NYPD “Antiterror Unit”: Civilian Analysts of Middle Eastern Culture for Dectectives

In Post-9/11 Domestic Anti-Terrorism Efforts on September 19, 2010 at 12:26 pm

The “Terror Translators” of the NYPD:

The Terror Translators

INSPIRE magazine, an English-language journal published by Al Qaeda, included in its summer edition what amounted to a “Friends and Foes” list. There, on Page 4, following the letter from the editor (“We survive through jihad and perish without it”), were pictures of, and quotations from, kindred spirits like Faisal Shahzad, who pleaded guilty in a plot to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, and, perhaps surprisingly, David Letterman, who was praised for recent criticism of former President George W. Bush.

Among the magazine’s “foes” were Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates; Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France; and King Abdullah II of Jordan. Then there was Mitchell D. Silber, a studious and mild-mannered former financier who grew up in Atlantic Beach, N.Y.

Mr. Silber (“I guess I was flattered in a strange way”) may seem an unlikely choice to occupy that space with a terrorist, a television star, a cabinet secretary, a European head of state and an Arab potentate. He is not, after all, a boldface name. Rather, he is a 40-year-old father with a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University who says his main hobby is reading deeply on the Middle East.

What landed Mr. Silber on that list was his leadership of a little-known counterterrorism team deep within the crime-fighting structure of the New York Police Department.

Formally known as the Analytic Unit of the department’s Intelligence Division, the team was created in 2002 as part of the city’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It stands as a unique experiment in breaking traditional law-enforcement boundaries, comprising two dozen civilian experts — lawyers, academics, corporate consultants, investment bankers, alumni of the World Bank and the Council on Foreign Relations and even a former employee of the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan.

The team serves as the Police Department’s terrorism reference arm: available on demand to explain Islamic law or Pakistani politics to detectives in the field.

“We have found that conducting terrorism investigations is more art than science and requires a breadth of complementary skill sets,” Mr. Silber said during one of several interviews this summer. “Our detectives tend to have a very narrow focus. But the analysts have 360-degree visibility. They focus on the bigger picture, and they sometimes see things detectives don’t see.”

To bolster counterterrorism operations after 9/11, the Police Department expanded its Intelligence Division — run by David Cohen, a 30-year veteran of the C.I.A. — with detectives who had mainly spent their careers chasing street gangs, drug lords and violent Mafiosi. Such trained investigators brought with them specific skills the department thought would translate into the fight against terror: the ability to read a suspect’s manner and the talent for managing secret informants.

What they needed, in turn, were people to help them translate their skills to new terrain, people with a firm cultural grasp of the suspects they were meant to be pursuing. Over the years, a gang detective in the Bronx will probably have developed a radar able to determine at a glance the meaning of a hand gesture or a prison tattoo. But, as one former intelligence detective said of potential Islamic extremists, “when we first started, we didn’t even know they prayed on Fridays.”

Enter the Analytic Unit, which Samuel J. Rascoff, who ran it from 2006 to 2008 and is now a law professor at New York University, described as an attempt to bring “the culturally exotic world of the ivory tower to bear on the gritty problems of counterterrorism as experienced by beat cops and seasoned detectives.”

Consider the time a detective was investigating an Afghan immigrant suspected of involvement in terror activities. The detective found it helpful when an analyst informed him that the United States military had attacked the man’s hometown three months earlier with a drone strike. Sometimes, analysts walk detectives through Google Earth images of Pakistani villages — the mosque is here, the bazaar is there — so the detectives sound more informed and enhance their credibility when dealing with potential covert sources.

“Say a detective is doing surveillance on a cabdriver and he pulls over and goes into a mosque,” Mr. Silber said. “Is this a secret meeting or is it Ramadan and the driver is simply going to pray? The detective is just unlikely to be familiar with that kind of thing, but the analyst can put it in context.”

Mr. Silber’s analysts earn $55,000 to $95,000 a year working daily shifts at their offices in Manhattan and at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, but are available to put things into context around the clock, at the ring of a cellphone. Their assistance can be as complicated as explaining the interlocking network of Afghan tribes or the nuances of the Koran, or as simple as keeping current with New York’s foreign-language newspapers.

As one detective from the Intelligence Division’s Priority Targeting Unit, which focuses on the highest-profile cases, said: “I’m not reading that stuff. I’m reading Sports Illustrated.”

LESS than an hour after a Nissan Pathfinder was found spewing smoke and rigged with a car bomb on West 45th Street on May 1, several members of the Analytic Unit had gathered at their secret office on the West Side of Manhattan trying to assess what, by all accounts, was the most severe terror threat to face the city in years.

For the next 24 hours, as detectives in the field scoured the car for clues, pulled apart the bomb and began tracking down witnesses, their civilian counterparts helped them, by brainstorming leads to be pursued. In which stores, they asked themselves, could the fireworks and propane tanks that had made up the bomb be obtained? And what did that Arab-language sticker on its timing device — a cheap alarm clock — say?

The unit’s linguists monitored jihadist Web sites for useful hints or boastful chatter. Others searched the Internet — sometimes using methods as basic as typing “Times Square car bomb” into Google, but filtering the results through eyes trained to see obscure tidbits. Eventually, they came across a YouTube video posted by the Pakistani Taliban, claiming responsibility for the plot.

Cyber specialists were able to determine that the YouTube account had been set up less than 24 hours before the attack occurred. The video was analyzed by the unit’s Pakistan expert, who knew, for instance, that a leader of the group, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or T.T.P., had posted videos during the previous month, announcing that commandoes had “penetrated” the United States and were poised to strike.

By 9 p.m. on May 2, a Sunday, the Analytic Unit had prepared an eight-page report for Mr. Cohen, the Police Department’s deputy commissioner for intelligence, suggesting that an “evolving, highly dynamic” terrorist group, T.T.P., was probably behind the failed attack. Officials in Washington announced the same conclusion days later. (Mr. Shahzad eventually acknowledged that the group had trained him for the operation.)

No other municipal police force in the country has a team similar in scope and sophistication to the Analytic Unit. Its specialists speak Urdu, Farsi, Russian, Arabic and Hebrew, and “cover” subjects including South Asia, Somalia, Yemen, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Iran and homegrown terrorist groups.

The unit began with five analysts working for a police captain. When Mr. Rascoff, its first civilian leader, was tapped four years ago to enhance the team — quadrupling its size to 20 — he described his mission as finding people who “combined very solid analytic and cultural skills with the ability to make it in a world of cops where the coin of the realm is not whether your degree came from Harvard or Columbia.”

As an Ivy Leaguer himself who once clerked for a Supreme Court justice, Mr. Rascoff understood it would be difficult having “pointy-headed youngsters” interacting with veteran cops and wanted analysts with what he called “a low jerk quotient.”

Mr. Silber, who was hired to run the team in 2008 and has further expanded it to 24 analysts, spent nine years in the financial world with the Carson Group and Evolution Capital, but left because, as he put it, 9/11 made him want “to get into the fight.” At Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, he specialized in Saudi Arabia’s laws regulating the flow of terrorist money. “I went from corporate finance to terrorist finance,” he said.

The analysts he has brought in are mostly in their 20s and 30s and have worked at the United Nations, the State Department, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the New America Foundation, a research group in Washington.

“We come into this with a couple of years’ experience in a region, or with a law degree or master’s degree,” said one analyst, Jennifer, who, like most, spoke on the condition that her last name not be used, for security reasons. “We’re not like the street cops. But it’s the blending of those worlds that’s the best part of the job.”

Mr. Rascoff said this “blending” was his goal. Analysts sometimes accompany detectives into the field, where they offer what Sgt. Steven Hines called “another set of eyes.” Those eyes are often attuned to what police eyes may not see: a poster in Pashto for a local demonstration against drone strikes; or a collection box on a deli counter seeking spare change for a charity suspected of having terrorist ties.

Mr. Rascoff said the working relationship between the civilian and sworn counterterrorism officials in New York was better than the parallel relationships in the Federal Bureau of Investigation because federal agents, unlike the local detectives, were often as highly educated as the analysts they work with.

“F.B.I. agents sometimes look at their analysts and say, ‘So, basically, we do the same job, but I carry a gun and kick down doors while you sit at your desk all day,’ ” said Mr. Rascoff, who has been working in intelligence since 2003, when he was a consultant to L. Paul Bremer, the special envoy to Iraq.

In the C.I.A., Mr. Rascoff added, the relationship between operatives and analysts is often the chilly one between “an author of cables and a reader of cables.”

In the Police Department, he said, there is an “educational, experiential but not intellectual” gulf that can, paradoxically, bring the sides together.

“While it’s sometimes hard to harness those conflicting energies,” Mr. Rascoff said, “when it succeeds, it succeeds wildly.”

The police officers agree, noting that academics versed in the culture of the region are able to seize upon investigative subtleties that they themselves might miss.

“An analyst once pointed out an individual on the street I thought was Afghan, but was actually Pakistani,” said the detective from the Priority Targeting Unit. “She knew because of the henna in his beard, the lack of a mustache and the pants length.

“They’re from a different world,” he added. “They’re educated; I’m not. My education is locking up bad guys.”

Another detective, sounding a bit like a Woody Allen character, put it this way: “Whenever I have problems, I call my analyst.”

THE history of domestic intelligence in the United States has, to say the least, a checkered record. From Cointelpro, a series of F.B.I. counterintelligence programs, to the New York Police Department’s own spying at the Republican National Convention in 2004, there are enough instances of the authorities’ inappropriately surveilling their own citizens to make even the firmest law-and-order advocate wince.

Christopher Dunn, a lawyer for the New York Civil Liberties Union who has criticized the Police Department’s surveillance of political groups, expressed some concern about the arrangement.

“This is yet another step toward the N.Y.P.D. being able to operate entirely outside of the larger law-enforcement community,” he said. “This type of lone-wolf approach, which we saw during the convention, is a recipe for abuse, or worse.”

But if civilian analysts help bring intellectual rigor to terrorism investigations, if the police “are more sophisticated and less stereotypical in their work,” Mr. Dunn added, “that’s all to the good.”

Investigations undertaken by the Analytic Unit, like those of the Intelligence Division over all, are governed by legal controls put in place in 1985 as a result of a 1971 class-action lawsuit, Handschu v. Special Services Division, that concerned harassment of political groups by the department’s so-called Red Squad.

Mr. Silber argued that, by nature, a team of academics trained in Islamic law and mores mitigated abuse. “The unit helps detectives dealing with sources and suspects to be more sophisticated,” he said, “and to develop a nuanced understanding of doctrines, ideology and historical and cultural references.”

NEW YORK seems an ideal place to practice this theory of intellectual investigation, and the unit has managed over the years to attract people who have worked in the Washington bureaucracy and seem to prefer the city.

“We had people leaving jobs with the C.I.A. and military intelligence to come work for us,” Mr. Rascoff said. “Why were they doing that? Part of it was the noir quality of being within the confines of an institution like the N.Y.P.D. There is an emotional, even an aesthetic, immediacy in being in New York rather than sitting in a cubicle in some fluorescent-lit office in Langley.”

To Mr. Silber, the attraction is the opportunity to work at street level on terrorism cases.

This year, analysts used their knowledge of cultural and political trends in Somalia to help prepare an undercover officer in his dealings with two New Jersey men, Mohamed Mahmood Alessa and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, arrested in June just before they traveled to Somalia to join Al Shabab, a group that claims kinship with Al Qaeda. Last year, an analyst provided unique advice to detectives investigating Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan immigrant who has pleaded guilty in a plot to detonate a bomb on the subway. The analyst, who served in Afghanistan with the elite Army Rangers, drew upon his knowledge of local tribes in Waziristan to create a flow chart of the numerous suspects in the Zazi case, highlighting those that shared hometowns and family affiliations.

The Zazi case, Mr. Silber said, was the largest surveillance effort the Police Department ever mounted in a terrorism investigation, and the unit’s analysts worked around the clock at covert locations, debriefing detectives as they came in off the street, then analyzing and sharing the information with the next shift before it went into the field.

“We’re very much in the weeds of investigations,” Mr. Silber said. “We’re looking at the threat to New York, in New York, so there’s a feeling of grittiness in a sense.”

He said that working in Washington, where the focus is often on events and people thousands of miles away, can feel “a little antiseptic.”

“Here we’re all in the same domain — the suspects and the analysts,” he said. “You might hear that yesterday, at 3 o’clock, people gathered at this street corner or in this cafe. We’re all in the same fishbowl together. It makes for an odd, exciting dynamic.”

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