Montgomery County Police Chief Thomas Manger Credit: Aaron Kraut

Montgomery County police respond to potential threats with a “nexus to terrorism” each year, and in some cases officers have intervened to prevent possible attacks, according to Chief Thomas Manger.

“I’m not saying it was someone who was here from ISIS,” Manger said in a recent interview with Bethesda Magazine. “But we’ve had folks that were either planning shootings or some kind of attack and we’ve been able to intervene in a number of those cases.”

Manger said the number of terrorism-related threats his department pursues in a year is “not hundreds, but it’s more than a dozen.” He didn’t discuss any of the threats in detail.

“I think some people would be surprised at the number of cases that the federal government and the Montgomery County police department investigate that might have some nexus to terrorism or to organized crime or just someone who may be dealing with a mental health issue and be radicalized somehow and may engage in criminal behavior,” he said.

“Even if it’s just five or six, that’s five or six times that you’ve gotten to somebody, whether you’ve gotten them the help they needed, if you’re dealing with mental health issues, or whether it is charging somebody with possession of bomb-making materials,” he added.

The chief said federal authorities such as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security regularly share intelligence information with county police, and some county officers work directly on task forces with those federal agencies, helping his department get information directly about possible threats.

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That’s particularly important because of Montgomery County’s proximity to the nation’s capital, he said. Washington’s potential as a target increases the possible danger of terrorist activity in surrounding communities, Manger said, and of so-called “lone wolves” who seek to carry out attacks but aren’t affiliated with terrorist groups.

“The attack in San Bernardino is a perfect example of how easy it is to fly under the radar,” Manger said, referring to the December shooting that left 14 people dead in the California community. “You’re not going to be able to prevent everything. That’s for sure.”

Typically, the local cases in which police are involved don’t raise much attention, Manger said, because the suspect may have been arrested for a fairly minor crime—unlawful possession of a firearm, for instance—when compared with the larger crime the suspect may have been contemplating.

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“Have we locked up the terrorist who was getting ready to blow up a bomb in the White House or something? The answer would be no,” Manger said. “But we’ve also had people who have had the intention of doing some pretty bad things. Who knows if we didn’t intervene as quickly as we did, how far it would have gone?”

In some cases, Manger said, officers have seized guns or bomb-making materials from suspects’ homes. In others, he said, police stepped in before a crime was committed.

“Sometimes you can get [the suspects] to work on treatment issues,” Manger said. “We’ve tapped into the faith community a great deal in recent years. If somebody has some religious ideology that has some nexus to violent extremism, we’re connecting with the faith community, saying, ‘Listen, can you get them back on the right track?’”

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Manger said police have come to depend on tips from religious organizations, community members and schools to spot potential terrorism threats.

“It’s a balance,” he said. “You have privacy activists say police shouldn’t get involved in this stuff. Well, we’re trying not to get involved unless there’s a crime that’s been committed. But we can’t just ignore some of the things people are doing or saying.”

Manger urged the public to be cautious, but not overly concerned about terror threats.

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“The odds of any of us being a victim of some mass shooting are just tremendously small,” he said. “I don’t think anybody should alter their lives because they’re worried about some kind of attack.”

The interview with Manger will appear in the March/April issue of Bethesda Magazine.