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US counterterrorism officials warn police to be on alert for ambush attacks

Federal counterterrorism officials are warning police departments across the country to maintain a heightened state of awareness for the potential for ambush-style attacks against officers.

In a new intelligence report viewed by CNN, entitled “PERSISTENT THREAT OF TERRORIST AMBUSH ATTACKS ON FIRST RESPONDERS,” analysts from the National Counterterrorism Center warn that police officers and emergency services personnel remain key targets for terrorists, who may either seek to lure public safety officers into ambushes, or stage ambush attacks without significant advanced planning.

“Due to their high visibility and 24/7 accessibility, on-duty first responders are susceptible to becoming victims of ambush attacks,” states the report issued this week.

The intelligence report states that the appeal of ambush-style attacks for terrorists “likely stems from the nature of the target, the attack concealment, and the element of surprise.” It also indicates “the suddenness of an ambush attack may limit reaction and response by first responders, potentially providing the attacker with a tactical advantage.”

Citing FBI data, the report indicates that 53 US law enforcement officers were the victims of ambush-style attacks by both terrorist and non-terrorist suspects between 2014 and 2018.

In the report, officials outline incidents of unsuspecting police officers ambushed by assailants. For example, the report highlights a 2016 shooting of a Philadelphia police officer sitting in his patrol car by a suspect who had pledged allegiance to ISIS.

Analysts also reference a 2017 attack on a police officer at a Michigan airport by a suspect who “shouted ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is great) and blamed the United States for deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria” before stabbing the unsuspecting officer.

The intelligence report details for police officers the type of weapons used in recent ambush attacks against law enforcement: 36% involving firearms, 35% of incidents involving unarmed suspects using their hands to assault police, 3% involving knives, and 26% involving other types of weapons including vehicles.

The report also outlines 18 different tactics police officers can employ to help defend against an ambush attack. Most refer to advanced planning, training and remaining aware of one’s surroundings.

A spokesperson for the National Counterterrorism Center, which is under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, tells CNN the intelligence report “was not published in response to a specific threat against the United States,” and that products of its kind do not serve to warn of impending attacks. The official noted that the center routinely shares information with government agency partners to enhance public safety.

The release comes as American law enforcement and intelligence officials continue to assess the fallout stemming from the killing of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani and a retaliatory Iranian attack on a military base in Iraq.

US officials remain on alert for any additional Iranian response, to include attacks on American interests from proxy groups linked to Iran.

As CNN has reported, one group in particular is Hezbollah, an Iranian-linked extremist organization designated by the US as a foreign terrorist organization. The group is believed to have been responsible for several deadly attacks around the world over the past three decades, some of which killed Americans.

In its latest report on global threats, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence lists Hezbollah as a key challenge to global security and claims the group “most likely maintains the capability to execute a range of attack options against US interest worldwide.”

Although federal law enforcement has arrested numerous people in recent years associated with or inspired by Sunni Muslim extremist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS, the FBI has also disrupted the operational activity of a small number of individuals linked to the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah.

US counterterrorism officials have not publicly released estimates of how many Hezbollah members are suspected of being in the country, but a senior US national security official tells CNN that the government continues to investigate and degrade Hezbollah’s capabilities in the United States.

This story has been updated with comment from the National Counterterrorism Center.

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