September 20, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: A Model Joint Terror Investigation
• The combined efforts of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies led to an arrest approximately 48 hours after multiple bombings in New York and New Jersey.
• Despite the complex nature of the investigation, all problems and missteps were avoided through an impressive display of interagency cooperation.
• Civilians played a critical role at various stages of the investigation, from reporting locations of possible devices to the location of the suspect himself.
• Along with societal resilience, effective interagency counterterrorism cooperation will prove invaluable in a heightened terror threat environment.
Since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has invested tremendous resources in developing seamless working relationships between various federal agencies, as well as state and local law enforcement. Building these relationships has not been without missteps and friction. Jurisdictional infighting and miscommunications have lessened, but such issues still persist at various levels of counterterrorism cases. Multi-jurisdictional, multi-agency terrorism investigations are minefields of potential inefficiency and missed opportunities.
The bomb-related incidents in New York and New Jersey from September 17 to the early morning hours of September 19 presented an even more complex jurisdictional puzzle than most. The initial bombing occurred in Seaside Park, New Jersey, on September 17, along the route of a 5K charity run—the start of which had been delayed. The FBI-led Newark Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), along with local police, took the lead in what was a serious but—at the time—presumably isolated crime scene involving one detonated and two undetonated pipe bombs. Later on September 17, an explosion in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York injured 29 people; civilians found and reported another unexploded device four blocks away several hours later. The devices involved in the Chelsea incidents were pressure-cooker bombs—very different than those used in Seaside Park.
The Chelsea bombings fell under the jurisdiction of the FBI-led New York JTTF, which includes FBI Special Agents, New York Police Department (NYPD) detectives, and investigators from a number of other law enforcement agencies that operate in New York City. While such incidents fall under the purview of the FBI, NYPD elements outside of the JTTF also played a major role in the incident. Forensic evidence was gathered from each crime scene; the undetonated devices provided clues not easily recoverable in detonated devices. An additional crime scene would be added on the evening of September 18, when five pipe bombs were found in a trash can near a train station in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The event in Elizabeth brought the number of agencies involved in the investigation to more than ten: Seaside Park Police, NYPD, Elizabeth Police, New Jersey State Police, New York State Police, the Newark JTTF, the New York JTTF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), as well as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and various other agencies.
Further complicating matters, September 17 marked NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill's first day as the department’s top cop; he was not formally sworn in until two days later on September 19. In addition, the FBI’s New York Field Office had also seen a recent change in leadership with the appointment of a new Assistant Director in Charge (ADIC). Events over the weekend demonstrated that for both the NYPD and FBI, established procedures and protocols transcended personalities; both agencies were able to effectively manage a rapidly unfolding and expanding incident without lapses.
Compounding all of these factors, the bombing incidents came right as the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was preparing to convene on Manhattan’s east side—by itself presenting a security challenge of immense proportions. While in the midst ensuring the security of the UNGA, all relevant law enforcement agencies were also scrambling to apprehend the bombing suspect identified by forensics and security footage.
On the morning of September 19, millions of people in the New York metropolitan region received a text alert on their cell phones asking them to be on the lookout for the suspect. This was the first time the text alert system had been used for such purposes; it is normally used for ‘Amber Alert’ child abduction notifications, as well as severe weather warnings. The use of this emergency notification will likely be repeated, as it is the most effective way to immediately contact large percentages of the population. Later that morning, a bar owner in Linden, New Jersey recognized the suspect sleeping in the doorway of a local shop and called police. After a brief shootout, the suspect was arrested and is now facing numerous charges across multiple jurisdictions.
It is difficult to overstate the hurdles inherent in such an intensely local, yet federally-run crime scene and investigation. While forensic evidence and security camera footage provided crucial clues, it was the effective cooperation between state, local, and federal agencies—as well as civilians—that brought the case to rapid resolution. From explosion to arrest in just about 48 hours is a remarkable achievement, and a direct result of fifteen years of efforts to best integrate and leverage the unique capabilities of all agencies involved.
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