David Firester, Expertise Sought and Offered

7 Apr

Recently, I was cited by Metro News as a terrorism expert.  They had asked me to comment on the new terrorism laws that recently passed in the New York State Senate and were headed to the assembly for a vote.  The paper did an excellent job of quoting me in context.  I thought, however, that I would offer my full sentiments on the matter for which I was contacted.  What follows is a more robust and complete statement of my expert opinion on the topic.  I hope you enjoy!

I was asked two fundamental questions and my answers were as follows:

  1. Do you think that Inc. Penalties for crimes relating to aiding terrorism, using social media to further terror recruitment/cyber terror/, as well prosecuting those who would remain silent with knowledge of terror plots, such as happened in San Bernardino, will have any impact on our ability to combat terrorism here? 

These proposed laws seem to serve two important goals.  First, some would enable citizens to alert the authorities when it appears that another is engaged in advancing terrorist aims either by inciting violence, or condoning it for terrorism’s sake.  Secondly, the bills appear to horizontally extend the impact of laws, which are already on the books, while adapting them to meet the changing threat landscape.  Some examples follow.

Extant laws covering larceny and money laundering may cover traditional crimes that center on personal greed, but terrorists seem to be motivated by a different set of incentives.  Certainly, traditional crime may involve a cyber component, but crafting legislation to go beyond mere criminality is a responsible means by which to deal with someone who is serving broader terrorist aims.  A specific example would be one who steals a credit card and goes online to fraudulently purchase, say, a laptop or pressure cooker, but if it turns out that one has purchased the components of a homemade bomb it is worth having a law that addresses this unique circumstance.

Another example would be grand larceny in the second degree, which is a class C felony.  All that is required in this instance is that the value of the sum stolen equals $50,000 or more.  Money laundering in support of terrorism in the second degree is already a class C felony and the monetary threshold is merely $25,000; the same charge in the first degree is a class B felony and the threshold in that instance is $125,000.  Most of the bills under consideration by the New York State Assembly either propose new, or enhance current, legislation that might result in a C felony conviction.  Only one, cyber terrorism, proposes that an A felony be charged and in that instance it deals with mass injury as a result of terrorist activity.

With regard to making a terroristic threat against a police officer, one must bear in mind that offenses, such as assault, are already treated as more serious when they are committed against a law enforcement officer.  This specific bill codifies, and increases the penalties for, combining threats that one directs at both civilians and police officers.

  1. What types of approaches would work? Is there a best strategy to help keep people safe? 

Of late, there has been an increase in cases in which Americans with no prior connection to jihadist terror have somehow demonstrated an ability to radicalize rather quickly.  Although it is difficult to know if the new laws would deter would-be terrorists, it is important to convey to jihadist aspirants that their nefarious intentions can result in more serious punitive measures.

In order to successfully fight terrorism, both at home and abroad, the law is an important tool for police and prosecutors, but also for civilians determined prevent attacks such as the Boston bombing or San Bernardino combined assault.  This proposed legislation enables our frontline law enforcement officers the ability to defend the citizenry, which is their primary function.  However, there are some significant gaps in our defenses.  Specifically, there is no national database of jihadist identifiers, which enable law enforcement to quickly and accurately connect the dots that would raise suspicion levels to a degree worth pursuing in the criminal realm.

Detecting a genuine jihadist threat is important for law enforcement.  So is establishing whether a new threat has emerged and whether it has been detected elsewhere.  As a nongovernmental entity, Jihad Intel seeks to provide law enforcement with the ability to ameliorate the natural shortcomings of the law as it is written.  It lends assistance to those whose job it is to do the dot-connecting, by serving as an open source clearinghouse for jihadist Symbology.  The tool itself may also be used by civilians, who notice something that appears to be associated with terrorism.

Your question specifically asks what approaches and strategy are appropriate.  The answer is that laws by themselves are insufficient.  A “whole of society” approach is needed.  Many crimes are solved when citizens feel comfortable speaking with the police, who then determine whether a criminal or terrorist act is afoot.  The private sector can enhance the speed and efficiency of the public sector where budgetary constraints inhibit progress.  The bills under consideration do seem to serve a more holistic strategy to combating terrorism.

The Islamic State and al-Qa’ida have specifically called for the targeting of both civilians and the police.  In some instances they have been successful.  It is wise to adopt legislation that meets the threats emanating from our enemies abroad.  A major component of their strategy is to penetrate our society and generate terror from within our borders.  The best strategy seeks to neutralize one’s adversary’s strengths.  This legislation is a means by which to do so.

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