September 11, 2001, is indelible in our collective memory. Twenty-two years later, we will never forget the tragic loss of life at the hands of al-Qaeda terrorists. The U.S. has long been a target of international terrorism. Nearly 20 years before 9/11, the 1983 bombings of the Marine barracks and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut were clear indications of terrorists’ willingness to carry out attacks to further their agenda. The World Trade Center bombing and plots to bomb landmarks in New York City in 1993 further confirmed this. Unfortunately, today, the nation must continue to remain diligent in combatting persistent threats from hostile actors both foreign and domestic.
Has the threat evolved since that tragic Tuesday in 2001? Let’s take a closer look at changing tactics and tradecraft of terror.
Access to Online Propaganda
Over the last two decades, violent extremists have developed an extensive online presence, revolutionizing terrorism in many ways. This includes messaging platforms, online images and videos, and publications like the Islamic State’s Dabiq and Rumiyah which have been extremely influential and have played an increasing role in radicalizing and recruiting against western targets.
American-born radical Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was known for leading multiple al-Qaida terrorist plots against the U.S. from Yemen, including the 2009 Christmas Day airline bombing attempt and a 2010 plot to blow up cargo planes bound for the U.S. His online influence in the call for jihad was extremely persuasive in radicalizing Westerners to participate in his mission without the need to leave their homeland. More recently, earlier this year, a student nurse allegedly inspired by radical Islam was arrested after he was found with a pressure cooker bomb outside a hospital in the United Kingdom as part of a plot against a military base in the area.
Corporate entities, financial institutions, air cargo environments, and sports and entertainment venues are among the many targets of extremists seeking to cause harm using IEDs. Explosive detection canines are an effective solution in combatting person-borne and vehicle-born threats when imprinted to detect all five families of commercial explosives, as well as homemade and peroxide-based explosives frequently used by terrorists. Comprehensive X-ray screening that combines sophisticated detection equipment with access to the experienced eyes of trained bomb technicians in instances of uncertainty addresses the CBRNE threat, including homemade explosives.
Rise in Lone-Wolf Activity
Operationally, extremist groups like al-Qaida and ISIS have been somewhat constrained in recent years by Western nation states and challenged in their inability to project an attack at the scale of 9/11. The desire to attack the West remains high though. The volume of online propaganda and messaging platforms create a ripe environment for them to influence lone actors here in the U.S. Followers of extreme ideologies find resources and inspiration that allow them to act out independently, without any in-person coordination or collaboration. Lone wolves usually resort to lower tech, smaller scale attacks but are still capable of killing many in a single attack.
While online content has the potential to empower many hostile actors with newfound ability to perpetrate harm, it increases the likelihood of leakage and opportunity for early intervention, especially for lone-wolf actors who frequently post their intentions on social media and online forums prior to an attack. This is not typical of core terror group members but does occur with lone wolves in the West who are less versed in communication security tactics. Vigilant social media monitoring allows organizations to identify threats. Human resources should also be alert to changes in workforce personnel, noting vocal grievance-based or other irregular activity. Collaboration with corporate security is recommended to proactively identify and address personnel issues, concerning behavior or nefarious intentions before an incident occurs.
Diversity of Threats
While not necessarily categorized as terrorism, one important change in the threat landscape over the last two decades is the rise in active shooters. The nation is experiencing a shift to a broader array of threats stemming from racial, political and grievance motivation, carried out by individual bad actors. Recent high-profile events like the Buffalo grocery store and Colorado nightclub shootings are just two examples that serve as a reminder to organizations for continued review of security plans.
Mitigation solutions in addressing the active shooter threat should include the consideration of firearm detection canine teams, which are specifically trained to aid in the deterrence and detection of a concealed firearm. Well-trained and covert on-site personnel, such as plain-clothes guards not immediately distinguishable as security, can also provide a heightened security posture.
Rising Crime in Urban Areas
Another serious threat to commercial interests in large cities that has emerged since 2001 is the rise in crime. Since 2020, there has been a strong move away from proactive policing. This is leading to higher felony crime and public disorder in cities across the country. As one example, Chicago has nearly doubled in crime over the last two years alone, with staggering statistics such as a 200%+ increase in stolen cars. Other factors contributing to this spike include a movement to increased decarceration and changes in bail laws.
Security plans should be tested and reviewed at least annually by qualified security professionals to identify gaps and important countermeasures to fortify organizations. These measures may include creating a more formidable appearance to the building or campus, active patrol, increased lighting and physical security systems. Early detection and visual deterrents from firearm detection canine teams, as well as armed or unarmed protective services are also strong considerations. Finally, security personnel must build collaborative relationships with local law enforcement, with an open line of communication that allows for real-time intelligence to help identify early risk factors.
As these trends continue to take shape within the threat landscape, no organization is exempt. Defending people, property and assets requires a commitment to vigilance. For more information and resources, visit msasecurity.net. To schedule a one-on-one consultation with an MSA subject matter expert to discuss your organization’s unique needs, email firstname.lastname@example.org.