On Nov. 28, 2008, gunfire erupted across the city of Mumbai, India, as terrorists launched a coordinated attack. (Photo © Zishaan Akbar Latif/ZUMA Press)
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On Nov. 28, 2008, gunfire erupted across the city of Mumbai, India, as terrorists launched a coordinated attack. 130 people were killed and more than 200 were injured. An attack like this could happen in an American city: What would the result be?
In the year since the terrorist attack in Mumbai, we’ve discussed at length the planning and operational tactics of the terrorists. We’ve examined the preparation involved in gathering intelligence on the sites, the attack sequence and the response by India’s police and military. The real question: How would American law enforcement fare in a similar multiple-attack sequence?
Similar, but Different
Even more information was detailed on March 18 in a Federal Courtroom in Chicago, when David Headley (aka Daood Gilani), an American citizen with ties to the Pakistani-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, pleaded guilty to planning and supporting the Mumbai attack.
Headley acted as a planner/scout for the terrorist group, making five trips to Mumbai, taking photos and videos of the approaches and targets, establishing GPS points for navigation and developing the intelligence for the attack. In making the plea agreement that spared him the death penalty, Headley outlined months of training in Pakistan that included combat tactics, surveillance/counter surveillance, weapons and explosives and communications. The plan was detailed, the preparations extensive and the will of the terrorists chosen to commit the atrocities absolute.
In making this review, it’s necessary to consider some of the similarities and differences between India and America. A most basic similarity is the easy access to hotels and places of public accommodation. The difference is that India has supposedly placed greater security on their facilities in light of the losses suffered, while America stands with doors wide open. Our vulnerability is obvious in terms of a multiple-venue attack against such locations, and it requires little imagination to recognize the effects.
It may be unfair to compare the ill-prepared Indian police force to American law enforcement agencies, because there are many jurisdictions where we truly do stand at a much higher state of readiness and capability. Importantly, American law enforcement has a significant ability to pass intelligence information between local, county, state and federal authorities. The fusion center development since 9/11 has been a success. The intelligence process in Mumbai appears to have failed in total.
Another basis of readiness is that since 1999, American law enforcement has had to adapt to the active shooter event that resulted from Columbine High School and other such armed attacks on our schools and children. The active shooter training program has been in place for the past ten years and tens of thousands of officers nationwide have undergone and retrained in these response tactics. Patrol rifles that were long requested as a needed tool in such events have become the norm instead of the exception.
True, there are some cities, such as Boston, where mayoral politics has overruled public safety by preventing patrol officers the firearms and equipment required by a multiple-threat sequence, but this is the exception rather than the rule. As seen by Headley’s admitted history, the enemy is neither stupid nor lazy in determining where they will attack. Part of the attack planning will consider the ability and equipment of the local police forces. Why attempt to take on a hard target?
New York, Chicago and Los Angeles take terrorist threats seriously. In these cities, the issue won’t be a lack of well-trained and properly armed first responders. Rather, the challenge will be directing the large numbers of responders who will arrive on scene. The response time won’t be measured in hours or days, as in Mumbai, but in minutes.
The multiple-attack scenario as defined by Mumbai is a natural extension of our active shooter training. The need from Day 1 was to train police officers to work as a rapid deployment and immediate action counter force where speed and aggressive force trumps the contain-isolate-negotiate response used in a traditional barricade/hostage situation. When our citizens and law enforcement officers are attacked and threatened with death, first responders must immediately and forcefully counter attack. This will ultimately save lives and ensure that the enemy doesn’t have time to move, fortify and murder at will.
When the enemy attacks an American city they’ll find a far different response than that of the Indian authority. It won’t be a Mumbai repeat where the terrorists faced hopelessly ill-trained officers armed with century-old rifles and a handful of ammunition. Instead, the attackers will be faced with the most modern patrol rifles fielded by a large percentage of the first responders whose training, mindset, supply of ammunition and support gear will stand the test. Highly motivated and well-trained officers, both patrol and SWAT, acting singly or in teams, are trained and ready to move against the attackers. This can break the attackers’ plan of action and interrupt or destroy their initiative.
We must recognize that patrol officers will most likely be the first to respond and will sustain the fight. This isn’t a single event in a restricted location where maximum SWAT strength and capability can be applied. Multiple-attack scenarios by definition happen in many locations at once and therefore require many responders. SWAT teams don’t have the numbers to meet the demands of multiple scenes. The team takes time to assemble, and the shifting field of battle makes command deployment decisions difficult. Once committed, other locations won’t get SWAT assistance in the short run.
Where we have SWAT officers working the street, they can by reason of their experience and knowledge become the team leaders of patrol teams. They can lead the response and, at the same time, act as forward observers, developing real-time information as to threat type, location, manpower, weapons, kill zones and avenues of approach. The single SWAT officer can be a force multiplier, the building block of the first minute’s response. Remember: It’s in the first minutes that the history of an attack will be written. Specialists who show up hours later may find the fight over or contained because, unlike Mumbai, we won’t be waiting for the “real police” to arrive. Here first responding officers are and will be competent and capable.
It’s for the above reasons that the efforts of Orange County California Sheriff’s Department and Los Angeles Police Department in developing their Multi-Assault Counter Terrorism Action Capabilities (MACTAC) program becomes so important. MACTAC is the logical progression beyond the current active shooter training that develops a preplanned, system-wide response to handle a Mumbai-type event. Put simply, MACTAC incorporates an evolution of command and control that empowers frontline supervisors, OICs, sergeants and lieutenants to take command and control of their slice of the pie and fight the fight. There’s a regional incident command-and-control system as would be needed and expected, but no command structure is nimble enough to take in huge amounts of information from many locations and make critical second-by-second decisions. There must be reliance on those whose feet are in the fire to determine how best to respond.
All of this takes training and that training is already underway in California. Because of the forward-thinking efforts of our West Coast partners, we have a starting point. After sitting in a recent briefing in Chicago for the Illinois Tactical Officers Association and our many law enforcement partners, I strongly believe this will be our next multi-year law enforcement project. As with our active shooter training, it’s a long-term process. Concepts will be refined in force-on-force training, where actions tell the truth and theory becomes practice.
By engaging the enemy at the very first moment of contact, we have the ability to block off or deny them avenues of approach to their targets. In first contact, we may also take down leaders and/or their key equipment. The attackers in Mumbai did just that when they fired on and murdered the chief of police of the counter-terrorism unit and his support unit. By forcing the terrorists out of their operational tempo and not allowing them unchallenged access to their intended targeted victims, we gain an immediate advantage.
Once an attack is underway, there will only be a bad ending. But some endings are far worse than others. Our ability and resources make possible a far faster, more effective response than Mumbai. We must
realistically assess and understand our capabilities. We aren’t supermen, but neither is the enemy. We will always outnumber them, and we will always win the battle. The question is:
How fast and at what cost?