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Can Awareness Help Prevent a Terrorist Attack?

In January 2001 the USS Cole Commission Report “found that the terrorist threat is one of our most pervasive challenges and one that shows no sign of abating.” Persistent attacks around the world since confirm that assessment.  As the U.S. and others continue missions to target terrorists, are we doing all we can to prevent an attack and solicit the community’s (including Army Retired Soldiers) help?  Perhaps not, as FBI reports imply that the December 2015 terrorists attack in San Bernardino and the June 2016 attack in Orlando may have left indicators that could have been observed and reported by neighbors, relatives, and coworkers.

The challenge of terrorist threat awareness is closely linked to understanding how terrorists operate in the hours, weeks, and months leading up to the time of an attack.  Perhaps surprisingly, terrorists’ actions are often observable as they move, communicate, gather material, and conduct “surveillance” of an objective either physically or virtually prior to an attack. These activities provide an opportunity for the community to discover terrorist intentions.  The actions associated with terrorist planning and preparations (typically referred to as the “terrorist planning cycle”) leave footprints and fingerprints, which are subject to observation by alert community members.

On 12 September 2001, Manhattan advertising executive Allen Kay coined the phrase “If you see something, say something” in response to the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  The Army uses this slogan in conjunction with the iWATCH Army initiative to educate and involve the Army community to be watchful for unusual activities or behavior that may be associated with a terrorist attack.  However, the sound bite alone doesn’t offer insight into what to look for or how to report it—this is where the Army’s antiterrorism awareness initiatives come in.

Reminding those who might be attacked to have “awareness” and giving a phone number to call does not in and of itself create instantaneous awareness.  In fact we may unintentionally confuse the issue by directing members of the community to be “vigilant” without explaining what this means and how they can help.  Note the subtle difference in key definitions:  vigilance reminds observers to look for possible danger or difficulties, while awareness has broader implications.  To have true awareness requires informed knowledge. 

Vigilance and awareness have become watchwords for preventing and responding to terrorist attacks.  It’s not uncommon to see phone numbers posted above highways imploring people who “see something” to report it.  The message is posted in bus stations, airports, Army orderly rooms, post exchanges, barracks, and elsewhere, making the message difficult to ignore.  But does it help or simply drift by as another overused, meaningless sound bite?  Admittedly, people tend to have selected focus, most often directed toward everyday tasks.  The infrequency of terrorist attacks may make most people less likely to pick up on terrorist-related clues.  Moreover, community members may see the references but have no experience to assist in guiding attention toward observing potential terrorist clues.  Sustaining community awareness requires creative and situational approaches.

To support antiterrorism community awareness the Army relies heavily on the information and resources available on the Army One Source (AOS), iWATCH Army website (http://www.myarmyonesource.com/FamilyProgramsandServices/iWatchProgram/Default.aspx).  The AOS website is the primary online source of antiterrorism information for Army Family members, Retired Soldiers, and Army contractors.  The website includes a wide variety of general awareness information, travel alerts and warnings, awareness training, active shooter products and video, social media and cyber security recommendations, explaining what to look for in terrorist preparations, report what has happened in past terrorist attacks, and circulate alert notifications of possible terrorist activity.

Please take a moment to review the resources on AOS to educate yourself and your extended Family and friends on the risks and protective measures associated with today’s terrorist threat (for example, the AOS site includes valuable information on the “indicators” to look for in detecting potential terrorist activities).  Thanks for your continued service to protecting our communities and our way of life!

Always Ready, Always Alert.  Because someone is depending on you.