This article addresses terror attacks against police and offers solutions to reducing its frequency and severity. The April 2017, ISIS-inspired attack targeting French police on the Champs-Elysees in Paris is another disturbing example of the terrorist threat police face globally. In that incident, Karim Cheurfi used a Kalashnikov assault rifle to shoot and kill one policeman, Xavier Jugele, and injure two other officers. Cheurfi was shot and killed by police who responded to the incident.
Attacks against police globally
In 2015, terrorists embracing a myriad of ideologies attacked police worldwide 2,159 times in 58 countries, the US State Department reported. In fact, in 2015, police were the second most frequent target of terrorists, after private citizens and their property.
Globally, terrorists have attacked police using a variety of tactics, including bombings, grenades, landmines, gunfire, arson, vehicular attacks and stabbings. The settings of terror attacks against police comprised police stations, vehicles, housing and training facilities, checkpoints and in other locations (while providing security, at home, while commuting). Other instances in which terrorists and non-terrorists attacked police include ambush and arrest situations, during the investigation of suspicious persons/circumstances, traffic stops, during protests and tactical situations (responding to a barricaded offender, during a hostage taking and while arresting a high-risk offender).
Terrorists view police as an instrumentality of the oppressor state. As such, police are perceived as a legitimate target. After all, police can aid in undermining terror group activities, from radicalization and recruitment, to financing and kinetic activities. Indeed, police have inflicted damage to terror groups’ goals—by arresting or killing key leadership and operatives, including in the aftermath of an attack.
By targeting law enforcement, the credibility of the state is undermined and the populace loses faith in the government’s role to protect itself and its citizens. Additionally, public resolve is weakened when police are viewed as unable to protect themselves. Also, terror groups are emboldened by tarnishing the police’s capabilities.
Police accelerate the likelihood of their victimization due to a heightened posture against terrorist objectives. In fact, police have become increasingly visible in combating terror through their use of undercover agents, the leveraging of traffic stops and calls for service, intelligence gathering and sharing, and community outreach to vulnerable communities and beyond.
Attacks against US law enforcement
In the United States, a variety of ideologically aligned terrorists and extremists threaten police: sovereign citizens, militia members, those aligned with hate groups and ethno-racists, single-issue operatives, foreign terrorist organization (FTO) members, those inspired by FTOs and others. According to the FBI, 41 US policemen were killed during felonious incidents in 2015, although most of these occurred in non-terror incidents. While these figures may not appear high, the challenges of extremists and terrorists against American law enforcement do exist, as elaborated below.
Extremists and terrorists have targeted US police for more than a century. Likewise, police have been killed or injured during other attacks aimed at civilians at large.
During the Haymarket Square attack in Chicago in May 1886, an anarchist threw an explosive and killed seven police and four civilians. The April 1995, Oklahoma City bombing, perpetrated by a sovereign citizen-militia cabal of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, resulted in 168 people killed, including 19 children and eight federal law enforcement members. Using civilian airlines as missiles, on September 11, 2001, violent jihadists killed nearly 3,000 people, among them 72 law enforcement members.
Since then, extremists and terrorists have targeted US police in multiple pre-planned attacks. In June 2014, Jerad and Amanda Miller shot and killed two Las Vegas police officers at a pizza restaurant. TheMillers were interested in an array of extremist ideologies, including white nationalist, sovereign citizen and militia themes. Gavin Long, a black separatist with sovereign citizen views, killed two Baton Rouge, Louisiana policemen and a county deputy sheriff in July 2016.
Five months earlier, in an apparent ISIS-inspired attack, Edward Archer shot Philadelphia Police Department officer Jesse Hartnett multiple times, severely injuring him. Miraculously, Harnett was able to return fire and wounded Archer, who was later captured by authorities.
In October 2014, Zale Thompson swung a hatchet at two New York Police Department (NYPD) officers, injuring one officer in the head and another in the arm. The jihadist and black separatist-aligned perpetrator was shot and killed by other police at the scene.
In November 2013, Paul Ciancia shot and killed Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer Gerardo Hernandez at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Ciancia shot and injured two other TSA agents and a passenger during the incident. Ciancia was shot by responding LAX police and taken into custody. In September 2016, Ciancia pleaded guilty to the murder and related charges. Two months later, he was sentenced to life in prison. Ciancia embraced a variety of anti-government ideologies.
Attacked while responding to and investigating terror incident
Likewise, police have been injured while responding to other terror attacks in the United States. For instance, in August 2012, Wade Page shot and killed six people and injured three others during a terror attack at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. A white supremacist, Page also shot and severely injured a police officer who arrived first at the scene. Although initial indications were police killed Page, it was later determined he took his own life.
In July 2015, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez attacked two military locations in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing five persons and injuring two others, including a police officer. Police killed Abdulazeez during a shootout. He was inspired by a foreign terrorist organization.
Six months later, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik attacked a meeting and holiday party organized by his employer in San Bernardino, California. The couple killed 14 and wounded 22. Two police officers were injured during a shootout with the assailants that occurred several hours after the attack. The pair claimed to have undertaken the attack on behalf of ISIS.
In June 2016, Omar Mateen killed 49 persons and injured 53 others at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Following several gunfire exchanges and hostage negotiations with Mateen, police shot and killed him. That firefight ended the largest mass shooting in US history. Mateen pledged allegiance to ISIS during a 911 call, and referenced additional jihadist figures. In January 2017, Mateen’s wife, Noor Salman, was charged with aiding and abetting in the provision of material support to ISIS and obstruction of justice.
In September 2016, Jason Falconer, an off-duty Avon, Minnesota police officer, shot and killed jihadist-inspired terrorist, Dahir Adan, at the Crossroad Center mall in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Adan had lunged at Falconer several times with steak knives. Falconer identified himself as a police officer and told Adan to drop the knives. After Adan failed to comply with the orders, Falconer shot and killed him. Prior to that interaction, Adan stabbed 10 shoppers and a mall employee—all of whom survived.
Campus police in the United States have also been on the front line in combating terrorism, as exemplified by two recent events. In a November 2015, ISIS-inspired attack, University of California at Merced student Faisal Mohammad used a hunting knife tostab four individuals on campus. Two responding campus police officers shot and killed Mohammad as he was fleeing from the scene.
In November 2016, an Ohio State University (OSU) student, Abdul Razak Ali Artan, drove a car onto the sidewalk and purposely tried to run over pedestrians. After exiting the car, Artan stabbed passersbys with a butcher knife. He injured 11 persons—some by the vehicle, and others with the knife. Shortly thereafter, OSU policeman Alan Horujko shot and killed Artan. The perpetrator appeared to have been radicalized by jihadist propaganda, including that of ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP’s) late operative and recruiter Anwar Al Awlaki.
In September 2014, Alton Nolen beheaded a female co-worker and attempted to behead another woman at a Vaughan food plant in Moore, Oklahoma. Mark Vaughan, the company’s Chief Executive Officer and an Oklahoma County reserve deputy, shot and wounded Nolen. Responding police officers took Nolen into custody. Nolen’s Facebook profile had photos and commentary supportive of jihadi beheadings as well as photos of jihadi fighters. Nolen is expected to face trial in 2017.
Other threats against police
Police are at risk in other venues, such as while conducting searches of individuals and their homes, and following up on suspicious persons. Also, a terrorist may seek retribution against an officer involved in undermining his terror plans.
While FBI agents were executing a search warrant at his New York residence in June 2015, ISIS-aligned Fareed Mumuni repeatedly stabbed an FBI agent with a large knife. Fortunately, the FBI agent suffered only minor injuries as his body armor bore the brunt of the attack. Mumuni was subsequently taken into custody.
Mumuni later admitted plans to conduct a suicide attack using a pressure-cooker bomb against law enforcement. In February 2017, he pleaded guilty to conspiring and attempting to provide material support to ISIS, attempted murder of federal officers and assaulting/conspiring to assault federal officers. Mumuniwas part of an ISIS-cabal that planned attacks in New York City and travel to the Middle East.
In September 2016, Ahmad Khan Rahami shot and injured a Linden, New Jersey, police officer who was investigating a tip about a possible terror suspect involved in pressure cooker bombings in New York and New Jersey. The police officer survived being shot in the abdomen thanks to his wearing a bulletproof vest. Other officers chased Rahami and exchanged fire with the suspect, injuring him. Rahami has been charged on multiple state and federal terrorism and attempted murder charges, and is awaiting trial. Rahami was inspired by variant jihadist ideologies.
In September 2012, Adel Daoud, a self-radicalized jihadist, was arrested in a sting operation while planning to detonate what he believed was a vehicle-borne explosive outside a Chicago bar. Daoud was subsequently also indicted for soliciting the murder of an undercover FBI agent whom he had met in the planned attack. As of April 2017, criminal proceedings against Daoud are ongoing.
In May 2013, Hysen Sherifi was sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to hire a hit man to behead three FBI agents and three witnesses who testified in his previous terror trial. In that case, Sherifi was ultimately convicted of a terror conspiracy involving other largely North Carolina-based jihadist operatives.
Sherifi recruited his brother, Shkumbin, and a woman, Nevine Aly Elshiekh, to arrange the murder-for-hire plot. In May 2013, Shkumbin and Elshiekh were each sentenced to three years and 46 months, respectively, in prison for the pair’s conspiracy to commit the murder-for-hire.
Terror suspects surrender
In some instances, terrorists have given up voluntarily following police responding to a terror incident. For instance, Naveed Haq killed one person and injured five during an attack with two semi-automatic pistols at the Seattle Jewish Federation office in July 2006. After negotiating with police, Haq surrendered. He was convicted on several charges stemming from the incident accompanied with a life sentence. Haq has been characterized as a lone wolf, triggered by anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic perspectives.
In June 2009, Carlos Bledsoe carried out a drive-by shooting at a military recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas. The attack resulted in the death of one US soldier and injury of another. After the incident, he intended to drive to Memphis, Tennessee and change vehicles. However, Bledsoe was stopped by police and exited his car without incident. Bledsoe was sentenced to life in prison. Bledsoe claimed affiliation with AQAP.
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev detonated two improvised explosive devices at the April 2013, Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring more than 260. In the days following the attack, Tamerlan shot and killed Sean Collier, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) police officer, while one Boston Police Department officer, Dennis Simmonds, died in 2014 from injuries resulting after the brothers released homemade bombs from their car during a police chase.
Dzhokhar ran over and killed his brother Tamerlan while try to evade police. Dzhokhar ultimately surrendered after being shot by police while hiding in a boat in a driveway in Watertown, Massachusetts (a homeowner had discovered Dzhokhar in his boat). Dzhokhar was found guilty of perpetrating the attacks and sentenced to death. Jihadist perspectives influenced this cabal.
In January 2017, Esteban Santiago shot and killed five persons and wounded six others at Ft. Lauderdale International Airport. After emptying two ammunition magazines, Santiago dropped his pistol, lay on the ground, and waited for police to arrest him. Later that month, Santiago was indicted on 22 federal charges stemming from the incident, including the use of firearms at an international airport and causing the deaths there.
Santiago had a history of mental illness. Among other things, Santiago claimed being monitored by the government, including forcing him to watch ISIS videos. As of April 2017, the incident is being investigated for possible terror links.
Police should raise awareness to safety risks arising from domestic and international terrorists. As such, they should undertake risk and vulnerability assessments on law enforcement assets, adopt physical and information security upgrades and modify operational practices. However, such measures are often not adopted due to their perceived costs in terms of finances, time and manpower, and the false impression—particularly in the United States—that the threats against police are largely a challenge in other countries.
Terrorists and extremists do not exist in a vacuum. They operate within the rubric of the economic and political systems—whether on the margins, or otherwise. They may have jobs, friends and family members with whom they associate.
Such perpetrators are sometimes recognizable through indicators such as vehicle/residential identifiers (bumper stickers and no trespassing signs) and physical/verbal identifiers (tattoos and extremist-infused rants). Even lone wolves rarely live in complete isolation, as they interact—whether offline or online—with the public to some degree.
Behaviors often associated with impending terrorist activity include: individuals conducting surveillance, gathering information, testing security, acquiring funds and supplies, acting suspiciously or impersonating police or security personnel, undertaking dry runs and getting into position to undertake an attack. These indicators of terrorism can arise at various stages of the terror cycle, depending on the operative(s) and their sophistication.
Additionally, terrorists might carry out actions that are criminal with a potential terror nexus. For instance, a person may conduct a breach or an attempted intrusion of a secure location. False documents and misuse of identification could be used to hide illicit activity. Proprietary documents or materials may be stolen or diverted for future use to gain access to a site. Furthermore, a target site might be damaged, such a train track, with the goal of derailing a train. A cyber attack to undermine an entity’s network could be an initial segment of subsequent physical attacks.
Police have also been able to ferret out terrorists by their association with known terror suspects, tips from the public, solicitation of an informant or undercover agent, responding to a direct threat from an operative, conducting suspicious financial transactions, (online or offline) expressions of support for violent groups or their leadership, involvement in paramilitary training, counter-surveillance activities and investigating traditional crimes, among other modes.
Other activities indicative of mobilization towards terrorism here or abroad comprise referencing an interest in a martyrdom operation, expressing plans to travel to a war zone or elsewhere overseas to join a terror group, seeking guidance for the justification of violent acts and recruiting others to join a cabal.
Sadly, spontaneous attacks against police are challenging to adequately thwart, such as vehicle or knife attacks. Such types of incidents appear to be occurring more frequently worldwide.
The use of encrypted technologies and digital currencies such as BitCoin complicate the discovery of terrorists and their networks. Some terrorists, particularly those directly aligned with a formal group, are fairly sophisticated with respect to terror tradecraft, including communications, targeting, explosives-making and performing the attack.
Lastly, police should keep in mind the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s guidance to reduce risks to their safety by:
- Focusing on their job;
- Waiting for backup, being alert;
- Avoid taking a bad position vis-à-vis a suspect;
- Watching the hands of a suspect;
- Recognizing danger signs concerning one’s beat;
- Avoiding relaxing too soon;
- Improper or lack of use of handcuffs;
- Inadequate search of suspect, home and car; and
- Dirty or inoperative weapon
The vulnerability to terror victimization must be kept at the forefront of law enforcement globally. After all, this type of violence will likely continue without decline for the foreseeable future, putting police at risk as direct targets of terrorists, while responding to terror attacks, during investigations of terrorist and related crimes and in other instances. It is worthwhile, then, to also expend substantial efforts to discover and undermine terrorists before they launch attacks.
Dean C. Alexander is professor/director of the Homeland Security Research Program at Western Illinois University and a founding Advisory Council member of the Marsh Center for Risk Insights, research fellow at the Chesapeake Innovation Center (the first business incubator focused on homeland security) and served on the Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council executive board for the Central District of Illinois. His teaching, research and speaking activities encompass terrorism, security and legal issues. He has lectured in ten countries, including to law enforcement and military officials at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, US State Department and National Intelligence University events. His professional experience includes executive, business development and legal positions in the United States and abroad, including Chile, Israel and the United Kingdom. He worked as a consultant to the World Bank, Organization of American States, homeland security firms and investment companies.
Editor’s note: In early 2006, the FBI warned in a little known intelligence assessment, The Radicalization Process: From Conversion to Jihad, that “radicalized US converts to Islam and their potential to attack the homeland are growing concerns of the US Intelligence Community.”
“This assessment provides a working model of the radicalization process for a legal US person who is a convert to Islam, utilizing FBI case examples that illustrate the process … derived from open and closed FBI investigations” and “academic literature,” the profile stated.
The assessment warned “homegrown Islamic extremists are a growing threat, and are identified as legal US persons whose primary social influence has been the cultural values and beliefs of the United States, who also have the intent to provide for or directly commit a terrorist attack inside the United States.”
Prepared specifically for counterterrorism investigators, analysts and law enforcement, the assessment is a detailed profile of the “indicators” of someone undergoing Islamist radicalization. The FBI said it specifically “developed [the assessment] in order to identify an individual going through the radicalization process.”
Since it was issued, the underlying indicators of jihadi radicalization the assessment identified have been buttressed by what’s been learned from the string of Americans who’ve assumed the mantle of Muslim radicalization, or “sudden jihad syndrome.”
A top federal counterterrorism official told Homeland Security Today that when you “put [the indicators] in the context of an investigation of the suspicious actions or activity of a Muslim who also has suddenly become radical, the indicators are valid – we’ve seen them time and time again. This isn’t racial profiling when in the aggregate they paint a portrait of ideological radicalization.”
Also read the Homeland Security Today report, The Cycle of Radicalization.