On November 12, 2015, a double suicide bombing tore through a busy shopping district in Beirut, Lebanon, killing at least 43 people and wounding more than 200 others. The next day, six seemingly coordinated attacks devastated Paris, France, killing at least 129 people and wounding 352. Two months ago, ISIS struck again in Brussels, Belgium. All three attacks have been claimed by the terror group ISIS, which issued a video warning of further attacks on countries taking part in bombing Syria, specifically threatening to strike Washington, D.C.

As the Brussels, Paris and Beirut terrorist attacks demonstrate, the lines between international and domestic threats are closer than many police officers may realize.

For decades, international terrorist organizations have spread their networks across the globe. More recently, the Internet has allowed them to identify and communicate with sympathizers anywhere in the world, who can be radicalized and carry out attacks where they live.

Preparing Local Officers
In most cases, local officers’ training supports the assumption that international terrorism isn’t something of significant concern to them; domestic threats are where their focus lies. It turns out, though, that police officers on the beat do have opportunities to assist efforts against international terrorism.

Take, for example, a 2005 investigation into a chain of robberies by the Los Angeles Police Department, which found that the thefts were an attempt to finance a series of terrorist bombings of military bases and houses of worship around Los Angeles by the radical Islamic group Jamiyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh.

In some cases, as in Los Angeles, police officers working local cases can uncover links to international groups seeking to wreak havoc on, and within, the U.S.

Focus on Training
To shift this mindset so officers see a bigger picture of fighting terrorism requires one thing: enhanced training. Police departments should seek out continuous training about the current state of international terrorism and the indicators beat officers on U.S. streets might see. Nearby field offices of federal agencies can offer support, often at no cost to the local department. These agencies could provide:

  • Training sessions that would help officers understand the validity of the threat,
  • Information about what types of activities to look for while on patrol,
  • Points of contact if patrol officers encounter suspicious people or activities, and
  • Assistance developing emergency response plans for when attacks do occur.

Government agencies as diverse as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) offer free training resources for law enforcement. Ideally, the training should be federally mandated and standardized, but this would at least be a start in the right direction.

Expand “Eyes and Ears”
One of the most effective strategies is one already in use for other purposes, one commonly referred to by the phrase “eyes and ears.”

Just as departments rely on neighborhood watch groups and civilian patrols to be extra sets of eyes and ears for their officers, it is crucial for these same officers to act as extra eyes and ears for the various federal agencies that investigate terrorism cases. This does not really require any new skills from officers; they are on the lookout for suspicious activity just as they normally would be, but with a heightened cognizance of the terrorist threat.

This eyes and ears strategy can be highly effective, as officers typically have unimpeded access when patrolling high-potential targets such as airports, seaports, bus/subway terminals, churches, schools, shopping malls, U.S. landmarks, sports arenas, hospitals, and tourist attractions.

Officers also daily patrol the same roads that terrorists use to travel and transport materials to be used in their attacks. Further, if terrorists are seeking to avoid detection by living and planning their attacks in rural areas where counterterrorism efforts are not heavily concentrated, local officers are the most likely to encounter them.

In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics says local police officers outnumber federal agents by a ratio of almost 10:1. Local officers are therefore far more likely than federal counterterrorism agents to encounter suspicious activity that could be related to terrorism. It also means they will be the first to respond should an attack occur.

Increasing their awareness of the potential to encounter international terrorism while on their daily beats will help local officers fight international crimes as well as domestic ones.

By Jeremy Nikolow and Anthony Galante
American Military University