NEW YORK—Justin Douglas had a security guard job interview at 2 World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. But, he overslept—he was still in bed when terrorists struck the Twin Towers with hijacked jetliners.
Then 19, Douglas didn’t have big career plans. Instead, in the aftermath of 9/11, the demand for security guards skyrocketed, so he got a job at 101 Barclay Street—two blocks from Ground Zero.
Spending 11-hour shifts in front of the building, Douglas witnessed the shock and grief of New Yorkers. Every day, he watched as people came and laid flowers, crying for loved ones lost.
“It just clicked in my head—I wanted to serve my city,” Douglas said.
The NYPD had just created its Counterterrorism Bureau and he wanted in. He enrolled in college, earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and joined the force. Fourteen years after 9/11, he emerged as a member of the Critical Response Command (CRC), the police’s newly formed, elite counterterrorism unit.
“Every day I get up, going to work, I don’t know what my day’s going to be like,” Douglas said on Aug. 11. “But whatever it is, I’m willing to go out there and put the armor on, put the gun in my hand, and whatever happens, happens.”
The Counterterrorism Bureau
The NYPD stresses counterterrorism with unique intensity. Even 15 years after 9/11, the tragedy is the driving force for most CRC members, Douglas said.
“What keeps me going?” asked James Waters, who has been chief of the NYPD Counterterrorism Bureau since 2008.
“I never, ever want to see another 9/11 in this city, or anywhere else in this country, ever again.”
Prior to joining the bureau, Waters spent five years at the city’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, an agency coordinating the counterterrorism efforts between federal and local law enforcement.
The Counterterrorism Bureau was set up by then-Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly in 2002, just months after the attacks.
What for decades had been one small part of the police department suddenly became a priority—and it has been ever since.
After 9/11, al-Qaeda tried to gain momentum, Waters said.
The NYPD focused on rooting out potential terrorists—with the greatest priority given to thwarting large-scale, elaborate plots, primarily coming from al-Qaeda.
“Our strategy was to pick them off as they got recruited, as they got facilitated, as they tried to travel [to terrorist training locations],” Waters said.
If 9/11 taught the NYPD anything, it was to depend more on itself.
Before the attacks, federal intelligence agencies had obtained clues about the possibility of a large-scale al-Qaeda attack targeting New York City. But the feds lacked the manpower and communication to sufficiently analyze the leads, according to the 9/11 Commission Report.
Kelly decided that whatever happened at the federal level, the NYPD would take its own initiative. He bolstered the number of detectives at the Joint Terrorism Task Force from 17 to more than 100 and created NYPD’s own intelligence bureau. That way, the police could collect all relevant intelligence from both the local and federal level, process it, and follow up on any leads.
NYPD officers also traveled around the world to interrogate suspects detained for terrorism and gather information that may be relevant to New York City. That effort continues today, Waters said.
Kelly also needed boots on the ground—to reassure New Yorkers, to deter possible attacks, and in the worst-case scenario, to counter an attack. The department used its special forces, Emergency Service Unit, as well as officers borrowed from each precinct to show force at city landmarks and major infrastructure points.
After the terrorist attacks in Mumbai that killed 164 people in 12 coordinated bombings and shootings in 2008, Kelly decided he needed more officers with tactical training, in case terrorists targeted multiple sites simultaneously. Officers of the Organized Crime Control Bureau were selected for additional counterterrorism training, Reuters reported at the time.
A New Threat Emerges
Counterterrorism remained a top priority when William Bratton returned as police commissioner in 2014.
At a press conference in July this year, Bratton said he spends 30 to 40 percent of his time on counterterrorism, a sharp contrast to his previous stint as NYPD Commissioner from 1994 to 1996, when crime was his main concern.
Now, with the ISIS terrorist group as a threat, the counter tactics have changed.
“You have to understand what the threat is,” Waters said. “The threat sets the table.”
The NYPD is now concerned about “people that don’t hit any of the tripwires,” Waters said. These lone wolves can be American citizens, “usually losers,” as he put it, who “sit in their mother’s basement” angry at the world and barely contribute to society, but may have pristine police records.
ISIS reaches the disaffected online, offering a veneer of belonging and importance, Waters said.
There’s no need to travel to the Middle East for terrorist training anymore, as was the case with elaborate al-Qaeda plots.
ISIS capitalizes on the massive media attention paid to even small-scale terror attacks.
“They are willing to do any type of an attack,” Waters said. “Their propaganda people tell you: ‘If you have a bomb, make a bomb and use it; if you have a gun, shoot; if you don’t have a gun or a bomb, get a knife and stab; if you don’t, get a stick and hit; if you don’t, pick up a rock and throw it.'”
The relative simplicity and short preparation time for lone wolf attacks makes them hard to predict.
Still, it may be possible to deter them.
Critical Response Command
Last year, Bratton set up the CRC—a tactical unit dedicated solely to counterterrorism.
The 525-strong unit was fully staffed and operational by Jan. 1 of this year
The officers are placed on shifts and dispatched around the city to landmarks, critical infrastructure points, transportation hubs, and other potential targets, sometimes based on daily intelligence briefings.
Each location has its own action plan for different scenarios so officers know how to best protect each location.
Lone wolf terrorists have been known to scout targets before an attack, so part of the unit’s deterring power lies in the unpredictability of its patrols. The CRC often assigns teams spontaneously, making it impossible to anticipate when and where they’ll be on any day.
“We can’t be everywhere all the time, but we can be anywhere at any given time,” said Deputy Chief Scott Shanley of the CRC.
Prior to joining the CRC, officers participate in a two-week training. Beyond that, multiple trainings a year prepare them for every possible threat—be it an active shooter, a bomber, or a murderous truck driver, as in Nice, France. The driver plowed into a crowd, leaving 85 dead and more than 300 injured during Bastille Day celebrations in July.
However shocking the Nice attack was, the method came as no surprise to Waters.
The NYPD has long anticipated such a threat. That’s why, for example, New Yorkers see concrete roadblocks on streets during major events.
Each time his team correctly foresees a threat and prepares for it gives Waters a moment of reassurance—albeit a short-lived one, he said.
When President Barack Obama announced in 2011 that Navy SEAL and CIA operatives had killed Osama bin Laden, Waters said he took “literally seconds” of “some satisfaction.”
“Immediately after that, I was on the phone: ‘OK, what do we need to prepare for? Is there going to be a retaliation? There are people cheering in the streets of Times Square. Do we have sufficient resources there?'”
That’s the spirit his bureau looks for in all its candidates. And Officer Douglas embodies that sentiment.
“I want to be out there. I want to make sure that whatever happens, someone’s there to prevent it from happening,” he said. “I want to be that guy.”
How Can New Yorkers Help?
It’s not just NYPD special units that feel the shadow of 9/11. For many New Yorkers, the tragedy lingers.
Waters’s advice? “Live your life,” he said. But have a “sense of awareness.”
Getting tense or afraid is not necessarily helpful.
The NYC Office of Emergency Management lists four rules of preparedness for a terrorist attack:
- Confirm reports using reliable information sources, such as the government or media. Do not spread rumors.
- Do not accept packages or luggage from strangers and do not leave bags unattended in public areas.
- If you receive a suspicious package or envelope, do not touch it. Call 911 and alert city officials. If you have handled the package, wash your hands with soap and water immediately.
- If you see suspicious behavior, such as people entering restricted areas, people wearing clothing inconsistent with the weather, or people lingering in transportation or utility areas, report it to city officials.
Convincing New Yorkers to keep a rudimentary level of vigilance is a “work in progress,” said Waters.
Subway announcements blend into the background over time, as do the city’s poster campaigns. News coverage raises awareness, but only for a limited time.
But New Yorkers should always pay attention to their surroundings, Waters said.
“It doesn’t take much to do that.”
Critical Response Command Equipment
The NYPD counterterrorism unit hardly goes to the field empty-handed. Each officer carries about 60 pounds of gear, not counting the specialised equipment, like radiation and chemical detectors.
The gold standard among assault rifles, the M4 is known for being reliable, accurate, and relatively light and compact.
A heavy-duty vest capable of stopping a round from an assault rifle.
A military-grade helmet made of kevlar.
It is highly unlikely somebody would bring an atomic bomb into the middle of New York City. But police still need radiation detectors to check for dirty bombs, which use conventional explosives to spread radioactive material capable of contaminating a large area.
Highly sensitive chemical detectors can “sniff out” not only bombs, but also compounds used to make explosives. They can even detect if a person recently handled such compounds.
First Aid Kit
Each officer is equipped and trained in the use of a first aid kit that includes a tourniquet and QuikClot gauze.
The playful black labradors may bear little semblance to the common image of a police dog. Yet they are expert at detecting explosives. They are trained to give their senses priority over obedience, so that when they catch a scent, they immediately lead their handlers to the source. They can pinpoint targets under extremely difficult conditions and in crowded locations, such as Times Square.