Los Angeles law enforcement officials have quietly begun preparing for possible suicide bomber attacks, laying plans to confront a threat that experts say could be psychologically devastating.
A detective from the LAPD bomb squad and two Los Angeles County sheriff's experts in explosives and arson visited Israel in late April for 10 days of training from the Israeli national police.
In turn, these officers have conducted 10 briefings for local law enforcement officials on what they learned about preventing--and handling--attacks by terrorists who wade into crowds with explosives strapped to their bodies.
"We learned enough during our trip to do some preplanning here, so we'll be prepared," said Sheriff's Deputy Mark Seibel, one of the three who went for training. "We won't have to backpedal or find out what to do if this happens."
The FBI's Los Angeles office, meanwhile, sponsored a recent briefing for local bomb technicians, said spokeswoman Laura Bosley.
Law enforcement officials are reluctant to describe specifically the measures they would take if suicide bombers struck.
But those who went to Israel for training said among the lessons they learned is the importance of keeping such bombers outside of confined areas, such as movie theaters, malls or amusement parks, in the interest of holding casualties down. The Israeli experts also stressed the value of cleaning up quickly and resuming the normal flow of life as fast as possible if a bombing happens.
"We need to be ready," said Ralph Morten, a 24-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department who organized the mission to Israel and has been studying suicide bombings since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Several terrorism experts--though not all--agree that Los Angeles is, in the words of L. Paul Bremer, an ambassador for counter-terrorism efforts during the Reagan administration, a "tempting target" for suicide bombers.
All agree that L.A. law enforcement agencies are correct in training themselves for the eventuality.
Ronald Iden, assistant FBI director in charge of the Los Angeles office, "supports those efforts and encourages them as prudent," Bosley said. "It's a potential reality."
Brian Levin, a terrorism expert at Cal State San Bernardino, agreed. "I think we are going to see suicide bombings here in the U.S., and Los Angeles is at the top of the list as a possible target," not only because of its size, but because of its high Jewish population, he said.
"You need not have a sustained course of bombings to have a profound effect on the American psyche," said Levin, director of the university's Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
Portland, Ore., Police Chief Mark Kroeker, a former LAPD deputy chief and former security monitor for the U.S. and the United Nations in Israel and Bosnia, said the possibility of suicide bombings in Los Angeles "is very strong. With L.A.'s very representative ethnic population, the Middle Eastern tensions are replicated in the L.A. area. To prepare for the possibility in all of our big cities is, I think, very, very wise."
But David Charters, director of the Center of Conflict Studies at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, sounded a note of caution about such warnings.
While many angry Palestinians have been willing to blow themselves up in Israel, "the Palestinian minority in the U.S. don't seem to be inclined to violence," he said.
The Al Qaeda terrorist network faces steep challenges in finding would-be martyrs willing and able to enter the United States after security precautions taken since Sept. 11, Charters said.
"I'm not saying there isn't a threat or a capability there, but my sense is it's probably limited," he said. "I'm not prepared to dismiss the notion that those attacks could occur, but at the same time I think it should not be overestimated."
Morten and Seibel, who went to Israel along with Sheriff's Deputy Heidi Clark, declined to talk in detail about what preparations are being made. But they said they hoped that in going public in a limited way they would increase public vigilance in Los Angeles against any suicide bombing attempt.
Without outlining a specific set of warning signs, they hope people will be alert for "anything out of place, odd or unusual," Morten said. "We all have to take a very proactive stance toward interdicting bombers. Notice them early, keep them outside and save lives, that's what the Israelis told us.... Everyone's eyes and ears are important. Don't hesitate to call 911 if you see anything suspicious. Everyone has to be alert."
Seibel said one of the things that most impressed him in Israel was how determined the authorities were to share information about the bombings there. "It was incredible," he said. "When a bomb goes off, they make sure everyone knows everything about it, down to the lowest level."
The Los Angeles officers said they went to a Jerusalem mall on three occasions to observe preventive techniques, how the Israelis identify suspicious vehicles or people and keep them from entering the mall area, and how they identify suspicious people inside. "After your vehicle is inspected, then you go through a magnetometer to get into the mall," Seibel said.
Morten noted that the LAPD bomb squad handled more than 1,000 calls in 2001, a big step up from the year before. But, he said, last year the Tel Aviv bomb squad handled 56,000 calls.