How to detect terrorist plots: Old-fashioned digging
A study of 86 terrorist plots since 1999 found that 80 percent were discovered through old-fashioned police work or tips from the public, not technology-driven counter-terrorism operations.
The study by the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions, a research consortium between Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and RTI International, an independent research institute, emphasized the need for local law enforcement, in particular, to recognize "potential terrorist activity during the course of routine criminal investigations."
Noting that 40 percent of all foiled plots resulted from tips from the public or well-placed informants, the researchers said the authorities should cultivate good relations with "communities with persons in or near radical movements, an ability that is jeopardized by indiscriminately targeting individuals and groups due to their race, ethnicity, religion or ideology."
The study, called "Building on Clues: Examining Successes and Failures in Detecting U.S. Terrorist Plots, 1999-2009," looked at not only cases associated with al-Qaeda and its affiliates and supporters, but terrorist attacks planned by white supremacist or anti-government militias, animal rights groups, environmental activists and opponents of abortion.
The authors acknowledged that, because they worked from open sources and focused primarily on domestic cases, they may have underestimated the role of the intelligence community in detecting plots. But, in general, they said their findings point to the critical role of 17,000 state and local agencies in the United States, which "are still commonly underutilized," despite the creation of regional and state fusion centers.
"In the absence of federal guidance, local jurisdictions have developed different procedures for collecting and prioritizing suspicious activity reports," the authors wrote. They called for "quality assurance processes" to ensure that "initial clues are properly pursued and findings shared."
| October 20, 2010; 12:31 PM ET
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