“The US struggles with homegrown terror more than” Europe, which “has a bigger foreign fighter” problem, New York Commissioner of Homeland Security Roger Parrino has told The Jerusalem Post.
Parrino analyzed the different terrorism challenges presented to the US and to other countries in interviews with the Post last week and on the sidelines of an IDC Herzliya terrorism conference last month.
“The trends we are seeing in Europe of vehicle attacks and knife attacks have made it to the US, but not to the same extent as in the rest of the world. We do not have someone coming over” to the US to perpetrate terrorism in the numbers that Europe has had, he said.
On the other hand, homegrown terrorism is a bigger problem in the US, where “a lone wolf gets inspired and wants to be known for something… or someone with mental illness” ends up attacking, he said.
Furthermore, these types of terrorists usually “have no criminal backgrounds,” making them hard to trace or anticipate, the commissioner said.
Parrino was told about Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) statements that it had prevented hundreds of potential lone wolf terrorists from acting, by arresting them based on their profiles and on incitement they posted on social media.
He responded that what impresses him about Israel is that it “has cracked the formula of how to communicate with citizens from an early age based on the fears and the problems they face. We in America have not.”
This means that in many parts of Israel, would-be terrorists see the perceptive and sometimes armed members of the Israeli public as a challenge, and may choose to avoid certain attacks and “decide to pick on a different city” that is less well-guarded.
Asked why Israel had made such progress in connecting with its citizenry about security, he said part of the story is their “proximity to danger. It is different to be fighting for your existence since 1947 versus one horrific day in September 2001.”
Parrino said he did see it as a central part of his role “to reach out more to the American people so they can use information to make better decisions about their safety. Our governor is very forward-leaning in that realm.”
As for information sharing among US counterterrorism authorities, he said there had been major progress. “The FBI is so much more cooperative and interested in sharing information than they were when I first entered law enforcement in 1982.”
At the same time, he said there is room for improvement, as changing the culture of sharing intelligence is “slow moving, like altering the direction of the rudder” of a large ship.
“It exists and we are talking about it. The discussion used to be ‘Make sure we do not cooperate.’ Now it is ‘How can we cooperate.’”
He discussed striking the proper balance between sharing enough information with the US public versus sharing too much information, which could “give up vulnerabilities and capabilities.”
It is valid to give the public more information about travel risks, risks of attending certain public gatherings and about a counterterrorism unit in New York being capable of responding to multiple simultaneous attacks, he said.
However, he was against giving out technical information about security precautions and capabilities being undertaken by the government, as “that is a playbook for evildoers and terrorists.”
Examples of going too far in sharing would be publicizing how security forces “are collecting information, warehousing information and describing surveillance gear and equipment. That kind of information does not deter the bad guys. They use it and work around it.”
Still, Parrino favors sharing some of that technical information “with a government oversight committee” in a classified session.
After all of that, he said that there was no silver bullet for stopping terrorism, and he implied that statistics, even those of the Shin Bet, about how many potential attackers could or were stopped were notoriously hard to back up
“Congress always asks what has been stopped. The legalities are a struggle with supervising social media. It is not easy to draw the line between saying ‘It is okay to have a radical thought process, but not okay to encourage radicalized violence,” Parrino said.
One concrete technique for stopping at least forms of vehicular terrorism that he supports is bollards – thick steel posts that can line sidewalks and entrances to gathering areas and block attacks.
In the past many people objected to securing buildings and public areas because the security recommendations would render areas ugly, he said. In contrast, he said bollards are relatively attractive and unobtrusive for pedestrians.
Bollards can also be used more aggressively to entirely block off certain pedestrian-oriented areas of a city. While this could increase traffic congestion elsewhere, Parrino said some of the adjustment required just making a mental shift in understanding the scale of the terrorism challenge.
“Fifty years ago, no one was wearing seat belts,” and now that has become standard, he said, adding that “giving the streets back to pedestrians is not the worst thing.”
He concluded that he “loves the mission of sharing information” and is proud of his accomplishments in advising New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and various partners about how to better protect “critical infrastructure and a range of softer targets.”