The events of the 9/11 attacks and the days that followed changed the way the United States viewed security. The concept of attacks at home have proven to be a more prominent concern for all.
In his State of the Union address earlier this month, President Barack Obama told Americans “the worst is over.”
“Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores, that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars, that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world,” he said. “It has been and still is a hard time for many. But tonight, we turn the page. The shadow of crisis has passed.”
But in the face of events like the Charlie Hebdo shooting and escalating violence from the Islamic State, or ISIS, some officials, like those at the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, are still preparing for the worst.
“(ISIS has said) they want to attack and will start attacking the West and Western countries right now,” said Marion County Sheriff Chris Blair. “So, you’ve always got to be concerned with what’s going to take place.”
Blair is bringing the fight to North Central Florida’s backyard.
On Wednesday, Blair announced he is reinstating the department’s Terror Intelligence and Counterterrorism Unit in the hopes of preventing both domestic and international terrorist threats.
According to Blair, Marion County has a critical need for these services — authorities have responded to “nearly 300 terrorist threats since 9/11.”
Some of the most recent attacks have included an anthrax scare at a post office in Sparr, Florida, in October 2014, after a letter marked “anthrax” was found there. A similar package was also sent to Blair when he was elected Sheriff in 2012. However, both cases proved to be hoaxes.
The reinstated Terror Intelligence and Counterterrorism Unit will be led by 30-year MCSO veteran Major Terry Bovaird, who boasts over a decade of experience in counterterrorism tactics. For Bovaird, a Marion County native, the fight is a personal one.
He said the county’s location could make it a hotbed for potential terrorist activity.
“The Al Qaeda handbook — which is public information — encourages people to find rural areas where there’s a lot of places to hide,” he explained. “If you think about it, Marion County is one of those places.”
Bovaird said the sheriff’s office will ask the community for participation in its fight against terrorism. He mentioned several programs that involve the community in this effort, including iwatchmarion.com.
In addition to these resources, Bovaird also pointed to the Marion County Crime Stoppers and local Neighborhood Watch groups as other ways people can get involved.
As of now, the unit already has several active cases and will be pulling from various information databases, including tips reported from citizens, in order to compile a list of “activity to watch.”