Exclusive: NJOHSP director Jared Maples discusses 2018 threat assessment

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

It’s a big job ensuring the safety and security of the state’s ports and points of entry, its elections and events, its public and cyber spaces and Gov. Phil Murphy chose to leave in the job a former counterintelligence officer appointed by Gov. Chris Christie. The New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness Director Jared Maples joins Correspondent Leah Mishkin.

Mishkin: Thank you so much for being here with us today. I know we have a lot to cover so I’m going to jump right in starting with this report, the terrorism threat report. Tell me about who’s at the top of this list.

Maples: Well, first all of thank you for having me. I appreciate the opportunity to come on. But, our annual threat assessment, the report, judges homegrown violent extremists, so HVEs, as being our number one threat here in New Jersey. That basically is the group that is, they’re inspired by overseas terrorists organizations like ISIS or al-Qaida, but not directed by. So, they can be influenced online or through various mediums to conduct violence, but they’re not directed. It makes them harder to detect and deter, to find them out before it happens. A great example being Saipov, who is the West Side highway, the person who drove the truck across the West Side highway and killed all those folks in New York last fall. That’s the group that we definitely access as being a significant threat and risk to the state of New Jersey.

Mishkin: Do you think that’s why they rank in the number one spot, because I saw right under them you had groups like ISIS, al-Qaida, you had white supremacists, which are also very prevalent, but you rank those first. Is that one of the reasons?

Maples: Yes. That is. Certainly the detection and deterrent capability that I talked about make them a challenge to get out ahead of. It’s something we dedicate a lot of resources to. It’s why we put them in these reports and certainly something we do behind the scenes, as well, with our federal, state and local partners.

Mishkin: And I know homegrown extremists, they use as a weapon a lot of the times, vehicles. And I was also reading that they get influenced a lot from overseas to attack soft targets. Those two combinations we’ve seen already in the news what can happen, so what strategies are you doing here in New Jersey to prevent that from happening?

Maples: So, quite a few actually. I’m glad you asked that question. That is becoming a trend overseas. You see it in Paris, you see it in Brussels, a lot of locations unfortunately, England. What we’re doing in New Jersey is one, getting information out about it to the law enforcement community and then also to the community. So we do that through trainings. We do that through products, like our threat assessment, and making sure that the public and law enforcement are aware of what the challenges are, what the risks are that are out there. And then, more importantly, what to do about them. Where should they go with the information? We have the NJ SARS, which is Suspicious Activity Reporting System. We actually coordinate that at OHSP in conjunction with the State Police at The ROIC. All those reports go through us, and they are coordinated, again, from the federal down to the local level through various mechanisms and it makes sure that we’re all in the loop at one time here in New Jersey. That is something that is pretty special to our state.

Mishkin: But is it hard to spot them? Because we’re talking about people just going into a car rental company and who’s to say that they’re a terrorist or not a terrorist, and then a lot of these locations, there aren’t enough resources to block all the soft targets.

Maples: Yes, it is. And it’s definitely a challenge. But, one of the things that we really rely on is the public to let us know when something seems off. So, yes they may not flag as much as, for example, an al-Qaida operation, a directed operation. But, a lot of times they say something, they’re doing something that’s a little different, maybe taking pictures of a location, maybe going by and inquiring about the truck rental in a way that just doesn’t seem quite right. That’s when the rubber meets the road for us in getting out ahead of these and being first preventers versus just first responders and getting that information from the public whether it be a salesman, or a person on the street or a person in their community. We have to know about them, and that’s where we’re really going to be able to stop these incidents.

Mishkin: And this is something I always think about, the fact that maybe you have more information obviously than I do, but that these terrorists, you might know where they’re living. You might even know some of their plans. But do you find sometimes that there are certain laws that prevent you from going in and being proactive?

Maples: So, I can tell you that one, we definitely respect the rule of law and everyone’s rights in this process. That is part of it. I think we’re pretty comfortable in our methodologies and how we investigate it without getting too far into it, as I’m sure you know I can’t. But, we are tracking a lot of different individuals and groups throughout the state, the region, again in conjunction with our federal, state and local partners. So, as far as how we do it in New Jersey, we’re certainly respectful of rights, but are able to do it within the construct of our methodologies.

Mishkin: And I actually want to play you a sound bite. This is a news conference that happened last year, right after that attempted terrorist attack at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Take a listen and then we’ll talk about it.

“In the course of a post-9/11 world, as you’re aware, there’s also been approximately 26 plots that we can talk about that have been prevented through intelligence, investigation and interdiction,” said John Miller, deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism for the NYPD.

Mishkin: So, going right off your point, yes, there are things that the public can’t know about for security reasons, but do you think there should be more transparency? Do you think that we should know about those plots that were prevented?

Maples: Sure, so I’ll tell you that’s one of the primary focuses of our office is we deliver the threat assessment in that construct, making sure that the public’s aware of the incidents that have happened and what we’re looking for. I’ve talked about photography in some of these other incidents, but then also about how it ties back, talking about Saipov; talking about Rahimi, who is the Seaside Heights, Chelsea and Elizabeth attacker; talking about Gregory Lepsky, who was in Point Pleasant and just plead out to federal charges. He had an incident last year and it carried over to this year in the trial. Having those explained to the public and how we actually stopped them, I think, is a key deterrent. And to your point, it is something we strive to do is be transparent with our material, with our information and making sure that the public is aware of what’s going on out there. And not trying to scare everybody to death; it’s a situation we have to be aware of. We want to make sure the public is able to go out to ballgames, and concerts, and venues, and events, but they do need to be aware of these issues and that’s something we strive to do.

This is part one in a three part series of interviews with Jared Maples, the director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness. You can watch part two here.