When you attend your local Citizens Police Academy – and you should – you will learn a lot about the mundane and terrifying aspects of being in law enforcement. Much if it is interesting, some of it only in the sense of appreciating a difficult job. But some of what you will learn can be fascinating. And that was the case when retired FBI Agent Jeffrey Tomlinson stood in front of us to address the topic of Anti-Terrorism as a law enforcement function.
Mr. Tomlinson spent 20 years in the FBI, beginning in 1990. He was a local kid, who attended William Tenet High School and graduated from West Chester University. In a unique twist. Tomlinson followed up 20 years of FBI service by giving back to local communities, as Safety Director for the Hatboro-Horsham School District and as a patrol officer in Hulmeville Borough, Bucks County!
He currently teaches Law Enforcement Management and Terrorism at DeSales University, where he earned his Masters Degree in Criminal Justice.
His first assignments took him to New York City, working organized crime. He was part of the FBI team that investigated the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. In 1998 he was transferred to Philadelphia, where he worked anti-terrorism. On September 11, 2001 he was – bizarrely enough – one of many law enforcement types attending an anti-terrorism workshop in Quantico, Virginia.
Mr. Tomlinson’s began his presentation with a look at where international terrorism has originated. There are three primary sources:
- Fallout from the Israeli-Palestinian
- intra-Muslim competition (i.e. Shia–Sunni conflict)
- Roughly 85-90% of all Muslims are Sunni
- Political groups within both competing brands of Islam (al Qaeda vs. ISIL, Hamas vs. Hizbollah vs. PLO)
The largest confrontation seen today is that between those opposing brands of Islam and their attempts to dominate the Muslim world through competing caliphates. Currently, the Shia sects, aligned with Iran are pushing to control and confine the Sunni attempts to establish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
This has led to much violence between Islamic sects as opposed to conflicts between Islam and the outside world. Of particular consequence is the recent declaration of a caliphate that challenges Iran’s ruling clergy’s very purposeful march to establish their own. One that could someday occupy the lands from the Arabian Sea, through the entirety of Iran through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean Sea.
This becomes more dangerous when one also considers the recent advances of the Houthis, another Shia sect, in Yemen. A quick look at the map presents a picture of Saudi Arabia, home of the Sunni religion and its most precious religious sites, surrounded on three sides by Shia interests.
This development gives perspective to recent Saudi military action against the Houthis in Yemen. Obviously, the Saudis are very concerned with the advance of Shia interests.
Mr. Tomlinson then took a look at how the U.S. became one of the favorite targets of Islamic extremism leading up the disastrous attacks of September 11, 2001. I found this portion of the presentation most interesting, though most of the information was quite familiar to me.
As one who was present in NYC for the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, Tomlinson related how the 1990 Iraq invasion on Kuwait led to Osama bin Laden’s crusade against America.
This had always baffled me, how the U.S. went from friend of the insurgents fighting the Russians in Afghanistan to “infidels” despoiling the holy lands of Saudi Arabia in our allied defense of the Saudis from Saddam Hussein, a fellow Sunni. When I read The Looming Towers, I learned how the U.S. became The Great Satan. Itself a transformation of Islam’s portrayal of the Soviets as such in an attempt to consolidate Islamic forces and foment their return as a global power.
From here the discussion turned to the different approaches to terror taken by consecutive U.S. administrations. After the ’93 WTC attack, the Clinton Administration viewed terror as a crime, where law enforcement efforts were considered the primary response. Find the bad guys and bring them to justice. After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush Administration sought a military response, which was not surprising, given the immensity of the attacks and the fact that a nation-state could be closely linked to a terror presence in Afghanistan.
Other topics of discussion included:
- 9/11 Commission finding that the biggest intelligence failure was a lack of imagination
- anti-terrorism (active fight against terrorism) vs. Counter-terrorism (prevention and disruption)
- authorizing environment (US Constitution, NSA Act 1946, Executive Order 12333, Patriot Act)
- fighting international terrorism vs. domestic sources (e.g. McVeigh – Oklahoma City)
- implications of data mining used to gather anti-terror intelligence
- workings of FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) courts
From a counter-intelligence angle, I found the discussion of how our domestic law enforcement agencies attempt to penetrate local cultural concentrations and organizations to be very interesting. Much of this discussion concerned the use of profiling in identifying terrorists coming into the country, as well as those already living here, who may be predisposed to joining terror organizations or acting as lone wolf attackers. As bad a rap that profiling receives when it comes to everyday criminal activity, it is crucial in disrupting potential attacks from within.
Profiling looks at what they look like – demographically not racially (for example, 2nd generation immigrants or restless youth), where do they come from, recent travels, predisposition to extremism, etc. This brought to light several keen observations, such as the large concentration of 2nd generation Palestinians in Northeast Philadelphia or the size of the Syrian community (3rd largest in the U.S. though mostly Christian) in Allentown.
Being aware of such demographics allows law enforcement to identify potential problem areas – terrorism wise – and community sources of intelligence.
This led to an interesting discussion of how counter-terrorism (prevention and disruption) efforts gain access to local community groups and individuals who would be distrusting of law enforcement encroachments or who might simply be scared of potential community backlash.
Terrorist actors, if active locally, will be ensconced to a degree within the anonymity of what otherwise could be a perfectly law-biding cultural community. The problem of course is that most law enforcement types will stick out like a sore thumb in most such cultural communities. The secret to finding them; collecting necessary intelligence; and infiltrating or arresting them is to penetrate the community and develop reliable sources (e.g. confidential informants) that will keep an ear to ground for trouble. Investigators most work from the outside in.
One method for counter-terrorism investigators uses outstanding “wants and warrants” for individuals that might fit the profile of potential threat. These warrants are prioritized within the cooperating law enforcement network; and an C-I agent might request to go along on any attempt to serve said warrant. This gives the C-I types a chance to get inside for a look around, survey the subject’s immediate environment; evaluate potential sources for information or surveillance; and develop possible leads from the interactions.
My major concerns prior to the Anti-Terrorism brief were improvements made to intelligence sharing that was a significant breakdown in the 9/11 attacks. Former Agent Tomlinson addressed the improvements made since that fateful day.
- Patriot Act did away with the “stove-piping” of terrorism information between sources of foreign intelligence and all levels of law enforcement.
- Congress now requires annual presentations on how such intel is shared among the responsible national and local agencies.
- Stronger relationships with the financial and banking communities has improved as a way to identify financial backers of terrorism.
- Local law enforcement is a more active player in counter-terrorism.
The anti-terrorism presentation was one of the most fascinating sessions of the CPA thus far. Other important takeaways from the seminar were:
- Terrorism continues to be a serious threat across the globe.
- Despite relative inactivity in this country, largely the result of improved intelligence and counter-terrorism operations, the potential for terrorism – both foreign and domestic – occurring here cannot be ignored.
- Always pay attention to your surroundings.
- Citizens can be the first to notice something amiss and are the best sources for local conditions and information.
- Never be shy about reporting suspicious activity or potential evidence of such to law enforcement. Let the experts decide what constitutes a legitimate threat.
Overall the most important message from the evening was that the successful fight against those who want to do us harm – regardless of where that threat originates – is heightened awareness, improved communication from the individual citizen all the way through the highest national authorities, and self-less cooperation among all those involved.