In the weeks after Islamic militant group ISIS killed two American journalists and made several threats to terrorize the United States from within its borders, representatives from Massachusetts, the City of Boston and Boston University say they are doing everything they can to keep their communities safe and prepare for all possible terroristic threats.
In a televised speech to the nation on Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama said the United States was recruiting a global coalition to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is another name for ISIS.
In the case of a threatened attack closer to home, Massachusetts State Police and Boston’s Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation work together alongside other local and federal agencies in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, said Kieran Ramsey, assistant special agent of Boston’s Division of the FBI.
“Their [State Police and FBI] posture is to examine the threats that are out there and take measures to not only litigate, but disrupt those threats,” Ramsey said. “They are meant to sit together…share expertise but most importantly take a look and examine very closely and track very closely what threats may be here in this area.”
Ramsey said the FBI currently has a heightened sense of vigilance due to international and geopolitical tension.
“Given again the various threats that we pay attention to around the world, it’s not necessarily going to be tied to an anniversary [of 9/11],” he said. “Any community could be a target at any given time.”
Aside from tracking, managing and assessing threats, the JTTF holds “table talk” conversations and conducts field training exercises. Ultimately, Ramsey said, raising community awareness is one of the most important aspects of keeping the city safe.
“We actually practice with state, federal and local partners to ask, ‘what is our response going to look like? How are we going to coordinate and communicate?’” he said. “Everybody has to have some level of vigilance. It’s not meant to have people live in fear or be paranoid…It’s meant to make sure that people always maintain a level of vigilance.”
As members of the JTTF, the FBI and State Police work together to gather intelligence and investigate crimes related to those that may lead to a terrorist attack, said Trooper Thomas Ryan, spokesman for State Police.
“We are well aware of the anniversary of September 11 coming up,” he said. “During that time of year, we function with a heightened sense of awareness of the sign of that date, realizing the obvious significance of it and the obvious increased possibility of some type of terrorism issue.”
Ryan said State Police collaborates with other agencies in order to assess potential terroristic threats.
“We address threats as they come,” he said. “Certainly, if we receive a threat of any type of terrorism, that’s something that we would address with all available resources we have, and in partner with other agencies in the War on Terror and in counterterrorism efforts.”
BU’s own police force has put time and effort into terrorism and active-shooter prevention, which is necessary to maintain campus safety and security, said BU Police Department Deputy Director of Public Safety Scott Paré.
“An attack can come in all ways, means, forms and sizes, even in the form of an active shooter, which can be considered a terrorist attack,” he said. “We do active shooter training alongside Boston Police Department and State Police. We’ve had such things as suspicious unattended packages in the area, and we work on how we respond, and we work together as a team both for IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and unattended packages.”
BUPD prepares for these types of emergencies through a system of protocol, constant training and practice exercises, Paré said. BU also operates under the Incident Command System, a national program for structuring and coordinating an efficient response.
“You never know what the threat is going to be, so we do training for the officers to recognize suspicious behavior, people acting in ways that may arouse suspicion enough that we want to go talk to that individual,” he said. “We expand our eyes and ears out there. We have people who take different roles and train for their roles, and if we have an incident, we know what to do.”
Paré said BUPD strives to improve their protocol and skills, not only during high-risk periods, but at all times to keep over 30,000 BU students, faculty and staff as safe as possible.
“We know that anniversary dates are big dates for terrorists, but we’re certainly not going to let our guard down because it’s not an anniversary,” he said. “I would hope that we’re always improving. I hope that it’s monthly, daily, hourly. We’re always trying to improve. Everyone has a heightened sense of awareness, and we are always trying to get the public involved.”
However, Boston could never be 100 percent secure, said international relations Professor Joseph Wippl, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who specializes in security and intelligence.
“The risk of a major terrorist attack in Boston is very low, but not impossible,” he said in an email. “The reason [being that] it would take manpower, coordination, secrecy and money to mount a major attack. The risk of a minor attack in Boston is greater because the perpetrators of such an attack would be small in numbers and be limited in their capabilities to obtain lethal explosives.”
Wippl also said it was unlikely the anniversary of any major terrorist attack would prompt another major incident.
“The attack on the Madrid trains took place on March 11, 2004. This is the only attack I can remember connected to 9/11,” he said. “Terrorists most likely would attack when we do not expect an attack rather than on a day we would.”
Several students and residents said they are confident in the capabilities of the police force and those involved in the War on Terror, but people need to be cognizant of potential threats around the world.
Madison Sparber, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, said even though BUPD has made noticeable efforts to keep BU’s campus safe, students should understand that the city and the world, is not as safe as it might seem.
“A lot of people think they’re in a bubble, and they feel very safe,” she said. “People try to keep an eye out for things, but in terms of a huge terrorist threat, I don’t think they are really looking out for that right now. It feels safe, but you wouldn’t really know.”
Sisay Girma Tefera, 34, of Kenmore, said residents have to constantly remain vigilant of their surroundings, especially in the Fenway neighborhood, due to the large volume of people present during baseball season.
“People are comfortable, but I don’t think they should be, especially in an area like Kenmore Square, so close to Fenway Park,” he said. “There needs to be awareness, as in any situation, and people need to keep their eyes out for any suspicious people.”
Asia Alsgaard, a senior in CAS, said BUPD offers services that make her feel safe from any kind of attack, but Boston’s prominence since the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings might have put the city at heightened risk.
“I never really thought of Boston as being a target city, but then again, I would never have thought the Boston Marathon attack would have happened,” she said. “I haven’t noticed any huge changes in the way the city is handling things, but I personally feel very comfortable at BU. I never feel threatened, and if I do, I know I can go to the blue lights. There are always police cars going by, so I never feel like they’re far away.”