Skip to main content

Features

Heartland security

Middle America is a target, too, but don't try telling that to New York and Washington

Heartland security

CHARLOTTE-When FBI agents uncovered a well-oiled Lebanese terror cell deep in a sophisticated plot to fund top Hezbollah terrorists through a multimillion-dollar cigarette-smuggling operation, one of the biggest surprises was the bust's location: The raid didn't go down in New York City or Washington, D.C., but in Charlotte, N.C., a mid-size city known as a hotbed for NASCAR races, not terrorist activity.

Hezbollah may have a hot war with Israel on its hands, but Middle East cities aren't the only ones ensnared by its agenda. Charlotte Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Dulin says the major 2002 terrorism sting revealed that North Carolina's largest city is no Mayberry, and that some low-profile cities might prove attractive targets for high-profile terrorists. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agrees, and says that's part of the reason it increased funding for a handful of mid-size cities like Charlotte when it awarded grants in its Urban Area Security Initiative program last month.

Don't tell that to Rep. Peter King. The New York Republican, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, is still fuming over DHS' announcement that while it would increase funds for some cities, it would cut funds for New York City and Washington, D.C. "As far as I'm concerned, the Department of Homeland Security has declared war on New York City," King said.

The DHS grant program awarded $710 million to the 46 cities it considers most at risk for terrorist attacks. The department determined grant amounts based on each city's risk factor and the effectiveness of the cities' proposals for using the funds.

New York City and Washington, D.C., have ranked at the top of the risk list since 9/11 and have gotten the lion's share of funding from DHS. This year the department said it would cut both cities' funding by 40 percent: New York will receive $124 million, down from $207 million last year. Washington will receive $46.5 million, down from last year's $77.5 million.

The announcement prompted immediate outrage: Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the department was "abandoning New York." Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), a member of a subcommittee on Homeland Security of the House Appropriations Committee, called for Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff's resignation.

DHS officials offered a measured response and promised to review some of its findings, especially an internal federal worksheet that concluded New York City has no national monuments or icons.

Chertoff emphasized that DHS still considers New York City to be the most threatened city in the country. A July 7 announcement by federal officials underscored New York's danger: Authorities said they had thwarted a terrorist plot to flood lower Manhattan by attacking train tunnels under the Hudson River used by tens of thousands of commuters.

But Chertoff also defended the grant program, saying that news reports had taken the numbers out of context. He pointed out that New York City received $150 million in 2003 and $46 million in 2004. DHS gave the city $206 million last year to make up for the difference. Chertoff said this year's $124 million grant for New York represents about 18 percent of the total funding nationwide. That's the average the city has received over the last four years.

Chertoff also emphasized the importance of recognizing that terrorism is a "national problem. . . . It's not something that is centered in one or two places." New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wasn't persuaded: "When you stop a terrorist, they have a map of New York City in their pocket. They don't have a map of any of the other 45 places."

FBI agents didn't report finding a map of New York City when they raided Mohamed Hammoud's middle-class home in Charlotte in connection with the Hezbollah terrorist cell, but they did find hours of Hezbollah-related videotape. Some of the footage included chilling propaganda of crowds chanting: "Death to America! Death to Israel!"

Agents also listened in on Hammoud's telephone conversations with several alleged leaders of Hezbollah, including Sheik Abbas Harake, the group's reputed military leader. Prosecutors produced evidence that Hammoud led the effort to funnel a portion of profits from the cigarette-smuggling racket into the pockets of the Hezbollah leaders. Hezbollah has been responsible for hundreds of American deaths over the last two decades.

A federal jury convicted Hammoud of racketeering and providing material support to a terrorist group. He is now serving a 155-year sentence. The arrests of Hammoud and 18 of his cohorts in Charlotte also led to FBI breakthroughs in clamping down on Hezbollah cells in Los Angeles and Detroit.

Dulin, Charlotte's deputy fire chief, says the discovery of a terror ring in Charlotte isn't the only reason to consider the city of a half million vulnerable to threats. The metropolitan region is also home to the second-largest banking center in the country, two nuclear power plants, and a speedway that attracts 200,000 visitors at a time.

Christina Parkins, the city's coordinator of homeland security, says those assets could turn into soft targets for terrorists who know mid-size cities have fewer first responders. Terrorists know that cities like New York and Washington, D.C., have especially tight security, she says, "but maybe they could get a bomb into a mall. . . . You maybe go for what is easy because you can still get that same shock and awe impact."

Parkins is so convinced of the need to protect heartland cities she headed to Charlotte instead of Washington after graduating from the University of Kentucky's graduate program in homeland security nearly two years ago. Most of her fellow graduates wanted to go straight to the federal level, she says, but the local level is "where things happen . . . if you can't learn here you're missing the big picture."

One way local officials keep an eye on the big picture in Charlotte is through the city's state-of-the-art surveillance system in the command center's headquarters. In a large room in the downtown police station, eight giant television monitors, measuring 10 feet by 10 feet, line the front wall. During downtown festivals or professional sporting events, local officials sit at three rows of tables watching the monitors for suspicious or criminal activity 24 hours a day. If they see something wrong, they radio the nearest officer, who is often only a few feet away.

If the city ever faces an imminent threat, police and fire officials will join FBI agents in the command center to direct a response. Top city officials will gather in a fortified room at the rear of the command center fully equipped with communication and teleconferencing capabilities. The city is preparing for a day it hopes will never come, but Parkins says they hope to be prepared.

Charlotte officials will use their $8.9 million DHS grant to build a communications system operable across a 10-county area. They'll also continue to conduct drills to test the city's capability to handle multiple disasters.

Charlotte isn't the only mid-size city that saw a funding increase. DHS raised funds for St. Louis, Mo., from $7 million in 2005 to $9.2 million this year.

The city of 350,000 is most famous for its arch, the tallest national monument in the country, which draws more than 4 million visitors a year. The metropolitan area is also home to a major public transportation system that includes light rail and averages some 46 million passengers a year.

Sam Simon, St. Louis public safety director, said the city will use its DHS grant to bolster security and surveillance for its MetroLink transportation system, as well as planning for evacuation routes in the event of a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.

Simon told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that while St. Louis may not rank at the top of the nation's risk list, the city has "quite a bit of assets and critical infrastructure . . . from chemical plants to industrial sites" that need extra protection.

A thousand miles south, city officials in Orlando are glad to be back on the DHS grant list again after being dropped in 2005. Chief Rickey Ricks of the Orange County Sheriff's Department says when DHS dropped Orlando last year, city officials went to Washington to "point out some of the flaws in their formula for assessing risk."

The formula's major flaw, Ricks says, was that it counted only permanent residents, not tourists. For Florida, that's a staggering gap. The 2005 residential population of central Florida was 1.6 million, according to Ricks. The number of tourists who flowed through the region during the same period was 45 million.

Protecting those additional millions is an enormous task, Florida officials told DHS. The 2002 bombing at a popular tourist spot in Bali, Indonesia, Ricks says, increased Florida officials' sense of urgency to protect the state's high-trafficked tourist locales.

DHS listened and put Orlando back on the funding grid this year with a $9.4 million grant. Ricks says the city will use the funds to facilitate communications and training for a six-county area, and will also bolster infrastructure defense and first response services.

Communications improvements loom large in Kentucky officials' plans for their $8.5 million grant from DHS. Jason Keller, spokesman for the state's homeland security office, says Louisville will use the entire grant for a communications system to connect law enforcement officials in the newly consolidated city and county governments.

Nearly a million people live in the region covered by Louisville's grant, Keller says, and the communications system will help law enforcement protect major interests: the UPS world headquarters, a major transportation thoroughfare, and a series of major dams along the Ohio River. Keller says Louisville has used DHS money efficiently, and makes no apology for pursuing a grant: "It's absolutely vital."

Terrorism expert Steven Emerson says he thinks most DHS resources should be concentrated in the northeast corridor, where terrorist attacks have happened before, but he also concedes: "Anything is a target." Terrorists may pick a mid-size city next, and it's impossible to know the pecking order. "Terrorism is very unpredictable . . . there's no formula that can protect people," he said.

DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen told WORLD that the department still considers New York City and Washington, D.C., the top terrorist targets in the nation, but also said DHS wants to pay attention to threats across the country: "There's always the potential of home-grown terrorism in cities in middle America, and you need to be prepared for those, too."

Secretary Chertoff put it more bluntly: "For those who are skeptical about whether it makes sense to put any money in the heartland . . . I have two words to say to you: Oklahoma City."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.