On Point: The Local War on Terror

by Austin Bay
May 5, 2010

An intended target saw smoke. The intended target, insteadof ignoring the threat or fleeing, acted as a citizen defender.

The citizen defender, the New York City street vendor whosaw smoke swirling from an SUV parked in Times Square this past Saturday,foiled a terrorist attack that could have killed and wounded innocents by thescore.

The vendor tipped the police, and the law enforcementprofessionals intervened. I am not at all suggesting a street salesman in NewYork isn't a pro when it comes to sizing up suspicious characters and iffysituations. To survive as a sidewalk entrepreneur in The City That NeverSleeps, the vendor has to be good at reading faces and detecting attitudes --in other words, he is a savvy situational and psychological profiler.

This is why cab drivers, sales clerks and hairdressers playkey roles in every smart beat cop's neighborhood intelligence network."Mind you own business" is fine advice to the chitchat crowd --gossips create trouble -- but in a responsible and secure society, stoppingstreet criminals is everyone's business.

Like the Dutch passenger who stopped the Christmas Terroristfrom destroying a jumbo jet over Detroit, the New Yorker suspected trouble thenacted. In the context of fighting a war against terrorists, both the passengerand vendor provided front-line defense at the point of attack. The terroristshad several initial advantages -- they selected the target and the time, andhad the advantage of surprise. Surprise, however, did not translate into shockand capitulation. The citizen defenders acted responsibly despite evident risk.

We know front-line citizen defense does not always work. Thepassengers on Flight 93 tried to overwhelm the 9-11 terrorists who hijackedtheir aircraft, and the plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field. Their sacrifice,however, certainly saved the lives of hundreds of fellow citizens who wouldhave died had the hijacked plane struck Capitol Hill.

With great calculation, the 9-11 plotters sought to exploitweaknesses in U.S. national intelligence and police operations and intransportation safety measures. Considering al-Qaida's interpretation of theClinton administration's actions in Somalia, the plotters believed they wereexploiting a weak national will, as well. The plotters selected the targets andthe time. They trained subordinates to attack with surprise, and to useremorseless violence to achieve shock. Citizen defenders provide the last,desperate defense against this type of terrorist operation, and of course it isinadequate.

Which is why the U.S. responded to 9-11 with an offensivewarfare strategy. The U.S. strategy took the war to al-Qaida's heartland. TheU.S. seized the initiative, selecting targets and time of attack. Al-Qaida lostits secure bases in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida suffered a major political andmilitary defeat in Iraq. U.S. drones continue to kill terrorist leaders inPakistan and Yemen.

As a result of this pressure, al-Qaida now conducts"lone actor" strikes like the Christmas Terrorist, or encourages"self-organizing" actors to launch their own attacks. I suspect Maj.Nidal Hasan's attack at Ft. Hood, Texas, is an example of the latter. ViolentIslamist propaganda appeals motivated Hasan, and his behavior becameincreasingly antagonistic and erratic.

Hasan's route to terrorism generally follows the behavioralchanges examined in the Foundation for Defense of Democracy's "HomegrownTerrorists in the US and UK." The radicalization process is not unique toIslamists. In the late 1960s, members of the hard-left Weathermen followedsimilar paths.

How do we thwart decentralized, self-organizing,"distributed" attacks? U.S. intelligence and police operations haveimproved dramatically since 9-11 --and public demand for improvement drove theprocess. The rapid arrest of Faisal Shahzad, the suspected Times Squareattacker, testifies to improvements in intelligence-sharing and inter-agencycooperation.

An aware, alert and willing-to-act public, however, is thekey to decentralized defense. This is a mindset more than a program or policy,and one that acknowledges in terms of security that after 9-11 we are ourbrother's keepers.

Americans are in a global war, and the U.S. homeland is abattleground. To win locally requires individual and community citizen policingin conjunction with civilian law enforcement agencies. To do anything less putslives at risk and seeds the initiative to our terrorist enemies. 

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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