ATLANTA – Local police officials from across the state met Friday with FBI agents to compare notes on terrorism following deadly attacks by Islamist extremists in Paris a week earlier.
Although the Federal Bureau of Investigation has often held similar meetings since the attacks on this country in 2001, Friday’s conference was called specially. Just hours before it began, an attack occurred in a hotel in Mali, a former French colony that has been battling Islamist extremists.
“We want to ensure that everyone is looped in,” said Special Agent Stephen Emmett, spokesman for the Atlanta office. “We want the local law enforcement leadership to be very dialed in to the threat assessments.”
FBI Director James B. Comey has warned that the Islamic State that is behind the Paris attacks has a presence – or at least sympathizers – in every state. But he said Thursday that there is no evidence of a credible threat in the United States at the moment.
“We have seen no connection at all between the Paris attackers and any threats to the U.S.,” he said.
Still, state and federal law enforcement has tracked hundreds of possible threats since 9/11.
The number of tips from the general public has soared in the past week, according to Jim Butterworth, director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and the head of the state’s Homeland Security Division. This isn’t a case of anyone crying “wolf” with needless false alarms, he said.
“Those same individuals that have accepted responsibility for the Paris attacks, or have at least claimed it, are looking for an opportunity for us to let our guard down and attack us,” he said.
Butterworth was at Friday’s briefing. He described those in attendance as engaged and concerned about how the holiday season may present tempting targets here.
That’s why the state has already begun deploying extra manpower and other assets to large gatherings and sporting events, some visible and some behind the scenes.
So far, he is telling all of the legislators who ask that his agency is adequately equipped at its current budget, and he’s not asking for addition funding. Nor is he seeking legislation to give the agency greater authority.
The FBI has considerable resources available in Georgia as well. For instance, it houses one of just nine Specialized Weapons And Tactics, or SWAT, teams in the country, along with experts on evidence recovery, bomb recovery and analysis, and language specialists.
Training is another asset. The state and federal agencies, and many local ones, have participated in “active shooter” drills, scenarios where groups of innocent people are in danger like those killed in the Mali hotel and the Paris cafes and concert hall.
“Just be reassured that law enforcement at all levels is doing their part to stay dialed in to the intel. We are already prepared and have done the training,” the FBI’s Emmett said.
The intel they’re dialed in to includes lessons learned by the French, Butterworth said, such as just how the attackers went about their own planning.
When Gov. Nathan Deal’s deputy chief of staff was asked about ways the state has responded to the possibility of heightened terrorist activity, she referred questions to the Department of Human Services which issued a memo Monday. In it, DHS Commissioner Bobby Cagle informed state employees of Deal’s executive order to stop offering any benefit assistance to newly arriving Syrian refugees.
Deal ordered “all agencies from the state of Georgia halt involvement in accepting refugees from Syria for resettlement in the state….”
So far, 59 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Georgia. That resettlement includes taxpayer-funded housing for their first six months and other welfare benefits they may qualify for based on their income and family makeup.
Deal was among the many governors across the country announcing refusal to accept any more Syrian refugees. He told state social workers to process the aid applicants for those who are already here but no more.
National security expert Gary J. Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute told reporters Friday during a conference call sponsored by the Foreign Policy Initiative that the refugees bring danger.
“The idea that we’re going to be able to screen these folks in a significant way I think is also very difficult to imagine,” he said. “There’s just not enough intelligence to understand who these people are going to be and the like. So there’s a risk.”
However, the federal government has not answered Deal’s inquiries about where the 59 are located in the state, and Washington experts say states are powerless to keep refugees out who are sponsored by the federal government.
If that line of defense isn’t effective, then law enforcement is more dependent on the intelligence it gathers and tips it gets from the public.
Butterworth, the former head of the Georgia National Guard, encourages the public to notify law enforcement of things that seem out of the ordinary.
“If there is something that just doesn’t look right — be it a vehicle in the wrong place at the wrong time, a group of people in the wrong place at the wrong time, an unattended backpack or just anything that doesn’t look normal — call 911 or the local sheriff,” he said.
In the days following the 9/11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania by the al-Qaeda – a different group of Islamic extremists – state and local officials in Georgia stepped up their security. They added protections at government facilities. They conducted extensive exercises. They engaged in frequent intelligence briefings.
But there haven’t been any successful attacks on American soil since, even though several have been thwarted. So, is the law enforcement community getting jaded?
Butterworth says quite the opposite, based on his observations from Friday’s conference.
“Not only are they still tuned in, but they also understand the timing of the attacks as we are beginning our holiday events when there will be some large gatherings here,” he said.
Should the public change their plans as a result?
Not according to the officials interviewed.
“As we go into the Thanksgiving holiday, folks ought to do what they were going to do anyway. Don’t let the bad guys win,” Butterworth said. “Should there be a time to be concerned, I assure you that will be communicated.”
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