By Erin Delmore
When Ahmad Rahimi stashed explosives in Seaside Park and Elizabeth, it was the public who led to his arrest. A success for Homeland Security. But ISIS and al-Qaida claimed the attempted terrorist attack as a win, too.
“In order to maintain relevance to their followers abroad and to financial backers who want to give them some money to fuel their operations, these groups are taking to social media, like Facebook and Twitter, and to try and perpetuate a message of radicalism and hate that is inspiring others to conduct attacks in their own countries,” said New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness Director Chris Rodriguez.
The number of people traveling overseas to join ISIS and other terrorist groups is declining, but the number of homegrown violent extremists — like Rahimi — is up. It’s all detailed in a report by the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness — released in full to the public.
“I think it’s a best practice for government to try to — particularly for law enforcement and Homeland Security — to try to get information out to public as much as possible,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez is the highest ranking Homeland Security official in the Garden State. The department’s yearly report has been public since he took office. OHSP released more than 600 intelligence products on its website last year alone.
“The terrorist threat environment that we are living in now, is becoming more decentralized and diffuse. In that environment, the public becomes the first line of defense, reporting suspicious activity and suspicious behavior,” Rodriguez said.
It’s not just ISIS sympathizers on the radar. OHSP says there’s been a surge in politically-motivated attacks all over the country in 2016, during the most contentious election season to date. That includes a rise in activity by anarchists, black separatists, white supremacists and anti-abortion extremists. Law enforcement’s challenge: walking the fine line between protected free speech and intent.
“How do you see what’s in someone’s heart, how do you see what’s in someone’s head and what their motivation is? What we talk about is that in this threatening environment, law enforcement and Homeland Security will find it very difficult to detect and deter something like Orlando, like in Fort Lauderdale, but what our assessment talks about is that there are commonalities,” Rodriguez said.
Like expressing radical views, watching online propaganda and scouting potential targets. Rodriguez says that’s when tips from the public prove crucial.
“We have to continue throwing strikes on every pitch, and our adversaries just have to hit a base hit from time to time to demonstrate success. And that’s the challenge we face,” Rodriguez said.
One more challenge for the intelligence community: earning President-elect Donald Trump’s trust, arguably mission number one for incoming CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
“One of the things that the new director of the CIA is going to have to balance is the president’s perception of the intelligence community. With serving as the director of the men and women who, at the CIA, put their lives on the line often without any recognition or knowledge of the public to make sure that we are all safe and secure. So, I think that’s going to be a difficult balancing act for the new director,” Rodriguez said.
The changes in the new administration come to a head at the end of this week, when Trump is sworn in as 45th president of the United States. For Rodriguez and his team, the flurry of activity in Washington plus marches in Trenton and all over the country means all hands on deck.