Citizen Involvement: Capitalizing on Terrorist Failures

Once again private citizens have prevented a deadly terrorist air disaster.  On Christmas Day 2009, on an aircraft only 20 minutes from Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab started his suicide/homicide attack sequence.  As Northwest Airlines Flight 253 was on final approach over a heavily populated area, Abdulmutallab was engaged in his final approach to martyrdom.  With a complement of 278 passengers and 11 crew members as well as countless people on the ground who would have been in the debris field, his attempt to blow up the aircraft would have been a disaster of unbelievable magnitude.

Many courageous passengers and crew acted swiftly and decisively to ensure that Abdulmutallab’s efforts failed.  “It sounded like a firecracker in a pillowcase,” said Peter Smith, a traveler from the Netherlands.  “First there was a pop, and then … [there] was smoke.”  Abdulmutallab’s attempt to detonate the explosive compound in his underwear not only failed but also alerted those around him to the danger they were facing.  Several passengers and crew members quickly subdued Abdulmutallab, extinguished the fire, and forcibly removed Abdulmutallab from the seat and from the explosives.

President Obama categorized the attempted Christmas attack as narrowly dodging a bullet.  Globally, the aviation community is moving to further strengthen its screening techniques and technological capabilities.  The United States itself also is, once again, re-examining its intelligence management and interagency information-sharing practices. American self-criticism may be misinterpreted as weakness, but it is not. It is necessity.

Justifiably Concerned Citizens

The situation was eerily similar to the failed attack on American Airlines Flight 63 in 2001 when Richard Reid, the so-called “shoe bomber,” was unable to carry out his murderous objective, and – as happened to Abdulmutallab – was quickly subdued by other passengers and the crew. Both incidents demonstrated that citizens ready and willing to forcibly confront and subdue a would-be terrorist can be, and are, a viable line of defense (but one that should be used only in extremis).  In both situations, the citizens who participated in stopping the attacks were, unofficially but necessarily, members of a global community. Netherlands citizen Jasper Schuringa, for example, was instrumental both in subduing Abdulmutallab and in separating him from the explosives – during a struggle in which Schuringa himself suffered burns to his right hand.  In the microworld of an aircraft, all passengers and crew members, regardless of national origin, have a vested interest in keeping the aircraft aloft.

It can be taken for granted that extremist leaders and aspiring martyrs will continue their efforts to devise tactics to circumvent security efforts, including the intervention of other passengers.  Terrorists often seek to blend in with their target community in an effort to be invisible to the local population until they are ready to strike. Mao Tse-tung’s famous advice for insurgency operations applies to terrorists as well: “The guerrilla must live amongst the people as the fish lives in the water.”

However, even the most ingenious terrorist would be hard pressed to overcome countermeasures that include an alert and informed citizenry. An effective counterterrorism strategy must therefore include the important role that could, in extreme circumstances, be played by an informed and empowered public.  Citizens have been instrumental in denying terrorists safe environs on a number of occasions.  Moreover, as terrorists strive to devise creative ways to defeat other security measures, the alert citizen denial of a safe operating environment for terrorists is the last, but in some instances the best, or only, line of defense against terrorism.

In addition to averting air disasters, citizen vigilance and the prompt reporting of suspicious activity have enabled law-enforcement agencies to act quickly enough to defeat other terrorist plots.  For example, the infamous 2006 plot to kill innocent victims and destroy key buildings at Fort Dix in New Jersey was first brought to the attention of the FBI by Circuit City employee Brian Morgenstern, who became concerned over the content of a video live-fire training session he was transferring to DVD. Morgenstern’s vigilance, coupled with the support of the Circuit City store management, led the FBI to open an investigation that surely saved the lives of a number of service personnel.

Citizen awareness is a vital component of a truly comprehensive approach to homeland security.  A strategy of informing and strengthening citizen involvement should include highlighting the effectiveness of a society intolerant of terrorism. As Americans go about their daily lives, the observation and reporting of suspicious activity should be broadly and openly encouraged.  Such a strategy of further shifting, and effectively using, the social paradigm conveys an important message of both unity and resilience that itself would serves as a deterrent to terrorist planners.

Joseph W. Trindal

As founder and president of Direct Action Resilience LLC, Joseph Trindal leads a team of retired federal, state, and local criminal justice officials providing consulting and training services to public and private sector organizations enhancing leadership, risk management, preparedness, and police services. He serves as a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Justice, International Criminal Justice Training and Assistance Program (ICITAP) developing and leading delivery of programs that build post-conflict nations’ capabilities for democratic policing and applied modern investigative techniques. After a 20-year career with the U.S. Marshals Service, where he served as chief deputy U.S. marshal and ERT incident commander, he accepted the invitation in 2002 to become part of the leadership standing up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as director at Federal Protective Service for the National Capital Region. He serves on the Partnership Advisory Council at the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST). He also serves on the International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Managers of Police Academy and College Training. He was on faculty as an instructor at George Washington University. He is past president of the InfraGard National Capital Region Members Alliance. He has published numerous articles, academic papers, and technical counter-terrorism training programs. He has two sons on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Himself a Marine Corps veteran, he holds degrees in police science and criminal justice. He has contributed to the Domestic Preparedness Journal since 2006 and is a member of the Preparedness Leadership Council.



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