Private citizens getting help in fight against terrorism

The Denver Post | November 16, 2011
By Anthony Cotton

The face of antiterrorism in Colorado includes a former Washington lobbyist, an ex-Marine from Lakewood whose wife gives him the evil eye when he's sizing up potential threats at Denver International Airport, and a native New Yorker who refuses to ride on the subway and spends as little time as possible in high-rise buildings.

The alliance is eclectic, but then, the people they're after aren't very stereotypical.

"It's not going to be the person that you think it's going to be," says Diana Woodson, an administrative assistant in the safety, security and facilities department of the Regional Transportation District. "He's your best neighbor, your best pal. It doesn't always look like the bad guy; it can be someone unassuming."

That's why, in their efforts to thwart terrorist threats, national entities such as the Department of Homeland Security, as well as local law enforcement officials and companies concerned with public safety, are reaching out to another seemingly unlikely source: you.

From campaigns such as Homeland Security's "If You See Something, Say Something" to the video "Recognizing the Eight Signs of Terrorism," produced in Denver by the Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab, or the CELL, the idea is to make Joe and Jill Public aware that they may be just as important as any super-secret agency when it comes to preventing another attack on the U.S.

"Unfortunately, there are people in the world who want to do us harm, and if you don't take accountability for yourself, it's difficult for law enforcement to assist in keeping you safe," said Maj. Steve Garcia of the Colorado State Patrol.

Suspicious activity

In the "old days" say, 10 to 15 years ago citizens rarely felt any sort of "policing" responsibilities. And even if they wanted to report suspicious activity, it was, more often than not, difficult to do.

"If someone saw something strange in their neighborhood, people would call the police and the police would ask, 'Well, has anything happened yet?' " said Colorado Department of Safety spokesman Lance Clem. "If the person said no, the police would say, 'Well, call us back when it does.'

"That doesn't happen any longer."

Now, there are organizations such as the Colorado Information Analysis Center in Lakewood. Created about four years after 9/11 and funded by Homeland Security, CIAC is one of 72 "fusion centers" across the country. CIAC brings together representatives of national and local law enforcement including Homeland Security, the FBI, the Secret Service, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well as the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and local fire and sheriff's departments. Work is done around the clock in the sifting through and sharing of information.

"One of the findings of the 9/11 Commission Report was that there wasn't enough communication between federal, state and local law enforcement officials," said Garcia, who has been with CIAC from the beginning. "The development of the fusion centers broke down those barriers, achieving the goal of fighting terrorism by being in the same room and looking at the same data."

That data can come from anywhere including citizens. The attempted car bombing in New York's Times Square in May 2010 was thwarted, in part, because a hot-dog vendor called police when he saw a smoking vehicle. The potentially dangerous activities of the Leadville woman later known as "Jihad Jane" unraveled, in part, because of information provided by the public in the U.S. and Europe.

The fusion centers also work to track down domestic criminals, such as the "Dougherty Gang," the three Florida siblings who cut a swath of crime across the country before eventually being captured in Wal sen burg.

"Their modus operandi, their communications with people like their mother, their intents, all that was relayed through the fusion centers," Garcia said.

Late last month, in a classroom in the Lakewood Police Department, Woodson taught 35 volunteers how to recognize and combat terrorism.

Sponsored by the CELL, the Community Awareness Program is a burgeoning element of the nonprofit organization's mission. 

When the CELL produced "Recognizing the Eight Signs of Terrorism" narrated by 9News anchor Kim Christian sen and John Elway it proved so popular that Homeland Security asked the organization to create a public-awareness program. 

While other citizen-outreach programs are available RTD, for example, has a popular three-day seminar, "Community Emergency Response Team" CELL executive director Melanie Pearlman says it's her group that brings everyone together.

"You had different groups FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), UASI (Urban Areas Security Initiative), the CERT different state and city agencies going out and espousing the same message, but the message was nuanced and inconsistent," she said. "So we brought all of those folks around the same table to make sure we met all their respective requirements in developing this program."

Being prepared

At the start of the CAP class, Woodson tells participants a little bit about herself, including that although she hails from the Big Apple and still has family there, when she returns there, she doesn't ride the subway and tries not to enter high- rises.

That, she says, is part of her personal emergency preparedness.

Woodson, who also takes stock of what's going on around her when she's moving from aisle to aisle in a King Soopers, says she's not being hypervigilant and certainly not paranoid. 

"I think what happens is, people are busy just trying to live their lives, especially now in these tough economic times," she said. "But there needs to be more. This is just the world as it is it's not 'Ozzie & Harriet.' "

That's why, despite his wife's protestations, Alan Beshany, who was a police recruit in Florida and served six years in the Marines, continues to size up people at DIA whenever the two travel.

"Too many people just go about their lives," he said. "But now you have groups like this, where there are a bunch of people who are going to go out and talk to other people and try to make people aware of what's out there."

The feeling is that as more people become aware of their surroundings, the safer everyone is.

"Citizens are as much a part of this as we are," Garcia said. "They have the ability to take their own safety and security into account, and one of their best tools is intuition. If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't."