The words used in a recent terrorism risk report are alarming:
Kansas City International Airport is a key hub for terrorist travel.
But just how frightened KCI travelers should be is not entirely clear.
Federal and police officials say travelers should be alert but not alarmed. An independent terrorism expert, however, says we should all take a deep breath — the incendiary report might have been amped up a bit to win a federal grant to fight terrorism.
The document, dated Feb. 7, was indeed prepared by area emergency management officials as they sought special terrorism and emergency response grants from the federal government. It was sent to the Department of Homeland Security to provide a “threat picture” for the Kansas City region.
The Kansas City Star obtained the report as part of a Missouri Sunshine Law request.
Among the key security concerns in the metro area, the document said, is transportation.
“According to Transportation Security Administration data, Kansas City International Airport is ranked fourth out of 57 Category I airports in the U.S. for TSC encounters,” it said. TSC refers to the Terrorist Screening Center, which maintains a database of those known or suspected of being involved in terrorist activity.
“This makes KCI a primary hub for KST (Known or Suspected Terrorist) travel.”
A Category I airport is a medium-sized hub. The report did not elaborate on the statistics, and neither would authorities.
In fact, officials were not eager to talk about the document at all.
“The information in there and the document itself should not have been released,” said Kansas City Police Capt. Daniel Gates, director of the Kansas City Terrorism Early Warning Group.
Gates said he had sent the report to the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency to be used by FEMA to help evaluate the region’s terrorism risk.
He said the report was no cause for fear.
“There’s a lot of stuff that occurs in the background from a terrorism perspective,” he said. “If it were something that were going to impact our area, or was an issue for the safety of the region, we would get the information out.”
When asked how KCI achieved a rank as a primary hub for terrorists, Gates said those figures came from the TSA, which referred questions to the FBI, which provided no numbers.
The FBI’s Bridget Patton said the level of “known or suspected terrorist” encounters that the report said were occurring at KCI shouldn’t be alarming.
“I don’t what fourth out of 57 means,” Patton said. “But if anything, hey, it means they’re on the job there — they’re catching whoever they’re supposed to catch or looking at whoever they’re supposed to look at.”
In any event, travelers shouldn’t start canceling their flights and packing their cars for cross-country road trips, she said.
“I don’t think it should be a concern to the community,” Patton said.
Some wondered whether the issues raised in the document may have been overstated to improve the chances of getting the federal grant.
“It’s sounding like a whole bunch of stuff that somebody creatively and successfully put together as a justification for getting this grant out of FEMA,” said Mayer Nudell, a terrorism and security expert who has worked for the U.S. State Department.
Nudell, who examined the document, said officials sometimes inflate the concerns when applying for funding.
“But of course, when you’re a government official, you try to anticipate everything, because even worse than having something happen is to later be pointed to as not being able to anticipate having an event occur,” he said.
Gates said all the information in the document is accurate.
“There’s a balancing act, a fine line there,” he said. “We don’t tend to exaggerate, but we do tend to make sure that people are at least aware.”
Local officials prepared the document to plead their case for a grant under the Urban Area Security Initiative, a federal program that helps communities considered vulnerable to a terrorist incident.
The Kansas City area received significant funding from 2003 through 2012, with the exception of 2011. After receiving no grant in 2013, local politicians said it was unlikely the region would qualify for major funding through that program again. But in March, the Kansas City community received a $1 million grant — thanks, perhaps, to the February document.
One “critical asset” in the Kansas City area that must be protected, the document said, is the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence, the largest small-arms ammunition plant in North America.
A Joint Staff assessment in January noted “numerous vulnerabilities” at the plant, the report said. It also noted a 2009 incident in which “anarchists plotted to disrupt operations ... but were dissuaded by law enforcement attention.”
Rikeshia Davidson, public affairs specialist for the Joint Munitions Command, which manages the nation’s ammunition plants, said she could not comment on the document.
“The report and incident referenced in the regional threat report are classified,” she said in an email to The Star.
The document also noted that Kansas City is the single largest railroad hub in the U.S. based on total tonnage, and the third-largest freight shipping center for trucks.
The report says the Kansas City metro area “provides a nexus for a variety of Domestic Terrorism targets.”
Domestic terrorism groups in the region, according to the report, include neo-Nazis, white supremacists, eco-terrorists, sovereign citizens, animal rights groups, anarchists, anti-abortion extremists, black separatists and lone wolf extremists.
National white supremacist leaders, the report said, “have found a home in and near the metropolitan area.”
The document also noted two examples of what it called “lone wolf ” extremist threats.
In 2008, it said, detectives uncovered a plot to put cyanide in the produce sections of a Wal-Mart Super Center in Kansas City. The suspect was convicted and sentenced to four years without parole in a federal penitentiary.
And in October, the report said, a Kansas City man threatened to contaminate the water systems of Kansas City, Wichita, Topeka and St. Louis. The man was arrested and charged with extortion.
Nudell, now an adjunct professor of security management at St. Louis-based Webster University, said that although some of the examples sound disturbing, people should keep things in perspective.
“My reading of all this,” he said, “is that Kansas City has very little to distinguish itself as being under a threat that is any different than the rest of the country.”