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James Gagliano: Law enforcement must adapt to changing terrorist tactics, including vehicular attacks

Restricting vehicular access and sharing intelligence across more Western countries are good first steps, writes Gagliano

Editor’s Note: James A. Gagliano is a CNN law enforcement analyst and a retired FBI supervisory special agent. He also serves as an adjunct assistant professor at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. Follow him on Twitter @JamesAGagliano. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

CNN —  

“Just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions,” Chinese military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu is alleged to have said in the fifth century. His words still resonate some 16 centuries later, as our leaders struggle to adapt to the newest terrorist tactics.

In the last two weeks alone, there have been two vehicular attacks: one in Charlottesville, Virginia, allegedly by a young neo-Nazi, and another in Barcelona, Spain, carried out by likely ISIS aspirants.

James Gagliano
James Ferrara
James Gagliano

According to New America, 14 such attacks have occurred in the last three years, resulting in 129 dead. Since the depravity of the July 2016 cargo van attack in Nice, France, which resulted in 86 dead, the frequency of these attacks has increased exponentially.

Modern terrorists, whether white nationalists or radical Islamists, have adapted. And thus, those of us who have been charged with interdicting and mitigating their murderous pursuits must adapt as well. We have heard the old adage — In law enforcement, we must get it right every time. For the terrorists, they must be right but once.

So, what exactly should law enforcement be focused on?

Well, as with most successful policy strategies, it should coalesce around middle ground ideas that avoid tacking too far left or right of center. Obama State Department spokesperson Marie Harf received criticism in February 2015 for her supposition that, in addition to military action, job creation might be part of the antidote to Islamic State beheadings. And while gainful employment can certainly be a pleasant diversion, it cannot dissuade or prevent those espousing radical ideologies from giving sermons or posting videos online.

But President Donald Trump has not helped matters. Just last week, Trump tweeted out a widely discredited urban legend about US Army Gen. John J. Pershing and the execution of extremists in the Philippines during the early 20th century. The implication of his words was clear: A little bit of violence could go a long way in taking care of our terrorist problem.

Neither of these thoughts will have the desired effect on combating radical ideologies and keeping our nation safer.

Here’s a three-pronged strategy to confront this threat.

First, we must better protect known pedestrian thoroughfares such as Las Ramblas in Barcelona and the Promenade de Anglais in Nice. The counterterrorism method for this would be the placement of concrete bollards to restrict vehicular access. These devices typically consist of steel poles encased in concrete and do not appear to have been in place in either Barcelona or Nice. They are anchored in the ground and spaced far enough apart to allow pedestrian foot traffic, while restricting even the most compact motorized vehicles.

Recently, ISIS and al Qaeda leaders have called for vehicular attacks in the West. To Sun Tzu’s point, we must acknowledge the shift in tactics and harden our defenses, a difficult choice in open societies, but a necessary one. 9/11 forever altered our experiences going through security checkpoints at airports. This new threat demands the erection of more physical barriers between pedestrians and motorized traffic.

Of course, bollards alone are less than perfect means to prevent vehicle assaults unless part of a broader security plan that ensures pedestrian areas are inaccessible to vehicles from any route.

Second, the Five Eyes, the alliance of intelligence sharing among five countries bound by a multilateral agreement – the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada and Australia – must be expanded to include other Western countries engaged in the same existential battle against extremists. The agreement covers human, signal and military intelligence. We must immediately welcome in countries like France and Belgium, which have contributed to military campaigns directed against ISIS, and consider other European nations like Germany and Spain, recent targets of extremist terror plots.

It would take nothing more to accomplish this than a high-level directive from the President – possibly initiated by pressure from the directors of national intelligence and the National Security Agency and the President’s national security adviser – directing his administration to draft a memorandum of understanding between signatory nations that details the requirements for participation and inclusion in the alliance.

And, lastly, we must do a better job of outreach. Any successful counterterrorism strategy must include an outreach to the good and decent members of any community that has extremists in its midst.

Whether it is the parents of a fledgling neo-Nazi infatuated with Hitler or the family of a young Muslim smitten with the online speeches of Anwar al-Awlaki, the radicalized American imam whose fiery rhetoric called for jihad against the United States, law enforcement must create an environment that encourages folks to come forward and report someone enamored with hateful ideologies. Too often we see that these infatuations result in predictable future violence.

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The FBI I served for 25 years has worked earnestly to ensure a proper climate to inspire cooperation from Americans of every faith and political orthodoxy. Going back as far as the 1964 Mississippi Burning murders of three civil rights workers – Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner – the FBI was the law enforcement agency that first bridged the gap between communities of color and the government that was supposed to protect and defend them. Though the FBI did not always succeed, it initiated community engagement long before local police departments in rural areas had conceived of such programs.

And, today, many FBI field offices include outreach programs to connect with local communities of every faith.

Ultimately, to protect our citizens, we will also need bipartisan legislative efforts and strong moral leadership from the White House. But for now we can settle for the development of strong relations between law enforcement and the communities they’re sworn to protect and serve.