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America In the Crosshairs: Inside NYPD's Counter-Terrorism Bureau

NYPD strikes back at terrorists with a highly equipped, highly motivated new unit.

February 01, 2003  |  by Shelley Feuer Domash

It's almost a cliché. On TV, the headquarters of the nation's elite law enforcers and intelligence agents are always in abandoned warehouses, underneath subway tunnels, on moving trains, etc. But in real life the CIA is headquartered in plain sight; so is the FBI, the NSA, and all major police departments. That's the difference between fact and fiction.

At the new counter-terrorism headquarters of the New York Police Department, however, the fiction of the non-descript building housing secretive heroes blurs with fact. It's the kind of James Bondian set up that the old chestnut "I could tell you where it is, but then I'd have to kill you" was created for.

NYPD's counter-terrorism unit works out of a windowless brick building somewhere in one of the five boroughs of the Big Apple. To the average person passing by, the building looks no different than any of the other rundown buildings in the area. It's covered with graffiti, surrounded by nondescript private cars, and shadowed by a worn elevated commercial billboard.

But inside, it's all business. The building is filled with the most advanced technology available and some of the most dedicated cops in the world. That combination of technology and determination and the commitment of everyone in the department from the commissioner on down, makes this building the headquarters of one of the world's finest counter-intelligence units. And it has one mission: to plan for, prevent, and detect terrorist activities in the City of New York through training, investigation, and intelligence.

"The typical role of the police officer has changed," says Capt. Michael O'Neil, commanding officer of the NYPD counter-terrorism bureau. "Police officers are now on the front line [of counter-terrorism], and they need to know prevention and response. We train for traditional crimes, robberies, narcotics; we train cops on how to identify bad guys and that is what terrorists are: They are bad guys and they do things differently. And we need to get our cops up to speed and tell them how to identify them"

According to O'Neil, the best example of what training cops to recognize terrorists can accomplish is 9/11. In the days before the attack, at least one of the hijackers was stopped by a Maryland State trooper on a traffic violation. "Maybe if we had more training for the cops or situational awareness, we could have pieced things together," O'Neil says.

Next Time

But looking back is not what the NYPD counter-terrorism bureau is about. The bureau's high tech command center bustles 24/7 as officers parse intelligence gathered throughout the city and analyze terrorist activity worldwide. Their job is to do everything they can to prevent the next attack.

The bureau comprises a joint terrorist task force, which is the investigative arm, and the counter-terrorism division, which is divided into the support unit for operations in the department, the global intelligence and analysis section, the training section, the risk assessment section, and a terrorism hotline.

Risk assessment is one of the primary tasks of the bureau. Nine teams of detectives work seven days a week going out to sensitive or critical locations in the city. Spending up to a month at a site, the detectives, who are trained a minimum of 40 days each, prepare comprehensive reports running approximately 60 pages for each site.

These reports, which are available to the public, are analyzed by counter-terrorism experts who use them to plan strategies for protecting the site and responding to an attack. The strategy reports and response plans are not available to the public.

Think Global

Some critics of the NYPD may find it strange that the new bureau actually spends much of its time analyzing intelligence about what's happening in foreign countries. But one of the most painful lessons of 9/11 is that trouble abroad can very easily come to New York. That's why the global intelligence section of the counter terrorism bureau reaches around the world.

The global intelligence section is made up of teams of specialists who cover the State Department's list of 35 foreign terrorist organizations. Drawing on the talents and experience of experts from within the NYPD's own ranks, the members of this section can translate dialects, follow world events, and supply essential background information on any given terrorist group at any given time.

Training Arm

The training section of the bureau is divided into three sections: internal, external and regional. Responsible for training the 40,000 members of the department in the basics of counter-terrorism, the internal section offers 35 different courses.

Counter-terrorism training for the NYPD's street cops continues on a routine basis and it doesn't necessarily require class work. The technical expertise of Officer John McDonald Jr. and Officer Stephen Cambria and the bureau's state-of-the-art electronic facility allows the department to get its message out quickly and efficiently. Lectures are videotaped and quickly distributed on both tape and CD so that each precinct receives the latest training material within hours of their creation.

12 Million Pairs of Eyes

The external training section of the counter-terrorism bureau is, in contrast to the internal training section, a bit controversial. Its job is to educate civilian and business groups. Some critics have questioned the efficiency of getting civilians involved in counter-terrorism, but New York City's police are confident that the people they serve can be a valuable asset to terror investigations.

"Our idea is to give people situational awareness on the threat of terrorism," says O'Neil. "There are 12 million people in New York City at midday on any given day. If we can train all of them on this is what terrorism is and this is what terrorism is about, this is what you should look for and if you identify this behavior then this is who you should call, then what this comes down to is 12 million eyes and ears. We want 12 million pairs of eyes and ears in New York City looking for terrorism. We can't do it alone."

O'Neil adds that the department is not trying to scare people, merely empower them. Toward that end, a special hotline number, which receives an average of 35 calls a day, is given out to civilians, and the bureau investigates every call that comes in.

Behavior Modification

The department has also carefully compiled information from past terrorist activity and captured terrorist training manuals and passed that information on to its members. Understanding the mindset and actions of the terrorist has become one of the primary goals of the bureau. And everyone involved stresses that it is the terrorists' behavior, not their appearance, that is the focus of much of the recognition training.

O'Neil believes terrorism has no recognizable face. "The 9/11 hijackers, did they look like fanatical terrorists? They are trained not to be radical, to blend in, and to look like me and you. We cannot target appearance, just target behavior. If we target appearance we are not an effective operation because then they will get right by us," he says.

Once terrorist behavior is better understood and systems are in place for agencies to share information, O'Neil believes the good guys will get the upper hand.

"We can actually stand up and be a threat to the terrorists right now if we are trained on their means and methods and know how to stop them," O'Neil says. "And we are passionate about that, from myself, to our trainers, to the cops who are taking our classes. It will have a real effect against terrorists if they come into this country knowing we are knowledgeable in their means and methods."

And accordingly the work at the NYPD's new counter-terrorism bureau proceeds. Television screens monitor stations throughout the world, detectives answer hotline calls from the public, maps are pinned to show any trends that may be of interest, aerial views of the city are analyzed, and the situation room is maintained...just in case.

Shelly Feuer Domash is a Long Island-based writer who regularly covers the
police beat for the New York Times. She is a frequent contributor to POLICE.

Tags: Counter-Terrorism Initiatives, Islamic Terrorists, Preventing Terrorism


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