The issue of global terrorism concerns every community in the world. Over the last decades, there have been numerous attacks across the globe that took thousands of lives and left even more people injured. A topical issue, such as terrorism threat, requires an adequate and professional response on all levels, from police departments to foreign intelligence and military forces. Nevertheless, it is local counter-terrorism units that form the first line of communities’ defense. The purpose of this paper is to examine counter-terrorism units in terms of their structure and duties.
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L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Counter-Terrorism Training Review
Preparedness of counter-terrorism units requires continuous training and frequent drills that simulate possible crises, which may emerge in the area. In the case of the L.A. County Sheriff’s department, a group of terrorists launched a coordinated attack on the city’s subway system. According to the drill scenario, there are several targets in the subway, as well as hostages and injured citizens. Moreover, there are reports concerning a device, which contains a chemical agent and may pose additional threats to the community (“Intense Counterterrorism Training,” 2016.) The officers are aware of the presence of at least two suspects and a potentially lethal device.
Upon entering the subway, counter-terrorism officers managed to locate the perpetrator, but the latter refuses to comply and set off the device, contaminating the area. The squad has to act quickly, so they take down the suspect and evacuate the hostage exposed to deadly chemicals. Having cleared the site, the officers return to the ground level, where they go through decontamination procedures (“Intense Counterterrorism Training,” 2016). This drill demonstrated the importance of a fast and adequate response, as any kind of attack in a crowded, confined space might entail a large number of casualties.
This simulation scenario reflects actual risks, as an attack, such as the one in question, is possible in the present-day situation. The drill represents a variety of life-threatening situations in each stage of its development. First of all, a subway system consists of a series of confined spaces with their own risks. As trains move quickly along narrow tunnels with electric cords and equipment, any extraordinary situation poses risks for the passengers and workers. In case of a terrorist attack and subsequent hostage situation, panic may follow, which often ends up in disorderly attempts to flee the scene. As subway platforms and passages are usually narrow, there is a high risk of a stampede at the beginning of such a scenario. History has seen several examples of such occasions, the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in the United Kingdom is among the worst ones. In other words, confined spaces with massive traffic demonstrate high risks for workers and visitors in case of extraordinary events, thus augmenting the peril.
Secondly, passengers of a subway train may become an easy target for terrorists. As far as this aspect is concerned, potential risks depend on the perpetrators’ plans. In many cases, subway cars are not connected with one another and serve as another example of a confined space with high traffic. Therefore, hostages do not have many escape options and constantly remain in the terrorists’ sight. Some of the people may begin to panic and act irrationally due to the stress, which may prompt them to physical resistance. If the perpetrators are armed, which is the case in the majority of such situations, a potential gunfight in a confined space might lead to additional unnecessary victims. From a logical point of view, the more people are trapped, the higher the risk is. Therefore, the life of each person on the train is in danger at all times.
Thirdly, the device capable of dispersing potentially lethal chemicals represents the primary threat in the scenario of this simulation. Indeed, chemical weapons have been considered one of the most dangerous methods of warfare since the First World War. The range of agents, which may be used in such a situation, varies from tear gas to chemicals that lead to fatal repercussions within minutes. The 1995 Tokyo sarin attack is a case in point because it proved the real possibility of such a scenario and was used as the reference for the L.A. Country Sheriff’s Department simulation. According to Sugiyama et al. (2020), a large amount of nerve gas was dispersed in the Tokyo subway, which resulted in thirteen deaths and 6226 injury reports. Besides the immediate lethal effect, a long-term study revealed that somatic symptoms, especially those concerning eyes and vision, were still present years after the attack for the majority of survivors (Sugiyama et al., 2020). In addition, around 35% of the respondents had been suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Reaction. Overall, chemical attacks demonstrate an array of potential risks for their victims, both short-term and in the long run.
In spite of increasing weapon control, the threat of chemical terrorism aimed at civilians persists. Globalization, which entails new means of communication and transportation, fueled by international black market development, makes it possible for terrorists to obtain lethal chemical agents. Evidently, the highest risks exist in unstable regions, such as the Middle East, especially Syria, torn by the civil war. Over the past years, there have been several incidents when the civilian population was exposed to nerve agents, including sarin. Considering the overall lack of stability, counter-terrorism units should remain prepared for such attacks, which is why the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department drill reflects today’s topical issues in regard to international and homegrown terrorism.
Team Engagement in Counter-Terrorism
The problem of countering terrorism requires combined efforts on all levels. Following the 9/11 attacks, the governmental commission concluded that the fight against such a significant threat demands engagement on behalf of the entire national defense infrastructure: “diplomacy, intelligence, covert action, law enforcement, economic policy, foreign aid, public diplomacy, and homeland defense” (Starr-Deelen & Pazos, 2018, p. 1). This idea refers to strategic planning and tactical actions, but the range of teams that respond to immediate threats is not as broad. First of all, as shown in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department drill, elite counter-terrorism squads play a crucial part in such situations. However, they are not the only unit that forms the first line of defense against terrorism.
In general, counter-terrorism officers do not patrol streets and other parts of the infrastructure, unless there is information regarding a planned attack. If such kind of data exists, it is usually collected and delivered by federal agencies aimed at countering terrorist threats, for example, the CIA or Department of Homeland Security. In other scenarios, it is local law enforcement and security officers that become the first responders. In case of a subway attack, police officers present at each station are the ones who spot the threat and report it to superiors. It is also their duty to secure the area and provide safety for as many civilians as possible. Simultaneously, a large-scale response to a chemical threat requires a special medical unit trained to save victims exposed to nerve agents. In addition, there is often a possibility of an explosive device involved in the act of terrorism, so a bomb squad might be dispatched to the scene along with a fire unit. Once the operation is complete, it is vital to decontaminate the affected area with the means of a specialized team. Overall, an attack similar to the one described in the simulation demands a prompt multi-agency response and close cooperation between units.
Counter-terrorism units in Philadelphia, PA
Similar to other areas, Philadelphia had its own counter-terrorism unit established in the fallout of the 9/11 attacks. Generally, as envisaged by the Patriot Act, effective response to terrorism threats requires collaboration and information sharing between all the departments involved in the national security framework (“The USA PATRIOT Act,” 2001). Besides a specialized unit, the Philadelphia Police Department uses a range of resources to fight terrorism. The Delaware Valley Intelligence Center uses state-of-the-art technology to provide intelligence and technical assistance to emergency responders in Pennsylvania and adjacent states (“Delaware Valley Intelligence Center,” n.d.). In addition, the Philadelphia Police Aviation Unit is an efficient component of the counter-terrorism infrastructure (“Aviation,” n.d.) Combined efforts of all units involved allow the city to remain prepared in terms of modern terrorism threats.
All in all, international and domestic terrorism remains a topical issue in the 21 century. An adequate response from law enforcement consists of effective collaboration between federal agencies and local departments. Timely and professional actions are a matter of paramount importance in case of a terrorist attack, which is why continuous training of all units involved is the key to saving citizens’ lives.
Aviation. (n.d.). Philadelphia Police Department.
Delaware Valley Intelligence Center (DVIC). (n.d.). Philadelphia Police Department.
Starr-Deelen, D., & Pazos, P. (2018). Countering Violent Extremism and Deradicalization: Comparative Study of Spain, Belgium, and the USA. SSRN Electronic Journal.
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Sugiyama, A., Matsuoka, T., Sakamune, K., Akita, T., Makita, R., Kimura, S., Kuroiwa, Y., Nagao, M., & Tanako, J. (2020). The Tokyo subway sarin attack has long-term effects on survivors: A 10-year study started 5 years after the terrorist incident. PLoS ONE, 15(6).
The USA PATRIOT Act, Publ. L. No. 107-56, 115 Stat. 272 (2001).
True Crime Daily. (2016). Intense Counterterrorism Training with L.A. County Sheriff’s Department – Crime Watch Daily [Video]. YouTube.