In September 2017, FBI Director Christopher Wray announced that his agency had a 1,000 open domestic terrorism cases and an equal number of homegrown violent extremist investigations, such as individuals aligned with ISIS. After high-profile terror attacks media reports abound that police may have had prior contact with the perpetrators.

FBI terror investigations consist of three different levels of inquiry: an assessment, preliminary investigation, and a full investigation. What the FBI may do during these variant processes in relation to the terror suspect broaden as greater concerns on the individual take hold.

While terrorism cases are largely under the jurisdiction of the FBI, state, local, and tribal law enforcement can contribute to such investigations. This is evident particularly so in that policeman often make first contact with terror suspects during calls for service, traffic stops, and from tips from community members.

Among some well-known terrorism cases of alleged missed signs are:

  • Esteban Santiago (killed five in Ft. Lauderdale in January 2017)
  • Ahmad Rahimi (detonated explosives in New York and New Jersey in September 2016)
  • Omar Mateen (killed 49 in Orlando in June 2016)
  • Tamerlan Tsarnaev (along with his brother, Dzhokar, killed 3 and injured hundreds at the Boston Marathon in April 2013)
  • Maj. Nidal Hasan (killed 13 and injured dozens at Ft. Hood in Texas in November 2009).

Regardless of the differences in the degrees of suspicious terrorist behavior among the aforementioned operatives, the commonality is that there was a perception that prior to their attacks the individuals did not commit a crime. Thereby, the would-be perpetrators were not arrested.

In retrospect, things may appear as missed signs, but in reality, police investigated the matter, but the case did not justify an arrest. For instance, there might have been contradictory or incomplete information about the suspect’s threat posture. The individual may have lacked indicators of mobilization—a state in which one believes that the use of violence is justified and necessary.

Also, the police are often forced to respond to many criminal and other challenges simultaneously (e.g., organized crime and cybercrime) while having limited resources (e.g., time, budget, manpower, technology, or a combination of them). Likewise, other considerations may arise, causing police to lack focus on possible terror suspects. Analogously, there are too many extremists for police to monitor concurrently, so some were not monitored—or not too closely.

To be sure, in the past, police became aware of possible terrorist plots from referrals or tips from the suspect’s family, friends, acquaintances, informants, and the public in general. Additionally, the government may obtain a tip from an overseas partner or another source. Also, law enforcement may become aware of the suspect when they come across him online, such as on an extremist forum.

Among the available options that the police may pursue following a tip include the following activities:

  • Investigate and determine that the individual does not merit further attention
  • Investigate and decide that the suspect does deserve additional inquiry due to terror or non-terror concerns
  • Fail to not investigate in timely manner
  • Monitor for a period but might stop at some point
  • Undertake a sting operation with an informant and/or undercover agent
  • Respond to a terror incident

At times, police are unable to prevent a terrorist event because the suspect: became more radicalized than when initially investigated; moved towards violence rapidly and hide it well. Too, the failure may have arisen because police inadequately assessed the risk or failed to proceed due to political correctness.

Admittedly, police actions may merit some criticism if they fail to take seriously an individual who exhibits multiple indicators of extremism. Too, police may monitor an individual at one point, but are unaware that he traveled or returned from abroad.

Likewise, there are instances of inadequate sharing of information whereby local police does not contact the fusion center or FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. Also, mental health challenges facing a suspect may complicate the determination whether an individual is a true threat.

Other contributors to missed signs include a police department’s culture. Some police departments, especially small agencies, do not view terrorism as a likely risk in their communities. Rather, the focus of their duties is on traffic offenses and common crimes. In turn, this sentiment is largely exhibited in the actions of officers in those agencies. 

Also, if department leadership is unsupportive of counterterrorism training, individual officers do not enroll in such courses. The consequence of failing to receive such training will lead to undermine an officer’s ability to recognize conduct that may have a nexus with terrorism.

In closing, when there is adequate evidence that individuals are involved in terrorist activities, police often succeed in monitoring such persons, and arresting them as circumstances warrant. The capabilities of law enforcement are manifold in uncovering suspected terrorists, but they are unable to find every terrorist before they strike. Civil society, too, plays a contributing role in identifying persons who have been radicalized and mobilized as the next terror actor.

About the Authors:  Dean C Alexander is director/professor of the Homeland Security Research Program at Western Illinois University. He co-authored “The Islamic State: Combating the Caliphate Without Borders” (Lexington Books, 2015). Benjamin Arnold earned his undergraduate degree in 2017 at Western Illinois University.