13 June 2012
Something strange happened to Barak Zemer in New York City – or rather, did not happen.
Hardly a suspicious looking man – 5-foot 7 inches, mid-30s, receding hairline with wispy black hair, slight curvature of the spine and hunch to the shoulders from years of hauling a backpack as a tour guide – Zemer stood outside a shopping mall clutching his signature backpack. A Jerusalemite, it was his first time visiting the United States. He watched people file in and out of the mall. He waited.
After two minutes, he finally realized no security guard was going to search his bag. He walked inside. He shopped.
Compared with Israel and even Europe, the United States’ public sphere security apparatus is sparse. As Middle East dictators friendly to U.S. counterterrorism operations are being deposed, tensions increase between Israel and Iran, more extremist terrorist groups such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram rise, and budget constraints threaten to short shrift U.S. intelligence operations, some terrorism experts have pushed for stronger security measures at U.S. “soft sites,” such as government buildings and targeted groups with symbolic Western ties, such as Jewish or financial institutions.
Applying physical security checks at places like mall entrances is “pretty distant,” Middle East Forum Director Daniel Pipes told the Diplomatic Courier. Nor is it feasible considering the financial burden and the fact terrorists can switch to an attack site with less security at a moment’s notice, said Sebastian Gorka, counterterrorism expert and military affairs fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
However, many terrorist organizations have eschewed grandiose plots reminiscent of the September 11, 2001 attacks in favor of targeting specific demographics, such as American Jews and government institutions, Pipes said. Though U.S. intelligence managed to foil many terrorist plans, it cannot continue to “bat 1.000,” said Steve Emerson, Executive Director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
Changes to combat these tactics are already beginning, as government institutions revamped security operations following 9/11; many American Jewish cultural centers did the same in 2006 after a Muslim-American man killed a woman at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle building, Pipes said. More recently, the head of security for the Israeli Consul General for the Mid-Atlantic States said in a February letter that Iranian attacks against US “soft targets” – such as restaurants, Israeli embassies, and synagogues – could become more frequent. Though it occurred after the February letter, the March killing of four Jews by a known Islamist at a Jewish day school in Toulouse, France could lend more credence to that assertion.
Some security experts argue physical security at U.S. soft sites may become the norm, security experts told CBS New York last May. Attacks on such sites are “easier and less complicated to carry out,” counterterrorism expert Juval Aviv said at the time. Security consultant David Boehm agreed security checkpoints at soft targets are forthcoming, adding, “The reason they’re called ‘soft’ is because it’s so easily accessible to anyone. There has to be security checks for the safety of all people.”
But such measures would likely conflict with civil liberties, Gorka said. Instead, the U.S. should continue relying on intelligence. Gorka pointed out that the Department of Homeland Security has consistently thwarted terrorism attacks since its inception.
U.S. intelligence gathering operations have wrongly caught flack from civil liberties groups for actions such as the New York Police Department tapping into various college campuses’ Muslim Student Associations, Gorka said. He also said that the NYPD and any other agency that engages in that type of monitoring only does so with credible evidence to approve such activity.
“The idea that they are just doing blanket surveillance is preposterous,” Gorka said. “The NYPD are not jack-booted thugs from the 1930s.”
It remains unclear whether intelligence coordination with the changing Middle East will hinder U.S. counterterrorism operations, Gorka said. He explained “the jury is still out” on how receptive parties like the Muslim Brotherhood would be to the U.S., considering many of their constituents oppose U.S. presence, but that the U.S. “has to be prepared for some potentially negative consequences.”
The irony of the 9/11 attacks, Gorka said, is that they may have been too successful. Al Qaeda must create an even bigger spectacle for its next attack, he said, but the U.S. security response to those events make that less likely.
The omnipotence of U.S. surveillance abroad actually has spurred the rise of terrorists acting in smaller cells or as “lone wolves” to avoid detection, Emerson said. And with more Islamist factions gaining a voice for the first time in decades in places like Libya and Egypt, anti-U.S. rhetoric could embolden even more of those terrorist elements, he said. Worse yet, those governments could turn a blind eye to counterterrorism efforts, he noted.
Smaller terrorism attacks can actually damage a community’s psyche just as much as something like 9/11, Pipes argued. He referred to John Allen Muhammad, who earned the “Beltway sniper” moniker in 2002 when he killed 11 people in the Washington, DC, area during a three-week killing spree, putting the entire area in virtual lockdown during that time period.
“You don’t need to pull off huge atrocities like 9/11 to be effective,” Pipes said. “Small Beltway ones can keep a whole city under siege.”
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's May/June edition.