Ambassador Michael Sheehan on “The Terrorist Next Door”May 5, 2010 # 9:33 am # Armed Conflict, Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Intelligence, International Law, Supreme Court # No Comment
In case you missed it, Michael A. Sheehan had an excellent op-ed in the New York Times earlier this week on the challenge of “home grown” and “lone wolf” terrorism. Ambassador Sheehan served as the US Coordinator for Counterterrorism during the Clinton Administration and was Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism with the New York City Police– and, I might add, a distinguished graduate of the MSFS Program at Georgetown University. He writes:
While it’s possible that last weekend’s failed car-bomb incident in Times Square was part of a complicated international terrorist plot, the unsophisticated nature of the device has given rise to a much-needed discussion about the threat of “home grown” and “lone wolf” violence in the United States.
The subject leads many to throw up their hands: how, short of creating a police state, can we prevent a lone deranged person from making a crude bomb and parking it somewhere?
The truth, though, is that we are not helpless: standard police vigilance and public alertness can play a role, but the real key to minimizing the damage such people can accomplish is to keep these disaffected individuals from making connections with larger networks.
“Home grown” terrorists are natives or longtime residents who belong to groups that espouse a particular agenda or radical ideology. “Lone wolf” terrorists, on the other hand, usually operate by themselves and are not formally associated with a movement. In either case, they are people who live and move among us every day, secretly working in their basements or garages devising bombs or more dangerous weapons.
Lone wolves can be very hard to find. The Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, lived in a shack in the mountains of Montana during the 17 years he sent 16 package bombs that killed three people and wounded 23 others. Eric Rudolph, who set off bombs at the Olympics in Atlanta, a gay bar and several abortion clinics, was a fugitive in the Appalachians for more than five years before his arrest by a North Carolina policeman in 2003. Timothy McVeigh, with a very small cell of two or three people, was able to build the powerful truck bomb that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City in 1995.
Fortunately, these men, in terms of determination and ability, were the exceptions. Most lone wolves are as incompetent as they are disturbed, and their attacks, like that on Saturday, tend to fizzle out. Even if a lone wolf terrorist is successful, the attack is a calamity for the victims and their families, but without connection to a larger organization, it will not represent a strategic threat to the United States.
So law enforcement has to focus on preventing sophisticated terrorist organizations from establishing a presence within the United States. The good news is that we know how to do this. The bad news is we aren’t doing it enough. No other American city even attempts to do what New York has accomplished. The New York Police Department’s intelligence and counterterrorism units, working both with the F.B.I. and independently, manage a network of informant and undercover operatives around the area. It was no accident that last year when a Denver man who was planning to bomb the New York subway system arrived in the city, the F.B.I. was aware of his travels, and a radical cleric he met with was already a police informant.
Of course, other American cities don’t have a police force with the manpower and experience of ours, but they can still do more. Small cities can act independently or work with the F.B.I.’s 50 or so joint terrorism task forces to set up investigative teams — just a handful of officers in most cities — to identify violent cells within their jurisdictions. They know how to do it: the techniques and legal authorities to run informants and undercover agents and to install wiretaps on phones and computers are the same as police departments have long used to infiltrate the mob and drug trafficking organizations.
So why have so few cities done what New York has, even on a smaller scale? Two reasons: money and political risk. Despite great gains across the country in recent years, cities are still under pressure to reduce street crime and are thus reluctant to put their best officers on terrorist investigations that may well come to naught. Many think that counterterrorism is the job, and financial responsibility, of the federal government alone.
In addition, some are wary of the political risk involved in running intelligence investigations against citizens and legal residents who may be involved only in legitimate political dissonance — a cherished right of all Americans.
But if we are going to prevent the next domestic terrorist attack, we will need to get beyond these concerns. For society as a whole, paying for a handful of detectives at the local level is far more efficient than spending billions inside the Beltway on bloated bureaucracies and large-scale defensive measures that will most likely have little practical effect. And while issues of civil liberties are important, they can be managed with close legal oversight of terrorism investigations.
As the New York case reminds us, there are people out there with the intent to kill. The job of law enforcement is to catch them before they are successful, and if that is not possible, to prevent them from becoming a real strategic threat rather than a small but deadly menace to our society. While we hope we can find lone wolves before they attack, we also need to reduce the threat they pose by identifying, infiltrating and crushing any terrorist organization before it can mount a sophisticated operation, or before it provides deadly technical support and training to the next Times Square bomber.
There is much good advice in Mike’s op-ed. One of the biggest challenges is going to be managing the civil liberties issues that he raises. In addressing the problem of terrorism at the national level, both the Bush and Obama Administrations have had great difficulty striking the right balance– with the greatest mistakes occurring under Bush. The law enforcement culture that has developed in the United States, however, could help our general approach to civil liberties. As a consequence, I am hopeful that state and local police and the more traditional national law enforcement agencies– the FBI, the DEA, etc– will actually be better suited to take on the task of combating the “home grown” and “lone wolf” terrorists that Mike describes.