Coordinating counterterrorism in New York City: The local government's roleInvolved organizations have not yet established exactly how this is going to work, leading to a lot of frustration among federal and local officials
By The Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies Staff
By Catherine Hartwell
Since 9/11, New York City has become a benchmark on counterterrorism for other cities and local governments. This fact inspired Kristin Ljungkvist, of the University of Uppsala, Sweden, and a visiting researcher at the Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies, to present her assessment on evolving counterterrorism efforts at the municipal level in New York City.
There’s a misconception, Ljungkvist said, that we’re living in a post-9/11 world regarding the dramatic changes in the security environment. From a purely structural global perspective, she contends, we’re still living in a post–Cold War era.
Without the profound changes that took place 10 years before 9/11, when the bi-polar system crumbled and fell along with the Soviet Union, the contemporary local NYPD counterterrorism regime would probably not have existed. And if something like 9/11 had happened during the Cold War, we would have seen a very different political response to it.
9/11 did not involve or represent a structural change to the international system, because the structural changes had already happened. It was instead because of the U.S. government’s inaction in the wake of those structural changes that 9/11 could happen.
In the post–Cold War era, some threats are still perceived as originating from state-based enemies wielding military resources, but increasingly threats are seen as arising from less-defined sources such as terrorist networks, organized crime, flu outbreaks, natural disasters and infrastructure breakdowns. It has been increasingly recognized that in a rapidly changing and interdependent world, the divide between internal and external security issues is dissolving.
Urbanization and terrorism
Cities have historically been key sites of societal transformations, the places where revolutions begin, new ideas are born and new ways of organizing the economy and politics are developed. In a globalized world, cities have become the primary nodes of transnational flows of people, goods, capital and information.
One of the most powerful trends of contemporary globalization processes is urbanization. For the first time in the history of humankind, more than half of the world’s people live in cities and urban areas. Ljungkvist noted that the mayor of Mexico City governs more people than do 75 percent of the world’s state leaders.
Cities and urban regions have also become central crossroads in the new security environment. Failed public security in urban regions can produce levels of violence comparable to civil war. Rapid urbanization to slums is facilitating the activities of transnational criminal networks, though seldom with connections to terrorist groups. Local leaders struggle with the density of cities intensifying phenomena such as civil unrest, environmental degradation, natural disasters, disease and poverty.
Cities are increasingly starting to act as autonomous political entities in security governance, and they do not want to rely completely on their national governments any longer. This, for example, has become a mantra for the NYPD and its counterterrorism efforts.
Cities in general are particularly beneficial as targets for terrorist attacks for a number of reasons. They are centers of power and magnets for media attention. Densely populated urban space facilitates extensive loss of lives, and damage to buildings with strong symbolic meaning generates high levels of anxiety for large populations.
The complexity of cities also makes them ideal to hide terrorist plots; after 9/11, it became evident that al-Qaida and other terrorist networks had operated mostly undisturbed in a number of European, South Asian and Middle Eastern cities. Globally, about three out of every four incidents labelled as terrorist attacks, and 80 percent of the subsequent casualties, have occurred in cities.
Countering terrorism in NYC
All this led to Ljungkvist’s interest in researching the NYPD counterterrorism regime.
Counterterrorism in the United States has become firmly established as an intergovernmental issue, as part of a consensus that state and local governments have important roles to play. However, the involved organizations have not yet established exactly how this is going to work, leading to a lot of frustration among federal and local officials.
Counterterrorism in New York City is built on three organizational pillars, two local and one intergovernmental. The local ones are the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Bureau and the Intelligence Division. The intergovernmental part is represented by the Joint Terrorism Task Force, mainly made up of the FBI and the NYPD, but also including other local, state and federal agencies such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the U.S. Coast Guard.
According to Ljungkvist, the Counterterrorism Bureau houses “the big guns and the gadgets.” For example, it’s very focused on finding, developing and testing new technologies such as nuclear, biological, and chemical detection and monitoring devices.
In addition, the bureau works to identify, and develop protection for, critical infrastructure around the city. They deploy heavily armed paramilitary-style units to strategic locations throughout the city, such as tunnels, bridges, transportation hubs and city landmarks to deter and interrupt potential terrorist activities. Its personnel examine bags carried by subway passengers and operate vehicle and radiological checkpoints at roads, tunnels and bridges around the city.
The bureau is in charge of the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, which is now expanding into Midtown. It’s also in charge of deploying people to the JTTF and thereby for managing cooperation with the FBI.
The Intelligence Division keeps a lower profile than the Counterterrorism Bureau. It’s structured as a “mini-CIA” and reportedly has higher levels of competence in languages than the FBI or the CIA. The division also includes a Cyber Unit with personnel monitoring chat rooms and websites for radical activities with connections to the city.
The Intelligence Division also has an International Liaison Program under which NYPD officers are stationed in 11 cities in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The ILP is funded privately through the New York City Police Foundation.
The JTTF, for better and not
The JTTF is composed of nearly 60 local, state and federal agencies, though the major stakeholders are the NYPD and the FBI. The NYPD officers assigned to work in the JTTF are under the operational control of the Counterterrorism Bureau and report directly to the Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism.
The NYPD detectives at the JTTF operate under the authority of the FBI, receive training from the FBI, and have the full federal authority of FBI agents, which means they can execute a federal arrest or federal warrant. They are also given full security clearances, the same as regular FBI agents, which also provide these specific NYPD officers with access to national-level classified intelligence.
Although the JTTF has improved the relationship between the NYPD and the FBI significantly, some issues remain.
On the negative side, the rationale behind JTTFs nationwide has been to break down institutional barriers among the participating agencies. A key element in that endeavor has been co-location, which presumes that sharing not only the mission, but also office space on a daily basis will build trust.
However, Ljungkvist said, the fact that the NYPD officers assigned to the JTTF are under FBI authority means that they’re likely to be considered FBI agents by other NYPD personnel. And because of security clearance issues, NYPD officers at the JTTF aren’t always allowed to share information with their NYPD colleagues, hampering the officers’ role as boundary spanners between the organizations.
The relationship has been especially tense between the JTTF and the NYPD Intelligence Unit, which have no official link, because the JTTF is connected with the Counterterrorism Bureau. The internal relationship between these two organizations has further complicated coordination and created new jurisdictional overlaps.
In many respects, the American intelligence community overall is even more fragmented and disorganized now than it ever was before. But perhaps one could see it differently, Ljungkvist suggests. As more and more people and organizations are involved, there might be better guarantees of high-quality product.
As to the positives, terrorism has come to be understood as a problem that cannot be effectively handled by any single level or sector of government. There seems to be a profound consensus, not merely rhetoric, around the idea that counterterrorism requires intergovernmental coordination on international, national and local levels.
Catherine Hartwell is a graduate research assistant with The Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies (RaCERS) and is pursuing her master’s degree in Emergency Management at John Jay College.