Counterterrorism expert: ‘Boston Marathon bombing is a game changer’

Violent extremist threat can never be eliminated, but vigilance and community engagement could prevent another 4/15

Errol G. SouthersErroll G. Southers is an internationally recognized counterterrorism and public safety expert. He is the author of the Elsevier book Homegrown Violent Extremism, publishing in late summer. Southers was nominated by President Barack Obama to lead the Transportation Security Administration and appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to the California Governor's Office of Homeland Security. He was Chief of Homeland Security and Intelligence at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and an FBI special agent.

Homegrown Violent Extremism

Southers is currently affiliated with the University of Southern California (USC) as Associate Director of Research Transition for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) National Center for Risk & Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) and as an adjunct professor at the Sol Price School of Public Policy. He is completing his doctoral dissertation at USC on "Homegrown Violent Extremism." He is also the Managing Director of Counter-Terrorism and Infrastructure Protection for TAL Global Corporation, a consultancy used by governments and firms around the world.[divider]

For more than a decade, the US security and intelligence community has been preparing for and anticipating a large-scale terror attack. Thanks to the work of counterterrorism agencies and a vigilant public, we have had many victories. On April 15 in Boston, however, our worst fears came true. The bombing of the Boston Marathon is a game changer. It is the first successful attack on US soil since 9/11, and it is the first attack on a sporting event since the 1996 Olympic Games. It is evidence that the threat from violent extremists is always evolving; the attacks in Boston reveal that despite the collective best efforts of law enforcement, intelligence professionals and security agencies, the potential for terrorism can never be fully eliminated.

Changing our concept of terrorism

While we do not yet know who was responsible for the Boston terrorist attack, it is important for us as a country to understand that the threat does not begin and end with al Qaeda. While Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers brought the United States fully into the horrors of 21st-century terrorism, that organization is not alone in a desire to harm the American public.

There is a tendency to assume all terrorists harbor the same extremist beliefs, that all fall under the same hateful umbrella of anti-American jihad. We take solace in the notion of "otherism" — that attackers could never include our own people. Yet, it is dangerously shortsighted to view terrorism only as a foreign phenomenon that occasionally sneaks across US borders. Indeed, the growing threat of extremist violence is developing in all corners of the world, including the United States. This homegrown violent extremism is identical to any foreign-borne terrorist group, save one critical difference: the actors are American, born and raised. [pullquote align="right"]Every step towards greater security is matched with a would-be terrorist's exploitation of an unaddressed vulnerability. There is no finish line in homeland security.[/pullquote]

As homeland security has evolved in response to an intelligent and adaptive adversary, dogmatic zealotry has embedded itself into the fabric of communities throughout the United States, spawning a threat that is now homegrown. If the terrorists of the world all looked the same, followed the same ideology and used the same tactics, America might be able to achieve total security. A uniform terrorist threat, however, is fantasy.

Potential attackers emanate from all nationalities, inspired by a range of hateful agendas. Our policies, processes and technology have taken the United States a long way towards improved and more effective homeland security. Every step towards greater security is matched with a would-be terrorist's exploitation of an unaddressed vulnerability. There is no finish line in homeland security.

Our best chance for preventing terrorist incidents

The investigation into the attacks in Boston will teach us many things – who did it, why they did it and how they were able to launch their attack despite visible protective measures. Yet the lessons learned will not profit us a comprehensive solution that will stop future attacks. Our best chance for preventing terrorist incidents is to embrace a more holistic, community-based effort. [pullquote align="right"]Our best chance for preventing terrorist incidents is to embrace a more holistic, community-based effort. An engaged community reduces the risk of an attacker hiding in plain sight.[/pullquote]

Public awareness can supplement the dedicated work of America's security, intelligence and law enforcement professionals. No one knows an area better than the local community, and as such, we must build the public capacity to identify potentially threatening individuals and objects, creating a mosaic of engagement that supports and amplifies our national security. The rescue response to victims of the Boston attack demonstrates the responsibility we must embrace as participants in the never-ending homeland security effort.

Securing a democratic society is a formidable challenge, and we will never be completely free of the terrorist threat. There is always the potential for another 9/11 or another 4/15. To address the persistent and adaptive terrorist threat – be it foreign-borne or homegrown – we will need to engage as communities and enter a constant state of vigilance. Fear allows terrorists to win; awareness can and will defeat them. [divider]

Erroll G. Southers in the Media

GSN — Government Security News: Witnesses debate role of Muslim-American community before a key House Panel (May 10, 2013)

USC News: USC professor addresses Boston bombings at Congressional hearing (May 9, 2013)

Uptown Radio, NYC: New York Security Steps Back After Boston Stand-off (April 22, 2013)

KABC Talk Radio: Interview with Peter Tilden on Homegrown Violent Extremism (April 19, 2013)

Southern California Public Radio, NPR: "Investigating the Boston Marathon Bombing" (April 16, 2013)

NBC Los Angeles: "Southern California Runners now more determined" — watch the video below (April 16, 2013)

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4 Archived Comments

Syed Rizvi April 18, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Although Community Policing has been singularly successful in Singapore and Japan, it now exists mostly on paper only in most of US.It would be much more useful in tackling terrorism if it was an active part of policing even in normal times. Homeland security and police policy makers need to nurture it without expecting immediate results.

Erroll Southers April 18, 2013 at 4:29 pm

You are correct. “COP” as we know it, continues to be an important component of literally every police department in the U.S. They have gotten much better at understanding that “the community” must identify the challenges and contribute to the discussion and the collective response. This is not a government response dynamic, but more of a (as I stated) “Mosaic of Engagement” involving schools, businesses, private and public sector, faith-based groups, etc. The dominant partner is the community. The government should function as a potential source of resources and facilitate educating the community on “best-practices” from around the world, that might best address the identified challenge(s). Security is everybody’s responsibility!

Alison Bert April 20, 2013 at 1:03 am

The capture of the second suspect was a great example of community engagement, with citizens telling police officers and the FFI what they knew and saw and staying off the streets per orders so the suspect couldn't hide.

Erroll Southers April 24, 2013 at 6:20 am

Absolutely! It demonstrates the "force-multiplier" capacity of the public, law enforcement and the media when they are engaged in a collective and concerted effort. The most important challenge facing us is the temptation to "fix" something. We should remain focused on real threats and not things that "scare" us. Risk-based assessment, based on vulnerabilities, threats and consequences are the way forward.


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