The infantry-style terrorist attacks that killed 164 people in Mumbai, India, in November had a profound effect on counter-terrorism planning in the United States. Federal, state and local authorities took a hard look at their existing defenses and, in many cases, found them wanting. Another infantry-style attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, last week only heightened U.S. authorities’ concerns.
In the cities most likely to be targeted — large, symbolic municipalities such as New York — authorities have added military-style combat training to the curriculum of their police academies, in a bid to ensure that street cops are prepared to defend against terrorists armed with assault rifles, grenades and rockets. By the same token, big-city cops are getting heavier weapons and body armor.
Large cities, especially New York and Chicago, are also investing in surveillance systems using networked cameras, intended to help spot attackers early on. Such systems can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, putting them out of reach of smaller municipalities that are also concerned about their vulnerability to infantry assault.
“You don’t have to have these capabilities everywhere in the country,” says James Carafano, an analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation. Big cities are more likely targets and, owing to their terrain, pose unique challenges. Smaller communities can get by with smaller, cheaper technologies, and in some cases can replace hardware with human systems. But the goal is the same: to “harden” a community against infantry assault.
In Richland County, South Carolina, population 360,000, the 550-strong sheriff’s department has just one full-time officer in its Homeland Security division. But all officers receive some counter-terrorism training, and as far as weapons and tools go, the department has “whatever New York or L.A. would have … on a smaller scale,” according to Sheriff Leon Lott. That includes a special weapons team, bomb-disposal equipment, chemical- and biological-weapons detection gear, boats, aircraft and even an Army-surplus Armored Personnel Carrier sporting a .50-caliber machine gun, pictured. “There’s not anything we can’t respond to.”
To catch Mumbai-style attackers before they open fire, Lott says he relies on alert citizens phoning in tips, rather than on sophisticated surveillance systems. “Intelligence is key,” he says. To keep the local network healthy, Richland County Sheriff’s Department representatives attend the meetings of 370 neighborhood groups.
The reliable police presence at these meetings also serves to “build confidence in us, so they know we can deal with” an attack, Lott says. Public communication is vital to preventing widespread panic that might hamper authorities’ response to an attack. “Accurate information serves to protect the public, reassuring them that the government is responding appropriately to the threat or attack,” said Department of Homeland Security Under Secretary Charles Allen.
If prevention fails and an attack occurs, cooperation between the sheriff’s department, other local law enforcement and state and federal forces is paramount, Lott says. To that end, South Carolina, like most states, maintains a “fusion center” where representatives of all levels of government coordinate their actions. This center features prominently in Lott’s frequent “mock-disaster” exercises, which the department launched in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine school shooting. The next such exercise will be based on the Mumbai attacks, Lott says.
Regional cultural differences shape the way Richland County would respond to an armed assault, versus New York City’s likely response. Sebastian D’Souza, a photographer for The Mumbai Mirror newspaper, recalled watching the Mumbai shooters and thinking, “I only wish I had a gun rather than a camera.” The U.S. National Rifle Association and libertarian think-tanks latched onto D’Souza’s comment as a powerful endorsement of their pro-gun lobbying efforts. India, after all, has strict gun-control laws — and so do many large cities in the U.S.
Carafano warns against the NRA’s logic. “Just because they [the Indians] had gun control doesn’t mean we shouldn’t,” he says. “The question of guns or no guns, out of context, is not very fruitful.”
To Lott, it is a fruitful question. “In the South, you have guns. In the North, nobody does. If they [terrorists] did something here, everyone would be running around with hunting rifles.”