Less than two months ago, federal authorities arrested 17 men in Charlotte associated with the Middle East guerrilla group Hezbollah. The men were smuggling and selling cigarettes across state lines and sending the profits to fund terrorist groups.
It was a large-scale terrorist bust that occurred less than 60 miles from Catawba County.
Area law enforcement say such terrorist plots, as well as the attacks on 9/11, have forced officers to become savvy with a whole new type of security.
“Who would have thought before that a plane could be used as a weapon of mass destruction before 9/11,” said Catawba County Sheriff Coy Reid. “It has opened our mind to what to look for now.”
Reid said his office has increased counter terrorism training after 9/11. First responder, critical incident and weapons of mass destruction training are just three areas that most deputies receive instruction in, he said.
Some deputies also receive training in how to deal with suicide bombers, something Reid said the office has never had before.
“It used to be nothing to go and take pictures at the Marshall Steam Plant,” Reid said. “Now, if someone is taking pictures out there, we go and check them out.”
After 9/11, security at the Catawba County Justice Center increased immediately. While citizens were allowed to park in front of the courthouse before, the attacks on 9/11 made officials change that policy.
“We don’t let cars park there because someone can pull up and have a bomb or explosive device in their car,” Reid said.
Terrorist attacks inside Catawba County lines are possible, Reid said, which is why local police departments also train for critical incident situations.
“We have targets that terrorists would be interested in,” said Newton Police Chief Don Brown. “Even though it’s not in the city, there are targets that are close to us like the McGuire Nuclear Plant and the Marshall Steam Plant. And, of course, Charlotte being a big banking market, those are targets that we could be affected by.”
Brown said most of his officers receive mandatory counter terrorism training, something he said has become more frequent after 9/11.
“We’ve been doing counter terrorism training before 9/11,” Brown said. “Our officers are more observant and vigilant of what to look for now, though, and look for potential targets and also suspicious persons.”
Claremont Police Chief Gerald Tolbert also said security after 9/11 has increased, adding that some of his officers have completed explosives training in New Mexico through the years. He said the attacks on America 10 years ago changed life for everyone.
“We all have made changes and we question where before we wouldn’t,” Tolbert said. “Like when we check our buildings, we make sure we stagger times and look for anything unusual.”
Tolbert said counter terrorism takes help from both law enforcement and the community to be successful. He said local, or “homegrown terrorists,” can be the most dangerous.
“I would be more alert for homegrown terrorists, or someone that is disgruntled and not happy with what is going on or their life. They are more dangerous to society than the Taliban or something like that,” Tolbert said. “We all have to be vigilant and more aware of suspicious persons.”