How Military and Public Sector Entities Respond to Terrorist Attacks

Subject: Warfare
Pages: 1
Words: 4993
Reading time:
18 min
Study level: Master


Cases of extremist attack have been witnessed in the United States for several centuries. However, it was not until the September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attack that the country realized the magnitude of the threat of both domestic and international terror attacks (Skryabina et al., 2020). The massive destruction of properties and loss of many lives witnessed in that attack was a major reminder to the law enforcement agencies, security organs, and general public that no one is safe as long as these extremists have the opportunity to operate in the country.

In the recent past, there has been a surge in incidences of terrorism in the United States. Notably, these attacks are only an aggravation of acts of terrorism that started many years ago. For instance, the famed 9/11 attack marked a substantial leap in a trend towards destructive terrorist assaults, and other perceptible incidences of terrorism occurred in the 1980s (Hsu & McDowall, 2017). Following the surge in terrorist activities, law enforcement agencies have put in place various strategies to counter-terrorism. In the United States, public sector entities and the military are tasked with the responsibility of planning and developing responses to terrorist attacks (Hsu & McDowall, 2017). This paper elucidates the actions taken by the military and public sector entities to respond to terrorist attacks.

Understanding the Concept of Terrorism

Terrorism is currently one of the major concerns for the security organs in the United States and other parts of the world. The United States Code of Federal Regulations defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives,” (Krueger, 2018). The main difference between terrorism and other forms of violent crimes is that its primary goal is to coerce and intimidate the civilian population or the government to behave in a certain way or give in to a specific demand.

The definition also shows that in most cases, these terrorists have political or social goals, as opposed to other crimes that often have economic objectives. Moskalenko (2020) explains that the term terrorism was first used to describe “the Reign of Terror, the period of the French Revolution from 5 September 1793 to 27 July 1794, during which the Revolutionary Government directed violence and harsh measures against citizens suspected of being enemies of the Revolution.” It is an indication that sometimes acts of terrorism can be committed by the government. The use of massive force to cause fear and intimidation has been a common practice, especially in the ancient kingdoms. However, as civilization took shape, there has been an effort to eliminate them and to create a peaceful world where political and social goals are achieved through legal and humane ways.

Homegrown Terrorism

Domestic terrorism has become a major cause of concern for the United States security organs. This form of terrorism is planned and executed by citizens of the country or its permanent residents (Desouza et al., 2020). Such problems have been witnessed in different parts of the world. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has been executing various terror attacks against Nigerians. The same has been witnessed in Somalia where Al Shabab has remained active despite the effort of the government and the international community to neutralize it. In the United States, several cases of extremist attacks have been witnessed for centuries perpetrated by groups with political or social goals. It is necessary to review some of the recent attacks.

The Oklahoma City bombing, which occurred on April 19, 1995, remains one of the most memorable attacks. Organized and executed by Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh, the attackers used fertilizer truck bomb that was packed strategically at Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The bomb went off, killing 168 people and wounding about 700 people (Williams et al., 2018). It was one of the worst terror attacks in the country at that time. It was established that the motive of the attackers was to protest and retaliate against the federal government because of its involvement in fighting a religious sect known as the Branch Davidians (Samaan & Jacobs, 2018). The two conspirators were arrested and convicted of the crime. A year later in 1996, the country witnessed another terror attack, the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, which left two people dead while 111 others were hospitalized (Moskalenko, 2020). It was a worrying trend that the government had to address.

The Boston Marathon Bombing was another major terror attack that highlighted the vulnerability of the country. On April 15, 2013, two brothers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev planted two homemade bombs near the finish line at an annual marathon event in Boston (Cassese, 2016). Three people were killed in the process and hundreds of others were hospitalized. The terrorists were arrested and prosecuted for their crime. They explained that they were influenced by radical Islamist beliefs. Two years later in 2015, the country was subjected to another attack. At only 21 and already radicalized by white supremacists, Dylann Roof attacked worshippers at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina’s Charleston, killing 9 people including the South Carolina Senator, and wounding several others (Rafoss, 2019). He was motivated by the racist sentiments of white supremacists.

The San Bernardino shooting was another demonstration of a terror trend that was taking shape in the United States. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, both legally staying in the United States, organized and executed a gun attack that targeted a San Bernardino County Department of Public Health training event and Christmas party (Moskalenko, 2020). Theykilled 14 people and several others were seriously wounded. Law enforcement officers managed to neutralize the attackers as they attempted to escape. A year in the early morning on June 12, 2016, the country was once again subjected to another major terror attack (Rafoss, 2019). This time, Omar Mateen was the perpetrator. He targeted the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others at the club. Several other domestic terror attacks have been witnessed since then, including the recent 2021 storming of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., which resulted in 5 deaths and more than 140 people sustaining injuries (Samaan & Jacobs, 2018). There is a need to address the problem of homegrown terrorism.

International Terror Threats

The United States has been keen on protecting its citizens and its borders from any form of internal aggression. Having one of the largest and best-trained officers with the most advanced military hardware, the United States Armed Forces has been keen on protecting the borders of the country (Rafoss, 2019). However, there are incidences where international terrorists have managed to outwit the intelligence and security organs and executed devastating attacks. Cassese (2016) note that for a long time, the focus on the military was always on hostile nations such as Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba. They were seen as the entities that had the genuine capacity to plan and execute a meaningful attack on the country. As such, extremist groups, especially in the Middle East were ignored as there was the belief that the worst they could do would be to target the United States embassies and military installations in the region. However, it has become increasingly evident that these terror groups, despite their limited financial and human resources, can still plan and successfully execute devastating attacks.

On September 11, 2001, the United States was attacked by Al Qaeda. It involved the hijacking of several civilian aircrafts, which were then used as missiles targeting specific major installations in the country. Two of the aircrafts were flown into the Twin Tower of the World Trade Center while the third struck the Pentagon (Samaan & Jacobs, 2018). The fourth plane was to target the White House or the United States Capitol but the efforts were thwarted, which resulted in a crash into a field. About 3000 people lost their lives, including the 19 terrorists while over 6000 others were injured. The attack changed the perception of the country’s security organs and intelligence agencies towards terrorism and external aggression. It was a major reminder that some of the often ignored extremist groups operating outside the country pose a potent threat to the safety and security of the country. The intelligence agencies and security organs started giving serious attention to these organizations, especially those in politically unstable countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries within the Middle East.

In October 2010, Al Qaeda remnants planted two explosives on a cargo plane. The two packages were expected to be delivered to two synagogues in Chicago. The discovery was made at the Dubai International Airport and East Midlands Airport before they arrived in the country (Moskalenko, 2020). Although the intelligence agencies were able to identify individuals who were possibly involved in the failed terror attack, no major arrests were made, especially because the incident happened outside the United States. The same terror organization organized another attack on December 6, 2019, this time targeting Naval Air Station Pensacola (Moskalenko, 2020). The shooting resulted in 3 deaths while about 10 others were injured.

In the modern digital era, the nature of attacks has been changing. In December 2014, SONY Pictures was digitally attacked by the Guardians of Peace and, sensitive private information was exposed to the public (Moskalenko, 2020). Russia has also been accused of directly engaging in and indirectly supporting numerous cyber-attacks against government entities and private institutions in the United States. Although the government did not classify them as terror attacks, they have the potential of causing major harm to individuals, corporate entities, and the government of the United States. It is necessary to have an effective plan of responding to all forms of terror attacks to ensure that they can be neutralized.

Responding to Terror Threats and Attacks

It is necessary to respond effectively to terror threats in the country, especially as cases of domestic terrorism keep rising. Moskalenko (2020) explains that cases of extremism should be identified at the right time and appropriate measures are taken to neutralize them before they can lead to loss of lives and massive destruction of properties. A multi-urgency approach to solving this problem is needed. These agencies can support one another in overcoming specific weaknesses, thus making it almost impossible for these criminals to achieve their goals. Both the military and public sector entities have a role to play in ensuring that such cases are effectively addressed.

Military Response

The United States Armed Forces has the primary role of protecting the country from any form of external aggression. For centuries, the government has invested heavily in equipping it to ensure that it can detect and neutralize these threats in time, especially a possible attack from hostile nations. During and after the Cold War, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and later Russia, became the principal enemy that had to be monitored by the military (Samaan & Jacobs, 2018). The security organs in the country believed that it was the only external aggressor with a genuine capacity to attack the United States. However, that perception changed on September 11, 2001, when Al Qaeda used a handful of soldiers and a simple plan to successfully attack some of the most important installations in the country (Moskalenko, 2020). It became evident that the military had to broaden its scope and change its approach towards protecting the country. Terrorism was becoming a more dangerous and likely event than the possibility of the country being attacked by a foreign nation.

Principally, the military has taken full control of homeland security as a means of providing unceasing support to the threat of global terrorism. Militarization of antiterrorism efforts is aimed at providing the necessary firepower and finesse that is required to thwart the activities of terrorists. Admittedly, the New York Police Department (NYPD) is one of the police divisions that are known for using a militarized approach to curb terrorism. According to McIlhatton et al. (2020), after the September 11 attacks, the NYPD intervened swiftly to develop strategies aimed at combatting the threat of terrorism in the future. Ideally, civilian police leveraged the tenets of militarism to achieve a heightened collaboration and achieve collective problem-solving. Notably, the NYPD worked together with other agencies to address the issue of widespread terrorism where borders do not limit assaults. Therefore, federal, state, and local agencies of different jurisdictions must work together towards the achievement of a similar objective. Public sector entities are always at the forefront when it comes to implementing efforts aimed at thwarting terrorism activities.

One of the most important roles of the military in fighting terrorism is intelligence collection. The United States Armed Forces have been actively involved in various active combats and joint military training all over the world. They have one of the best intelligence services that can facilitate data collection outside of the United States, especially in some of the most hostile locations in the world (Moskalenko, 2020). Using satellites, drones, and highly skilled intelligence officers, they can track the activities of extremist groups such as ISIL and Al Qaeda and predict their plans. The information would then be relayed to relevant agencies for appropriate actions to be taken.

The military has also been directly involved in neutralizing terror threats all over the world before they can result in deaths and destruction of properties. The War on Terror that started on the same date that Al Qaeda attacked the US was executed by the US military (Moskalenko, 2020). The forces ensured that governments in the Middle East that directly supported the terrorists and those that were considered sympathizers were neutralized. It was meant to ensure that the region does not become a breeding ground for terrorists.

The United States military has also been neutralizing individual leaders of major terrorist groups around the world. It was the United States Navy SEALs that successfully killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, on May 2, 2011, almost 10 years after he planned and facilitated the attack on the country (Cauwer et al., 2017). On September 1, 2014, the US military used a drone to strike the Al Shabaab camp that killed several militants, including its leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane. On January 3, 2020, the military used the same drone-strike strategy to kill Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian major general, who was believed to be planning terror attacks against American installations in the region (Samaan & Jacobs, 2018). He was a known sympathizer to major extremist groups in the region.

Public Sector Entities’ Response

The public sector agencies have also been playing a major role in ensuring that terror threats are identified in time and neutralized effectively to protect lives and properties in the United States. Most of these agencies are mainly responsible for fighting homegrown terrorism and other domestic threats. Most of their activities involve intelligence collection, making predictions based on the available data, and responding accordingly to these threats. These agencies include police divisions, counter-terrorism bureau, bomb squad, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Law Enforcement Agencies

The United States law enforcement agencies have a critical role to play in ensuring that terrorist activities are identified in time and neutralized. These agencies include city police divisions such as the New York Police Division and Los Angeles Police Division, County Sheriffs, and Highway Patrol and State Police (Coutts et al., 2019). They are always the first responders whenever there is a distress call within the community. Although their primary role is to always respond to distress calls and make arrests whenever it is necessary, there has been an effort to redefine their approach to law enforcement to ensure that they can also play a leading role in gathering intelligence. When responding to cases of emergencies or a breach of law, they can also gather important information that can lead to the arrest and prosecution of these criminals. Their constant presence in the community also means that they can help in gathering intelligence.

Some police divisions have created counter-terrorism units to specifically deal with neutralizing terror threats. The New York Police Department has a counter-terrorism bureau that has a special assignment of tracking and neutralizing any terror threats in the city and its environs (Samaan & Jacobs, 2018). It has the mandate to gather intelligence, assess the level of threat, identify the perpetrators, and neutralize the threat immediately it is identified. Other police departments have similar units to deal with similar threats, especially because of the increasing cases of domestic terrorism. The Orlando night club terror attack provides an example of effective police response to terror attacks. The Orlando Police Department and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office were the first responders to the attack (Moskalenko, 2020). They were later joined the FBI and jointly neutralized the threat.

The NYPD went a step further and created NYPD Shield as a way of eradicating terrorism in the state. The NYPD Shield is a public-private initiative meant to facilitate sharing of information. It is a central destination for all the private sector players in the field of security where they can receive and give critical information about matters relating to security. The NYPD uses this platform to inform these private players about possible security threats and how they can help to address such a problem. At the same time, this government agency can also get critical intelligence from these private players about information that they have gathered on possible activities of terrorists in the state. The agency has been critical in creating trust and an effective working relationship between private security players and government agencies.

The Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism

The United States Department of State has been actively involved in directly fighting terrorism in the country and embassies of the United States around the world. It created the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism to help coordinate activities with other government agencies (Cassese, 2016). The bureau currently has about 120 highly trained officers at the federal level that is specifically focused on intelligence gathering. Moskalenko (2020) explains that the experience that the country has had shown that the best way of fighting terrorism is to start by gathering intelligence. Most of these officers work at various embassies abroad, while others work within the country.

The Department of States has been working closely with various police units around the country to coordinate the activities of the counterterrorism unit. On the underscore, the NYPD leverages its counter-terrorism (CT) bureau to mitigate the threat of terrorism. The agency comprises a team of committed and experienced counter-terrorism officers. This team is known as the Critical Response Command (CRC). It is highly equipped and always prepared to respond to attacks that occur in any part of the country. Every group member of the CRC is well trained in handling military weapons. Arguably, the CT bureau conducts reviews of possible terrorist targets. It consequently develops innovative and forward-thinking policies and procedures that are useful in guiding against attacks. Additionally, the bureau trains first responders and specialized units on how to handle terrorist attacks.Moreover, the bureau works in liaison with other law enforcement agencies in gathering intelligence and sharing information.

Bomb Squad

Statistics show that the most preferred weapon by terrorists with the most devastating impact is the use of bombs. They result in massive destruction of properties and mass loss of lives within a very short time if successful (Coutts et al., 2019). As such, the bomb squad was created to help in diffusing a bomb. It was evident that regular police officers and military personnel were not effectively equipped with skills to destroy time bombs and other hazardous explosives. As such, it was necessary to have a team of experts who could do the job within the shortest time possible to protect lives and properties without exposing themselves to danger.

The bomb squad has played a critical role in helping to thwart terrorism. It is tasked with the responsibility of investigating and mitigating suspicious devices and packages left unattended in parts of the city (Stewart, 2019). Members of this squad liaise with other units to identify and collect forensic evidence that is helpful in investigations. Currently, this unit has employed the use of robots to help minimize the risks that these experts expose themselves to when diffusing a live bomb. The robots are more effective because they can work faster than technicians, access places that a person cannot, and understand the type of bomb that has to be neutralized faster because it is computer-based (Cassese, 2016). It has received massive popularity among the military and domestic law enforcement agencies.

Central Intelligence Agency

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been playing a critical role in gathering intelligence on behalf of the government of the United States. The primary goal of this agency, as stated in its mission statement, is to leverage the power of information to keep the nation safe (Samaan & Jacobs, 2018). It collects, processes, and processes information from around the world, then makes them available to different government agencies for purposes of decision-making. Unlike the other agencies discussed in this paper, the CIA is a civilian agency. It was created in 1947 when the government was getting concerned about the growing influence of the Soviet Union in some parts of the world. It was an intelligence and counterintelligence agency meant to monitor and provide regular information about activities of nations perceived to be unfriendly to the United States. Its mandate was significantly expanded after the September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attack.

The agency has been tracking the activities of international terrorists all over the world, especially in the Middle East. With an annual budget of over $ 15 billion, which is almost double that of the FBI, it is one of the best-funded agencies to enable it to carry out some of the riskiest of operations around the world (Rafoss, 2019). The agency has been responsible for providing information that helped in neutralizing leaders of various terror groups such as Osama bin Laden, Ahmed Abdi Godane, General Qasem Soleimani, among many other planners and executors of such attacks. The agency has been working closely with various airports around the world to inform them about impending attacks or possible travel plans of known radicals.

Federal Bureau of Investigation

The FBI has been at the forefront in fighting terrorism and other acts of crime within the United States. With its jurisdiction limited to the borders of the country, the agency is a leading counter-terrorism, criminal investigative organization, and counterintelligence entity responsible for investigating and neutralizing terror threats. All crimes classified as a terror attack falls under their jurisdiction. They are responsible for investigating, tracking terror suspects, making arrests, before handing over the criminals to the prosecuting team. They are also responsible for neutralizing threats, especially in cases where people are held hostage by the terrorists in incidences where there are shootouts.

The bureau, which operates under the Department of Justice, has over 35,000 officers spread all over the country. These officers have specific assignments. As shown on its website, protecting the country from a possible terrorists attack is one of its primary functions at the moment. As the form of attack shifts from the use of direct physical attacks to cyber-attacks, the agency has been redefining its operations. Although it remains alert to potential physical attacks, it has also enhanced its cyber operations to enable it to monitor the online activities of terrorists. It has invested in empowering its workforce and making available sophisticated digital technologies to enhance its cyber capabilities (Samaan & Jacobs, 2018). It remains one of the most reliable agencies when it comes to fighting terrorism in the country.

FBI started fighting organized crime in 1953 following the increased violent activities of drug traffickers and illegal clandestine organizations. Top Hoodlum Program was established on August 25, 1953, to specifically fight organized crime in major cities across the country. Numerous FBI special units have since been created to deal with emerging forms of threats. For instance, a special FBI SWAT known as Hostage Rescue Team was established in 1982 with a special mandate of responding to hostage situations in cases of terrorist attack (Cassese, 2016). Unlike other agencies of the FBI, its mandate does not involve investigations. It responds to cases of emergency with the primary goal of neutralizing the threat with the least civilian casualty and within the shortest time possible. The FBI special agents were some of the special responders to the September 11 terror attack. They helped in the rescue mission and to monitor the situation in case there were further attacks. Since that attack, the agency has increased its collaboration with the CIA and other agencies in sharing intelligence and responding to potential terror threats.

Joint Response

The September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attack demonstrated the vulnerability of the country to possible terror attacks. The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States placed the blame on poor coordination among various security organs and inaction by the FBI (Du et al., 2020). It was evident that the CIA had issued an alert about a possible terror attack by these extremist groups. Individuals who were directly involved in hijacking the planes had also been identified as radicalized people working closely with or sympathizers of Al Qaeda. However, the FBI failed to pass the information to relevant agencies and to act upon it. At the time of the attack, various military organs were conducting military drills and had the capacity to respond to the threat if they were adequately informed. However, the failure allowed the terrorists to successfully execute the attack.

The government has since created a system that makes it possible for security agencies to work closely with one another to share intelligence and to respond to possible threats. The CIA has maintained its primary mandate of collecting intelligence internationally and making it available to the security organs. When necessary, this agency can also be involved in collecting domestic intelligence, especially when the target is an entity that operates both in the country and in foreign countries (Rafoss, 2019). The military is also involved in gathering intelligence internationally, often working closely with the CIA. FBI, the police units across the country, and the military have the mandate to respond, using force, to any terror attack with the goal of neutralizing it. The private security agencies have also been working closely with public sector entities in sharing critical data that can help neutralize possible terror attacks.

One of these entities is the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF). The JTTF is jointly led by the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The multi-agency body is always at the forefront of ensuring that the country is free from terrorist attacks at domestic and international levels. Currently, the JTTF team comprises special agents, analyst agencies, and other highly trained investigators (Hsu & McDowall, 2017). Notably, the squad unites different law enforcement departments to ensure successful service delivery. The team saturates designated locations with a great presence aimed at disrupting and deterring terrorist plans. In essence, the CT bureau plays a significant role in the JTTF.

Different subunits work under the JTTF, including the NYPD shield, which forms a backbone of counter-terrorism initiatives in New York. This program is implicit in several reform initiatives pertaining to counter-terrorism. It is based on a partnership that aims at providing the best practices and training opportunities. The authority also partners with private surety managers to protect U.S cities from terrorist attacks. One of the measures that this authority has taken to help combat terrorism is the installation of radiation detection equipment at all crucial points (McIlhatton et al., 2020). Additionally, the police department conducts regular multi-agency checks on critical entry points such as sea bridges and channels.

Effectiveness of the Response Strategies

The United States military and public sector entities have been keen on ensuring that terror threats are neutralized as soon as possible. As Cassese (2016) observes, these agencies have come to appreciate that the success of their effort to fight terrorism depends on the timely collection of intelligence and acting upon it immediately. These agencies have been sharing data regularly to help in monitoring the activities and plans of these terror organizations. In determining the effectiveness of these response strategies, it is evident that they have thwarted potential attacks by international terrorists. ISIL was able to plan and successfully execute various forms of terror attacks in various European countries. However, they were not able to directly sponsor a successful attack against the United States. It is a testament that these agencies are effective in thwarting such attacks.

The same level of success has not been demonstrated against domestic terrorism. Since the September 11 attack, several cases of domestic terror attacks have been recorded, resulting in hundreds of deaths. It is an indication that public sector entities need major improvements to ensure that they effectively achieve their mandate (Samaan & Jacobs, 2018). Despite these weaknesses, it is necessary to note that these agencies have successfully neutralized potential attacks before their occurrence.


The analysis shows that there are diverse methods that U.S. states leverage to address the threat of terrorism. Working closely with all related agencies is a great approach that state agencies use in their counter-terrorism efforts. Collaboration with different law enforcement units helps to develop and effect fast responses to terrorist threats within any locality. Admittedly, organized institutions and public entities play a critical role in protecting citizens from terrorist attacks. With the recent surge in terrorist assaults in other parts of the world, there is a need to implement steady responses to the threats. Other nations across the world must emulate the example of U.S based public entities and law enforcement agencies in their fight against terrorism. This move will ultimately guarantee a successful outcome in their regions.


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