assets are often positive catalysts in situations that would otherwise turn quite negative. They are typically the first boots on the ground in the very communities where terror crimes are plotted.

While some onlookers have criticized it as an (increasingly rare) example of failed federal information-sharing, local and state response to the Boston bombing plot upholds this idea and illustrates, in great detail, the inestimable value of preparation and planning at the community level. In one New Yorker piece — which includes the evocative line “we’re not innocents anymore” with regard to terror attacks — the author spells out the intense preparedness training that medical and response professionals underwent. Without their steady, process-bound approach, local responders likely would have faced an even higher death and injury toll.

In another account of the same tragedy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) lauds Boston-area law enforcement, fire and rescue, and medical personnel for their commitment to practical, situation-based training exercises [PDF link]. Alongside practical education on mass casualty events and improvised explosive devices, the FEMA document cites the invaluable interagency cooperation experience the training provided, without which response would have been far less efficient. Because responders knew exactly how to react and where to report, information was spread with ease across hundreds of responders of different disciplines.FEMA cites the invaluable interagency cooperation of the law enforcement, fire, rescue, and medical personnel in the Boston bombing plot. CLICK TO TWEET

This sort of training and knowledge will only grow more valuable as terror plots continue to threaten Western society. To succeed with such plots requires a certain kind of criminal cunning — the exact sort of opportunistic murderers who prey upon weak points. If the Federal Government were to bend to budget-citing critics and close all fusion centers but those in high-risk areas, for instance, it reasons that radicalized individuals would choose to target places where information sharing suddenly became weaker. In turn, this could quite literally make local preparation and readiness the difference between life and death.

On the inverse, inadequate processes can hold back even the best training regimens. Organizations concerned about the training and readiness solutions they use and their ability to support personnel during a major event would be wise to consider an all-inclusive platform that promotes speed and efficiency. Desperately trying to track down inventory or pinpoint personnel with specific training in an emergency situation can add unnecessary complexity to the entire response process, ultimately resulting in bad press, supervisory pressure, and — worst of all — lives lost.

Terrorism is a shifting, asymmetrical problem that mirrors the complex geopolitical climate we live in. Where battles of old were fought against marked enemies in designated areas, terrorists are there to inflict damage by any means necessary, via any target available. Although no manner of predictive or tactical response can fully guarantee against the threat of an attack, combining these skills with effective information sharing, strong training, and smart protocol provides the best possible alternative: a world where the majority of plots are foiled and the rest are met by a combined force of competent, well-trained professionals ready to mitigate damage to the fullest extent possible.

Posted on Sep 17, 2018