by Austin Bay
May 5, 2010
An intended target saw smoke. The intended target, instead
of ignoring the threat or fleeing, acted as a citizen defender.
The citizen defender, the New York City street vendor who
saw smoke swirling from an SUV parked in Times Square this past Saturday,
foiled a terrorist attack that could have killed and wounded innocents by the
The vendor tipped the police, and the law enforcement
professionals intervened. I am not at all suggesting a street salesman in New
York isn't a pro when it comes to sizing up suspicious characters and iffy
situations. To survive as a sidewalk entrepreneur in The City That Never
Sleeps, 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 play
key 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, stopping
street criminals is everyone's business.
Like the Dutch passenger who stopped the Christmas Terrorist
from destroying a jumbo jet over Detroit, the New Yorker suspected trouble then
acted. In the context of fighting a war against terrorists, both the passenger
and vendor provided front-line defense at the point of attack. The terrorists
had several initial advantages -- they selected the target and the time, and
had the advantage of surprise. Surprise, however, did not translate into shock
and capitulation. The citizen defenders acted responsibly despite evident risk.
We know front-line citizen defense does not always work. The
passengers on Flight 93 tried to overwhelm the 9-11 terrorists who hijacked
their aircraft, and the plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field. Their sacrifice,
however, certainly saved the lives of hundreds of fellow citizens who would
have died had the hijacked plane struck Capitol Hill.
With great calculation, the 9-11 plotters sought to exploit
weaknesses in U.S. national intelligence and police operations and in
transportation safety measures. Considering al-Qaida's interpretation of the
Clinton administration's actions in Somalia, the plotters believed they were
exploiting a weak national will, as well. The plotters selected the targets and
the time. They trained subordinates to attack with surprise, and to use
remorseless violence to achieve shock. Citizen defenders provide the last,
desperate defense against this type of terrorist operation, and of course it is
Which is why the U.S. responded to 9-11 with an offensive
warfare strategy. The U.S. strategy took the war to al-Qaida's heartland. The
U.S. seized the initiative, selecting targets and time of attack. Al-Qaida lost
its secure bases in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida suffered a major political and
military defeat in Iraq. U.S. drones continue to kill terrorist leaders in
Pakistan 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. Violent
Islamist propaganda appeals motivated Hasan, and his behavior became
increasingly antagonistic and erratic.
Hasan's route to terrorism generally follows the behavioral
changes examined in the Foundation for Defense of Democracy's "Homegrown
Terrorists in the US and UK." The radicalization process is not unique to
Islamists. In the late 1960s, members of the hard-left Weathermen followed
How do we thwart decentralized, self-organizing,
"distributed" attacks? U.S. intelligence and police operations have
improved dramatically since 9-11 --and public demand for improvement drove the
process. The rapid arrest of Faisal Shahzad, the suspected Times Square
attacker, testifies to improvements in intelligence-sharing and inter-agency
An aware, alert and willing-to-act public, however, is the
key 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 our
Americans are in a global war, and the U.S. homeland is a
battleground. To win locally requires individual and community citizen policing
in conjunction with civilian law enforcement agencies. To do anything less puts
lives at risk and seeds the initiative to our terrorist enemies.