Devastating terrorist attacks in Paris last week—which left 129 persons dead and occurred in multiple locations—reminds us all that personal safety is becoming harder to maintain. Efforts to keep citizens safe in this age of ISIS and jihad extremists are an ongoing, uphill battle. But it is important to remember counter-terrorism agencies are looking out for us 24/7.
The Los Angeles County's Joint Terrorism Task Force regularly conducts drills to contain a range of terrorist strikes. In addition, the county regularly engages its most powerful weapon yet to thwart terrorist plots—community policing. Community whistle-blowers are credited with saving countless lives since the 9/11 Attacks 14 years ago. “Four out of 10 terrorist plots here have been foiled because a community member has stepped forward and cooperated with law enforcement," said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
While the Muslim community has been stereotyped—often undeservedly—as terrorists, the group is in a good position to ward off potential threats due to their affinity with other Muslims. They can intervene when someone appears to pose a threat. The Joint Terrorism Task Force includes 50 members of local, state and federal law enforcement. Through their relationship with Muslim community groups, the force has formed partnerships to exchange information and curtail suspicious activity. Youth employment opportunities and diversion programs included in this approach have won recognition from the White House, and now serve as a national model.
It's comparable to the war on gangs, according to LAPD Deputy Chief Mike Downing, who is also the commanding officer for L.A.’s Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau. He has spent more than three decades with the LAPD and nearly 10 years in counter-terrorism.
"We couldn't arrest our way out of the problem," Downing said. "We had to find ways to build off-ramps for people who may have it in their mind that this is what they want to do, but they haven't yet mobilized to violence."
In a recent interview with The Takeaway (www.thetakeaway.org), Downing said that the number of “homegrown violent extremists” living with the U.S. has increased more in the last 12 months than in the past several years. He added that the problem is not necessarily aimed at one particular group. Rather, it is a human problem that will take people of all faiths to work together and solve. Prevention, he said, is as important as intervention.
“There are still behavioral patterns that we can look out for,” he says. “We ask communities to be aware of suspicious activity, which has a nexus—whether it be pre-operational planning, surveillance, the purchase of products that are unusual, those types of things...We need eyes and ears. Not to be paranoid, and not to profile and stereotype people, but certainly to profile criminal behavior. And that’s what we’re asking for.”
LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck has sent a group of counter-terrorism agents to Paris to gather details about the attacks first hand and see what lessons might be applied toward making L.A. safer. Because the attacks occurred with no overt warnings or indications that an attack was imminent, Downing called it a “game-changer.”
“We need a lot of help from the communities. We need a lot of help from people to tell us when they see suspicious activity occurring,” he said.
Beck said it is impossible to make the airport -- or any large, high-traffic, public place -- completely safe.
"An individual who is suicidal and well armed is all but impossible to stop initially. You can never get 100 percent safety," he said, but added that the use of surveillance technology has a “multiplier effect” in the absence of trained security agents.
Beck said law enforcement at the airport walks a fine line between security and restricting commerce by adding time to travelers' already lengthy process to board a flight, and that he didn't think the public wanted a high level of police saturation.
As authorities work together to capture those responsible for the Paris attacks, the public is advised to report any suspicious persons, remarks or objects. Call the counter-terrorism hotline at (877) 284-7328.