Gut instinct has become a powerful weapon in the five years since the most devastating terrorist attacks in American history.
Those involved in protecting Arizona say it may be the best hope of preventing another day like Sept. 11, 2001, when hijacked jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.
Last year, gut instinct prompted a sheriff’s deputy in Kansas to dig deeper after a routine traffic stop. His suspicions triggered a three-state counterterrorism investigation and led to evidence used to convict a man of making ricin, a deadly poison, in his Phoenix apartment.
The case is one of many cited by law enforcement officials in Arizona to illustrate the new attitude of cooperation in fighting terror since Sept. 11.
In the five years since the attacks, federal, state and local agencies in Arizona have allied their collective expertise and resources to ensure that seemingly unrelated bits of information that could unearth a terrorist nest do not go unnoticed. They have set aside egos and bureaucratic barriers, working together out of a nondescript office building in north central Phoenix, a center that has become a national model for integrating agencies that once jealously protected their own turf.
“The 9/11 event gave us a new lens through which to look at the world,” John Lewis, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Phoenix office, said of the level of cooperation among all levels of law enforcement. “So much of preventing the next attack, so much of collecting the intelligence and then moving on it, comes from the streets.”
More than $177 million in federal homeland security grants has been spent to improve security at strategic sites in Arizona and equip emergency workers who would deal with the carnage.
The nerve center for the war on terror in the state is the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center, or ACTIC.
More than 200 people from 23 different federal, state and local agencies work at the center, a bank building retrofitted at a cost of $5.2 million. The center began operating in 2004 and its mission is to make sure that no bit of information that could point to a terrorist plot goes unnoticed, said Bob Halliday, the Arizona Department of Public Safety commander at ACTIC.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, independent investigations faulted the FBI and other federal agencies for not cooperating with one another, or with state and local police.
The assessment was accurate, Lewis said.
The concept of ACTIC is to bring the expertise of federal agents and local police officers together to work counter-terrorism cases, Halliday said.
Local police assigned to ACTIC have access to the same information as FBI agents they work with, a sharp contrast to the territorial attitudes that existed five years ago, Halliday said.
Everyone at the center has a security clearance that gives them access to both criminal and intelligence databases.
A more sensitive unit of federal, state and local police within ACTIC, known as the the Joint Terrorism Task Force, works under the same structure, but with a higher security clearance, Halliday said.
One reason it is so important to pair federal agents with local police is that terror cells often turn to traditional street crimes such as drug smuggling to finance their activities, Halliday said.
ACTIC gives local police a place to turn whenever they stumble across anything that might point to terrorist activity, he said.
Several recent cases have triggered a full response at the center.
In June 2005, Casey Cutler showed up at a Mesa hospital seeking treatment for ricin poisoning. Cutler said he’d tried to manufacture the deadly poison to protect himself from acquaintances who had beaten him up and stolen his marijuana.
Mesa police notified ACTIC, which deployed its DPS hazardous materials response team to Cutler’s Mesa apartment. DPS is the only law enforcement agency in Arizona with the equipment and training to collect evidence at crime scenes where hazardous chemicals may be present, said Sgt. Bill Ross, coordinator of the weapons of mass destruction unit at ACTIC.
As Ross and his team responded to Mesa, analysts at ACTIC were running Cutler’s name against numerous federal and state databases to check his criminal history and determine if he had any known terrorism connections.
FBI agents working out of the center were brought in, and the federal agency’s Hazardous Materials Response Unit based in Quantico, Va., was notified.
Information gleaned from the background checks done at ACTIC helped Mesa police prepare their search warrant. When it was executed, detectives found evidence that Cutler was trying to manufacture ricin using a recipe he’d gotten off the Internet. His formula failed when he attempted to substitute castor oil for castor beans, a key ingredient in producing the poison.
Ross said it took less than two hours for officials at ACTIC to run their background checks and coordinate the response between federal, state and local officials. Within 14 hours of being notified, two FBI hazardous materials response teams were brought in from California and Nevada to assist the DPS squad.
Though no terrorist ties were found, Cutler pleaded guilty to federal charges of attempting to produce ricin and was sentenced to three years in prison.
Ross cited several similar cases, including the one that began with a traffic stop in Kansas, to illustrate how the center has been used to coordinate the response to potential terrorism incidents.
If terrorists do get through, preparations also have been made to deal with the grim consequences by fixing the problems that became apparent on Sept. 11.
Rescue workers who rushed to the World Trade Center could not communicate with one another because their radios used different frequencies. That likely contributed to the deaths of hundreds of emergency workers when the twin towers collapsed.
Those who survived and spent the following weeks picking through the rubble with little protection are suffering from long-term health problems associated with exposure to the dust and debris.
Fixing those shortcomings has been a high priority for homeland security money in Arizona, said Frank Navarette, director of the Arizona Office of Homeland Security and the state’s point man in protecting against terrorist attacks.
All police and firefighters in the state, those who would be the first on the scene of a terrorist attack, are required to have access to some level of protective clothing.
Specialized units, such as hazardous materials teams in police and fire departments, also have more sophisticated equipment that would allow them to operate in an environment contaminated by weapons of mass destruction.
Much of the homeland security money has gone to local police and fire departments to purchase equipment that would be needed to contain and clean up contamination after a chemical or biological attack.
In addition, the state created what it calls Rapid Response Teams, specialized units within local police and fire departments that have the highest levels of equipment and training that would be needed to deal with an attack involving weapons of mass destruction, said Jeff Clark, assistant Chandler fire chief.
There are eight of those teams in the Valley, including one in Chandler that pairs the crew of a heavy-rescue fire truck with the special operations team of the police department, Clark said. That allows firefighters to focus on rescue operations while the police protect them from threats such as snipers and bombs, he said.
To help fix communications problems, the Arizona Legislature has approved funding for a three-year, $12.4 million upgrade of the state’s emergency communication system. In the Valley, Phoenix and Mesa have adopted the same communications system, which will allow them to link their radios and dispatch centers in a regionwide disaster. Other agencies from different cities also could be patched into the system.
Both Navarette and Lewis say that Arizona is not considered a top-tier terrorist target.
But Arizona had been a gathering spot and training ground for terrorists before Sept. 11, including Hani Hanjour, who piloted the plane into the Pentagon.
However, there is no indication there were plans to attack here.
Despite that, Lewis said he will not be lulled into believing Arizona is safe. Large crowds could be targeted at sporting events held at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe or Cardinals Stadium in Glendale.
Hitting strategic targets like the Palo Verde nuclear plant or dams along the Salt River could create regional disasters that would serve the political ends of groups like al-Qaida.
“There are many ways to create havoc,” Lewis said. “If somebody brings a building down in Phoenix, it’s going to be a major incident. All it takes is a couple of nutballs who for whatever reason have some connection to Arizona and see an opportunity.”