Police Officers as Grassroots Defenders
By Scott Stewart
Last week's Security Weekly discussed how an alert citizen helped prevent a Columbine-inspired school shooting in Waseca, Minnesota. In that case, an alert citizen noticed John LaDue behaving suspiciously near a storage space and called the police. Responding officers found that LaDue was manufacturing pressure cooker bombs during what is known as the weapons acquisition phase of the attack cycle.
This series of events highlighted the fact that attackers are vulnerable to detection during the attack cycle and demonstrated that attacks can be prevented by what we call grassroots defenders. But school shootings are not the only types of attacks that can be thwarted by grassroots defenders. Politically or religiously motivated terrorists face the same attack cycle constraints and are vulnerable to detection in the same manner. And concerned citizens are not the only type of grassroots defenders. Police officers -- specifically ordinary patrolmen not assigned exclusively to counterterrorism roles -- also serve a critical role in protecting the public from terrorism.
As I write, I'm flying to Atlanta to speak at the annual conference of the International Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysts and the Law Enforcement Intelligence Units Association about the current state of the jihadist movement and the implications of changes in that movement for law enforcement personnel. Because of this, my mind is fixating on the topic of police officers as grassroots defenders against terrorist attacks, but there are some important concepts that I'd like to share with Stratfor readers, whether law enforcement officers or civilians.
As I noted in the series of analyses published a few months ago that assessed the current state of the jihadist movement, over the past decade -- and especially during the past five years -- jihadist ideologues have begun to heavily promote the concept of leaderless resistance for their followers in the United States and Europe. In doing so, jihadist leaders have followed a long line of far-right and far-left extremist leaders who have urged their followers to adopt a leaderless resistance model for their operations. In other words, the al Qaeda core and its franchises are copying the operational models adopted earlier by white supremacist groups, the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front.
The jihadists have adopted this leaderless resistance "grassroots" operational model for the same reason that these other groups did. Namely, once the full attention of the U.S. (or a foreign government's) law enforcement and intelligence apparatus became focused on them, it became very difficult to operate as a hierarchical organization. Communications were compromised, operatives were identified and tracked, and funding was interdicted. It is no accident that the al Qaeda core suffered substantial losses after the 9/11 attacks and that it has been unable to replicate that type of "terrorist spectacular" over the nearly 13 years that have passed since. The U.S. government and its allies have attacked the al Qaeda organization with the full weight of every tool in their counterterrorism arsenal, and the end result of that assault was frustrated terrorist planners who decided the best way to attack the United States or the West was by urging jihadists living there to take action.
This was a significant change for the jihadist movement. Since the 1970s their call was for men to come and "join the caravan" traveling to receive training and then fight in places like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya and Iraq. In 2009, that call became "stay at home and attack to the best of your ability where you live." This shift had clear security advantages because there would be no international communications to intercept or hierarchical organizations to penetrate and monitor. The jihadist "movement" is far wider than the al Qaeda organization and it is therefore more difficult to determine who might be planning an attack and where.
However, this increased operational security also comes with a price. The grassroots operatives, whether working alone or as part of a small cell, lack the technical skills of the professional terrorist operatives of the al Qaeda core or the al Qaeda franchise groups. We call these technical terrorist skills "tradecraft."
The grassroots operatives -- no matter their ideological motivation -- generally possess poor tradecraft skills in such areas as surveillance, bombmaking and operational security. They also frequently lack funding, and in some cases they will use crime to fund their activities. Their poor operational security and involvement in crime leaves them particularly vulnerable to detection by the police.
As noted above, most counterterrorism intelligence efforts have been designed to identify and track people with links to known terrorist groups, and in that regard such efforts have proved very effective. On the other hand, counterterrorism agencies have struggled to identify those grassroots militants who do not have contact with known terrorist entities. Grassroots movements are by nature ambiguous, and government agencies frequently struggle with ambiguity.
It is also important to note that the resources of counterterrorism agencies are limited. For example, the FBI has fewer than 14,000 special agents on the street to fulfill its many responsibilities, and while counterterrorism has become its top mission in the post-9/11 era, only a portion of its agents (estimated to be between 2,500 and 3,000) are assigned to counterterrorism investigations at any time. This is not merely a problem for the FBI. Indeed, counterterrorism is not the sole, or even primary, mission of most agencies that conduct counterterror operations. Often, as is the case with MI5 in the United Kingdom, the primary counterterrorism agency also has substantial foreign counterintelligence responsibilities. In the case of the FBI, it has not only counterterrorism and foreign counterintelligence missions but also a host of other responsibilities, such as investigating bank robberies, kidnappings, white-collar crime, online crime and public corruption. Also, while counterterrorism was the primary focus of almost every law enforcement and intelligence agency immediately after 9/11, as time has passed, the emphasis on counterterrorism has lessened because other missions have demanded increased resources.
These limited resources have been largely focused on identifying and monitoring the activities of people connected to established militant groups. This emphasis is understandable given that operatives belonging to a group like Hezbollah or established jihadist organizations have access to much better training and far greater resources than their grassroots counterparts. This means that they are generally capable of planning and executing larger and more sophisticated attacks. Because of this, it is only logical for counterterrorism agencies to focus their limited resources on the more potent threat. But, as demonstrated by last year's Boston Marathon bombing, grassroots operatives can and do launch attacks. That attack also demonstrated how counterterrorism programs have struggled to address the grassroots threat.
Certainly, professional counterterrorism agencies have thwarted many grassroots plots. But in the majority of those plots the suspects either planned an attack that was beyond their means, leading them to seek assistance from government informants, or they contacted a known militant actor and, in doing so, came to the attention of the authorities. However, grassroots actors who do not seek assistance and who do not get caught communicating with known terrorist entities can often launch their attacks undetected. In those cases, the attack will either fail, like the 2010 Times Square bombing, or succeed, like the Boston Marathon bombing.
While there are only about 14,000 FBI agents to cover the entire United States, there are some 34,000 officers in the New York City Police Department alone and an estimated 800,000 local and state police officers across the United States. While the vast majority of these officers are not assigned to investigate terrorism, simple numbers dictate that grassroots operatives planning terrorist attacks who do not reach out for help are far more likely to encounter an ordinary policeman than a dedicated counterterrorism agent.
One example is the June 2011 case in which Seattle police alerted the FBI of two grassroots jihadists planning an armed assault against a Military Entrance Processing Station in Seattle. The men were identified when they contacted a police informant in an attempt to obtain hand grenades and fully automatic rifles -- the weapons acquisition phase of the attack cycle.
Other examples include the August 2007 case in which two men stopped by a sheriff's deputy for speeding near Goose Creek, S.C., were found to be in possession of a large pipe bomb, and the July 2005 case in which police in Torrance, Calif., thwarted a grassroots terrorism plot during the investigation of a string of armed robberies. Furthermore, a sharp North Carolina sheriff's deputy uncovered a multimillion-dollar cigarette smuggling operation being run by Hezbollah.
Because of their limited tradecraft capabilities, grassroots operatives of all stripes frequently make operational security errors while they are in the process of committing crimes in advance of an attack, such as document fraud, illegally obtaining weapons or illegally raising funds for an attack. These are the types of activities a would-be attacker is required to conduct by the constraints of the attack planning cycle that leave him or her vulnerable to detection. But this vulnerability can only be exploited if the police officers recognize the behavior for what it is and take appropriate action.
The threat from the grassroots is real and deadly. Because of this, the importance of grassroots defenders has never been greater. Police officers, whether on patrol or conducting investigations are a critical component in the grassroots defense network. As the West faces the continuing danger of jihadists returning from battlefields in places such as Syria, police officers will play a significant role in helping to mitigate that threat.
Security Weekly: Police Officers as Grassroots Defenders is republished with permission of Stratfor.