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Terrorist Event Countering: First Responders Risk Essay

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Updated: Jan 17th, 2022


International terrorism is one of the foremost security threats in the 21st century, and the United States is not exempt from the risk of terrorist attacks. National Preparedness Goal outlines such mission areas as prevention of an “imminent, threatened, or actual act of terrorism” and response, or the swift reaction to save lives and protect property (“Threat and Hazard Identification,” p. 4). The duty to prevent and respond to terrorist acts on American soil largely falls to the first responders, who constitute “the primary line of defense for US communities” (“First responders,” n.d.). As one may assume, countering or responding to terrorist events carries multiple risks for everyone involved, and those first of the scene bear the brunt of these. The possible risks include failures to establish an effective flow of information and contact with private security, misunderstanding of threats due to outdated cybersecurity models, hostile environment, and the inability to reassure the population in its security.

Insufficient Information

One of the risks involved in either preventing or countering an international terrorist event on US soil is the potential inability to ensure an effective flow of information. National Response Framework (2016) points out that ensuring stable communication between all emergency responders and between them and the local population is pivotal in responding to a terrorist attack (p. 25). First responders themselves have consistently stressed that their primary concern when reacting to a terrorist event was not the possibility of injury or death, but, rather, the availability of accurate information (Smith, 2008). They also pointed out that “connectivity, interoperability, and reliability were the crucial features of the information-sharing networks they would like to operate in when responding to a terrorist attack (Schroeder, Manz, Amaya, McMakin, & Bays, 2018). As a consequence, not getting relevant information on time is among the most notable risks first responders may encounter when countering or responding to a terrorist event on US soil.

Flawed Cooperation with Private Actors

Another notable risk in countering international terrorist activities consists in the disadvantages of not establishing effective cooperation between the government and private actors. Mazarr, Bauer, Heintz, and Matthews (2019) are right to point out that the barrier between state and private security efforts continues to blur. Such assets as the privately operated Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network are valuable in facilitating cooperation and countering potential terrorist attacks (Seeman, Kleckley, & Holloway, 2018). However, the current state of collaboration between the government and private actors leaves much to be desired, as it remains “uniquely problematic,” especially in the field of cybersecurity (Carr, 2016, p. 43). Henry and Brantly (2018) stress that “limited sharing between the public and the private sector,” especially when it comes to cybersecurity and monitoring online activities of potential terrorists, may be a significant security risk (p. 47). As a result, thinking in terms of strict separation between the government and private security providers may impede cybersecurity efforts. Since this will, in turn, complicate monitoring the online activities of potential terrorists, this constitutes another risk first responders may encounter when countering a potential international terrorist attack.

Outdated Approach to Cybersecurity

The risks concerning cybersecurity go further than the insufficient partnership between the government and private actors, because obsolete notions in this respect are a disadvantage in their own right. Bradley (2019) spares no effort in explaining that the current cybersecurity paradigm that concentrates on limiting access is fundamentally flawed. Under contemporary conditions, “Monitoring behavior is a more proactive and more effective means of detecting suspicious or malicious behavior” (Bradley, 2019). Focusing on the behavior rather than access allows devoting more attention to the terrorists’ attempts at elicitation – gaining information about military operations, people, or capabilities (“Seven Signs of Terrorism,” n.d.). Yet if the first responders share the outdated notions of cybersecurity, they are at risk of overlooking elicitation attempts or other activities when trying to counter a terrorist event in preparation.

Becoming a Primary Target

One more risk that the first responders will most likely encounter when reacting to an international terrorist event on US soil is becoming targets themselves. Instead of limiting themselves to the initial attack site, terrorists are likely to use follow-up strikes (Carafano, 2003). Medical responders may find themselves at special risks, as they are generally considered “soft targets” by the perpetrators (Tavares, 2018, p. 188). Due to this fact, terrorists may stage an initial event and then strike again, attacking the “emergency responders en route to a previous event” (Moloney & Morgan, 2019, p. 4). Non-medical first responders are at risk too, because sometimes the terrorists’ primary goal is to “demoralize security forces” by inflicting casualties and, therefore, undermining the efficiency of further response efforts (Newman & Clarke, 2008, p. 36). As a result, the initial efforts after arriving at the attack site mainly revolve around the safety of the response personnel as well as scene safety (Burke, 2017). First responders should always be aware of the risk of becoming targets of a terrorist attack themselves.

Inadequate Coverage of Effective Counterterrorism

Another risk involved in countering and responding to a terrorist event in the US is creating the impression of insecurity among the population. The primary goal of the terrorist attacks is to create “a climate of fear” by instilling a sense of insecurity among the population (Newman & Clarke, 2008, p. 36). In order to maintain their reputation, terrorist groups try to create an impression that they govern a vast network of potential attackers (Price, 2019). It is for this reason that the Islamic State bolsters the digital education of its followers “with a focus on supporting jihad” (Johnson, 2019). These efforts to appear omnipresent and all-powerful are a part of information warfare and may have a considerable impact on the population. A recent poll shows that 46% of Americans wary of the risk of a terrorist event (Homeland Security Today [HST], 2019). Unless people have regular updates on effective counterterrorism, terrorist attacks will reach their psychological purpose (Hoffman & Shelby, 2017). Thus, the first responders countering or responding to an international terrorist event also encounter the risk of having their efforts misrepresented, thus undermining their credibility.


As one can see, first responders face a variety of risks when countering or reacting to international terrorist attacks on US soil. To begin with, they encounter a risk of not having enough information. Another risk is potentially ineffective cooperation with private actors, which may be especially damaging in the field of cybersecurity. Apart from it, first responders also risk overlooking the critical online activities of potential terrorists due to outdated notions of cybersecurity. Naturally, first responders may also become a target in its own right when reacting to a terrorist event. Finally, there is also a risk of not delivering updates on prevention efforts, which allows terrorists to portray their actions as universally successful and help them in establishing the climate of fear.


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