New York Spurs Counterterrorism Efforts

The “war on terrorism” is often portrayed as playing out on the streets of Baghdad or in the mountains of Afghanistan. But New York City is another important battleground and could provide lessons for how other U.S. localities deal with counterterrorism.

December 26, 2006 3:17 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

More on:

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

United States

This publication is now archived.


After 9/11, many local officials began to believe they could not rely on the federal government, which failed to deter the plot, as their sole protector against terrorism. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina only reinforced these concerns. But regardless of Washington’s capabilities, local governments play a distinct role in preventing terrorism and responding to disasters as they often have more intimate knowledge of the communities under their care. The cities that have taken the biggest strides are generally those facing the greatest threat from terrorism or natural disasters. New York City has done far more to protect itself than any other American city, experts say, and provides a model for other places seeking to bolster their civil defenses.

How do cities and states deal with the threat of terrorism?

While measures vary from place to place, most efforts fall into two categories: counterterrorism and disaster response. Local officials say efforts to address public safety threats are often similar. As Chief Joseph W. Pfeifer of the New York Fire Department told a recent CFR symposium, his agency’s core functions—responding to fires, casualties, contamination, and structural collapse—apply to the gamut of potential threats, from terrorism to natural disasters. This “all hazards” approach, as it is known, relates mainly to preparing all sectors of society for a disaster response, but the principle translates as well to counterterrorism efforts. Several cities, for instance, use an “all crimes” approach when allocating resources to prevent terrorist and other criminal activities. To fund these efforts, cities and states apply federal grants. “Relatively few cities are spending their own money on terrorism,” says Arnold Howitt, executive director of Harvard’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government. Since 9/11, these federal funds have eclipsed $9 billion nationwide.

Do the federal authorities coordinate with local governments?

Yes. Perhaps the most important domestic counterterrorism resources are the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs): groups of federal and local officials who share information and coordinate operations aimed at preventing terrorist attacks. New York City, for example, has more than one hundred officers assigned to its JTTF. Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism Richard A. Falkenrath says this gives the city access to the federal government’s “awesome” national intelligence capabilities. It is highly possible, says P.J. Crowley, a homeland security expert at the Center for American Progress, “that the next [terrorism] plot will be discovered on a police beat or by a private security guard.”

How are relations between the federal government and New York?

Still strained, analysts say. Funding remains a sore spot: In 2006, New York received 40 percent less federal funding than in 2005 through the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), a program enacted by Congress in 2003 to provide funds for municipal governments to respond to terrorist threats. But cooperation between New York and Washington has improved since 2001. Shortly after 9/11, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) warned the White House that a nuclear weapon might be smuggled into New York City. Though the report was eventually discredited, the Bush administration waited weeks to inform then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of the threat. “That would never happen now,” Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly told the New Yorker.

What counterterrorism efforts has New York City made since 9/11?

Since January 2002, when a counterterrorism bureau was added to the New York Police Department (NYPD), the number of officers working the counterterrorism beat has grown from less than two dozen to over one thousand. At the street level, the NYPD deploys “Hercules” teams of heavily armed specialist cops to fortify high-profile targets—from the Brooklyn Bridge to Grand Central Terminal—and deter potential terrorist reconnaissance teams. Beyond such overt displays of force, the city also runs an extensive covert intelligence network. This includes “Operation Nexus,” an outreach program with local businesses that might come into contact with terrorists, such as car rental agencies, parking garages, or shops selling products that could be used to manufacture explosives. The city also employs ten officers stationed overseas, including in Israel and Jordan, to gather intelligence. When there is a suicide attack in Israel, an NYPD officer arrives at the scene to gauge if there are lessons that can be applied back home. In 2004, when terrorists attacked trains in Madrid, the NYPD was the first foreign law-enforcement agency on the scene. As a result of that investigation, New York City increased its police presence outside of subway stations, reconsidered the placement of closed-circuit TV cameras, and explored more blast-proof designs for subway cars.

Can New York’s counterterrorism efforts be duplicated elsewhere?

It’s difficult because of New York City’s size and resources, experts say. “The resources available [in New York] are not available any place else,” says Timothy Connors, director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Policing Terrorism. Its 52,000-member police force is more than double the size of the entire FBI. The $200 million the city spends annually on counterterrorism alone is well beyond the means of most cities. Aside from money, New York has an incredibly diverse population upon which it can draw. When the NYPD began looking for computer-literate, foreign-language speakers to staff its cyber-intelligence unit in 2002, it found it already had a native Afghan fluent in Dari, Pashto, Farsi, and Arabic employed on the force.

What lessons have other cities and states drawn from New York?

The most important lesson, says Connors, is that state and local governments, not federal agencies, must serve as the front line of homeland security. New Jersey’s state police has followed New York’s model by creating its own homeland security branch, a 1,000-strong interagency squad ready for rapid deployment, whether performing vehicle searches at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel or responding to a bomb threat in Trenton. New Jersey is one of only two states where the chief of the state police is also in charge of emergency management, which Richard L. Cañas, director of the state’s homeland security office, suggests “could be a model for other states." Forty-one states currently have or are developing so-called “intelligence fusion” centers, which allow officers making traffic stops to check the name of the driver against a statewide database and register the stop with that database. The point, explains Crowley, is to “create more dots” for analysts to connect.

A number of cities, inspired by New York, are increasingly emphasizing intelligence-gathering. Chicago now provides all of its 13,500 officers with five days of terrorism training. Los Angeles educates its officers to look for links to other criminal activity when responding to terrorist-related incidents. The House of Representatives is also considering a program—called Foreign Liaison Officers Against Terrorism (FLOAT) (PDF)—to send local police officers abroad. Connors says in the aftermath of an overseas terrorist attack, an FBI or CIA officer would focus broadly on organizational structure and money trails, while these police liaisons would ask more “local questions,” focusing on the details of an attacker’s methods that can inform efforts back home.

What are some other local disaster-prevention methods?

In Los Angeles, a program called Operation Archangel has received national recognition as a model for emergency management. Archangel consists of a computerized database of potential targets, such as landmarks or chemical plants, as well as “big box” stores like Wal-Mart, which contain easily accessible supplies (i.e. bottled water) that can aid emergency-response efforts. The Archangel database allows remote access not only to emergency managers, but also to intelligence and security analysts. Also garnering national attention is the federally funded Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) program, which offers free training at the local level to community members with an interest in assisting in disaster response. While helpful, the usefulness of CERTs is questionable, says Harvard’s Howitt. He has never come across an emergency manager who expected a CERT to play a significant role in disaster response. 

What are some criticisms of these local efforts?

Among the greatest challenges, experts say, is balancing civil liberties with security. In New York, when an undercover operation resulted in the arrests of two men in a plot to bomb the Herald Square subway station, Muslims across the city expressed concern over being targeted by the police. New Yorkers continue to complain about random bag checks in the city’s subway stations. Further, there are concerns that the command structure of the NYPD’s counterterrorism bureau is too hierarchical. Given the kind of decentralized threat posed by terrorist cells, some experts question whether this is the best model to combat the threat and suggest instead endowing mid-level officers with greater authority to allow for quicker responses. Finally, the steep cost of counterterrorism has raised concerns. New York City, for example, spends on average $437 million on annual overtime pay for police officers, nearly double what it spent before 9/11.

More on:

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

United States


Top Stories on CFR


U.S.-Russia bilateral relations have fallen to a new low, with Ukraine, Belarus, cyberattacks, and nuclear weapons among the biggest disagreements. What’s the best way to judge this summit’s success?

Latin America

The U.S. government is responding to another wave of migrants fleeing poverty, violence, and other challenges in the Central American region.

International Law

Fishing provides a critical source of food and income for many countries, but much of it occurs unlawfully, harming vulnerable populations and eroding maritime governance.