Expert talks terror

Beardsworth

Randy Beardsworth talks about national security, violent extremism and terror cells as easily as other people talk about what to have for breakfast.

Beardsworth, former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, addressed about 120 people Tuesday evening at Blue Mountain Community College. His topic was a complex and consequential one - how to keep the United States safe from violent Islamic extremism.

If anyone might have an idea on the subject, it is Beardsworth. The former Coast Guard captain helped bring Homeland Security to life as part of the transition team. As director of operations, he oversaw four agencies - customs and border protection, immigration and customs enforcement, transportation security agency and the federal law enforcement training center.

Keeping Americans safe from security threats isn't as straightforward as it was mere decades ago, Beardsworth said. The world then was bipolar and the enemy easier to identify.

"During the Cold War, it was very simple - the communists were the bad guys," he said. "You could divide the world and count the countries."

Then came 9/11.

"The terrorist attacks of 9/11 - we did not know the return address," Beardsworth said. "We struggled, asking, how do we attribute this?"

The attacks triggered a huge paradigm shift.

"Since 9/11, we've developed all sorts of programs to deal with this," Beardsworth said.

Homeland Security now monitors foreign students and compares foreign travelers' fingerprints with those of known terrorists. The FBI's terrorist screening database consolidates information about terrorists around the world.

The United States stepped up border and port security. In 2006, Beardsworth said, border patrol thwarted about 800,000 attempts to cross the southern border, finding about 100 individuals from Saudi Arabia or other terrorist countries of interest. Since then, attempted border crossings have waned.

The U.S. scrutinizes a percentage of containers coming into this country's ports - screening for risk, scanning for nuclear materials or inspecting directly.

Homeland Security even has its collective eye on radicalization inside U.S. prisons.

Beardsworth said he feels confident the United States has gotten good at thwarting terrorism within its borders.

"It's hard to hide - you leave a footprint if you're engaged in terrorist planning," he said. "The game is to find those footprints and stop things in a timely manner."

America's approach is evolving from the "War on Terror" of which he is not a big fan.

"The War on Terror is an inflammatory approach that adds oxygen to the fire," he said.

Since the early days just after 9/11, combating terrorism has gotten more complex.

"In the early days, it was Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida," Beardsworth said. "There was a definite pattern we were looking for."

These days, the Internet has fuzzed things up a bit with extremist Web sites and the ability to influence and communicate through cyberspace.

With the constant specter of terrorism a constant threat, Beardsworth lauded the United States for remaining a place where minority rights are protected.

"We haven't painted the Muslim community with a broad brush," he said. "We realize that not everyone who wears a head scarf is a terrorist."

"We need to be vigilant," he added, "not vigilantes."

U.S. strategy seems to be working. For the most part, since 9/11, he said, the United States has remained relatively terrorism-free.

"We've had remarkably few instances of terrorist cells in the United States," he said.

Most of the cells uncovered by investigators turned out to be terrorist wannabes without the means to launch an effect attack.

That doesn't mean U.S. efforts will subside, Beardsworth said, especially toward nuclear and biological threats.

While the likelihood of attack is extremely small, he said, "the consequences are extremely high."

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