The suspected Al Qaeda videotape that aired recently and singled out Los Angeles for terror attacks should drive home a point to everyone in Southern California: Local law enforcement agencies need more tools to fight the people who are intent on slaughtering Americans.
In the years since the Sept. 11 attacks, terrorists have adapted to heightened security. They continue to proselytize, recruit, plan and carry out attacks, but they have learned to dodge communications intercepts and to avoid border crossings and money transfers that might bring them to the attention of national intelligence services. Instead, they rely more on networks of local operatives, many of whom have never had contact with federal law enforcement or regulatory agencies.
U.S. authorities need to adjust by beefing up the best counterterrorism agencies around — police departments.
Recent events make clear that terrorists operate locally, here and abroad:
- In Torrance, U.S.-born armed robbery suspects, who police have said forged radical Islamic contacts in prison, were allegedly found to have a cache of jihadist materials and a list of targets. They have been indicted on charges they plotted terrorist attacks.
- A father and son in Lodi await trial on charges they lied about their ties to terrorist camps. The son also was indicted Thursday on federal charges alleging he intended "to wage jihad in the United States," the most serious charge that could be filed absent an actual terrorist act. Prosecutors say the son attended jihadist training camps in Pakistan and was awaiting orders to attack at the time of his arrest.
- In London, authorities investigating transit system bombings are focusing on cells whose membership, police say, included bombers who worked out at local gyms, helped out at a local school and met at a local youth center.
Each of these rings engaged in activities that came to the attention of local law enforcement. Clearly, police departments are best positioned to uncover homegrown plots. But they often do not have the tools or the staff to do the job effectively. To prevent attacks, police departments must network about suspicious individuals with police across the country, as well as national authorities. Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton recently called for police chiefs to share intelligence through informal networks because moving information through the federal government often takes too long.
Bratton understands that connecting local agencies is essential. Police are most likely to collect information through relationships within their communities and by encountering terrorists as they commit low-level crimes while preparing for major attacks. Yet in many cities, police intelligence units often lack staffing and expertise. For example, the New York Police Department has close to 1,000 officers dedicated to counterterrorism intelligence, but the Los Angeles Police Department has fewer than 100. The LAPD's 2003-2004 proposed budget sought 55 new positions in its counterterrorism bureau, including 15 for liaison work with the State Department, foreign consulates, other law enforcement agencies and prisons. Elected city officials said no.
Federal and local governments need to give higher priority to funding police intelligence efforts.
These expanded intelligence units must be held in check by strong safeguards against the abuses many such units have committed in the past. The power to invade the privacy of suspected terrorists carries with it the power to violate constitutional rights and civil liberties. For that reason, these agencies need civilian oversight. Congress should require such oversight as a condition to increased federal funding.
But without a vigorous local intelligence network, plans for the next attack by homegrown terrorists could easily be missed. To prevent terrorist attacks on the United States, James Bond needs help from Dick Tracy.
BRIAN MICHAEL JENKINS is a senior advisor to the president of the Rand Corp. JACK WEISS is a Los Angeles city councilman and chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee.
This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on September 25, 2005. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.