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Counter-terrorism group keeps close eye on houses of worship

You might think that any of the glitzy Strip casinos, McCarran International Airport, Hoover Dam, or major overpasses such as the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, which spreads across the Colorado River and bypasses the dam, would stand out as being among the most vulnerable sites for a terrorist attack. But there’s another sector that may be even more susceptible: houses of worship.

Churches, synagogues, temples and mosques, especially in the quieter reaches of Las Vegas, and particularly in Summerlin and its environs, are of just as much concern to law enforcement officials as the highly visible sectors. In some cases, these institutions may be even more vulnerable.

For that reason, there is a heavily focused unit known as the Southern Nevada Counter-Terrorism Center (SNCTC), made up largely of specially trained members of the Metropolitan Police Department, with support from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other law enforcement agencies.

“Basically, our job is to educate people,” said Sgt. Ivan Chatman, a 17-year Metro veteran and a leading member of an SNCTC fusion liaison team, which helps make the public aware of all aspects of terrorism.

“We’re especially involved in outreach programs for religious institutions, schools and community groups,” Chatman added, referring to a visual presentation that deals with every aspect of terrorism. The fusion team is led by Metro Capt. Roger Brooks.

Chatman and Metro officer Meghan Kraut gave such a presentation recently before a sizeable audience at a religious institution in Summerlin that they and congregants felt needed a more secure system of protection against the possibility of a terrorist attack.

“We’re here to help religious facilities like this to develop means for improved security and protection. But we also have an investigative arm that’s available 24/7 if there are any indications of a terrorist threat,” said Chatman, who served in Metro’s Internal Affairs Bureau prior to joining the SNCTC team last October.

Using a slide presentation, Kraut tracked activities of the international world of terrorism, with an emphasis on ISIS and its potential reach into Las Vegas.

“We have a great relationship with all houses of worship in Las Vegas, and in particular, with Jewish and Islamic institutions, where the threat could be greater,” she said.

Kraut pointed out that terrorists know no boundaries in seeking to do damage, “especially to government facilities like airports and bridges” and places that attract tourists, such as casinos.

“We get calls all the time relating to what people observe in casinos,” she added, referring to 702-828-7777, a particular phone number SNCTC encourages the public to call at any hour if there are any indications of suspicious activity.

But the potential for using religious institutions as terrorist targets has become a growing concern, especially by the Department of Homeland Security. This has been evidenced by arson and murder attacks in recent years at a number of houses of worship across the country, including a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis.; a Macedonia church in Springfield, Mass., and a Chabad synagogue in Miami Beach, Fla.

“Religious facilities are open, welcoming places with easy physical access,” said a Homeland Security pamphlet distributed by the SNCTC team. “They are often targeted by terrorists to strike fear in the hearts of believers and destabilize the community … By identifying yourself with a religious institution or house of worship, you may become such a target.”

Chatman pointed to seven basic “signs of terrorism” that are used to help define a threat. He said the SNCTC encourages people to call its special phone number if they observe suspicious activity involving:

  • Abnormal surveillance, especially at bus, train and taxi stations.
  • Extensive information-gathering, and in particular unusual questions about major religious events and membership qualifications.
  • Possible security breaches, such as observation of law enforcement patrol patterns.
  • Acquisition of certain supplies, such as explosives and law enforcement uniforms, and talk of violent hatred of specific religious or ethnic groups.
  • Persons and items that do not belong in a workplace, including unattended bags, packages or vehicles.
  • Strange activity, such as the movement of people or groups in a dry run.
  • People dressed suspiciously, loitering vehicles and unexplained deliveries.

Herb Jaffe was an op-ed columnist and investigative reporter for most of his 39 years at the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. His most recent novel, “Double Play,” is now available. Contact him at hjaffe@cox.net.

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