Tuesday, December 20, 2016

How ‘First Observers’ could help thwart another ‘Berlin’ attack

In the wake of a deadly terrorist attack in which a commercial truck plowed into a Christmas market in Berlin, officials with the Transportation Security Administration have issued a warning encouraging industry partners to practice “continued vigilance and timely reporting of suspicious incidents” during the holiday season.

The unclassified bulletin follows the deadly attack in Germany’s capitol that injured dozens and left 12 people dead.

The TSA bulletin states that the agency is unaware of any imminent plots against surface transportation in the U.S.

“The risk posed by homegrown violent extremists is increased by their ability to plan and initiate attacks with lower probability of detection,” the bulletin states.

Increasing the probability of detecting a potential terror attack is the aim of TSA’s First Observer Plus program, a voluntary training program that provides truckers and other transportation professionals with training on effectively assessing and reporting suspicious individuals, vehicles, packages and objects. OOIDA is a subcontractor for the program.

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for Monday’s attack in Berlin, although no suspects are in custody after German authorities released one man – a Pakistani asylum seeker who was arrested shortly after the attack – because of lack of evidence. More details are being reported on the man found dead in the passenger seat of the Scania truck which crashed into a Christmas market. German authorities believe he was the registered driver of the tractor-trailer and was a likely victim of terrorism.

Numerous news outlets have stated that the tractor-trailer with Polish license plates and laden with steel beams or rods jumped a sidewalk and careened into the market at an estimated 40 mph. Witnesses say a man jumped from the driver’s seat and fled.

Doug Morris, OOIDA security operations director, and outgoing chair of TSA’s Highway and Motor Carrier Coordinating Council, says the First Observer Plus program and hotline have been responsible for helping to thwart instances of terrorist activity in the U.S., including an attempted bus hijacking at Super Bowl XLV.

“Truckers in particular have the ability to play a key role in our national security through a program like First Observer Plus,” Morris said. “The training they receive helps them with the expertise needed to recognize suspicious activity which may be related to terrorism. It guides them in what they observe and provides them with a method for reporting those observations. The information they provide can help identify potential threats that can be acted upon to save lives.”

It’s not been determined if and how the lorry driver in the Berlin attack was hijacked and murdered, but the BBC and other international news agencies are reporting that “the man found inside the truck had died of gunshot and stab wounds.” He was in the passenger seat, but authorities believe he was the actual registered operator of the truck. Reports indicate a suspect jumped out of the driver’s side of the truck and fled the scene following the crash. The suspect or suspects remain at large.

The New York Times reported this morning that the truck is owned by a Polish trucking company. Ariel Zurawski, the head of the company, told a Polish TV channel that the dead man was his cousin Lukasz. He was 37 and married with a child.

Focus, a leading German news website and magazine, wrote that the family of the truck driver was “shaken” and his father had to be admitted to the hospital in shock.

Zurawski told police his cousin was hauling a load of construction materials to a receiver in Berlin from a shipper in Italy.

Zurawski identified his cousin by police photos and reportedly said he “simply could not have done this.”

The German news website Focus interviewed Zurawski and reported that he said “it was certain he fought” from the photos of his “swollen and bloody face.” He had not been able to contact his cousin “since about 16:00 (4 p.m.) on Monday.”

Focus reports the truck was due to be unloaded on Tuesday but the driver was early and tried to deliver Monday. They couldn’t unload him, so the driver parked nearby. According to Focus’ story, Zurawski said his cousin was “depressed” over waiting and was hoping for “good will” from the German company as he wanted to go home. Other European news sources that report analysis of the truck’s GPS data showed the engine was turned on and off several times Monday afternoon and at 19:34 (7:34 p.m.) it began to roll.

Morris said the aim of programs like First Observer Plus is to encourage those on the front lines of a potential terror attack to be vigilant, and “if you see something, say something.”

For more information about First Observer Plus, click here. To report suspicious activity via the First Observer Plus hotline, call 866-615-5150.