-Tia Ghose

Most terrorist plots are still foiled using traditional law-enforcement legwork, says a new study by researchers at the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions, made up of university scholars and the nonprofit firm RTI International.

Contributors to the report examined 86 plots over the last decade, nearly 70 percent of which failed. In more than 80 percent of thwarted schemes, law enforcement became aware at the first signs of trouble, or the government received tips from ordinary citizens, not from counterterrorism intelligence gathering.

Investigators caught nearly one in five of the planned attacks accidentally while responding to suspicious behavior or everyday crimes like parole violations and traffic stops, the report noted. The researchers acknowledge, however, that they may be underestimating the role of intelligence because some foiled plots are never publicized.

Still, many of the earliest hints of would-be attacks aren’t exactly subtle. It’s no surprise that threats against a target, extremist rants and crimes such as robbery or identity theft routinely raise the suspicion of alert citizens and police.

The report also urged counterterrorism officials and experts to broaden their focus beyond Al-Qaeda and its allied groups, which hatched less than half of the terror plots studied. White supremacists and militia movements planned nearly as many attacks, while anti-abortion, right-wing and animal-rights groups succeeded more often than Al-Qaeda, the report noted. White-power groups developed more plans to use nuclear or biological weapons than Al-Qaeda.

Because 40% of these attacks were halted due to an insider or informant, according to the report, racial profiling could ultimately alienate people in the best position to know of dangerous plans early on and may actually be counterproductive.

To enhance counterterrorism efforts, rank-and-file first responders should be trained to prioritize suspicious activities, while state and local agencies should continue working to improve information sharing, the report urged. Once initial clues suggest a potential terrorist threat, follow-up surveillance may be vital, but in those instances, authorities need to understand which tips other agencies should receive.

The report’s findings show how personal information collected in massive databases without a specific threat in mind may not always contribute meaningfully to the war on terror. Homeland security officials hope such systems will enable them to detect crime and terrorism early by showing patterns that common police work might otherwise miss.

The Department of Homeland Security has spent over $426 million on dozens of fusion centers across the country for collecting, analyzing, and merging data across localities and agencies. But the centers have come under fire for among other things not developing policies that protect privacy and civil liberties and for targeting peace activists and lobbying groups.

There’s also a risk that intelligence analysts will be overwhelmed by data – several failures allowed the Christmas Day bomber to board a Detroit-bound plane wearing explosives in his underwear, a Senate panel concluded earlier this year. In that case, passengers with sharp eyes caught what professional terror-watchers missed.

Image via Flickr courtesy Orange County Archives

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Tia Ghose is a researcher and reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch. Before joining the organization in 2010, she was a Kaiser health reporting intern at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Her work has appeared in Wired.com, Scientific American, the Salinas Californian, Science News and other publications. She earned a graduate degree in science writing from the University of California Santa Cruz.