Thwarting Terrorist Attacks and Mass Shootings

Thwarting Terrorist Attacks and Mass Shootings

Rutgers homeland security expert John D. Cohen urges local law enforcement to collaborate with mental health experts, educators and faith leaders
Media Contact
Todd B. Bates
848-932-0550

The Islamic State. Homegrown violent extremists. Mass casualty shooters with mental illness. Americans have a lot to worry about in the wake of appalling attacks in San Bernardino, California, Paris and other locales in recent months.

One of the latest threats came to light on January 26 when the FBI announced charges against Samy Mohamed Hamzeh of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Hamzeh, 23, wanted to commit a domestic act of violence and targeted a Masonic temple in Milwaukee. The FBI charged him with possessing machine guns and a silencer.

John D. Cohen, a professor at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice in Newark, has been at the forefront of efforts to try to prevent such attacks. Cohen, a senior adviser to the Rutgers University Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security, has more than 30 years of experience in law enforcement and homeland security.

He served as the acting undersecretary and principal deputy undersecretary for intelligence and analysis in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  As the senior career official in his office, Cohen served as chief operating officer. He was responsible for gathering, analyzing and disseminating intelligence information.

Rutgers Today asked Cohen about current threats and efforts to deal with them.

Image of John Cohen
John D. Cohen, a professor at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice in Newark, is a senior adviser to Rutgers’ Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security.
Photo: Jeff Tolvin
Rutgers Today: How would you describe the threat of mass casualty terrorist attacks in New Jersey and the United States now?

We understand that the threat facing New Jersey, and the United States more broadly, has evolved beyond the one that we faced after September 11. While we still must be concerned about attacks carried out by foreign terrorist organizations and the people that fall under their command and control, we’ve also increasingly seen mass casualty attacks carried out by individuals who have become inspired by extremist ideology but operate independently of terrorist organizations.

So it takes a different set of tools to detect an individual who becomes inspired by what they see on social media and the internet, and then uses the internet to acquire information and resources necessary to carry out an attack. Our traditional counterterrorism capabilities were never designed to detect individuals operating outside of a terrorist organization, and that’s why law enforcement authorities are increasingly turning toward development of locally based, community-oriented efforts to deal with this problem.

Rutgers Today: What kind of research is underway at the Rutgers University Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security that could help prevent terrorist attacks?

We have been working for more than a year with law enforcement officials in the United States and around the world, faith leaders, mental health professionals and educators to examine the issue of mass casualty and targeted violence. We’ve met with key stakeholders in Europe and the United States to develop strategies that can be used at the local level to prevent these types of incidents.

Rutgers Today: What kind of strategies?

The main lesson we’ve learned is that there are some consistent characteristics among individuals prone to carry out these types of attack, which provides opportunities for intervention, and sometimes intervention is a law enforcement action. But more often, opportunities for intervention involve those outside of law enforcement: mental health professionals, educators, faith leaders. When communities have organized themselves to bring these disciplines together, they are better able to identify individuals who pose the risk of carrying out this type of attack and take steps to prevent the attack from occurring.

Rutgers Today: What else needs to be done to make our state and nation safer from the threat of homegrown violent extremists and other bad actors?

Even today, there continues to be somewhat of a disconnect between how national authorities and local authorities view this problem. Some at the federal level, for example, place a higher priority on mass casualty attacks carried out by an individual inspired by extremist ideology versus a mass casualty attack motivated by non-ideological grievances. From a local authority perspective, police have a responsibility to prevent and respond to mass casualty attacks regardless of the motive. So the longer we continue to differentiate between these types of attacks based on the motive of the offender, the longer it’s going to take for us to develop the locally based prevention capabilities.

Media Contact
Todd B. Bates
848-932-0550