The retail industry is the lifeblood of the U.S. consumer-driven economy. It is the foundation of our financial livelihood, our recreation, our way of life. A successful attack in a retail store or mall could strike fear in the hearts of Americans and stall the economy. In addition to the symbolic victory of such an attack, it is also highly feasible from a logistical standpoint. Retail environments are open and welcoming by their very nature — and therefore tempting targets for highly-motivated terrorists.
Failed plots such as the attempted bombing at the tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Ore.; the car bomb left to explode in Times Square; and just recently a second Ft. Hood shooter’s interrupted plans, all point to increased activity. Adam Gadahn, the American-born rising leader in Al Qaeda, has released statements calling for smaller, lone-wolf attacks on soft targets, which could point to retail.
Unfortunately, the threat is real. Yet many retailers — even those most motivated to take action — do not feel sufficiently knowledgeable about how to take initial steps towards a counter-terrorism program within their organization. Often, the biggest challenge is knowing where to start. The development of a partnership with the public sector — law enforcement, federal agencies and emergency responders — is a powerful first step that retailers can take to initiate their counter-terrorism programs.
Completing the Puzzle
The field of Homeland Security is still under construction. In many ways, it involves a process of constantly responding to the environment, new threats, new intelligence and learning from each plot and attack. There are many different agencies — each holding distinct pieces of information and possessing different strengths and capabilities. With so many sources, it can be challenging for them to seamlessly work together, much less fold in collaboration with private-sector institutions.
Ironically, the best chance of success in acting against terrorism is to increase consistency of information-sharing, analysis and response. These agencies and law enforcement organizations are making great strides with programs such as “Operation Blackbird,” a highly successful effort involving the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and retailers to stop a massive organized theft of baby formula to fund terrorist activities. The Department of Homeland Security’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign is another great program.
With improved collaboration, retailers have an opportunity to learn a great deal from these organizations and to pass them meaningful information to support their cause of thwarting terrorist attacks. By combining different types of information to which each has access, the public and private sectors can better complete the “puzzle.”
Whereas federal agencies have a great degree of high-level intelligence, an understanding of “red flags,” and a high-level outline of groups and the threats they present, much of their information is unfortunately compiled after an attack has been carried out or, thankfully, unsuccessful. On the other hand, the private sector has invaluable information from the field. They are potentially witnessing the perpetrators when they are actually committing or preparing to commit these acts.
The public sector has names. Retailers have video of terrorists in the store. The public sector has stated intent of action. Retailers have preparations and purchases being made in their stores. The public sector has the hunch and the chatter that something is about to occur. Retailers have the proof that action is being taken.
Together, retailers and the public sector can go a long way toward finishing the intelligence puzzle and preventing attacks.
The Ideal Partnership
Understanding the power of information sharing and collaboration by retailers and the public sector, it is helpful to envision what a good partnership looks like and how it works. The following are some of the foundations of a strong working relationship:
Agencies provide fundamental intelligence/training: Federal agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the FBI have a good understanding of terrorism, potential suspects and weapons commonly used to perpetrate attacks. If retailers know what to look for, they are much more likely to be able to spot suspicious behaviors, purchases and individuals when they see them. Information provided by federal agencies is critical to arming retailers with the information they need to identify potentially problematic individuals, purchases and behaviors.
Establish an information clearing-house: Having a single, central location where information is collected, reviewed and processed is critical to enabling federal agencies to analyze data to see what is most important. It also gives retailers clear guidance on how to and to whom to report suspicious information, findings, etc. In many cases, retailers — even if they see something suspicious — do not know what to do with it. Often they will report this information to local law enforcement and it can fall between the cracks. A central clearinghouse for information makes it much more likely that relevant information is discovered.
Work with local law enforcement: Another key to success is for retailers to partner with local law enforcement. This means forming relationships with local police and emergency responders. By getting to know these players, retailers can learn a great deal and also share fundamental concerns and information with those who will be responding in case of an incident. This could mean having lunch to get to know the players, conducting drills to practice response, or establishing meetings to discuss best practices and how to respond. When an emergency does occur, retailers have a much better idea about how the response process works, what resources they can expect or not expect, depending on the situation.
Protect retailers: The retail community is often hesitant to provide information to law enforcement for fear of lawsuits. If they suspect something suspicious and it turns out to be nothing, the retailer risks lawsuits from that customer that they conducted racial profiling, defamation or a number of other charges. This makes retailers think hard before reporting that someone came in three times in a row with odd photos of the back of important landmarks or federal buildings.; or, if they purchase substances which, combined, could be used to make an improvised explosive device (IED).
Federal agencies can provide protection by passing clear and singularly purposed laws requiring retailers to report certain kinds of information, or providing an umbrella of protection for reporting a clearly defined case of suspicious behavior. For example, under the Child Pornography laws, any photos of nude children are to be immediately reported. It is not up to the retailer, but in the hands of law enforcement officials to determine if it is a case of a doting mother making cute photos of her baby in the tub or a child predator creating sexually explicit materials. The retailer is protected and therefore far more likely to report suspicious behavior that leads to a break in the case.
Reaping the Benefits
Obviously, any ability to help thwart a terrorist attack is to the benefit of everyone: the public and private sectors, the community and the United States. The most effective way to prevent those attacks is to increase awareness and communication. By increasing knowledge and general awareness, retailers can go a long way toward potentially foiling terrorist attacks before they occur.
Retailers have access to valuable information, as many terrorists can and will purchase the goods they will use to make IEDs from retail stores. Using their sophisticated point of sale (POS) systems, retailers can determine if suspicious combinations of items were purchased and/or particularly large quantities of items.
Likewise, if federal agents identify a terrorist suspect, retailers can use POS systems to provide information about how that individual’s purchases were funded, which can lead to information about accounts and finances used to fund terrorist activities.
With the combined high-level information on suspected plans for an event, and retailers’ ability to point to specific actions taken, we have a much better shot of identifying and stopping terrorist attacks. Avoiding a successful attack prevents the obvious: loss of life and property, irreparable emotional damage, devastating financial consequences and fear. The community as a whole benefits and terrorists sense that conducting the impromptu attack is not as easy as they had once believed. Retailers that engage will discourage terrorists.
In case of the unfortunate event of a successful attack, preparedness can greatly increase the level and effectiveness of response. Retailers who partner closely with law enforcement and understand their needs can provide information and details more effectively. They can also set their own expectations, evaluating the particular situation and understanding the level of response they will receive — whether emergency responders will be tied up at the site or be responding directly to their needs.
While homeland security is complicated, the formula for success is simple: awareness and preparedness are the best policy.