LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — We’re now 20 years removed from the deadliest terror attack on United States soil. But we’re removed by time only — the wounds still feel fresh and anti-terror improvements are still happening to this day.
In Southern Nevada, it’s a daily battle being fought by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, whether we can see it or not.
"I remember turning on the news and thinking it had to be a joke and it had to not be real because who does that kind of thing? Who flies a plane into a tower filled with people?” said Sasha Larkin, the deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division at Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
The terror attack of Sept. 11, 2001, forced a turning point for law enforcement agencies across the United States.
"We didn't share information. 'We' being the federal government, 'we' being state, local, tribal,” recalled Larking. "If we got a nugget, we wanted to hold on to that nugget. Maybe get credit for it, maybe write about it later. Maybe be the ones to solve the puzzle."
"But the problem is, when you silo information, that information doesn't get all the pieces put together," she continued. "And that's exactly what happened on 9/11.”
Larkin says information sharing has become key in fighting terrorism.
What's happened since 9/11 inside the police department is extensive. There are now protocols for transparent information sharing with the department’s Fusion Center, which was built in 2005.
"By 2010, we had counterterrorism teams that were working in partnership with the joint terrorism task force at the FBI,” explained Larkin. “We had a team that I've been working with since the creation of the terrorism liaison, or fusion liaison officer program, that does all the prevention and intervention work as it comes to terrorism."
“And most importantly, we've recognized we can't do it alone," she said. "We've gone out into the community. We've partnered with the fire department. We've partnered with the hotels, any valet worker, hotel staff, maid, anybody that we could say, 'Hey, let me teach you what suspicious activity is.'"
Case in point, the case of an armed neighborhood watchman, then 24-year-old Conor Climo, who admitted to planning attacks against our local Jewish and gay communities.
Larkin says Climo was radicalized online.
“He found a movement, the socialist movement, that did believe in targeting the LGBT community, had some anti-Semitic views, and yes, he was working on a plan to target a synagogue and the LGBTQ bar downtown," she said.
"[All] out of hate, out of bias, which was learned and gathered from his time online. These predators online search for those longing to connect with something bigger than themselves.”
And just this year detectives uncovered what they call another local terrorist plot.
Multiple reports of gunshots on Canyon Cove Way led them to 27-year-old Lacy Walthour. Detectives recovered firearms, gun parts, a 3D printer, body armor, a computer and a painting resembling Osama Bin Laden at Walthour's home.
Plus, homemade step-on explosive devices in the garage.
Walthour is facing 28 charges.
But Larkin says the one case of domestic terrorism that no one could have predicted: the 1 October shooting in 2017.
"Stephen Paddock is another example of us not thinking maniacally enough," said Larkin.
"We had prepped for an active shooter on the [Las Vegas] Strip. We had prepared for tragedies and vehicle-borne explosive devices on New Year's Eve. We had prepared for all of these different things. But I don't ever remember sitting in a meeting or briefing where we thought about a high-rise shooter at an open-air country event. It just never occurred."
"So did it surprise us a little bit? A little bit," she said. Yes. Because he wasn't on our radar."
Paddock lived out of town and had no criminal history.
20 years after 9/11, we know several of the terrorists visited Las Vegas.
"We've heard a lot of reports that many of the 9/11 hijackers, led by Mohammed Atta, came through Las Vegas before going to their destinations to carry out the attack,” said Larkin.
“I remember thinking, ‘That's Crazy! Why did they come through Vegas?’ And then as we began to learn a little bit more about their thought patterns and what they believed and what they could do before they carried out an attack, it seemed that Vegas was the perfect place to come, right where they could be free and kind of blend in because we are such a melting pot."
That's exactly been the challenge for Las Vegas police; Keeping such a high-profile, international destination like our city safe. Especially during large gatherings like New Year's Eve.
That's why Larkin says the push for community engagement and reporting of suspicious activity is key to keeping all of us safe from international and domestic terrorism.