Vigilance by police could be vital to thwarting attacks

Local efforts can spot decentralized terrorists

July 10, 2005|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When it comes to preventing attacks like the London bombings, the cop on the street has become as important as the CIA operative on the ground in Afghanistan.

That is among the major lessons counterterrorism officials are learning as they try to reposition themselves to collect intelligence on an increasingly decentralized and localized terrorist enemy - the kind that experts suspect launched last week's attack.

Terrorism experts believe that al-Qaida has effectively spun a web of local extremist sympathizers around the world who have been given express directives to launch their own, independent attacks against Western countries. That makes these terrorist operations infinitely more difficult to detect before the bombs go off.

Such attacks typically involve fewer planners and less complex plans - and therefore fewer opportunities to come to the attention of the government.

"In some ways, the al-Qaida we knew was a much easier target," said Roger Cressey, a former White House counterterrorism official. Now, "you have this new cadre of individuals who do not appear in anybody's database or no-fly list."

"It's a small group with no known ties to the usual terrorist suspects," explained Cressey, who worked in both the Bush and Clinton administrations. "It's easier for them to practice good operational security because they'll keep their communications within a small group. The mistakes they make, and they all make mistakes, will not appear on the law enforcement radar screen.

"Taken together, it's very chilling."

In some cases, the would-be terrorists are on the government's watch list, but officials don't always know what they are really up to. In Madrid, Cressey said, the perpetrators were being tracked rather closely, but for drug trafficking, not terrorism.

That the British, who have in many ways pioneered domestic intelligence, were foiled by this most recent plot, "just emphasizes how enormously difficult they are to penetrate," Cressey said.

Another complicating factor: the ease with which terrorists can build the sort of crude plastic-explosive bombs that officials believe were used in London. The devices are thought to have weighed less than 10 pounds, able to be easily tucked into a small backpack.

Officials say that the best way to increase the chances that the next al-Qaida-inspired group will be discovered before it's too late is to enlist those most likely to encounter them - local police and even the public.

The decentralized brand of al-Qaida "will have a profound impact on the way we deal with this threat from an intelligence perspective," said John Cohen, who headed a recent study for the Department of Homeland Security on intelligence sharing across different levels of government.

"The reliance on intelligence generated from overseas will not necessarily be the priority," said Cohen, a former Navy intelligence officer. "The priority will be to collect, analyze, share and use intelligence at the local and state level, and that has got to be where we start focusing our resources."

To do that in a measured way, he says, police and other local officials who regularly work with the public would be trained not to spy on the American public but to be on the lookout for anomalous behavior that could be connected with a terrorist plot in the making.

Some intelligence analysts believe that U.S. spy agencies should be doing more training with local law enforcement officials.

Under the current system, FBI-organized Joint Terrorism Task Forces, made up of law enforcement and intelligence officials, gather as needed to investigate local threats. But some local law enforcement officals complain that the groups don't effectively cull local intelligence.

There also needs to be a standard procedure for collecting, analyzing and sharing intelligence, Cohen said. In that way, officials at all levels of government would be part of this new drive for intelligence, and the information they gather might form a more complete picture of a potential threat.

Maryland launched a Coordination and Analysis Center in late 2003 in an effort to pull together local law enforcement tips from around the state and combine them with the intelligence received from the federal government.

"If you've got a local threat, the only way you're going to find out about it, oftentimes, is from the local police officer or another public safety person," said Maryland Homeland Security Director Dennis Schrader.

In the past year, the state added an analysis unit to try to make sense of the information that came in, Schrader said. But the unit has had difficulty getting off the ground.

Hiring analysts has been enormously difficult, because the state is competing for talent with U.S. intelligence agencies. Training local officials has also lagged, Schrader said.

Even with an army of analysts, the sheer volume of information can be overwhelming.

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