The would-be bombing

How info-sharing methods might have singled out the purported Times Square terrorist


   A national counter-terrorism expert who is regularly consulted on national security issues, Beatty is also the national director of training for the First Observer program, a national anti-terrorism and security awareness program for the transportation industry that includes a law enforcement training element and supports the National Preparedness Guidelines of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Presidential Directive 7. HSPD 7 charges those responsible for helping secure America's critical infrastructure by planning, deploying technologies and enhancing human capabilities to detect suspicious behavior. "First Observer enhances those human capabilities," Beatty says. "We're training personnel in every domain of surface transportation to observe, assess and report. [If] it's out of the ordinary or it just doesn't look right, they are asked to report it. The idea is we want to pick up on things we missed before 9/11."

   The would-be bombing at Times Square is a perfect illustration of how bystanders can identify something out of the ordinary, even for NYC. When an alert street vendor noticed the smoking Pathfinder unattended, he alerted police.

   "He observed, he assessed it and he reported it," Beatty says. "Now, had that been a functioning bomb, would that have made a difference? I don't know." But observers like that vendor who acted can make a difference. In the last year, Beatty says the First Observer program has received a "significant number of good leads" and those leads are shared with law enforcement. "Without giving away ongoing investigations, I can tell you that I believe this type of training in the United States post 9/11 has prevented terrorist incidents, and in several cases has turned the hunter into the hunted," Beatty adds.

   Another program, the Nationwide SAR Initiative (NSI), enables municipal and state law enforcement agencies to share suspicious activity reports. Any agency can participate in the program as a means to keep an inclusive record of suspicious goings-on for activity pattern linking and future investigations.

   Serrao, now an expert consultant to Memex, which provides information management solutions to law enforcement, homeland security and private sectors, supports NSI. The suspect charged with the attempted bombing is believed to have engaged in several activities that may have alerted authorities prior to the SUV discovery.

   "Had some of the other activity he engaged in been known -- the purchasing of the bomb component, the chemicals, propane tanks, fireworks, even the gun," it might have raised suspicion. However, Serrao says from his experience, it's unlikely that information was shared with anyone in any measure, whether in "real time, fake time, slow time [or] no time." One example is that Shahzad was allegedly on a student visa in the United States but was also bringing in large quantities of cash. "That never raised anyone's suspicion," Serrao says. "No one who had access to that information ever sat back and said, 'Hmm, what's up with this?' and shared that information with state, local or other federal authorities." Serrao's solution to disparate data-keeping includes removing limits on what constitutes suspicious activity reports and relevant data collection.

   "If the threshold is set too high, people, investigators, analysts at fusion centers, we don't get access to the important information because it's seen as not really of a suspicious nature," Serrao explains. "My point is all information needs to be shared. Someone can't filter it. Filtering the information prevents the real exchange of the minutia-type of information that would be the so-called dots that need to get connected."

Dots and haystacks

   Initiatives to share info on suspicious activity and real-time data can be put into play by agencies at all levels to keep track of red flags. It's hard to concretely ID what should have raised eyebrows in the would-be bomber case, as any ideas are hypothetical, but by collecting all data, investigators and agents create scores of info haystacks that could, when cross referenced or pattern searched, link up otherwise unconnected dots and buried needles.

   Editor's note: For more on the Nationwide SAR Initiative or First Observer's free training program, visit http://nsi.ncirc.gov and www.firstobserver.com, respectively.

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