Prospective Vigilance: Assessing Complex Coordinated Attack Preparedness Programs

Jared Goff


State and local first responders in the United States lack a common strategic approach to preparing for complex coordinated attacks (CCAs).[1] Scholarly research, analysis, and shared best practices are important pillars to help first responders become better prepared and resilient, yet these components are mostly absent from the CCA narrative. Inconsistent terminology and insufficient guidance from all levels of government and academia complicate matters, which further complicates CCA preparedness for state and local jurisdictions. For these reasons, the current domestic approach to CCAs requires further inquiry.

Since the terrorist attacks in 2001, numerous government reports have addressed preparedness, including the 2004 9/11 Commission Report and the 2003 Gilmore Commission report, which identified “a lack of clear strategic guidance from the Federal level about the definition and objectives of preparedness and how States and localities will be evaluated in meeting those objectives.”[2] The threat of a CCA and the destruction experienced in the Mumbai and Paris attacks demand that the United States get the solution to this problem right.

There are three main points to the CCA issue that have implications for state and local governments. First, the United States has not experienced a CCA like those in Mumbai or Paris; this renders the threat low probability, if high consequence, and thus low priority. Given these inferences, it is difficult to establish a national CCA policy and get first responders and public safety leaders to fully embrace, fund, and accept CCA preparedness if an attack has not occurred in the United States. Second, and perhaps as a direct consequence to the first point, preparedness funding in the United States is declining across the board; only high-priority and high-probability events receive necessary funding and attention. For example, since 2008, federal funds to support state and local response efforts have decreased by $662 million.[3] Further, the White House’s 2018 fiscal year budget calls for a $582.8 million reduction. Should this reduction occur, such programs as the newly formed Complex Coordinated Terrorist Attacks program and the Countering Violent Extremist Grant would be eliminated.[4] Third, if a CCA were to occur today without a unified plan, first responders would attempt to bring order to chaos, just as the first responders did on 9/11; but because this type of event is qualitatively different from those for which we have trained, such a response could prove to be disastrous. In the Mumbai and Paris CCAs, local agencies faced significant challenges with incident command, strategic communication, and information management; limitations in both training and equipment; and inadequate response protocols.[5] In sum, these challenges added to the confusion of an unfolding multi-site attack scenario.

This thesis analyzed and assessed thirty-four federal summary reports from the Joint Counterterrorism Assessment Workshop Series (JCTAWS) and the Integrated Emergency Management Course (IEMC): Preparing Communities for a Complex Coordinated Attack programs, which support state and local agencies preparing for a CCA. Further, an anonymous survey was conducted of participants 2011–2016 JCTAWS and IEMC participants in order to assess the effects of the course and analyze barriers to implementation of recommendations. This project provides five comprehensive findings and three recommendations to enhance both JCTAWS and IEMC as well as to improve the domestic conversation through leadership and scholarly research.

The research discovered that, even without a national CCA strategy, the JCTAWS and IEMC programs increase preparedness and resilience. However, the analyzed results of state and local participation indicated that major cities and jurisdictions do not have a unified plan to respond to a CCA incident and that there is no clear picture of how many gaps have been addressed by participants. Further, first responders are adapting to a variety of environmental injects, including the increase of active shooter events, which may decrease attention to the CCA issue because it is a low-frequency, high-threat consequence. Three recommended imperatives will help address the findings, including the establishment of a national high-threat institution to aggregate and support state and local programs with research, analysis, and best practices for emerging threats. Further, JCTAWS and IEMC can be enhanced by creating opportunities for jurisdictions that may not have the funds or resources to participate in these programs, including a stand-alone assessment program of emergency response plans and policies. Lastly, recognizing the power and influence of national leadership collaboration, this thesis implores a collaborative regional, state, and national discussion of implications and a way forward to address this threat.




[1] For the purposes of this research, first responders are members of any discipline that has an emergency response mission, such as fire and rescue, law enforcement, and emergency medical services.

[2] Gilmore Commission, The Fifth Annual Report to the President and the Congress of the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction— V. Forging Americas New Normalcy: Securing Our Homeland, Preserving Our Liberty (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2003),

[3] The analysis was conducted from fiscal year 2008–2016 through an open source at This data was derived from allotted grant dollars within the State Homeland Security Program and the Urban Area Security Initiative. In 2008, the total dollar amount was $1,644,555,000 and in 2016 the dollar amount was $982,000,000. “Grant Programs Directorate Overview,” Department of Homeland Security, last revised November 7, 2008,; “DHS Announces Funding Opportunity for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 Preparedness Grants,” Department of Homeland Security, February 16, 2016,

[4] “U.S. Senate Report: Administration Budget Cuts Counterterrorism Programs by $583 Million,” U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, July 13, 2017,

[5] Angel Rabasa et al., The Lessons of Mumbai (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2009); Homeland Security Advisory Council and Paris Public Safety Delegation, “The Attacks on Paris: Lessons Learned” (white paper, Homeland Security Advisory Council, 2016,

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