Report Anything Suspicious To Help Fight Terrorism

Report Anything Suspicious To Help Fight Terrorism

Residents are vital in keeping the community safe.

— In these uncertain and occasionally volatile times, a terror attack could

“We know there are people here who want to do us harm.”

— Det. Doug Comfort, Fairfax County Police Department

potentially happen anytime, anywhere. But the Fairfax County Police Department has its own Counterterrorism Unit, and one of its members, Det. Doug Comfort, discussed it with the Sully District Police Station’s Citizens Advisory Committee.

One of the darkest days in American history was 9/11 and, said Comfort, “Our unit went up on Sept. 12, 2001. We had to develop new goals and programs and learn how to make them work in the community.”

Then in 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice asked him to write a counterterrorism program and train 300 instructors from throughout the nation in it. So Comfort did just that.

“We know there are people here who want to do us harm,” he said. “The only way we can counter it is with you, the public. The slogan, ‘See something, say something,’ was developed, but we didn’t tell people what to look for and how to tell us about it.” Now, though, officials are being more specific.

Currently in his 42nd year in law-enforcement, Comfort has a wealth of experience in keeping the community safe. Still, he says, “Counterterrorism and terrorism change on a minute-to-minute basis.”

“Things that are suspicious to you can’t be defined,” he said. “But they are things that don’t look right to you in your daily life. So when that happens, we

We need information about people who act suspiciously, including details about their vehicles and their locations.”

— Det. Doug Comfort, Fairfax County Police Department

want you to report everything. Pick up the phone and call us because – in the first eight months that our unit was up, we identified eight out of 12 of the 9/11 hijackers living in Fairfax County.”

However, Comfort stressed that his unit still has to operate within the confines of the law. “We can’t follow a U.S. person for no reason,” he said. “We need information about people who act suspiciously, including details about their vehicles and their locations.”

Four pieces of information are especially critical: People’s names, phone numbers, license-plate numbers and addresses. “With those things, we can do a lot of work,” said Comfort. “Even something like someone not getting their car inspected, and having an outdated sticker, could be important – because ISIS wouldn’t know to do that.”

Sometimes, he said, “A little piece of information from a citizen can provide us with the last bit of information we need to solve a particular puzzle. So your help is extremely important. Our proximity to Washington, D.C., and our many government buildings make us an attractive target. And since 9/11, we’ve been able to prevent some things from happening here because of information from the community.”

Comfort then showed a video taken at a hotel and illustrating some seemingly ordinary people and actions that were anything but. “Terrorists and criminals try to blend in and look like everybody else,” he said. “But hotel clerks should look for and be aware of suspicious behavior, such as someone paying for their room in cash and having no credit cards.”

Red flags should also be triggered by a person who abandons a vehicle at a hotel or leaves a bag, box or backpack somewhere inside the building. Furthermore, said Comfort, “When planning an attack, terrorists may try to access employee-only areas, such as kitchens, and steal uniforms.”

So, he said, “If you notice something suspicious, tell hotel security or the police. But don’t intervene or investigate on your own.” The video ended with the narrator advising hotel guests to “have no reservations” about telling authorities about anything they believe is amiss.

Comfort said terrorist groups also target things that deal with government, are symbolic of this country or are financial in nature. “Terrorism isn’t the act – it’s what’s projected inside of us because of it,” he said. “The act that happened in New York [and at the Pentagon] on 9/11 stays with us forever.”

But he said average citizens are critically important in possibly averting similar tragedies because “You live here and you know when something doesn’t look right. Our officers are highly trained; a Fairfax County police officer works with the Joint Terrorism Task Force full-time, and I work with them part-time and also with the Department of Justice.”

Comfort said surveillance by organizations or groups, such as Neighborhood Watch, may be both mobile and stationary. It may be done on foot or by skateboard, bike or car. And people may observe unusual behavior anywhere or anytime.

For example, he said, “If you see people go to a table in a restaurant, have water, chat and leave without eating, that’s suspicious. Or people who read a newspaper at a bus stop or Metro station, but don’t leave. Notice people dressed inappropriately for the season or doing things that aren’t normal, such as looking into a store window for an hour.”

But just observing isn’t enough, said Comfort. People need to take the next step, notify law enforcement and provide as much detail as possible. It’s crucial, he said, because, “If we can get the information, hopefully we can prevent something bad from happening.”