With 574 hits on jihadi extremist websites in just one day and 76 police encounters with sovereign citizens since January, Los Angeles has its share of potent, varied terrorist threats.
Deputy Chief Michael Downing, the commanding officer of the Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau of the Los Angeles Police Department, discussed the increasing role state and local police forces are playing in this fight on terror at a counter-terrorism summit Thursday.
“A centralized opponent cannot effectively defeat or fight a decentralized adversary,” Downing said at the HALO Counter-Terrorism Summit at Paradise Point Resort and Spa.
As the main threats to the United States become more decentralized, Downing said American security and intelligence forces are decentralizing as well, and turning their attention inside U.S. borders. This gives local police forces greater responsibility, and necessitates improved vertical communication.
“Considering the decentralized adversary that we have now, and considering the threat is more complex and because of that the intelligence signal has weakened, it’s harder to find these guys,” Downing said. “Where we used to be trying to find the needle in a haystack, today it’s like trying to find a piece of hay in that same haystack. It’s more difficult.”
Part of improving the communication flow across local, state and federal divisions began with 64 major cities establishing, prioritizing and sharing their top threat domains with other jurisdictions to allow for greater collaboration and intelligence sharing between units and forces.
In Downing’s L.A. area, the top four adversaries, prioritized by level of threat, are government of Iran operatives and the proxy Hezbollah, homegrown violent extremists drawing inspiration from al-Qaida, sovereign citizens focused on engaging cops with violence, and animal rights activists.
Downing said the increasing number of encounters with sovereign citizens his force has faced makes him expect that this threat will become the top priority by the end of next year. He was also particularly shocked by the 574 hits to extremist jihadi websites from within L.A. in one day. Even allowing for part of that number to be from researchers, students or cops, he said it was still very high.
According to Downing, the top threat from Iranian and Hezbollah operatives is due in large part to population. Los Angeles has the largest Iranian population in the world outside of Iran, and while Downing said 99 percent of them are patriotic, hardworking Americans, there’s a small element that aims to do harm. L.A. also has the largest Hezbollah population in the United States, which Downey said is cause for concern.
He is convinced that a community policing approach, coupled with a hunt-and-pursue model, is necessary to stop these would-be terrorists from realizing their goals. Downing said police forces are pretty good at using intelligence to diminish operational capability, since this is the model that’s been in use for years, while the community policing approach was first used in L.A. about six years ago.
“I think the longer-term solution to what we’re experiencing today is going to rest with the communities themselves,” Downing said. “And the roles and responsibilities of cops, sure there are times when we have to transition to being a soldier, where we control through force and fear. We have to do that every day, but hopefully more often, we are in the position of a public servant, where we try to inspire common values in people so they want to protect the same values we believe in, and then we raise ethical stature in communities so they’re just as responsible for policing as we are.”
While great strides have been made with this approach and with intelligence sharing, there’s still work to be done.
“We need to enrich our data sets,” Downing said. “We need to share those data sets. You know it’s recently, as of last week, after all of what, the last 40 or 50 years, we finally signed a [memorandum of understanding] with the L.A. Sheriff’s Department to share our data. That’s crazy, and we’re right next to each other. And imagine what we’re missing in our investigations by not having that.”
Downing said the next step is for the 17 federal intelligence agencies to join the 17,500 state and local law enforcement agencies in sharing information at intelligence fusion centers to improve vertical communication. Continuing to improve the community policing platform, particularly working with community leaders, is also key to abating terrorism in Downing’s view.
“When you start hearing some of these leaders establish these mantras that say 'home is not where our grandparents are buried, but home is where our grandchildren are to be raised,' and that what we really have to protect are our values, then you’re getting somewhere,” Downing said.