Tuesday, July 8, 2014











(Tuesday July 8, 2014, Upper Manhattan, NYC) Minutes after midnight yesterday an NYPD Aviation Unit helicopter encountered a pair of “drones” while conducting regular aerial patrol operations near the George Washington Bridge (GWB).  According to the NYPD pilots report they were forced to make an evasive maneuver to avoid the small unmanned crafts.  The NYPD helicopter crew was able to provide Patrol Officers on the ground as to where the devices had landed.  Two men were arrested here in Inwood on the uppermost tip of Manhattan after they were discovered with the pilotless aircrafts and radio control devices in their possession.


Time and again we have here reported on security breaches occurring at high-value terrorist targets in New York City and beyond. Just as such lapses in security procedures and policies have been duly noted by the appropriate authorities, there should be no doubt that these  events have been as scrutinized by those bent on bringing asymmetrical terrorist tactics to their war against the United States itself and our overseas interests. 

Just days before this early morning drone incident near the GBW, new heightened security measures had been announced.  Intelligence officials here and abroad were cautioning that bombs undetectable by current technology and screening practices may be concealed in small digital devices including laptops, tablets and cell phones.  Our adversaries in this fight against terrorist have proven their abilities to adapt and be nimble enough to counter some of  our most sophisticated technology, armament, and tactics.  Terrorists have been honing their ruthlessly brutal tactics on the killing fields of Afghanistan and Iraq and many have become particularly adept in constructing Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s) and in urban warfare.  As their sphere of influence has broadened significantly since September 11, 2001 there has been an alarming proliferation of terrorist groups and alliances and none of them have trouble recruiting new members.  In a perverse twist the Laws of Unintended Consequences has seen the ranks of terrorist groups swell even as our high powered military engaged them in fierce, unforgiving guerilla warfare that required some serious realignment of our military’s doctrine over the course of our protracted engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. 


We have also widely reported on the importance and value of the lowest common denominator, that being vigilance.  Constant rigorous vigilance enlists virtually every citizen to be on the alert when something or someone looks “out of place” near our jobs sites, during our daily commutes and in proximity to the locations we are most intimately familiar with such as our blocks and neighborhoods.   NYPD’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign has proven effective and people riding the MTA buses and subways are much more likely to report an unattended item such as a case, knapsack or shopping bag than they were prior to the rollout of this campaign in 2011. 


Flying small radio controlled aircraft has long been a staple of the hobbyist community.  With the advent of smaller, lighter electronics and more sophisticated high resolution digital cameras, radio controlled aircrafts are being flown by a greater number of people than ever before.  In a real sense the pilotless aircraft currently employed by the United States Military and Intelligence communities known as drones, are products of the evolutionary process of pilotless flight. They are the next leap forward in technology and the use of highly advanced air power during military engagements. This generation of drones can be outfitted with a wide range of armament and surveillance platforms.  The military drones can fire rockets and missiles, can fly and hover at impressive altitudes while providing “real time” actual intelligence.  More controversially, the use of drones is not always as precise as it is touted to be.  Drones deployed over combat areas remove the pilot from harm’s way and there have been reported instances when drone attacks have been widely off target and, in reports, claim to have been responsible for the loss of innocent civilians.  In many ways the sophistication of the drones and their weaponry as well as having the “pilot” safely ensconced at a computer station half a world away, have seen the overall incidents of “collateral damage” drastically decreased when compared to conventional air tactics.


There have been several reported security breaches at the three major New York City Metropolitan Area airports since 9/11/01.  Investigative reporters have been able to gain entry to the fuel storage area at JKF approaching the airport via a small watercraft.  Others have gone unchallenged as they sought and gained entry into restricted areas at Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey.  The most valuable and dangerous airspace for any aircraft  is in the “transition zones” from approximately 2,500 feet above the tarmac when the planes are approaching to land or gearing up for takeoff.  With the volume of air traffic in the NYC Metro airspace, a radio controlled aircraft, even if unequipped with any explosive device could still cause havoc.  A large flock of seagulls brought down US Airways Flight 1549 on January 15, 2009 forcing veteran Pilot Sully Sullenberger to make an emergency landing of the Airbus A320-200 in the middle of the Hudson River.  A single radio controlled craft could be deliberately aimed at an engine during takeoff or landing potentially resulting in mass casualties and fatalities.  We have even seen the airspace over the White House and central area of Washington, DC compromised on several occasions in the last decade.  These incidences expose faults and flaws to our national security and have certainly not gone unnoticed by our adversaries. Given the magnitude of the ineptitude of the Federal Aviation Administration (F.A.A.), and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) on the morning of September 11, 2001, one would think that the airspace over such vital locations would be far more robust and responsive than it has been at times recently.

As radio control flight enthusiasts defend their activities as a simple hobby, akin to flying a kite, others beg to differ.  Typically, radio controlled aircraft had a top ceiling between 250 and 300 feet.  Now there are models constructed of alloys, carbon-fiber and PCV that are capable of attaining altitudes over 5000 feet. Some of the more advanced and dedicated enthusiasts report their crafts reaching altitudes above 10,000 feet. Granted, the overwhelming majority of radio control flight operators are in fact just hobbyists using this latest generation of materials and electronics for benign purposes.  But an event such as that which occurred at low altitude in close proximity to one of New York City’s most iconic bridges could inspire more malevolent types to undertake different kind of “missions”.

Since the attacks on 9/11/01 were airborne with fully fuelled passenger jets used as guided missiles one would think that the NYC Metro airports would be the most cognizant of the security of the airspace they control.  True, a small radio controlled device that that used yesterday is too small and typically flies far too low to have a radar “signature”, it is disconcerting to imagine the possibilities that commercial jets may encounter at low altitude on the final approach or on the liftoff.  These two phases are the most vulnerable for any aircraft but one need spend too much energy realizing what a bomb or explosive-laden radio controlled craft could do to such a low flying large aircraft.


This morning’s edition of the New York Daily News on-line featured a long piece titled, “Beyond the Smoking Guns: Inside NYPD’s 21st Century Arsenal”,  detailing some of the ultrahigh tech hardware and software currently in use by the NYPD assisting in their historical mission as the City’s Law Enforcement Agency and in its far more shadowy mission regarding Anti - and Counter Terrorism as well as in Intelligence.  NYPD’s efforts and innovation now serve as models for cities around the world.  Everything from top shelf surveillance cameras, facial recognition software, advanced ballistics and other innovative technologies some that were developed under former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly who early on identified our City’s needs as far as Intelligence gathering, analysis and threat assessments are concerned. 

While NYC, all our waterways, bridges, transportation networks, infrastructure and harbors are under the jurisdiction of NYPD, the United States Coast Guard, the Port Authority of NY/NJ, and MTA Police work in cooperation with each other in an array of unified operations that provide the level of safety and security our City demands and circumstances dictate.  That is why it is so ironic that two men from Inwood were able to navigate their radio controlled airplanes so close to the GWB and NYPD Aviation Unit’s copter.  An historical hallmark of terrorists tactically is the use of sometimes simple, crude almost primitive devices. Those who manufacture IED’s and bombs have gotten increasingly more capable over the last 12 years.  The complexity, efficacy and lethality of the bomb making skills of the insurgency in Iraq increased over the years we were engaged there and much of that bomb making knowledge and technical acumen has been shared between different terrorist factions throughout the world.  Iraq provided a convenient proving ground for IED manufacturers.  Terrorists intent to do us harm continue to refine their devices to better conceal them and construct them with elements that standard screening technology and processes at airports are unable to detect. 


We have learned a great deal about our threats over the last 13 years but all of that learning has been reactive.  Our Military, Intelligence, Counter Terrorism and Law Enforcement communities have each had to “adapt on the fly” as one retired Department of Defense Intelligence analyst recently noted.  “They (terrorists) are always forward thinking, always looking for new ways to create the type of destruction and havoc they seek”, he continued.  His sentiments have been echoed by others in the corridors of power in the CIA, DOD, FBI as well as in many foreign countries intelligence services including Interpol and Scotland Yard, that partner with us in our broader national security efforts.  Still, despite all our combined resources and efforts terrorists will always have something of an advantage.  As it has been said since the earliest days of our “War on Terror”, the terrorists only need to be right one time; we, on the other hand, have to be right 100% of the time.  It is such a lopsided equation that it has steered some to promote policies and procedures that take the path of least resistance.  A new measure of “stovepipe thinking”, that narrow focus that came to light after 9/11/01 when we were made aware of the inertia, ineptitude, and inefficiency among our sprawling federal intelligence  apparatus seems to be creeping in to some areas of the vast bureaucracy.  Such return to the pre – 9/11 mindset should not be tolerated and it ought to be countered at every turn.  

While we here in New York City can remain confident that NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and his Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence John Miller have largely left the outstanding handiwork of former Commissioner Ray Kelly’s Intelligence and Counter Terrorism Divisions intact, we are ever mindful of what our City represents to terrorists.  Conducting another successful attack in NYC is their Holy Grail; their ultimate goal, their preeminent target.

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