SAN ANTONIO – Authorities vowed to stay ahead of the game for Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California, to ward off any potential threat to one of the biggest sporting events of the year.
According to Voice of America, a record number of security personnel from across the country were at the game. U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said the large scale of the event makes it a high-profile target for many terrorist groups.
Federal officials said they’d rather stop a plot before it happens rather than react to it. They said monitoring terror groups may be one thing because of the number of people involved in any given scheme, but so-called lone wolves are harder to track.
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Christopher Combs, special agent in charge of the San Antonio FBI field office, said what’s concerning is what the authorities don’t know.
“What’s important is not normal behavior,” he said. “This is Texas. We all have guns. We all love to go hunting. But if your neighbor all of a sudden has never been to a firing range, and he’s going three times a week and has never owned a gun and now he owns 20 of them, that’s concerning. That’s a change in behavior that’s abnormal.”
Combs said it is possible to not only stop an attack from happening, it’s also possible to turn a person away from radicalization.
“Many times, when you look at the active shooter problem, or you look at the terrorism problem, and you see people that are on this road to violence, on this road to radicalization, there’s a lot of opportunity to save them, and that’s working together,” Combs said. “That’s the FBI working with the local police, working with the community, school district, the religious figures. We can get in on that early and get them off that road to radicalization or off that road to violence.”
Among the FBI’s key strategies for reaching a person who may be on the road to radicalization is to reach out to communities to build trust.
One of the newest initiatives recently launched by the FBI is called, “Don’t Be a Puppet.” Recognizing that young people are a major recruiting demographic, the FBI created an interactive website to teach teens “how to recognize violent extremist messaging and become more resistant to self-radicalization and possible recruitment.”
Among the local and regional agencies the FBI works with are the Bexar County Sheriff's Office, which is a part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the Department of Public Safety, the Laredo Police Department, and the San Antonio Police Department.
San Antonio police Sgt. Jesse Salame said there is a challenge in tracking individuals who seek to act alone.
But the public plays a big role in helping any law enforcement agency stay one step ahead of a potential plot.
“The fact that they act alone and often don’t publicly announce their beliefs or allegiances to any other individuals or ideologies makes them hard to find,” Salame said.
SAPD receives tips that allow them to track individuals, Salame said. Combs told reporters at a press conference just prior to the holidays that citizens reporting suspicious activity to the San Antonio field office has increased by three times since October. But so far, there have been no credible threats.
Still, the increase in calls has agents working around the clock to investigate all leads.
Although there is no “typical profile” of a person who may become radicalized, their motives may be distinct. According to Combs, the perpetrators are willing to act alone.
San Antonio police remain vigilant about protecting the Alamo City.
“San Antonio is a safe city but we must not be lulled into thinking that nothing bad can ever happen here,” Sgt. Salame said. “All citizens should call police if they notice any suspicious activity.”
From the top down
A White House strategy called “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States” puts the federal government’s role in fighting radicalized people into perspective. The program’s goals include increasing the sharing of information among departments across the United States.
It may help local law enforcement personnel connect to their diverse communities in a way they couldn’t before. A case study from Minnesota revealed that agents working directly with the community allowed them to stop several young men from traveling overseas to join terrorist organizations.
Officials said that engaged communities like this will trust law enforcement to the point that they will come forward if they discover someone is becoming radicalized.
The trigger point for a person who is experiencing changes in beliefs or feelings is the need for activism, according to the FBI.
Dr. Walter Wilson, political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said it’s the irrational commitment to some ideological objective that fuels the motivation for radicalization.
“(It’s someone) that sees absolute good or bad in a certain set of beliefs and maintains a non-pragmatic view about the world,” Wilson said.
Their views are more idealistic than realistic; their world is black and white instead of gray, he said. Those unrealistic views of the world lead them to believe that society should conform to their views.
Wilson said a huge shift in radicalization today is the technological advances that have raised the profiles of people deemed radical. Groups like ISIS have become expert recruiters using social media to attract vulnerable people into the fold.
Radicalization can take on a more political than religious context, too.
Politically, this year’s crop of presidential candidates can be viewed as believers of radical ideas.
“We might say Bernie Sanders is the most radical of the candidates in that he proposes policies that would bring about the greatest changes in the direction of equality, economic equality, social equality and so on,” Wilson said.
On the other end, Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, and businessman Donald Trump have been branded as radicals, too.
But Wilson said there’s a problem with this classification.
“I think we use the term radical kind of sloppily when we describe anybody who departs from the mainstream that way,” he said. “But that’s kind of how it’s commonly used these days to describe terrorists and other religious fundamentalists.”