It is not often that a city has its very own counter-terrorist force. But since the attacks of September 11th 2001,New York has felt uniquely vulnerableand uniquely entitled to special protection. In a vivid and thought-provoking book about the years since the twin towers collapsed,Christopher Dickey analyses how the New York Police Department (NYPD) counter-terrorism division has made itself one of the best in the business.
This did not happen easily or without resistance. The NYPDs commissioner,Ray Kelly,a former marine,and his intelligence chief,David Cohen,who had worked for the CIA,faced considerable opposition in building their team. The principal aim was to use human intelligence to prevent future attacks. To achieve that they had to gather accurate and detailed information about al-Qaeda and other groups,and learn from the attacks they launched overseas. Never mind that this irritated the FBI and the CIAthe three-letter guys,as Mr Dickey calls themwho tended to regard the NYPD as some kind of Johnny-come-lately muscling in on their turf.
Mr Dickey ends up admiring Mr Kelly and Mr Cohen for creating a counter-terror organisation which many now regard as among the most energetic. They fought for and won the right to station people overseasin London,Tel Aviv and as far off as Singaporeto provide first-hand information-gathering from useful places. And their most important achievement,in Mr Dickeys estimation,is to have turned New Yorks multicultural diversity to their advantage,building up a team of more than 600 linguists fluent in some 50 languages and dialects. In 2007 NYPD analysts published a 90-page booklet,Radicalization in the West,seeking to pass on what they had learnt about the home-grown threat in Europe and America.
A scheme to attack a busy New York subway station was foiled just two days before the Republican convention in 2004 when,thanks to an informant,Mr Kelly was able to arrest the Muslim plotters. The group was clearly incompetent but,as Mr Dickey points out,motley conspirators could be dangerous,even when some were morons.
Securing the City is a gritty,down-to-earth work; a very American book about a very American city. Mr Dickey accompanies cops on the beat,rides in their helicopters and describes in detail their gizmos and their crime labs. He delights in a tough-guy language that owes as much to Mickey Spillane as to Raymond Chandler. So the general reader can enjoy a book that has the pace and drama of a thriller,and for the specialist interested in questions such as how to defend a city of nearly 8.5m people,or what turns young Muslims into suicide-bombers,there is much to ponder.
As the Middle East editor of Newsweek,Mr Dickey is not only one of Americas most knowledgeable commentators on the area,he was writing about Osama bin Laden for almost a decade before the attacks on the twin towers. He adds fascinating new detail and asks some troubling questions. What was learnt from waterboarding senior al-Qaeda captives such as Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad? Where do you draw the line between protecting security and abusing human rights? What do we know now about the Madrid and London bombingsand the important question of whether the bombers acted alone or with help from al-Qaeda? Whereas the Spanish attacks seem to have been home-grown,the evidence suggests to Mr Dickey that the leader of the London bombers,Mohammad Sidique Khan,was an active al-Qaeda recruiter.
The book shifts constantly from the local to the global and back. It is sharply critical of the dangerously ill-conceived,mismanaged,and highly militarised global war on terror, and sees the success of the NYPDs counter-terrorism programme as offering an alternative approach. Mr Dickey worries about the depth of Muslim anger which drives the violence,and to which America has been largely oblivious. But he also draws comfort from the resilience of New Yorkers,whose faith in the American dream may well turn out to be their strongest line of defence.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009