The following excerpt is from Left of Boom: The Citizen’s Guide to Detecting and Preventing Terrorist Attacks, a new e-book based on Homeland Security Television’s Terrorism Awareness & Prevention Program. $4.99 via Amazon.
In July 2010, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security adopted the “If You See Something, Say Something”TM campaign, which urged citizens to report suspicious activity to law enforcement. The goal was to enlist the help of Americans to identify and report the indicators of terrorist activity in the hope that a tip at the right time and at the right place would help authorities disrupt and prevent an attack.
Americans reacted positively to the program. One of the most notable examples of a citizen who saw something suspicious and immediately notified police was the 2010 attempt by Faisal Shahzad to detonate a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device in the heart of Manhattan’s Times Square. Shahzad was a Pakistani-American who had been inspired by radical cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki.
Shahzad parked a sport utility vehicle packed with a powerful IED at approximately 6:28 p.m. near West 45th Street and Broadway. Two minutes later, a local T-shirt vendor noticed smoke coming from the vehicle. Shahzad had attempted to ignite a delayed fusing mechanism that would give him time to escape the scene. The street vendor, however, immediately notified a police officer nearby and the area was evacuated.
Although the bomb failed to detonate, it would have been powerful enough to cause major damage and kill potentially dozens of people nearby. The failed Times Square bombing is the perfect example of how a concerned American citizen who saw something suspicious was able to report it to authorities in time to save lives.
But this case, and many others like it, also demonstrated the one shortcoming of the “If You See Something, Say Something”TM campaign — the government never informed Americans what to look for. Sure, everybody knows the signs of criminal activity. If a masked man walks into a bank, alarm bells go off almost immediately. If you see smoke coming out of a parked car, that’s a pretty good sign that something is not right.
But terrorist attacks are rarely this easy to spot. Not only do terrorists take extra precautions to remain undetected, they sometimes engage in activities and petty crimes that do not resemble terrorist operations. Sometimes a minor trespassing incident or a vehicle theft is part of something more serious. With the knowledge presented here, we can potentially analyze these seemingly minor incidents in the context of larger threats and vulnerabilities.
That’s what this book is all about. This book is based on Homeland Security Television’s Terrorism Awareness and Prevention course, which I developed in 2006 with the assistance of many subject matter experts who agreed to provide on-camera interviews. This is your guide to understanding how terrorist groups plan and carry-out major, coordinated attacks, and the types of activities you should be aware of as possible indicators of a terrorist plot.
Left of boom is a term coined by the U.S. military to describe all of the activities undertaken by friendly and enemy forces before an attack or explosion occurs. It is a term that has since been adopted by the homeland security community to describe the intelligence operations and security precautions that go into preparing for and hopefully preventing (or mitigating the impact of) a terrorist attack.
For many years, homeland security and intelligence experts have argued that the only way to prevent terrorist attacks is to eliminate the radical ideology that terrorist groups leverage to recruit new members. While this is certainly a true statement as far as the long-term counterterrorism strategy of the nation is concerned, the counter-messaging strategy of the U.S. and its allies has failed miserably. We are no closer to dismantling the recruiting infrastructure of radical Islamic terrorist groups than we were on September 11, 2001.
Others, most notably former DHS official and CNN commentator Juliett Kayyem, have stressed the importance of the so-called “right of boom” activities — the emergency response that is critical to saving lives in the aftermath of an attack or natural disaster. Again, while this is certainly a valid concern it is one that has had the benefit of more than 15 years of attention in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Our first responders have never been better trained or equipped, with tens of billions of dollars being doled out across the country in grants for security forces and first responders.
But we have failed miserably when it comes to recognizing the role of citizen preparedness in helping to detect and prevent attacks. Our security and law enforcement agencies are overwhelmed by the volume of counterterrorism investigations and surveillance requirements. The FBI, for example, has acknowledged there are counterterrorism investigations underway in all 50 states. In the U.K., there are 500 known plots under investigation involving 3,000 people considered radical. The only way terrorism prevention will improve in the short-term is for citizens to get knowledgeable about the adversary and become more vigilant.
We know from the Times Square example that engaged citizens can make a difference. And we also know that in many other cases people witnessed suspicious things that they didn’t report, only to learn later that what they had seen was part of a deadly terrorist plot unfolding before their eyes. This was particularly true in Mumbai, India, which we discuss in detail in a later chapter.
A few words of caution are in order before you begin to put the material contained in this guide to use. First, the need for citizen involvement in reporting suspicious activity is not an excuse for anybody to take the law into their own hands. The information in this guide does not provide you with law enforcement authority. In addition, this information is not license to conduct vigilante operations against perceived threats. Such actions may not only put you in legal jeopardy, but they may also place you in danger. This guide is strictly educational material designed to help the non-security professional identify suspicious behaviors that may be related to terrorist activity.
Second, it is important to understand that the suspicious activities you may be witnessing could be an actual attack unfolding. Therefore, if a situation is a matter of life and death it is critical that you stop what you are doing and call 9-1-1 or the emergency number in your country or locale.
Finally, we must all understand that not all terrorist attacks can be prevented. As we have witnessed recently in London and elsewhere, lone wolf terrorist attacks involving trucks and knives are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to detect until the attack is underway. Even small groups of attackers who conduct little or no planning before moving to the attack phase can cause great damage and bloodshed. And while their ability to conduct the attack may lead some to conclude it was a highly coordinated, planned and supported operation, that is not always true.
Self-radicalized attackers who are not under active surveillance by security and law enforcement agencies will always be capable of moving rapidly and undetected to the attack phase, whether that involves renting a truck to run people down or launching knife attacks. And even those suspected of connections to terrorists and who are known to law enforcement can evade detection.
We all know what normal looks like in our daily lives and workplaces. It’s the ability to identify deviations from that normal baseline of activity and to analyze incidents within the context of larger threats and vulnerabilities that can enable each of us to contribute to America’s homeland security.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- THE TERRORIST ATTACK CYCLE
- Initial Planning
- Acquiring Weapons, Funding, Support
- Conducting Surveillance
- Rehearsal – Validating the Plan
- Alerting Authorities
- IMPROVISED EXPLOSIVE DEVICES
- CASE STUDY: MUMBAI
- Planning & Surveillance
- The Attack
- CASE STUDY: OKLAHOMA CITY BOMBING
- Timothy McVeigh and His Device
- Planning & Timing
- Reconstructing the Blast
- SUMMARY: LESSONS LEARNED
- ABOUT THE AUTHOR
 Licensed for Editorial use by Getty Images.
 Licensed for Editorial use by Getty Images.
 Cohen, Zachary. “DHS chief: Terror risk as high as on 9/11.” CNN.com. CNN, 18 Apr. 2017. Web. 18 Apr. 2017. <http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/18/politics/john-kelly-dhs-terrorism-isis-threat/index.html>.