DOJ Halt to Anti-Terror Training ‘Makes Abolutely No Sense’

National Fusion Center Association again questions why the federal program that trains local police how to fight terrorism is ending, especially after episodes like the violence in Charlottesville.

As Charlottesville, Va., struggles to recover from last weekend’s deadly violence and authorities warn of increased threats from domestic extremists, the Justice Department is shutting down a program that trains officers on combating terrorism. The State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training (SLATT) program, which has served more than 142,000 law enforcement officers, has run out of funding. Its last day is Sept. 30, the Kansas City Star reports“It makes absolutely no sense,” said Mike Sena of the National Fusion Center Association, which represents a network of 79 centers designed to help law enforcement agencies collect and share terrorism-related information. “Eliminating programs that are critical to preparing our people in the field to identify threats before they manifest and cause harm to our public is an egregious error.” (SLATT’s impending demise was described last month in The Crime Report.)

Sena and other experts question the effectiveness of a domestic terrorism task force the Justice Department revived in 2014. At a time of heightened concerns about violence, they say, they’ve heard nothing about the task force or its efforts, nor have they been asked to participate. The Justice Department did not respond to repeated questions for comment about why the anti-terrorism training program was being eliminated or whether the task force was still active. and if so, what it has accomplished. An assessment last year by the Rand Corp. said there was a huge demand for the training. “The SLATT Program receives more requests for training than it can fulfill,” the study said, adding that “is not uncommon to have a backlog of 120 requests for SLATT training.”


Can Cities Protect Themselves Against Vehicle Attacks?

The van attack in Barcelona in which 13 were killed raises that question. The short answer is no, but authorities can do much to mitigate the threat to obvious targets.

Can cities protect themselves against terrorists using vehicles as weapons? No, is the short answer, no more than they can against terrorists using other everyday items to execute attacks, The Guardian reports. Authorities can do much to mitigate the threat, at least to some obvious targets. With hindsight, officials will be regretting not moving faster to boost security measures on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas boulevard, packed with tourists on a sunny August afternoon, after vehicle attacks elsewhere in Europe since last year. Thirteen people were killed and hundreds were injured in a van attack yesterday.

The mayor of Nice will convene European counterparts next month to see how they can improve security in their cities. The most obvious defenses are barriers that prevent vehicles either gathering speed or continuing for long distances. These can be highly visible – such as the deliberately obvious metal-cased concrete blocks outside the Houses of Parliament in London – or disguised, as with heavy flower pots and sculptures that are appearing on streets. Less obviously, streets and access roads can be redesigned to prevent vehicles reaching targets or accelerating. This has been done throughout much of central London. At Columbia Road flower market in the East End of London, traders have been parking their trucks diagonally across each entrance to the often densely packed street to guard against would-be attackers. After a truck was driven into a crowd at a Christmas market in Berlin last year, Police Chief Klaus Kandt said that with so many potential targets – 2,500 such markets in Germany and 60 in the city alone – it was impossible to reduce the risk to zero.


Oklahoma Man Arrested in Bombing Plot

The FBI says Jerry Varnell, 23, tried to detonate what he thought was a vehicle bomb Saturday at the BancFirst headquarters in Oklahoma City.

An Oklahoma man is under arrest after authorities say he tried to blow up a bank in Oklahoma City, the Oklahoman reports. Jerry Varnell, 23, tried to detonate what he thought was a vehicle bomb Saturday at the BancFirst headquarters. The device was inert. Varnell, of Sayre, Ok., initially wanted to bomb the Federal Reserve Building in Washington, D.C. Last December, Varnell “expressed a desire to start a new revolution,” said FBI agent Raul Bujanda. “His targets included institutions with affiliations to the U.S. government located in Washington, D.C., which also included the financial sector.”

“He wanted to replicate the Oklahoma City bombing,” Bujanda said. The 1995 Oklahoma City bomb was 6,000 pounds. Authorities said an undercover FBI agent posed as someone who could help Varnell blow up the building. “Varnell then began acquiring components for what he believed would make a 1,000 pound improvised explosive device,” Bujanda said. The components included ammonium nitrate and other explosives that were, in fact, inert, and supplied by the FBI. “Based on what he had learned and just his overall language and how he was communicating with our undercover employee, he had the knowledge he had the skill,” Bujanda said. Varnell allegedly loaded the “bomb” into a cargo van he parked the van in the alley of BancFirst and fled to a safe location in order to remotely detonate the bomb with a cell phone.


Dozens of Terrorism Convicts Due for Federal Release

Some 50 “homegrown violent jihadists” are to be released by 2026. One terrorism convict already out tells the Associated Press that some “loose cannons” now in prison “might go to the convenience store and cut off somebody’s head.”

Dozens of convicts in U.S. prisons for terrorism-related offenses are due to be released in the next several years, the Associated Press reports. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. has worked aggressively to foil attacks and has imprisoned hundreds of people who joined or helped militant groups. Less attention has been paid to what happens once those prisoners complete their sentences. Among the incarcerated are 380 linked to international terrorism and 83 tied to domestic terrorism. A Congressional Research Service report said 50 “homegrown violent jihadists” were to be released between last January and the end of 2026.

Former FBI Director James Comey said the bureau had more than 900 active investigations related to Islamic State and other extremist activity in all 50 states. Most of those convicted of terrorism-related crimes are held at federal prisons in Florence, Co., Terre Haute, In., and Marion, Il., Some are in for life, but the average sentence is 13 years. “There were people I was with in prison who you’d be happy to have as a neighbor because they were normal, reasonable people,” said Ismail Royer, who was freed last December after serving 13 years on firearms charges connected to his work helping others get to a militant training camp in Kashmir. “The guys that I’m really, really concerned about are the loose cannons,” he said. “At any time [they] might go to the convenience store and cut off somebody’s head. You just don’t know. These guys are very problematic. I don’t want them as my neighbor. You can’t sit there and talk to them and tell them that their views are mistaken.”


Will Trump Save Police Anti-Terror Training?

While members of Congress spar over how much of the big health care law they can kill, on a much smaller scale, the U.S. Justice Department has its own case of a federally funded effort that won’t go away, at least so far this year, no matter how hard lawmakers try.

Obamacare is this year’s most prominent example of a federal program that virtually refuses to die.

While members of Congress spar over how much of the big health care law they can kill, on a much smaller scale, the U.S. Justice Department has its own case of a federally funded effort that won’t go away, at least so far this year, no matter how hard lawmakers try.

It’s called the State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training Program, or SLATT, and is s “dedicated to providing critical training and resources to our nation’s law enforcement, who face the challenges presented by the terrorist/violent criminal extremist threat.”

Back in 2015, The Crime Report wrote that the legislators who control the DOJ budget had voted to eliminate the training. At the time, a spokesperson for then-Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), the top Democrat on the committee that handles DOJ appropriations, said “tough decisions had to be made among many deserving programs.”  (Fattah himself didn’t do very well, either. He was sentenced last year to a 10-year prison term on corruption charges.)

SLATT didn’t make the cut, both in 2015 and in the two years that followed, despite support from the Obama administration.

So it’s something of a surprise to find that not only is the SLATT website still alive, registration is ongoing for law enforcers to sign up for instruction in Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Oregon and Washington and “registration [is] opening soon” for Georgia, Maine, Mississippi and New York.

How did that happen?

The program is so popular with law enforcement organizations that the Justice Department defied Congress, finding money internally to keep SLATT going.

Part of the explanation is the amount of money involved: by the time it died on paper at the U.S. Capitol, SLATT was getting only about $1 million a year. Within the Washington, D.C. Beltway, that is such a small amount buried in the DOJ budget of about $31 billion) that officials were able to come up with enough funds to keep SLATT going–at least for a while.

It turns out that the annual appropriations law for DOJ allows officials to spend up to three percent of money Congress provides the department for anticrime grants for “training and technical assistance.” For the current year, $480,000 was found in that pot to pay for SLATT.

Asked about the anti-terrorism training several weeks ago, a career DOJ employee said the funds were expected to run out by September 30, the end of the current federal spending year, and SLATT would come to a quiet end.

Since SLATT began back in 1996, it has spent more than $45 million training more than 146,700 law enforcement professionals. Beyond that, a “Train-the-Trainer Workshop” has trained about 3,500 law enforcement trainers, who in turn have provided instruction to about 270,000 more law enforcement officers. Congress provided $2 million for SLATT both in fiscal years 2012 and 2013.

The job of running SLATT has been contracted to the Institute for Intergovernmental Research (IRR), a Tallahassee, Florida-based firm that is headed by Rick Gregory, a former police chief in Provo, Utah and New Castle, Delaware.

Gregory says local police officers typically are offered a two-and-one-half day training session covering such topics as terrorism ideologies, domestic terrorists including “sovereign citizens” and anarchists, and international terrorism, and intelligence and information sharing among law enforcement agencies.

Police groups are enthusiastic about SLATT. The International Association of Chiefs of Police says that although large police departments have the capacity to train their own officers about terrorism, there are about 18,000 law enforcement agencies around the U.S. Most of them have only 25 or 30 employees, who without SLATT probably would not be exposed to terrorism issues.

James W. Baker, director of advocacy for the IACP and former director of the Vermont State Police, says that all police departments should be briefed on the latest information on spotting and dealing with terrorists because “it could happen anywhere.”

After the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, nearly 80 “fusion centers” were created around the U.S., where law enforcement officials from different geographical areas in a region gather to analyze information on terrorist threats.

Mike Sena, a California Department of Justice official, heads the National Fusion Center Association, which represents the centers nationwide. Sena told The Crime Report that “it’s a shame” and “disturbing” that funds may run out for the police training. “We’re not asking for a whole lot,” he said, alluding to the relatively small cost of the program.

Now the question is whether the administration of President Trump, who has made both fighting terrorism and supporting local police a high priority, will keep SLATT going despite an apparent lack of interest in Congress.

The White House sought no funds for SLATT in the appropriations bill now being considered in Congress.

A Justice Department spokesperson would not offer an explanation for the administration’s lack of public support given its stances on terrorism and policing. Still, the official wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions will come to SLATT’s rescue in the next two months and in the process please the administration’s backers on U.S. police forces.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.


Australia Considering New Law Weakening Encryption

News from Australia: Under the law, internet companies would have the same obligations telephone companies do to help law enforcement agencies, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said. Law enforcement agencies would need warrants to access the communications. "We’ve got a real problem in that the law enforcement agencies are increasingly unable to find out what terrorists and drug traffickers and pedophile…

News from Australia:

Under the law, internet companies would have the same obligations telephone companies do to help law enforcement agencies, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said. Law enforcement agencies would need warrants to access the communications.

"We've got a real problem in that the law enforcement agencies are increasingly unable to find out what terrorists and drug traffickers and pedophile rings are up to because of the very high levels of encryption," Turnbull told reporters.

"Where we can compel it, we will, but we will need the cooperation from the tech companies," he added.

Never mind that the law 1) would not achieve the desired results because all the smart "terrorists and drug traffickers and pedophile rings" will simply use a third-party encryption app, and 2) would make everyone else in Australia less secure. But that's all ground I've covered before.

I found this bit amusing:

Asked whether the laws of mathematics behind encryption would trump any new legislation, Mr Turnbull said: "The laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that.

"The laws of mathematics are very commendable but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia."

Next Turnbull is going to try to legislate that pi = 3.2.

Another article. BoingBoing post.

EDITED TO ADD: More commentary.


Sessions, Rosenstein Visit Guantanamo in Terror Check

“Keeping this country safe from terrorists is the highest priority of the Trump administration,” said the Justice Department as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, visit the U.S. detention facility and war court.

In the highest ranking known visit by a Trump administration official, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, were visiting Guantanamo Bay Naval Base today to get “an up-to-date understanding” of current war on terror operations, the Justice Department said. The Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, was also expected on the visit, according to an official at Guantánamo, the Miami Herald reports. “Keeping this country safe from terrorists is the highest priority of the Trump administration,” said Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior.

Other attorneys general have visited the site, including Michael Mukasey for the Bush administration in 2008 and Eric Holder for the Obama administration in 2009. Today’s visit comes more than five months into the Trump administration — even as the White House has yet to officially rescind Barack Obama’s 2009 closure order — and may be seen as a signal of support for the detention operation now holding 41 detainees and the war court where six men are in pretrial, death-penalty proceedings for the Sept. 11 and USS Cole attacks. The one-day visit was announced hours before a Saudi man was due at the war court for a pre-sentencing hearing. Ahmed al Darbi pleaded guilty to war crimes in 2014, in exchange for a commitment to let him serve out his sentence of up to 15 years in his homeland starting next year.


Why Global Warming Imperils Global Security

Mass migration fueled by drought and changing weather patterns is an incubator for terrorism, warns the director of John Jay’s terrorism center.

Global warming haunts the imagination of most critically aware people on the planet.  Signs of climate change are everywhere: in rising sea levels, melting ice caps, more violent storms, and spreading deserts in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite the bold efforts in some areas to develop alternative sources of energy, the radical change, if not collapse, of civilization as we know it seems imminent.  Whole economies could well be disrupted with implications for massive transfers of populations.

In the United States, we are comparatively numb to the consequences of severe climate change.

Those on Cape Cod could see the value of their real estate erode; much of South Florida may have to be given up for waste; and the heat and fires in the Southwest could erode the health of everyone from Los Angeles to Austin.

But as Pope Francis has pointed out in his majestic encyclical, Laudato Si of 2015, the world’s poor—those in the global south and least responsible for climate change—are the ones already most at risk and certain in the future to bear the brunt of the changes.

The deaths could be in the hundreds of millions; the suffering unimaginable.

One underappreciated dimension of global warming is its relationship to security.  Environmentalists in general work diligently to awaken Americans to the dangers of climate change and to develop ways of mitigating the disasters we face.

But for the most part the worlds of climatology and security diverge sharply.

Only the military has been reflecting on issues of security in relationship to global warming for the last 15 years, but even their focus is on what they fear is the potential of wars over resources that could spill over into larger conflicts.

I have been studying climate change and terrorism seriously now for the last four years.  One example of my concerns was the war in Syria.  A drought there from 2006 to 2011 pushed some 800,000 people from their land in rural northeastern Syria.

The climate refugees inundated the cities, especially Aleppo, putting great stress on available resources.

The social and economic disruptions caused by the drought, against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, in a small country led by a brutal dictator, brought on a civil war that began in March of 2011.

We cannot understand ISIS except in the context of global warming.

Within two years, Syria became a failed state, which in turn attracted hundreds of Jihadi groups.  Out of that chaos, the leader of the violent pack turned out to be the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  The drought didn’t create ISIS, which surged forth in June, 2014 to wreak havoc; but we cannot understand that uniquely apocalyptic group except in the context of global warming.

Another example is Bangladesh.  This country of 160 million people lies perilously close to sea levels that are themselves on the rise.  The country also possesses a fragile democracy with many Jihadi political entities and an unknown number of individuals and groups waiting for their moment to emerge.

Bangladesh itself was created from East Pakistan in the wake of the 1971 Bhola Cyclone and the civil war and genocide that followed.  Global warming, by all accounts, unsettles weather patterns and tends to intensify storms.  A newly violent cyclone in the future could kill tens of millions in a heartbeat.

Social and political chaos would result.  Millions of climate refugees would flock toward India, which, anticipating just such an eventuality, has constructed a vast wall along its border (some 750 kilometers is complete).

It won’t keep people out.

New violence, even genocide, could well arise between India’s billion Hindus and its minority Muslim population of about 150 million people.   Such ethnic war could well bring Pakistan into the fray.  And both India and Pakistan bristle with nuclear weapons.

With a colleague, I recently conducted some opinion research on American attitudes about climate change and security.  Working with GfK custom Research and LLC (GfK), we asked some focused questions on this issue to a statistically significant group of Americans.

Our recent report, produced by the John Jay College Center on Terrorism  suggests that the public—even those who believe that climate change is happening and that human actions are causing or contributing to it—remains largely unfamiliar with the idea of a connection between climate change and security.

Just 38 percent of all respondents, and 42 percent of those who think human-caused climate change is occurring, acknowledged that climate change may multiply global threats such as political violence or mass migrations, or act as a catalyst for conflict.

Even fewer, only about 14 percent of all respondents, had ever heard or read that a severe drought in Syria, likely caused or worsened by climate change, was one of the factors that helped spark (and continue to fuel) the conflict.

But there was one encouraging note we learned from our survey. Respondents indicated they were open to change their behavior if they came to believe that climate change and security were causally interrelated.  Participants reported the greatest willingness to take action if U.S. national security, rather than global security, were at stake.

What kind of “action”?

Taking an inclusive approach to “openness,” encompassing “definitely,” “probably,” and “maybe” responses, we found that 90 percent of those who think human climate change is occurring  were open to modifying their voting priorities, and 93 percent were open to seriously considering lifestyle changes, if they perceived a threat to national security.

When excluding “maybe” responses, willingness to “probably” or “definitely” adapt behavior along the same lines measured at 66 percent and 67 percent respectively among those who think that human-caused climate change is occurring.

Charles B. Strozier. Photo by Donnelly Marks.

These are cautiously hopeful findings.  They suggest most Americans are open to the idea of climate change while at the same time uninformed about what is happening.

Greater knowledge of the imminent dangers could bring actual personal and political change.  The moral here is clear.  Inform the public.

Charles B. Strozier is professor of history and founding director of the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Most People ‘Unaware’ Climate Change Threatens Global Security

A survey conducted by the John Jay College Center on Terrorism, found that only 38% of all respondents “expressed familiarity with the general idea that climate change could multiply global threats such as political violence or mass migrations, or act as a catalyst for conflict.”

According to a survey conducted by the John Jay College Center on Terrorism, even people who believe climate change is real remain largely unaware of its connection to global security. The study found that only 38% of all respondents “expressed familiarity with the general idea that climate change could multiply global threats such as political violence or mass migrations, or act as a catalyst for conflict.”

That number was only slightly higher among people who believe climate change is real, and caused or contributed to by human actions: 42%.

Only 15% were aware of the role a deadly drought played in sparking the ongoing Syrian conflict.

Participants in the study were more willing to take action and change their behaviors when they perceived U.S. national security, rather than global security, to be at threat, say the researchers.

According to the authors, the results of this study could have significant implications for “climate change communications.”

The connection between global climate change and security is not new among the national security, intelligence and research communities. However, according to the John Jay College Center on Terrorism at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, public understanding of climate change as a security threat has been under-explored till now.

The study was conducted by Kelly A. Berkell, Research Fellow and principal author,
with Charles B. Strozier, Director of the Center on Terrorism. The original report can be found here.


Can We End Terrorists’ ‘Free Pass’ on Social Media?

Preventing violent extremists from accessing the Internet is now critical to the fight against terrorism, argues a cyber security specialist. A recent Facebook announcement may point the way.

Historically, illicit actors have utilized media sources to gain supporters and new recruits, engage in psychological warfare, and spread propaganda. The perpetrators of the Rwanda genocide, for example, used the radio to vilify a target population, incite violence, and spread hate propaganda.

They, like other propagandists who exploit media platforms, wanted to polarize society by classifying the targets of their hatred as enemy “others.”

While the aims haven’t changed, the platforms have. And so must the measures used to combat them.

At the time of the Rwanda genocide, proposals to jam the radio signals of those spreading hate propaganda and inciting violence were dismissed as being too difficult and too costly to implement.

This inaction was devastating. Hate messages spread. Calls on the radio for the extermination of an entire ethnic group influenced listeners to viciously attack and kill. An estimated 70% of Rwanda’s Tutsi population—between 500,000 and one million people—were murdered during a 100-day period in 1004.

Today, terrorists use social media platforms to spread messages of hate. They use the Web to call supporters to take up arms, to kill or harm their purported enemies (a category very broadly defined), and to terrorize target populations.

Meanwhile, arguments against limiting terrorists’ access to such platforms are similar to those made during the Rwanda genocide. Once again, opponents say blocking terrorist sites is both too technically difficult and too costly.

The terrorist groups have taken advantage of the free pass they have effectively been given.

If there’s any doubt about how important social media is to their strategy, consider that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) made death threats against Twitter employees who attempted to take down terrorists’ accounts.

Most social media companies acknowledge that terrorists and those who support and encourage terrorism have no place on their platforms. Yet terrorism-related content is proliferating, giving terrorists unfettered and unprecedented access to millions of users around the globe.

Let’s not forget that terrorism is a form of theater. Each act is designed to provoke emotions (that is, fear in the population) and a desired response (an over-reaction by the public, security professionals and government agencies in the form of discriminatory practices against a misidentified target population and/or expansive police and surveillance powers).

The over-reactions in turn are used in terrorists’ propaganda campaigns to legitimize their cause and actions.

But quashing the use of social media by violent extremist groups should not be considered an “over-reaction.” It has become essential to the fight against terrorism.

Social media platforms must proactively take down accounts that support, encourage, and promote terrorism. Currently, the majority of these platforms only react when threats or dangers are brought to their attention, and the reaction is usually selective. With a few exceptions, most of the major Web service companies place the onus of identifying content that violates their terms of service on the public.

That’s wrong.

Some private groups, such as Anonymous, have acted on their own. A case in point is their takedown of ISIS and ISIS supporter Twitter accounts following the 2015 terrorist attacks in France.

It is important to remember that social media platforms are private and not public platforms, which means that these private platforms can regulate conduct as they see fit. When users utilize them, they effectively agree to the terms of service that set appropriate rules of behavior online.

Such rules of behavior include barring certain types of conduct, such as nudity, abuse, and hate speech. More recently, the rules have explicitly included bans on the support, encouragement and promotion of terrorism.

So a new law or regulation isn’t really needed. Nor do we need an expansion of police powers to monitor and search social media content.

The platforms should merely live up to their terms of service, by enforcing them pro-actively. While many suggest the complexities of the web make this unfeasible, social media platforms already have developed programs to monitor illicit activities ranging from child pornography and bullying to the theft of copyrighted works.

Surely, such programs can be modified to block and take down terrorism-related content.

The tools for doing so are already there. Social media platforms can “shadow- ban” a user—that is, they can make the offending users’ posts invisible to all but the person who is posting. Why can’t this practice be utilized on terrorists and terrorist supporters?

Another program, which can hash and detect questionable images on both visible and deep web sites, can be easily modified to identify and block images of terrorists and terrorist propaganda.

Still another can copyright both images and videos to prevent them from being uploaded online. An example of this type of program is YouTube’s ContentID, which enables users to upload copyrighted videos to a database; the program then searches for the copyrighted content on YouTube.

Why can’t such technology be used to take down leading jihadist propagandist videos from YouTube, such as those of Anwar al-Awlaki, which many law enforcement specialists say has inspired recent terrorist actions in London?

As most people know, ISIS has posted videos on YouTube depicting violent acts such as beheadings and Mujatweets, which are brief videos that depict ISIS as a generous organization and positive presence in its territories.

Why can’t a program like ContentID be leveraged to remove these videos from YouTube—videos which clearly violate the site’s terms of service?

A limiting factor in taking a proactive approach to blocking and removing terrorism-related content is not difficulty, but cost. Social media platforms apparently don’t want to invest their time, or their human and financial resources to engage in this practice. In view of that, social media platforms should be provided with incentives to offset the costs that these organizations incur by engaging in these practices.

The reality is that there are solutions; they just take time and money.

Marie-Helen Maras

There’s no reason why the media mega-giants who dominate the Internet today can’t take a proactive approach to dealing with terrorists’ use of social media. In fact, Facebook recently announced that it would use artificial intelligence to remove terrorist content from its platform. This illustrates that social media platforms can do more.

They just need to be persuaded that it is in their interests, as well as ours, to do so.

Marie-Helen Maras is a former U.S. Navy law enforcement and security specialist and author of “Cybercriminology.” She is currently an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She welcomes comments from readers.