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Is New York a Counterterrorism Model?

Author: Lydia Khalil
September 10, 2009

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New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly recently described his department's counterterrorism program as "a Council on Foreign Relations with guns." Part think tank, part detective agency, part paramilitary organization, the New York Police Department's (NYPD) counterterrorism program has become one of the most sophisticated in the world.

In its efforts to anticipate new threats, thwart emerging plots, nip radicalization in the bud, and harden the city's targets, the NYPD monitors developments in hot spots around the world for tactical innovations, keeps an eye out for radicalization trends in Europe, and tracks al-Qaeda affiliates. It understands through painful experience that events overseas can manifest at home.

But New York's efforts have run into a range of challenges, including clashes with federal authorities over jurisdiction and with civil liberties groups over the scope and legality of its counterterrorism methods. It also continuously grapples with the task of where to deploy its resources most effectively. Post-9/11, a theoretical and practical debate rages over what poses the biggest terrorist threat--homegrown or loosely networked radicals, or organized, global terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.

Growth of the NYPD Counterterrorism Command

Prior to 9/11, the city's police department only had a handful of detectives working in the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) and an intelligence division that worked mostly on diplomatic security. The department now employs hundreds of uniformed and civilian personnel in its counterterrorism bureau, encompassing a counterterrorism division and an intelligence division as well as a robust presence in the JTTF.

The intelligence division is now focused almost exclusively on the terrorism threat and has detectives stationed abroad with direct connections to international intelligence agencies, including in Abu Dhabi, Indonesia, and the United Kingdom.

The NYPD regularly liaises with city developers to protect landmarks and major real estate. It has initiated daily police "surges" at various locales throughout the city to keep would be terrorists off guard as to the nature and size of police presence. The NYPD has also worked with transit and port authority police to secure the city's extensive subway system and maritime ports. And ever mindful of the worst-case scenario, it established a ring of radiation detectors around the city and established protocols with surrounding counties in the event of a chemical, biological, or nuclear attack.

Challenges

But the process hasn't been without its missteps. Though better, the NYPD's relationship with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) remains choppy--conflicts over informants and jurisdictional matters remain. NYPD's intelligence liaison officers stationed overseas have caused a lot of heartburn with national intelligence agencies. Reporters such as Leonard Levitt, in his NYPD Confidential Blog, have detailed the touchy relations between the NYPD and FBI and other federal agencies.

The NYPD has also wrangled with the Department of Homeland Security over funding and lines of authority. The NYPD has faced challenges within its own ranks. Any police department, but particularly the NYPD, is a balkanized organization. While there is high-level cooperation within the counterterrorism bureau, lines of communication and coordination among the rank and file doing everyday counterterrorism work are strained due to each section head's guarding of authority. The intelligence division, for example, is notoriously tightfisted with information, even with its counterparts in the NYPD.

Given that New York City remains the prime target for terrorist plotting, according to most threat assessments, the NYPD must continue its aggressive approach to counterterrorism. But it must also take a balanced approach so as not to threaten civil liberties or alienate communities.

During the Republican National Convention in 2004, 1,700 legitimate protesters were detained by the NYPD. Prior to the convention the department embarked upon a wide-reaching surveillance operation against political protest groups that reached outside of New York City. In a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the NYPD intelligence division was forced to release all documents pertaining to its surveillance efforts and its "mass arrest plan." The arrest plan, which detailed procedures for detaining and processing individuals, makes it seem as if the NYPD had the intent--regardless of the situation--to conduct mass arrests.

The NYPD's more recent project, the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative (LMSI), has also run into problems with civil libertarians. LMSI, borrowing from London's "Ring of Steel," has installed thousands of security cameras in lower Manhattan and a number of license plate readers, all monitored at a 24-hour operation center. Though the NYPD maintains it is necessary to guard against oncoming threats, many have questioned the cost, efficacy, and effect on privacy this initiative will have on New Yorkers and visitors.

Relaxed Community Relations

However, the NYPD has done much better managing its relations with New York's diverse and newly settled immigrant communities. This accomplishment could be a function of the city's long-standing diversity and opportunity for new immigrants, as well as the police force's diverse and multilingual rank and file. It is a credit to the organization that it has sought out, rather than shunned, individuals born abroad or with connections to parts of the world where terrorism is most prevalent.

Community relations, so touted in the counterterrorism community as a catchall measure to counter radicalization, has been effectively practiced by the NYPD for years. But unlike other major city police departments, NYPD community liaisons are removed from the counterterrorism bureau. Ironically, it is this distance that has contributed to good community relations and to the likelihood that individuals would be forthcoming with information when they do suspect those with malicious intentions in their midst.

This hands-off, easygoing approach has proven to be much more successful than the more obvious and convoluted efforts by other major international police forces, particularly in Europe.

The NYPD has also instituted two programs--NYPD SHIELD and Operation Nexus--to maintain regular contact with the New York business community and its private security managers. As Commissioner Kelly explained in April 2009, "[Through SHIELD] we share news and information with six thousand private security managers ... Under Operation Nexus, our detectives make thousands of visits to the kinds of businesses that might be exploited by terrorists, such as truck rental companies, scuba shops, and fertilizer stores."

Competing Theories

But toward which threat are all these resources marshaled? A foreign terrorist organization like al-Qaeda, state-sponsored terrorism from Iran or another hostile state, or a radicalized group or individual with no international connections?

The NYPD must balance its resources to address these related yet competing threats--domestic homegrown terrorism and terrorist plots hatched abroad yet carried out against New York City. Accurately assessing the threat--where it is coming from and the most likely means by which an attack will be carried out--is critical to protecting New York and other major cities in America.

Within the counterterrorism community there has been an ongoing debate about where this threat will likely emerge post- 9/11. The United States hasn't been directly attacked since then, and though most counterterrorism experts still believe the country is not immune, views differ on the likely source of the next attack.

The debate is embodied by a theoretical feud (Foreign Affairs) between two counterterrorism experts, Bruce Hoffman and Marc Sageman. Sageman, who was a 'scholar in residence' at the NYPD last year, argues that we are facing a "leaderless jihad" and that we should focus our counterterrorism efforts on the individual dynamic of radicalization and homegrown terrorism. Sageman believes that the next attack is more likely to be carried out by a "bunch of guys" rather than a properly organized terrorist organization. Hoffman, by contrast, maintains that it is established organizations like al-Qaeda that remain the dominant threat.

But within the NYPD, this academic debate has real-life implications. Many of the plots directed at New York City and its surrounding areas since 9/11 have involved domestic, radicalized individuals--as was the case last spring when four men allegedly plotted to bomb synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down military aircraft at a nearby air base.

Because of the hype surrounding homegrown radicalization, the NYPD undertook a year-long effort in 2007 to research and understand it (PDF). Despite the merits of the report, defining "homegrown radicalization" and understanding the radicalization process--and how it compares to threats by "al-Qaeda central"--remains unresolved, for both the NYPD and other counterterrorism organizations.

In addition to dealing with the prospect of homegrown radicalization or individuals loosely networked to international actors, the NYPD must also deal with the prospect of securing the city against an international terrorist attack from the likes of al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations. The airliners plot uncovered in 2006 in which the plotters planned to blow up several commercial airlines mid-Atlantic using liquid explosives is perhaps the most ambitious al-Qaeda-connected plot to date. After a complicated trial, three of the plotters were convicted of terrorism charges in early September. NYPD's counterterrorism bureau must also address these large al-Qaeda style attacks and the potential, however low, for a nuclear or chemical attack against the city.

A Local and International Outlook

9/11 fundamentally changed New York and its police department. The counterterrorism program the NYPD developed gave new meaning to the phrase, "think globally, act locally." It has become the most global of local police forces.

Many look to the NYPD as a model for counterterrorism policing. But the reality is that most police forces do not have the numbers or the resources of the NYPD. Many of their programs are not applicable to smaller U.S. cities and would not translate to international capitals. The best lesson other cities can draw from the New York experience is to be intimately focused on their own communities, in more than just counterterrorism efforts, while maintaining an awareness of how global events can shape local conditions.

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