A View from the CT Foxhole: Rebecca Weiner, Assistant Commissioner for Intelligence Analysis, NYPD, and Meghann Teubner, Director of Counterterrorism Intelligence Analysis, NYPD.

Author:Cruickshank, Paul
 
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CTC: You head up counterterrorism intelligence analysis for the NYPD. What role does this play in the police department's wider counterterrorism efforts?

Weiner: Post-9/11, then-Police Commissioner Ray Kelly created a robust counterterrorism program, housed in two bureaus: the Intelligence Bureau, where Meghann and I work, and the Counterterrorism Bureau. At its most basic, the Intelligence Bureau is charged with intelligence collection and investigations, relationship building--through 14 liaison officers posted overseas and four domestic liaisons--and analysis, all for the purpose of prevention. The Intelligence Bureau's investigators gather intelligence in support of terrorism investigations and have disrupted dozens of terrorism threats against New York City. The Counterterrorism Bureau supplies over 100 detectives to the FBI-NYPD Joint Terrorism Task Force, which focuses on prevention as well. These two entities work independently of one another, but collaborate and coordinate hand-in-glove. The Counterterrorism Bureau also deploys our frontline forces, the CRC [Critical Response Command] teams you see with the heavy vests and long-guns protecting key targets and the Bomb Squad. This is all through the lens of overt target hardening and preparedness, as well as response and mitigation.

The intelligence analysis components, which we oversee, are like the hub of a wheel, with all of the various collection mechanisms as the spokes. We have a team of civilian analysts and uniformed investigators whose job is to take in all the information that comes our way--whether it comes from our human sources and other investigative resources, our partners, or the public via our leads hotline--and turn it into intelligence, both tactical and strategic.

Teubner: Our intelligence products inform not only investigations but also the preparedness of the Department. If there's an incident domestically or overseas, we'll put out an analytic report that provides context and focuses on implications to the threat environment here in New York and that helps play into a preparedness response here. The analysts draw insight from information and expertise provided by our overseas liaison posts, who are stationed strategically in police departments across the globe. Even when we do not assess that an incident poses a direct threat to New York, we may put additional resources at similar targets locally, say, a transit hub. After an incident like the [December 11, 2018] Strasbourg Christmas market attack, we tend to deploy additional resources to send an overt message especially to New Yorkers that we're thinking strategically and tactically about what is happening globally and how that might impact New York. And we want to make sure that you feel safe going about your day-to-day business.

Weiner: While the core mission of our unit is informing the investigators and officers that we're partnered with about the threat landscape as it changes--which is ultimately a very tactical job at its core--it is also about informing our partners, and the public.

CTC: When it comes to the jihadi terrorist threat, how are you seeing that threat evolve when it comes to New York City?

Teubner: We've seen the threat evolve from al-Qa'ida, from the externally directed threat, which NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller has described as very deep, very complex, but very narrow (1) to a much more diverse threat across the ideological spectrum from a range of actors with varying degrees of connectivity to groups or networks. And while the threat actors overseas became more dispersed, we saw a shift in the threat landscape via the use of propaganda--I'm thinking specifically Anwar al-Awlaki and the launch of Inspire magazine to encourage lone actors and provide specific guidance for successful attacks. ISIS took that model and exponentially intensified it through use of multiple social media platforms and range of messages to appeal to the widest possible audience.

We assess that that lone-actor threat is the most prevalent threat to New York City and will likely continue to be so. These lone actors consume extremist and violent content primarily online and on social media and construct their own narratives, which may include personal grievances, emotional stress, and violent extremism, to radicalize, to mobilize-to-violence. There is a vast amount of available propaganda, whether it's older or repackaged al-Qa'ida and Anwar al-Awlaki messages or the consistent propaganda that we see from ISIS and the group's sympathizers.

Weiner: We undertook a project earlier this year that looks backwards to 2001 at threats against New York City and from that projects forward to 2023--an Intelligence Estimate for New York City. (2) A couple dominant themes emerged. One is what Meghann was just describing, which is a shift from externally directed plots to lone, often local actors, which really starts in 2009-2010. The second is a marked uptick in pace.

We counted 29 publicly disclosed plots against New York City since 2001. From 2001 through 2009, there were 12. Two of them were the product of lone actors, and 10 were externally directed. Since 2010, we have seen 17-14 of which can be attributed to lone actors, versus three that were externally directed. That's a pretty dramatic flip-flop.

So far as the pace is concerned, since ISIS' declaration of the caliphate in the summer of 2014, we've had 12 disrupted plots and attacks in New York City. Four of the 12 were in some respects successful. You had Zale Thompson, who attacked a group of police officers with a hatchet in Queens in [October] 2014, which was a few months after the declaration. And then more recently, [September 2016 'Chelsea bomber' Ahmad] Rahimi, [alleged October 2017 'West Side Bike Path truck attacker' Sayfullo] Saipov, and [December 2017 'Port Authority' bomber Akayed] Ullah.

Accompanying the shift to lone actors, we see a blurring of ideology with other more idiosyncratic drivers. And often a blending of disparate, sometimes even mutually exclusive, ideologies. The idiosyncrasy of a lone actor plays out in the terrorism landscape more visibly now than it used to, and that's because individuals leave strongly imprinted social media footprints that give us insight into the nuance of their motivations more than ever. In many cases, the violence of lone actors is justified in their minds by ideology more than driven by it. That's why we see neo-Nazis become jihadists or [we see] black separatist extremist ISIS adherents.

CTC: Notwithstanding the attacks in late 2018 in Strasbourg and Manchester, there seems to have been from late 2017 some reduction in the threat from jihadi terrorism in Europe because of the demise of the Islamic State caliphate, the removal from the battlefield of many of the group's external operations planners, (a) and perhaps, though it's difficult to measure, because of a diminution in the enthusiasm of Islamic State sympathizers in Europe. Have you seen a fall-off in plotting activity when it comes to New York City since the Islamic State lost territorial control of its caliphate?

Weiner: No, we haven't seen much of a fall-off, because of the rise in plots inspired by jihadi terrorist groups. And we expect that to continue in the near-term. It's important to note that the two terrorist attacks New York City suffered in 2017 were carried out after the liberation of Mosul and Raqqa. Even though directed and enabled terror plots can sometimes involve more...

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