Area first responders prepare for a ‘complex’ terror attack

WASHINGTON — A full-scale regional counter-terrorism exercise set for Wednesday is designed to prepare for the possibility of a complex coordinated terror attack in the National Capital Region, and is driven in part by concern over similar terror attacks in Europe.

A complex, coordinated attack is one that involves multiple events. WMATA Police Chief Ron Pavlik explained that the perpetrators “launch an initial attack, wait a short period of time and attack another venue, and a short period of time later, they attack another venue.”

That was the method used in the Paris attacks in November 2015, in which 130 people were killed. A similar but smaller-scale attack happened just weeks ago in London.

Organized by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), the exercise will let law enforcement personnel and other first responders from across the area test their abilities to communicate and respond to multiple, rapidly developing terror attacks that may be different in scale and severity.

Pavlik, also chair of the Council of Governments’ police chiefs committee, said they are paying close attention to terror attacks abroad.

“We want to look at lessons learned overseas and what’s going in Europe, and vehicle-borne type attacks. That’s something we’re seeing overseas, and we want to know how that would play out here in the United States,” said Pavlik.

There have been four significant vehicle attacks in Europe in the last nine months. Last Bastille Day – July 14, 2016, 86 people were killed in Nice, France, when an ISIS-inspired extremist plowed a large truck into a crowd of revelers. A dozen people were killed in a similar fashion during an attack on a Christmas market in Berlin last December. Five people were killed in London’s “Westminster” attacks on March 22 and on April 7 an attacker drove a truck into pedestrians at the Ahlens department store in central Stockholm, killing at least three.

Scott Boggs, managing director of homeland security and public safety at the Council of Governments, said it’s impossible to prepare for a specific threat in this era.

“Unfortunately, the threat picture changes with every incident that happens around the world, and we can’t [so much] focus on a single threat, as much as try to prepare to the degree we can [what] we learn about known threats through intelligence,” said Boggs.

The regional exercise will be staged at six sites in the District of Columbia, suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia, and will involve hundreds of police, fire, and emergency medical service personnel and volunteer actors.

The exercises will be held in neighborhoods in Northeast and Southeast D.C., Prince George’s County and Arlington and Fairfax counties.  Residents in those neighborhoods will be notified ahead of time to expect the exercise.

Pavlik said the event will be a success if “no one gets hurt, because this is a large-scale event with a lot of moving parts, and if all the agencies are able establish a unified command where all they are able to speak to each other and are able to realistically send the assets to the right places at the right times.”

Authorities say there is no intelligence suggesting any attack is imminent and there is no reason for residents to be alarmed because “the exercise will occur in a controlled environment.”

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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