As we celebrate America's independence this Fourth of July weekend, it's worth remembering the efforts of those who keep our nation safe. When it comes to American cities, that means the law enforcement and counterterrorism professionals who continue to thwart attacks and disrupt plots, some beneath the radar and out of the headlines.
In remarks accompanying the July 1st publication of "Engineering Security," a 100-page NYPD report on how better to protect the city's highest-risk buildings and structures from terrorist strikes, David Cohen, the deputy police commissioner of intelligence for the NYPD, reminded us that the city remains terrorists' most sought-after target. At least 10 "intensely lethal" plots against the city by Al Qaeda, its affiliates, or homegrown militants have been thwarted since 9/11, he said. And though 40 Predator drone attacks in the past year on Al Qaeda's senior command in Afghanistan and Pakistan have killed many of its key operatives and thrown its command-and-control structure "off balance," the threat posed by Osama bin Laden's network remains "unrelenting," Cohen maintained.
Disputing claims that bin Laden is so ill and secluded that he can no longer authorize and direct terrorist attacks, Cohen argued that bin Laden, 52, was relatively young, healthy and "able to provide direction." "Based on everything we know about him," he asserted, "Bin Laden himself remains healthy and unless killed or captured, has plenty of time to pursue his ideological ambitions." His number two in command, Ayman Zawahiri, 58, Cohen said, was also able and healthy. For both terrorist leaders, he stressed, New York City remains "their ground zero." Al Qaeda Central, the organization they continue to lead, benefits from "focus, patience, and most importantly, resilience."
Cohen says the terrorist threat emanates from four different categories of terrorists—Al Qaeda Central; groups affiliated with Al Qaeda, such as Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Pakistani-based radicals who are suspected of perpetrating the devastating siege of Mumbai, India; homegrown radicals who have never trained with or even met Al Qaeda operatives; and Iran-supported Hezbollah. Homegrown militants, a category that the NYPD has been closely monitoring, are responsible for roughly one-third of plots targeting the city, Cohen added.
The NYPD's report arrives just as New York lobbies Congress to restore some $40 million in counter-terrorism funds that President Obama stripped from his administration's budget request for fiscal 2010.
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly called the money, part of a "Securing the Cities" initiative, vital to protecting New York and other cities from a nuclear or dirty-bomb attack. The program would give New York and its surrounding suburbs money for radiological detection equipment, training, and joint counterterrorist exercises. Kelly thanked two New York congressional members, Peter King, a Republican from the city's 3rd district, and Yvette Clarke, a Democrat from the 11th district, for helping persuade the House of Representatives to restore the funding. Now the measure goes to the Senate, which is expected to consider it soon.
King said in an interview that he hoped that the Senate would decide, as the House had, that the U.S. could not afford to drop its guard against terrorism. Clarke called the fight to restore the funding in the House tough, given the "anti-New York bias" of so many of her colleagues, especially "the further you get from 9/11."
If Congress has become less concerned about the potential terrorist threat, the NYPD clearly has not. Commissioner Kelly and his two chief counterterrorism deputies spoke this week to several hundred members of a public-private security partnership called "Shield," which bolsters the city's defenses against another major terrorist strike. Cohen said today that each of the 10 thwarted plots against New York was "designed to destroy as much as they could and kill as many people as possible." And each plot, he said, had targeted "critical infrastructure such as buildings, financial centers, or transportation nodes."
The NYPD's report offers guidance on safeguarding such targets from car bombs and other terrorist strikes. Though non-binding, the report's more than 130 recommendations describe various means for protecting "high tier" structures—those which are most attractive and vulnerable to terrorist attack—and whose destruction would have the greatest adverse impact on the city.
Richard A. Falkenrath, the deputy commissioner for counterterrorism, said that the report, which he supervised, is aimed at encouraging building owners to design new structures with security in mind and better protect existing structures. For instance, the report urges high-risk building owners and managers to conduct background checks on their employees, control public access to these buildings, and screen those entering them for bombs or other weapons. It also urges owners not to use glass, whose shards have killed and maimed thousands in previous terrorist attacks, on the bottom floors of such structures.
In bolstering perimeter security, Falkenrath said, "distance is the best defense." The report thus urges architects of new buildings to concentrate the inhabitants of such high-profile structures away from building entrances and exits. All high-tier buildings should also have quality security cameras and air-filtration systems that detect, and protect against, dangerous chemicals and biological agents, the report advises.
Neither Commissioner Falkenrath nor other police officials would identify any of what they said were "dozens" of such high-tier buildings, wishing to avoid providing what they called a "roadmap" to terrorists. But the police have often voiced their concerns about such iconic New York structures as the Statue of Liberty, which was only recently reopened, the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, and transport hubs such as Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Station. The report says that the overwhelming majority of the city's buildings are "medium" or "low-tier" terrorist targets that face little chance of direct attack.
Though Engineering Security's recommendations are not obligatory, police officials said that they hoped that the city's building commissioner would incorporate many into the building code. The code was recently updated and will not be revised again until 2011, according to Robert LiMandri, the City's Buildings Department Commissioner. But if some the report's recommendations eventually find their way into the code, with which compliance is mandatory, the safety of the city's buildings will be further strengthened.