Three time zones, 3,000 miles, and a cultural galaxy apart, New York and Los Angeles face a common threat: along with Washington, D.C., they're the chief American targets of Islamic terror. And both cities boast top cops, sometime rivals—the cities are fiercely competitive—who know that ensuring that a dog doesn't bark will determine their legacies. After investing millions of dollars in homeland security, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly of New York and Chief William J. Bratton of L.A. can both claim counterterror successes. What can we learn from their approaches? And will they be able to continue preventing terrorist attacks in their cities?
On the face of it, the nation's two biggest metropolitan forces seem to have adopted kindred counterterrorism strategies. Both have roving SWAT or "Emergency Service Unit" teams, equipped with gas masks and antidotes to chemical and biological agents. Both have set up "fusion" centers to screen threats and monitor secret intelligence and "open-source" information, including radical Internet sites, and both have started programs to identify and protect likely targets. Both have tried to integrate private security experts into their work. Both conduct surveillance that would have been legally questionable before September 11. Both have sought to enlist support from mainstream Muslims and have encouraged various private firms to report suspicious activity.
Yet despite such similarities, the terror-fighting approaches of New York and L.A., like the cities themselves, reflect very different traditions, styles, and, above all, resources. New York, which knows the price of failure and thus has a heightened "threat perception," sets the gold standard for counterterrorism—and has the funding and manpower to do it. Kelly, 65, views his highest priority as ensuring that al-Qaida doesn't hit the city again. "When your city has been attacked, the threat is always with you," he tells me. Deploying its own informants, undercover terror-busters, and a small army of analysts, New York tries to locate and neutralize pockets of militancy even before potentially violent individuals can form radical cells—a "preventive" approach, as Kelly calls it, that is the most effective way that police departments, small or large, can help fight terror.
In L.A., a city that has never been attacked, terrorism is a less pressing concern than gang violence and other crime. Lacking the political incentive, and hence the resources, to wage his own war on terror, Bratton, 59, has instead pooled scarce funds, manpower, and information with federal and other agencies—an approach that federal officials hold up as a model for police departments that can't afford New York's investment.
Both cities can claim victories that underscore the central role that law enforcement can—and should—play in homeland security. Just this June, the NYPD and the FBI announced that they had foiled a new Islamic terror plot against New York, this time to blow up fuel-tank farms at John F. Kennedy International Airport. While the plot was extremely unlikely to succeed—law enforcement had penetrated it from the start—the arrests revealed that Trinidad and other Caribbean ports have become fertile ground for Islamic militancy. Since September 11, the NYPD has broken up at least seven terror plots. What the LAPD calls its "coming of age" terrorism case—as yet not widely reported—commenced with a concerned landlord's call just days after September 11. It eventually led police investigators to a small group of Islamic militants who may have provided support for the 9/11 hijackers.
Yet neither Kelly nor Bratton can rest on his laurels. Those playing defense must be constantly vigilant, while al-Qaida and like-minded militants need to be lucky only once.
Size matters. The NYPD has long been one of the world's largest law enforcement agencies. On September 11, 2001, it was employing some 50,000 people—36,000 sworn officers and about 14,000 civilians—to protect more than 8 million people. The next five largest U.S. police departments combined don't have as many employees, Bratton ruefully observes. His own adopted city of L.A.—he's originally from Boston—has a civilian and sworn force of 12,800 covering a city of nearly 4 million. As the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a Washington-based think tank, concludes in a new report, the NYPD has the resources "to do things that other departments cannot."
Shortly after taking office under Mayor Michael Bloomberg in January 2002, Kelly began his second tour of duty as Gotham's top cop by drawing on those considerable resources to revamp and expand the NYPD's terror-fighting capabilities. He hired two key counterterrorism deputies from Washington, D.C.: David Cohen, a former deputy director of the CIA's operations wing, to head the NYPD's Intelligence Division; and Michael Sheehan, former State Department head of counterterrorism, to run the force's new Counter Terrorism Bureau. Then he assigned more than 1,000 people to their units, the largest deployment of any American city to combat terrorism. With funds from the Police Foundation, a private group, he also sent liaison officers overseas to work alongside police departments in some of the cities most frequently targeted by terror, including Amman, London, and Singapore.
Each day, the Counter Terrorism Bureau's 205 officers analyze worldwide threats to determine how many officers should deploy where; provide training for all members of the force; assess risks to targets; and develop plans for protecting key sites in and near the city. Much of the NYPD's recent counterterrorism work has focused on the financial district in lower Manhattan, home to 75 of the city's 367 most sensitive sites, information about which is kept in a giant red binder, the "Red Book." Kelly is weighing a plan to erect a "ring of steel"—cameras, random screenings, and sophisticated sensors like those that London installed after its own subway and bus terror attacks in 2005—to help protect the 1.5-square-mile district and its 1 trillion daily financial transactions. The city is also spending $250 million to install cameras in its subway and transit system.
The cutting edge of the NYPD's antiterrorism efforts, though, is David Cohen's Intelligence Division. "We're looking at ‘clusters,' at how and where people get together, what they do and where they go, how they raise funds," Kelly says during an interview at One Police Plaza. "This analytical work is not being done anywhere else in government. It's all about prevention."
Before September 11, the Intelligence Division mainly developed intelligence on narcotics and violent crimes, and sought to protect visiting dignitaries to the city—a glorified "escort service," Kelly once scoffed. Now, its personnel devote 95 percent of their time to terrorism investigations, the PERF report concludes (and sources confirm). Kelly says that the division has 23 civilian intelligence analysts, with master's degrees and higher from Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, and other universities; some have come from leading think tanks, even from the CIA—giving the force a capability, he says, "that exists no place else." The division's "field intelligence officers," one assigned to each of the NYPD's 76 precincts, keep tabs on people, crimes, and arrests that might have terrorism links. "Core Collection" officers develop confidential informants, who could give early warning about people being radicalized by militant associates or websites.
Cohen's division also supervises undercover agents who infiltrate potentially violent groups. The identities of these covert warriors, and other details of the program, remain fiercely guarded secrets. But information occasionally turns up in federal prosecutions, such as the NYPD's use of an undercover agent in helping to foil the June JFK airport conspiracy, and of both a Bangladeshi undercover officer and an Egyptian-born confidential informant in disrupting a 2004 plot by Islamic terrorists to bomb the Herald Square subway station. "I want at least 1,000 to 2,000 to die in one day," one of the accused told the informant in the subway case, a stunned New York jury heard last year. Though the men had not acquired explosives, police arrested them shortly before the Republican national convention in August 2004, after nearly two years of surveillance. The key plotter, Shahawar Matin Siraj, a 22-year-old Pakistani, recently received a 30-year sentence. "This is the kind of homegrown, lone-wolf case that starts way below federal radar," Cohen says. "But had these two guys acted on their intentions"—to "fuck this country very bad," as Siraj threatened on tape—"a lot of New Yorkers would have died and been injured."
Undercover work capitalizes on the NYPD's 870-plus civilian and uniformed speakers of Albanian, Arabic, Bengali, Farsi, Pashto, Turkish, and Urdu—more linguists than the FBI's New York field office employs. Of the 470 or so in uniform, more than 200 are "master linguists" in high-priority languages. The latest police academy class boasted graduates hailing from 65 countries, Cohen notes. Some will doubtless work for the division's Cyber Intelligence Unit, a 25-person group situated in unmarked headquarters in a Chelsea industrial building; others may wind up in the Prison Intelligence program at Rikers Island, where they will work with officials from probations, the New York State Police, and other agencies to monitor the spread of militancy.
Richard Falkenrath, a counterterrorism expert who worked in the Bush White House and succeeded Deputy Commissioner Sheehan last year, says that New York's intelligence efforts are "awe-inspiring," beyond anything he's seen at the local, state, and even federal levels. "New York is far more action-oriented than the feds," he says, "partly because it's a lot easier and faster to take action." Even rivals like Bratton, who served as New York's police commissioner in the mid-nineties before falling out with his boss, Rudy Giuliani, share the admiration. "The NYPD's intelligence operation is widely regarded as the gold standard," Bratton concluded in an article coauthored for the Manhattan Institute (City Journal's publisher) last fall.
What Bratton criticizes—and he's not alone—is the NYPD's alleged refusal to give other law enforcement agencies access to the intelligence that it has so doggedly gathered. "New York has perfected an array of intelligence-gathering initiatives," he observes. "My concern is that at the federal level, there are too few dots to connect, and in New York, what they collect is not being shared. As a result, law enforcement is not being formed by this information."
Kelly dismisses this as "old criticism." But neither he nor his deputies deny that for years after September 11, relations between the department and the FBI were rancorous. The NYPD blames the strain on FBI resentment of Kelly's creation of what are basically a miniature FBI and CIA within the force. After Kelly tried unsuccessfully to take over the FBI-run Joint Terrorism Task Force—the nation's first alliance between the bureau and local law enforcement, dating back to 1979—he stationed NYPD detectives overseas and authorized Cohen's division to conduct its own surveillance and infiltration operations, despite FBI opposition. "For a long while," Cohen says, "their attitude was: ‘If you're not under our control, you're out of control.' "
Kelly's view that combating terrorism was "something we have to do ourselves" partly reflected the devastating effect of pre-9/11 intelligence failures on the law enforcement community. Not only did thousands of civilians die on 9/11; the city's fire department lost 343 firefighters—the largest loss of life in one day in history for emergency responders; the Port Authority police suffered 37 deaths, the largest loss of life in one day in history for police; the NYPD itself lost 23 officers, the second-largest loss historically. " ‘Trust us' was no longer acceptable after 9/11," observes Sheehan, who is writing a book on counterterrorism, Crush the Cell.
Tensions also grew between the FBI and Sheehan's Counter Terrorism Bureau. In the summer of 2003, officials said, the FBI passed an unverified tip to the CTB that a "dirty bomb" might be on its way to New York. When Sheehan called a Friday afternoon meeting to discuss a possible deployment to the city of local, state, and federal investigators, emergency-response personnel, and nuclear-detection technology, the FBI began downplaying the threat. Furious, Kelly, Cohen, and Sheehan decided to use the tip to test the city's emergency-response and intelligence teams in a massive drill. "What we learned from that episode was that when and if we needed federal assets, we were still on our own, even after 9/11," a former senior city official complains.
Relations continued to deteriorate until the FBI replaced its senior leadership in New York in May 2005. Mark Mershon became the new head of the FBI's 2,000-person New York field office (the bureau's largest), and Joseph Demarest, Jr. took over its counterterrorism division. Both determined to repair what they saw as a crucial partnership. A turning point, both sides agree, came in November 2005, when FBI director Robert Mueller III visited the NYPD and had a private sit-down with Kelly. "The director was impressed by New York's programs," Demarest says. Mueller agreed with Kelly that New York was "big enough and enough of a target to warrant some independence," an NYPD official recalled.
The FBI began seeing Cohen's Intelligence Division not as a rival or nuisance but as an additional source of vital intelligence. Mueller also blessed Mershon's desire to make the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force, with its 180 FBI and 125 police members, more inclusive. The senior-ranking NYPD official on the task force even became its "comanager." "You get a real buy-in," explains Demarest. "Important decisions are no longer made alone." Cohen adds: "It's hard to overstate how far we've come from the animosity of the early days." He estimates that, though the FBI has the "first right of refusal" on tips and leads—35,000 have come in since the city set up its counter-terrorism hotline five years ago—the NYPD has pursued almost two-thirds of them.
NYPD officials insist that the department doesn't deserve its reputation for arrogance and that its counterterrorism programs have always required cooperation with private businesses and other law enforcement agencies. Since launching Operation Nexus in 2002, notes Cohen, the NYPD has visited more than 30,000 businesses in New York and beyond, encouraging them to report suspicious purchases or other potentially terrorism-related activity.
Another initiative, Operation Shield, helps area businesses assess, and revise, security. The program also shares unclassified intelligence and security tips with private security firms. "Shield is all about sharing with the private sector on a real-time basis," Kelly says. "Two days after the bombings in Mumbai"—the devastating simultaneous bombings of seven trains in India last year that killed over 200 and wounded hundreds more—"our lieutenant did a teleconference from there with 100 Shield members in our pressroom, giving more specifics about the attack than anyone else had." A recent session, with more than 500 in attendance, discussed the chlorine bombs that American forces have faced in Iraq.
New York's "fusion center," the nation's first, now includes counterterrorism reps from approximately 40 local, state, and federal agencies. The NYPD coordinates, too, with the numerous agencies that operate the city's massive public transportation system, with its 6.5 million daily riders. The NYPD protects that system mostly with its own funds, since the federal government has spent only $386 million nationally on transit security—far less than the $24 billion it has spent bolstering aviation security. In 2007, Falkenrath disclosed in March, there had already been 22 subway bomb threats and 31 intelligence leads on subway attack plots.
Despite these outreach efforts, state officials and leaders in other cities still occasionally grumble that the NYPD is reluctant to work with other police departments or, more often, that it neglects to inform them about its operations on their turf. Michael Sheehan, quoting his former colleague Cohen, responds: "There is no such thing as intelligence sharing; there is only intelligence trading." Even small police forces can develop useful tips and leads with the proper skills and a little creativity, he points out; that's why the NYPD has invested considerable resources to train and work with police from the tristate area. "But yes," Sheehan acknowledges, "we prefer to work with people who are seriously in the game—those that run informants and collect real information, rather than just circulate watered-down, nonspecific threat information provided by the Department of Homeland Security."
Getting more partners "in the game" is the goal of Operation Sentry, the NYPD's discreet new effort to forge counterterrorism partnerships within a 200-mile radius of the city. Recognizing that the 9/11 attacks began not in New York but in Boston and Portland, Maine, Kelly invited law enforcement officials from counties and cities as far away as Baltimore to a three-day meeting late last year to discuss such issues as the radicalization of Muslim youth and what New York has learned about how to identify terrorism-related conduct.
Francisco Ortiz, New Haven's police chief, calls Sentry "invaluable." Through Sentry, he now gets updates on regional threats as they unfold, as well as invitations to bimonthly sessions in New York featuring the latest threat assessments and training courses on improving security at sensitive sites. "They're helping us become a better listening post in Connecticut for New York," he says. Ortiz now intends to use some of his own 400-officer force to start a version of New York's Nexus program to sensitize local businesses to potential threats. New York police trainers have already visited New Haven to help.
Utica police chief C. Allen Pylman finds the Sentry sessions "eye-opening"—particularly one that focused on the "Toronto 18" plot, disrupted last year, to behead the Canadian prime minister, bomb high-profile targets, and conduct random shootings in shopping malls. "My city of 65,000 people is not likely to be a target of terrorism," Pylman notes. "But are there people here who may be supporting radical causes? Yes, I think so."
In many ways, Los Angeles and New York might as well be on different planets. Tim Connors, the director of the Manhattan Institute's Center for Policing Terrorism, which has been advising the LAPD, argues that differences of geography, history, politics, and culture result in dramatically different attitudes toward, and resources for, fighting terrorism.
The sheer mass of sprawling territory that William Bratton's 12,800-member force and other law enforcement agencies must cover is daunting. "What is New York at its widest—40 miles?" asks L.A. city councilman Jack Weiss, a champion of Bratton's campaign for more funds and flexibility for the LAPD, especially its counter-terrorism efforts. "The city of Los Angeles alone is some 450 square miles. The county is 4,000 square miles, with 88 incorporated and unincorporated cities and the world's seventh-largest economy. We have 45 separate police departments." The FBI's L.A. field office must protect 18 million residents in seven separate counties, says its head, J. Stephen Tidwell. "Ray Kelly has an army of 37,000. Well, nobody has an army here, so no one can do it by himself."
"You're talking about protecting a county that has multiple climates," agrees John Sullivan, a lieutenant in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and an early champion of intelligence sharing and of redefining police as "first preventers" of terrorism. The county, he points out, contains 85 percent of California's critical assets.
Civic culture and history also constrain Bratton's terrorism-fighting capabilities. The LAPD's notorious resort to illegal surveillance in the past led to extremely tight legal restrictions on whom it could monitor, and for what kinds of suspected offenses. Bratton is trying to loosen those restrictions, but Angelenos remain deeply suspicious of the police. Further, while most New Yorkers witnessed the 9/11 attacks, spent months breathing in air thick with ashes and the stench of scorched metal, lost friends and relatives, or knew people who knew victims, for Angelenos the day was "a disaster movie," says Amy Zegart, a counterterrorism expert at UCLA. Terrorism—except in the L.A.-based TV show 24—is something that happens to others, not to them.
Another constriction is L.A.'s byzantine political system, dominated by competing fiefdoms and myriad jurisdictions with overlapping responsibilities. The California Highway Patrol, for example, polices the freeways that dissect Bratton's territory. The Port of Los Angeles, through which some 45 percent of the nation's cargo passes, has its own police force. So do the area's airports. The biggest, best-funded local law enforcement office in the city isn't even Bratton's LAPD; it's the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which has a sworn and civilian force of 16,216. And Sheriff Leroy Baca, a savvy elected politician, enjoys a $2.1 billion yearly budget—twice the LAPD's. Of its $1.2 billion budget, the LAPD spends roughly $24 million on counter-terrorism; New York spends $204 million.
The Police Commission, a five-member panel appointed by the mayor, chooses Los Angeles's chief cop and is likely to endorse Bratton for a second five-year term. But it's the 15-member city council that approves Bratton's budget and personnel levels. While Bratton could in theory shift officers from gang duty to counter-terrorism, Weiss tells me, it would be difficult without the council's blessing. Nor can Bratton unilaterally create an LAPD career path in intelligence, as New York has done. Sacramento, seat of the state government, also wields far greater leverage over Los Angeles than Albany does over New York. "Everyone has a view on what we should and should not be doing," Bratton says. "Even the L.A. Times seems to think it runs the police force."
Such limitations make Bratton's progress on counterterrorism since his appointment five years ago all the more remarkable. Working with Weiss and a handful of other supporters, he has added 75 officers permanently to the group of 33 who worked on terrorism before 9/11, and he has won the authority to hire or shift another 44 later. Still, the perpetual shortage of manpower and funds has made "sharing," "jointness," and "force multiplier" Bratton mantras. He has relentlessly sought to forge closer ties with other law enforcement and public-safety agencies in the region, particularly the FBI. "In this department, you need to justify exclusion," Bratton says. The FBI's Tidwell describes law enforcement cooperation in L.A. as "almost genetic," a tradition, reinforced by Bratton and Baca, forged by decades of joint responses to earthquakes, fires, floods, and other natural disasters that plague the Southland. On the Joint Terrorism Task Force squads, to which Bratton has assigned some 15 officers, the FBI clearly leads. "And that doesn't cause anyone any problems here," Tidwell maintains. His office, too, has changed its own attitude toward sharing intelligence. "Our motto used to be ‘restrict and share what you must.' It's the opposite today." Tensions between the LAPD and the Department of Homeland Security have also eased somewhat after DHS secretary Michael Chertoff met last year with the chiefs of the nation's 15 largest police departments.
Homeland Security now has an official stationed full-time at L.A.'s crown jewel of "jointness": the Joint Regional Intelligence Center, or "Jay-Rick," which both Bratton and Chertoff hold up as a model for similar fusion centers soon to be operational in more than three dozen U.S. cities. Launched with a $4 million Homeland Security grant and opened last year in a concrete federal building in Norwalk, a 45-minute drive (without traffic) from downtown L.A., the center has 16 LAPD staffers and some 30 designees from other law enforcement and public-safety agencies. Inside, it resembles a modern-day newsroom: a vast open working space, shoulder-level partitions separating the analysts' gray desks, computer screens everywhere, and wall-mounted television monitors showing various American and foreign-language news broadcasts.
The JRIC's analysts don't conduct investigations; instead, they vet tips and leads—nearly 25 new ones per week—to identify the 1 percent that prove serious. If someone threatens to spread anthrax in the city, for instance, the JRIC's "threat squad" of some 20 analysts from federal and local agencies tries to figure out if the danger is real. Is the threat written or oral? From someone who seems scientifically knowledgeable? Have hospitals reported people with flu-like symptoms or who are having trouble breathing? Are adequate antibiotics on hand?
The JRIC's heavy workload troubles Amy Zegart, among others. "The track-every-lead, confiscate-every-toenail-clipper approach may be a political winner, but it's a counterterrorism loser," she says. "Officials need to narrow the scope of inquiry to avoid more wild-goose chases rather than conduct them." Experts also complain that it's hard to tell who leads the JRIC. In theory, the LAPD, the sheriff's office, and the FBI "comanage" the center. But what that might mean in an actual crisis is far from clear.
Moreover, the JRIC's remote location makes it an unlikely assembly point in an emergency. John Miller, Bratton's former deputy for counterterrorism and now an assistant FBI director in Washington, D.C., denies that the center's location had anything to do with low rents, as some critics have charged. The choice of Norwalk, he says, ensured that the JRIC would be near, but not too near, logical targets in downtown and West L.A. Also, some officials say, since the FBI-led Joint Drug Intelligence Group already had an office in the building, it was relatively cheap and easy to link the bureau's classified and unclassified computer lines to the fusion center's. "The concept is right; the people are right; and they'll grow into it," Miller says.
However, staffing shortages prevent the center from operating "24/7," as envisaged. Getting security clearances has also been a problem, according to Robert Fox, the LAPD lieutenant who comanages the center. "Clearances can take a year," he says.
Operation Archangel, a second pillar of the LAPD's counterterrorism effort (also financed by millions in Homeland Security funds), uses sophisticated computer software to identify, prioritize, and protect vulnerable targets—so far, 500 of them, ranging from Disneyland to nuclear plants, officials say. Archangel asks the owners and operators of these sites to provide the latest structural information—floor plans, air-conditioning and electrical-system locations, entrances and stairwells, and so on—which goes into a massive database; the software then assesses vulnerabilities and devises deterrence and prevention strategies, as well as emergency response plans. "We're basically doing what we did before, but on steroids," says Tom McDonald, the LAPD lieutenant who runs Archangel and sees it, as many federal officials do, as something that other cities can emulate.
If such a system sounds obvious, it isn't, Miller points out. For instance, during the Columbine massacre, students had to help police sketch the school's floor plan on top of a squad car with a marker. "Archangel is the kind of automated system you would need in an emergency," Miller says.
But Archangel, located in the deliberately nondescript basement of an office building in West L.A., operates with just 15 people—one-third its projected staffing—and not around the clock. "We are hurt, not just in this program, by the fact that our city does not permit federal Homeland Security funds to pay for full-time city employees," says Michael Downing, who spent time in London studying terrorism before taking command of the LAPD's Counter-Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau this spring. "Resources are definitely a challenge."
Another, adds McDonald, is the reluctance of some private businesses to associate openly with his program, fearing that being identified as targets will drive away business. Such concerns rule out L.A.'s adoption of the NYPD's "in-your-face" exercises, like its random deployments of heavily armed police and vehicles to sites around the city. Bearing names like "Atlas" and "Hercules," these displays of force, says Kelly, deter terrorists by showing them that New York is just too tough a target. "There's less fear here than in New York, and less interest in generating fear," says William McSweeney, chief of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department's Office of Homeland Security.
The lack of public urgency means that Bratton must work doubly hard to get the counterterrorism manpower, money, and information that he needs. And that, in turn, has involved lots of travel, for which he has faced criticism. While Kelly is famously a homebody—he's taken no vacation since starting in October 2002 and has made only five day trips from the city since then—Bratton was out of town more than a third of 2005, and nearly as often last year. Staunchly defended by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Bratton says that the LAPD and the city benefit from the information and cooperation that he gets from his travels. The explanation has satisfied most critics. Nor do Angelenos balk at their chief's $300,000-plus salary, much heftier than Commissioner Kelly's $189,700.
Continuing to promote "jointness," Bratton is now trying to get several cities to pool resources to station detectives overseas, as New York has for several years; these liaison officers would share their reports among those who helped finance their posts. Supported by the Manhattan Institute and the Department of Homeland Security, he is also planning a national police academy in Los Angeles to train police from across the country in intelligence-led policing skills. "The nation's 18,000 local police departments have been crying out for such advanced training and broader strategic guidance," says Jerry Ratcliffe, who teaches at Temple University and attended the first planning meeting.
Despite their differences, both the NYPD and the LAPD agree that a key way to crush incipient terrorist cells and thwart terrorism is to use local laws and follow locally generated leads, which, after all, is what good police departments do best. Relying on this low-key approach, Downing says, the LAPD has arrested some 200 American citizens and foreigners with suspected ties to terrorist groups since September 11. At present, he adds, his division has 54 open intelligence cases, involving at least 250 "persons of interest." One of the most celebrated examples of the strategy is the 2005 Torrance case, in which the arrest of two men for robbing a gas station in that city eventually unraveled a militant Islamic plot to attack U.S. military facilities, synagogues, and other places where Jews gather in Los Angeles County. But L.A., Downing admits, still lacks the resources to develop its own undercover agents and informants. "We do that with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force," he says.
Because most American cities resemble L.A. more than they do New York, Bratton's priority of pooling resources and information is likely to be a more attractive, if less ambitious, model than New York City's approach, which includes running its own undercover counter-terrorism operations. But Washington has begun to acknowledge the virtue of New York's argument that thwarting terrorism requires better local intelligence about what potentially dangerous groups and individuals are planning. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security's "Urban Area Security Initiative" began to offer grants to help local police strengthen their ability to collect and analyze intelligence. Our cities, L.A. and New York included, will be safer for it.
Al-Qaida in Hollywood?
A source of both frustration and pride within the LAPD, the "Hollywood case"—details of which haven't yet become public—shows how good police work can break up terrorist networks. But this tangled saga also highlights unanswered questions that continue to surround the 9/11 plot. Two senior detectives from the LAPD's Anti-Terrorism Intelligence Section agreed to discuss the case, provided that they weren't identified by name, since both remain active terrorism investigators.
The inquiry, they say, began three days after 9/11, when the manager of an apartment building in the heart of Hollywood called the police about a group of French-speaking North Africans who kept rotating into and out of one of his units. Immediately after 9/11, he told police, the men shaved their beards, changed out of traditional Islamic garb, and stopped praying openly and attending the King Fahd mosque, one of the area's largest, in neighboring Culver City. The manager also claimed that he'd seen the renters remove a license plate from their car, which they pushed to a side street, off the busier boulevard where they usually parked it.
The police quietly sent an officer with a bomb-sniffing dog. The car was clean, but the police impounded it, anyway, for failing to display its plates. They became more suspicious after a series of visits to the apartment. Located in a slightly run-down four-story building in a soon-to-be-gentrified neighborhood, it had no furniture save bedrolls on the floor—"earmarks of a classic safe house," one of the detectives points out. Posters of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, a known al-Qaida target, and New York's glittering skyline adorned the walls. One officer spotted a pair of suitcases in the hallway: the luggage tags showed that they had been on a plane coming from Germany.
Learning that 9/11 bomber Mohammad Atta had belonged to a radical cell in Hamburg, "we knew enough to be worried," a detective recalls. One of the North Africans, questioned by the police, claimed that the luggage belonged to his brother, who had recently arrived from Germany. But the police found no trace of the brother, either at the apartment or anywhere in L.A.
The North Africans told other inconsistent stories. Virtually all were jobless; several had registered to obtain pilot's licenses or shown an interest in doing so. (The police later learned that enrolling in pilot's school was a quick way of securing a student visa.) One was already a pilot. A police check of public records disclosed that he had claimed on an application to have attended a Florida flight school that, it later turned out, one of the 9/11 hijackers had also attended. Public records also showed that he had registered at an address in Arizona, not far from where a second hijacker had gone to flight school. "It wasn't enough for the FBI at the start, but it was for us," a detective notes.
The LAPD put the apartment and its residents—as well as their friends and associates, some 250 people in all—under surveillance. Eventually, it assigned more than 150 investigators and support employees to the case. Their focus eventually narrowed to a core of eight or ten suspects. "We knew we were dealing with a network of some kind," a detective says. But investigators couldn't prove that the group that they were watching was, as they suspected, an al-Qaida support cell in the heart of Hollywood.
When the police discovered that two of the men initially questioned were in the country illegally, they arrested them. One by one, others under surveillance were quietly arrested on various criminal charges—identity theft, illegal gun possession, and marriage and insurance fraud—none of which even mentioned terrorism. In some cases, immigration authorities deported the men on immigration charges. In other cases, suspects pleaded guilty and went to jail, or voluntarily left the country. One of the two men originally arrested on immigration charges bailed himself out of jail. The second secretly tried to obtain firearms in prison. Deported in 2002, both have now disappeared.
The investigation soon focused on a man who seemed to be at the cell's hub—Qualid Benomrane, a North African taxi driver mentioned in a footnote of the 9/11 Commission Report. Arrested on immigration charges in early 2002, he told the police that prior to the attacks he had driven "two Saudis" around L.A. and to San Diego's Sea World, after being introduced to them by Fahad al-Thumairy, a diplomat at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles. Benomrane also told police that someone at the consulate had asked al-Thumairy to take care of the two men.
According to the 9/11 report, Benomrane, shown pictures of Khaled al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two of the 9/11 hijackers, at first pulled their photos out of the group he was shown, but later claimed not to recognize them. The 9/11 commission investigators concluded that "the hypothesis that Benomrane's ‘two Saudis' were Hazmi and Midhar" couldn't be substantiated.
But the LAPD detectives who investigated the case remain convinced that Benomrane and al-Thumairy were militants in the al-Qaida support network and that Benomrane's passengers were, in fact, the two hijackers. "Our investigation found, for instance, that Benomrane had taken photos of the structural supports of the Golden Gate Bridge during a trip to northern California," a detective says. The LAPD also discovered that Benomrane had taken his two Saudi passengers to a gas station where one of the two San Diego–based hijackers had worked before heading east to carry out his deadly mission. (The FBI, which participated in the investigation, declined comment since the inquiry was classified, but a commission investigator said that the bureau has no record of such a side trip.)
The LAPD investigators decided to question Benomrane in jail once more, but they never got the chance: he was deported on the eve of their visit to see him (a textbook example of one part of government's not talking to another). Benomrane, too, has disappeared. But using standard policing tactics and procedures, the LAPD investigators broke up what they believe was a cell that supported al-Qaida's 9/11 mission in ways still not fully understood. "We did all the right things without knowing it," a detective notes, calling the case the LAPD's "coming of age" in counterterrorism.
"Only the police are close enough to the ground to be able to go after terrorists like this by using standard criminal investigations," argues Stephan C. Margolis, who now heads the LAPD's Anti-Terrorism Intelligence Section. "The FBI has 12,000 agents for the entire country, only some of whom do counterterrorism. Local and state law enforcement includes some 800,000 people who know their territory. We are destined to be frontline soldiers in what could be a very long and complicated war."
Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism.