Countering terrorism on every front

In the two decades since the murder of her son, the author has reluctantly become an expert on terrorism.

Ari Halberstam (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ari Halberstam
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Twenty years ago this week, during Hanukka, I stood with family and friends in a New York courtroom while jurors pronounced a guilty verdict for the terrorist gunman who murdered my 16-year-old son, Ari.
The shooter, a livery cab driver named Rashid Baz, was an alien with a Lebanese passport living in the United States.
Armed with an Uzi submachine gun, a Glock pistol, a street-sweeper shotgun and a .380 automatic, Baz turned his weapons on a van full of Jewish kids on the Brooklyn Bridge on March 1, 1994. After the guilty verdict a year-and-a-half later, Baz was sentenced to 141 years in state prison.
Back then, cellphones were rare, there was no social media and there were no US anti-terrorism laws. Despite Baz’s terrorist motivations, his crime for years was treated as a random act of violence by a lone gunman rather than an act of terrorism against innocent Jewish Americans.
It took seven years to finally get it recognized as terrorism.
In the two decades since Baz’s trial, I have become, reluctantly, an expert on terrorism. I’ve lectured to thousands of law enforcement officials from the United States and other countries around the world, met one-on-one with counterterrorism officials, and spoken to countless civic groups about terrorist threats.
Last February, I was invited to a summit at the White House focused on countering violent extremism that took place just days after the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks in Paris. The mayor of Paris attended, as did the mayor of Brussels, which has become an unregulated hub for militant Islamists. At the summit, which addressed the growing threat of ISIS, President Barack Obama spoke about the need for a two-pronged approach to the fight against Islamic State: within America’s borders and overseas.
He is right, but more needs to be done.
As last month’s attacks in Paris and the recent attack in San Bernardino, California, make clear, things have gotten worse since last February, not better.
Here’s what we do know: Terrorists come in all styles. They use guns, as Syed Farook and Tafsheen Malik did in San Bernardino.
They use knives, as Palestinian assailants do in Israel. They use bombs, as terrorists have done in Brussels, London and Madrid. They’re men and women. They’re homegrown and foreign-born.
For the most part, US law enforcement agencies have done a fantastic job of protecting Americans since 9/11. Aside from the 2,972 innocents killed on September 11, 2001, terrorists have killed 130 people in America since 1990, according to FBI statistics. You have a far greater chance of being killed by lightning than by terrorism in America.
Terrorism, of course, gets far more attention, and rightly so. Terrorists inspired and supported by ISIS are plotting their next attacks. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS has been capturing land, amassing vast financial resources, exploiting women as sex slaves, gaining valuable battlefield experience and strengthening its home base. Through social media, ISIS is recruiting followers all over the world, including US citizens (San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook appears to have been among them).
Without vigilance, terrorism can spread like a scourge. While we have countless think tanks, security companies and commentators devoted to counterterrorism, we need to shift the conversation from problems to workable solutions for new and evolving threats. The San Bernardino attack showed us that we face not just large-scale, dramatic attacks, but lonewolf assaults by radicalized individuals.
We need to be more proactive, and we need a long-term plan. Here’s what I propose: • Youths are those most susceptible to Islamic State’s radical propaganda. Rather than more conferences of experts, we need to develop an action plan for making sure our young are not lured by ISIS’s message. Law enforcement bodies need to employ younger recruits to address the social media challenge.
• Social media companies must be held accountable both financially or criminally for giving a platform to terrorists. First Amendment free-speech rights need not be an obstacle to this.
• Instead of watering down the Patriot Act, we need to give all levels of US law enforcement more tools to fight terrorism, with the appropriate oversight. The criminal justice system must prosecute terrorists to the full extent of the law, and the prisons must be places that counter radicalization, not breed it.
• Where there are gaps in federal counterterrorism laws, states should step in and address the loopholes. Too many states still don’t have laws that address the specific threats posted by terrorism. I helped write New York State’s first laws on terrorism, which have been used twice successfully: against Jose Pimentel for making pipe bombs to use on troops returning from Afghanistan (sentenced to 16 years in prison), and against Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mamdouh for attempting to blow up synagogues (sentenced to 10 and 5 years, respectively).
• Donald Trump’s rhetoric notwithstanding, we must overhaul immigration laws, which have barely changed since my grandparents came to America in the 19th century. We need laws that work for the challenges America faces today.
• Finally, communities should be involved in their own protection. Parents, teachers and faith leaders need to pay attention to what is happening in their families, schools and places of worship, and to speak up when necessary.
After the 9/11 attacks, then-New York governor George Pataki called me a “prophetess,” saying my warnings about terrorism should have been better heeded.
I don’t want to be a prophetess of doom. But if we don’t act now, things will get worse.
It’s Hanukka, a time of miracles, and I believe in miracles. Nothing will bring back my handsome, blue-eyed Ari, but what we do today can help save the lives of countless others. It’s time to act.
An abridged version of this op-ed was originally published in the New York Daily News.
The writer is a New York State chaplain, served on the first New York State Commission on Terrorism from 2001 to 2006, and was a founder of the Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn, New York.