Radical Islam is on American soil, as the San Bernardino shooting sadly reminded us.
Today, we live in a much more dangerous world than we did right after 9/11.
Because our government is so flat-footed, as technology rapidly increases, the threats are increasing exponentially. As the 9/11 Commission pointed out, 9/11 was, above all else, a failure of imagination.
We are always responding to the last terrorist attack rather than thinking outside of the box to help prevent the next one.
The U.S. government tells our citizens to be vigilant. Our citizens can be more than vigilant; they can be actively involved in preventing a terrorist attack or helping improve situational awareness for first responders during such an attack.
The power of social media during, or even before, a terrorist attack is real and needs to be harnessed. We need to look at various social media tools to be able to provide a more complete view of the tactical situation before and during a terrorist event.
Today, the United States needs a true situational awareness hotline. Such a dedicated hotline would be completely separate from 911. 911 calls need to be completely dedicated to typical emergency situations — and not flooded with other calls.
Key features of the situational awareness hotline would include:
- A dedicated number operated by the National Counterterrorism Center, where the current database of over 1 million known or suspected international terrorists is currently housed.
- A tie-in to the FBI’s terrorist screening database.
- Before a terrorist event, if someone saw suspicious activity, they could text a photo/video to the situational awareness hotline in real time to enable our government to begin connecting the dots in an effort to prevent a terrorist attack.
- During a terrorist event, observers could text photos, videos, etc., to the situational awareness hotline. This would provide for true situational awareness and enable first responders to be able to respond more quickly and more effectively.
- Vigilant citizens could text a screen shot of any suspicious social media activity (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) to the National Counterterrorism Center.
The situational awareness hotline would be linked back to the state emergency management directors to ensure coordination with local law enforcement and first responders.
I first got the idea for a situational awareness hotline following the 2011 Norway attacks. Some close friends of mind had a teenage friend who was literally hiding in the bushes on the island during the attacks by Anders Breivik, which killed some 68 teenage youth.
The attacker came within just a few feet of her as she was hiding — she could actually hear him breathing.
Fortunately, she was able to send out a tweet for local people to come help her. Locals were able to help the kids before law enforcement arrived.
I then went back and looked at other terrorist attacks and how people at the scene used social media tools.
In 2008, during the Mumbai attacks, which killed more than 100 people and wounded more than 300, the best information came from Mumbai residents using Twitter and Flickr (a photo sharing site) to provide the latest coverage to others.
The power of social media was also one of the best lessons learned from the Boston Marathon bombing. In fact, Boston police used Facebook and Twitter to get the right information out to the people.
Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are useful open source intelligence tools (OSINT) that have tremendous power before and during a terrorist attack. Our government must do a much better job of utilizing OSINT to defeat radical Islam.
Google, for example, only shows the most popular searches and not in all languages. Other search engines, many housed at universities, have the ability to do deeper dives in research for suspected terrorist activity in a variety of languages.
We have the technology right now to establish a real situational awareness hotline in the United States. State emergency management directors would welcome this type of capability, as evidenced by recent US House Homeland Security Field Hearing.
A true situational awareness hotline would help us:
- Better deal with a “soft target” scenario.
- Prevent a terrorist attack.
- Improve situational awareness during an attack and help first responders respond more effectively.
A situational awareness hotline is an idea whose time has come. It would help us harness the power of social media and take the fight to radical Islam and, in so doing, save American lives.
Van Hipp is chairman of American Defense International, Inc. (ADI), a Washington, D.C. consulting firm. He is former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, and served on the Presidential Electoral College in 1988. He is the author of "The New Terrorism: How to Fight It and Defeat It." To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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