REVIEW: Article

Policing in an Age of Terror: Prevention is Better Than Cure

A couple of weeks before the anniversary of the deadly July 7, 2005 terrorist attacks in London, the Center for Security Policy and the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Policing Terrorism joined the London-based think tank, Politeia, in holding high-level meetings, followed by a major public conference at the British Academy—with political, law enforcement and community leaders—aimed at understanding and defeating the global reach of terrorism. 

The conference addressed the timely topic, Conquering Crime and Tackling Terrorism: Is There a Special Relationship? facilitating a fascinating conversation among high-level law enforcement officials from both the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US). UK participants included Sir Ian Blair, Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police; important elected officials such as: Dr. John Reid, MP, the British Home Secretary; Dr. Liam Fox MP and Nick Herbert MP, Shadow Ministers, respectively, for Defense and Police Reform; and John Denham MP, Chairman of the All-Party Group on Police were also present.

The US delegation included William Bratton, Chief of the Los Angeles Police; and John Timoney, Chief of the Miami Police, as well as the Center for Security Policy’s President Frank Gaffney, Jr. and Vice President for Research, Alex Alexiev, and this author, together with The Manhattan Institute’s President, Lawrence Mone, Senior Fellow George Kelling, and Tim Connors and R.P. Eddy from the Institute’s Center for Policing Terrorism.  Sam Brinkley, Vice President of Homeland Security for Wackenhut Services and formerly Professional Staff Member on the September 11 Commission, also joined us.  Politeia’s President, Sheila Lawlor, was the conference Program Director. The conference was skillfully chaired by Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury—whose ancestor Robert Cecil, the first Queen Elizabeth’s “spymaster,” is credited with playing a vital counterintelligence role in defeating the invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588, an historic reminder that our British hosts have been in the “humint” game for a long time!

The “Homegrown” Threat

All politics is local and proper terrorism strategy begins at home. The United States and the United Kingdom—historically steadfast allies in earlier world conflicts—together with our other democratic allies, today face the global threat posed by Islamofascism on two fronts, both from outside forces and homegrown terror, as we were once again starkly reminded in the foiled plot to bring down ten airliners bound for the United States from Heathrow in August of this year. 

In his opening remarks, Sir Ian Blair, differentiated between the nature of the threat faced in the United States and the United Kingdom.  In his opinion, the principal threat the United States has to fear is the enemy from outside the country, whereas it is homegrown terrorists—such as the young British-born Muslims who perpetrated the July 7 transit bombings—who are of primary concern to British law enforcement. The US delegation, however, forcefully argued that homegrown terror has become a growing concern among American law enforcement.

LAPD Chief William Bratton spoke of a recent terror plan that had been hatched by a radical Islamic group inside a California State Prison to bomb synagogues in the Los Angeles area. Upon their release from prison, members of the group began robbing gas stations to finance their attack. The attack was only disrupted when two of the group were arrested during the commission of a robbery, and a search of their shared apartment yielded weapons and jihadist literature.

Miami’s top cop, John Timoney, concurred noting that “the next attack is as likely to come from our own streets as it is from overseas.” His remarks proved prescient (or perhaps forewarned) when shortly after Chief Timoney returned to Miami, federal agents raided a waterfront warehouse there and charged seven young men with conspiring to support al-Qaeda in an alleged plot to wage a terror war against the United States.

The issue of homegrown terror has been a factor since as early as 1999, however both in the United Kingdom and in the United States, the transition from large international terror groups to more loosely affiliated “homegrown” terrorists continues to be an increasing menace. The waning of state supported terrorism in the late 1990s resulted in the need for terrorists to seek alternative funding sources.

Thus—in an age of global terror—we continue to experience on various different fronts, the close connection of criminality and terrorism. One of the obvious choices was to use existing criminal activities to obtain operational funds. For example, an established smuggling route remains a smuggling route.  If you can smuggle drugs into an area, you can equally smuggle WMD materials via the same route. Likewise, organizations that smuggle immigrants into the United States—or Britain—can easily do so with terrorist operatives.  Syndicates that launder money earned from drug sales can make those funds available to finance terrorist operations, such as safe houses.  The possibilities are endless.

The convergence between crime and international terrorism lies at the heart of the global war on terror, requiring a new approach if we are to defeat a determined and ruthless adversary. The boundaries between today’s criminal and terrorist worlds are fluid.  Criminal groups can—and do—evolve into terrorist organizations and vice versa.  Today’s terrorists do not operate in isolation. They interact with—and are supported by—a network of criminal syndicates, often aided and abetted by corrupt regimes.

Human Intelligence is Key

What can be done to keep the United States and the United Kingdom safe from future terrorist attacks, especially as the terror threat moves toward “homegrown” terrorists? The conference participants noted that the need to bolster human intelligence is becoming even more apparent, and often it is local police who are the best sources of such information.

After all it is local police, not the federal agents or intelligence officers, who have an everyday presence in the communities they are sworn to protect.  They “walk the beat,” communicate regularly with local residents and business owners, and are more likely to notice even subtle changes in the neighborhoods they patrol daily. In the United States, the numbers alone tell the story: there are over 700,000 state and local police compared to just 12,000 FBI agents.

Local police are closer to the communities that harbor terrorists and have greater resources to track down leads. As a result, they are in a better position to know who the responsible leaders are in the Islamic and Arabic communities and can reach out to them for information or for help in developing informants.

For example, a major terrorist attack in London was disrupted last year when a grandmother noticed a group of young men frequenting a flat that contained no furniture and then detected a strange chemical smell wafting from the apartment. She notified her local bobby who quickly followed up resulting in the discovery of a terror cell that was preparing a poison gas attack that could have killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of Londoners.

Just as a narcotics and anti-gang units are trained to spot signs of drug dealing or gang involvement, so too can police be trained to recognize signs of terrorist involvement.  Such indicators might include a number of men living together with little furniture. The presence or attempted acquisition of large quantities of household chemicals or fertilizers that could be used in bomb-making is another clear tip off, as are unusual odors or chemical burns. Of course, police also should be on the lookout for radical Islamic literature or training manuals, disguises or hair dyes, and suspicious-looking maps, photos, sketches or blueprints.

LAPD Chief William Bratton spoke at length about a proactive program he has started in Los Angeles called Operation Archangel that reaches out to owners of businesses that sell products or services that could possibly be used by terrorists—truck rental facilities for example—and made sure they are aware of the threat. Through this effort they have also reached out to doormen, private security guards, and transit workers, and have enlisted the help of the general public through public awareness campaigns that encourage everyone to remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity to police.

In addition, conference participants noted that there is a growing nexus between crime and terrorism.  As authorities have clamped down on traditional financing pipelines, terror networks have increasingly turned to criminal activities to finance their operations.  Al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah operatives have involved themselves in an array of criminal enterprises. Sales of counterfeit cigarettes, pharmaceuticals, DVDs and other goods have become a main staple of terror financing.  So have drug sales, credit card fraud and plain old robbery. Often, these operations can become quite lucrative. For example, millions of dollars in cash and drugs were recovered from the homes of the 2004 Madrid train bombers.

Local police also are reaching out to the academic and think tank community for knowledge regarding the history of radical Islam, various terrorist groups, and effective counterterrorist strategies that have been employed across the globe. 

The Manhattan Institute in New York has been a pioneer in this regard with the formation of its Center for Policing Terrorism, now working with police departments throughout the United States to train them to be effective “first preventers” of terrorism and not just “first responders” who aid victims after an attack has already occurred.  Just as the Manhattan Institute helped develop a new paradigm for policing in the 1990s that showed police how to be preventive and proactive toward ordinary crime, they are now trying to bring about a similar transformation in the way local law enforcement views its role in the fight against terrorism. The Center for Security Policy—with its expertise on the Islamic threat globally and in the United States—is proud to be actively engaged in an ongoing collaboration with the Manhattan Institute in this vital work. Both organizations believe that the key to successful prevention is a careful analysis of worldwide events and an application of this knowledge to the local operating environment.

Sharing Intelligence

Of course, once police have intelligence they need to be able to share it effectively.   Conference participants agreed that the British are better at collecting and sharing intelligence than their American counterparts. This is partly due to the fact that they had several decades of experience dealing with terror attacks by the IRA and partly due to the fact that there are far fewer law enforcement agencies in the United Kingdom. (London’s 60,000 strong Metropolitan Police make up the bulk of the country’s police.)  In addition, the law enforcement and intelligence communities are much better integrated than in the States.

American law enforcement is radically decentralized with over 17,000 separate police departments in the United States. This represents a clear challenge in the post-September 11 world where information sharing is key. In addition, there is a long history of rivalry and distrust between the FBI and the “state and locals.”  So, both horizontally and vertically, the United States faces great challenges.

US conference participants spoke of the need to overcome the petty rivalries and technological barriers that are hampering the collection and sharing of important intelligence.

They also spoke of the emerging importance of intelligence “fusion” centers.  State and regional fusion centers are regional intelligence centers that pool information from multiple jurisdictions.  Centers now exist in nearly every state and they will be crucial in the years ahead to improving our nation’s intelligence sharing capabilities. In a recent speech, President Bush noted the importance of linking terrorist information across jurisdictions and called state and local police “the front line of defeating terror.”

The US chiefs Bratton and Timoney reminded the audience, however, that local police got themselves into a great deal of trouble in the 1960s by illegally spying on antiwar and civil rights groups. Uniform training procedures and standards on how intelligence is gathered, stored, and accessed need to be developed and disseminated to local law enforcement in order to safeguard citizens’ privacy and civil rights.

National Will in a 1938 Moment?

It was clear from the conference that, in many important ways, the British are ahead of their American counterparts in terms of intelligence sharing and the tools they have to prosecute the war on terror. For example, British police agencies are given far greater authority in general than their American counterparts to conduct domestic surveillance and detain terrorism suspects. (Britain’s newly revised terrorism laws permit the detention of suspects for 28 days without charge.).

Yet while the British may have more sophisticated intelligence to investigate suspected terrorist activity, they lack something that may be far more important: the national will to honestly face up the threat posed by radical Islam. 1.6 million Muslims now live in the United Kingdom, among whom is a growing minority who view their life’s purpose to destroy the fabric of British society from within. The most comprehensive survey to date of Muslim opinion conducted in August 2006 in Britain by NOP Research yielded disquieting results.  For instance:

  • 45 percent affirmed that September 11 was a conspiracy by the American and Israeli governments, more than twice as high as those who say it was not a conspiracy;
  • One in four British Muslims believe that last year’s July 7 attacks were justified because of British support of the US-led war on terror;
  • 30 percent of British Muslims would prefer to live under Sharia (Islamic religious) law than under British law;
  • 28 percent hope one day for the United Kingdom to become a fundamentalist Islamic state.  (These findings comport with a Daily Telegraph newspaper survey last year that found that one-third of British Muslims believe that Western society is decadent and immoral and that Muslims should seek to end it.).

The Muslim threat to British security is so severe that the Assistant London Police Commissioner, Tarique Gaffur, has called for an inquiry into the radicalization of young Muslims whom he describes as “a generation of angry young people vulnerable to exploitation.”  The terrorist weed that is choking the United Kingdom is especially hard to eradicate because it is growing in British soil and the response of the British political leadership appears perilously close to appeasement.

The UK taxpayer-subsidized experiment in multiculturism appears to be having the unintended consequence of destroying this great country from within through encouraging a form of cultural apartheid. Multiculturism is morphing into multi-polarization. There is already a movement towards imposing Sharia law on large traditionally industrial cities like Bradford and Leeds. While the British Muslim population is mainly peaceful and productive, a significant number are prepared to act against their own country. As Sir Winston Churchill observed, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping that it will eat him last.”

America’s fastest-growing religion is Islam, but in the United States the numbers are not of themselves a security concern, because to date there is little evidence that the commitment to Islam has not overwhelmed a strong attachment to America itself—another victory for the cultural melting pot. 

However, while the scale of the problem is different, Americans cannot afford to be complacent. We have to combat a highly sophisticated Islamist influence operation at work in the United States This operation permeates all levels of our civic and political society, including some of the law enforcement community, who—in their zeal to be educated on the concerns of the Muslim community—have inadvertently embraced those organizations that are frequently the problem rather than the solution to the homegrown threat.


Both our governments must pursue a policy of zero tolerance towards Islamic extremism because it is a threat to the entire free world. The near-catastrophic terrorist airline plot underscores that the free world is engaged in an epic war against Islamofascism. It is not only America’s conflict, it is also Britain’s war, and Europe’s war—in fact a war in which all freedom loving peoples are engaged. 

The battle against Islamic terrorism must be waged militarily across the globe, as well as through intelligence and police operations on the home front. The law enforcement community is on the front lines of this war—and the task that faces them on both sides of the Atlantic is less a matter of introducing an array of new tactics or technologies but rather in incorporating the counterterrorism mindset into how they approach everyday operations. This simple strategy of creating an environment that is hostile to terrorism, through counterterrorism planning, intelligence gathering and community partnerships into existing police crime-prevention and response procedures will go a long way towards making the civilian populations of both the United States and the United Kingdom hostile places for terrorists to operate.

As one who was born and bred in the United Kingdom, and privileged to become an American by adoption—to live and work and bring up a family in the welcoming shores of the United States—it is perhaps inevitable to turn to Sir Winston Churchill, for comfort and inspiration in these perilous times.

In his famous “Iron Curtain” speech on March 5, 1946, Sir Winston, defining the “overall strategic concept” that should guide our countries, observed:

“It is nothing less than the safety and welfare, the freedom and progress, of all the homes and families of all the men and women in all the lands.  And here I speak particularly of the myriad cottage or apartment homes where the wage earner strives amid the accidents and difficulties of life to guard his wife and family from privation and bring the family up in the fear of the Lord, or upon ethical conceptions which often play their potent part. To give security to these countless homes, they must be shielded from the two giant marauders, war and tyranny…The dark ages may return, the Stone Age may return on the gleaming wings of Science, and what might now shower immeasurable material blessings upon mankind, may even bring about its total destruction. Beware, I say: time is short. Do not let us take the course of allowing events to drift along until it is too late.  If there is to be a continued fraternal association with all the strength and security, which both our countries can derive from it, let us make sure that great fact is known to the world…There is the path of wisdom. Prevention is better than cure.”

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New York Director, Center for Security Policy