Regina F. Graham

WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – As the recent crisis in Iraq unfolds and talks of terror cells taking aim at American targets once again crop up, the focus on increased security and counterterrorism efforts in major cities like New York, Los Angles, and Boston are often reinforced throughout the media.

But with all eyes frequently turning to the country’s largest concrete jungles for safety reassurances, residents in America’s heartland may be left to wonder: What about us?

Former FBI special agent and security expert Manny Gomez, Esq., explained to CBS DC that cities within the Midwest may be easier for terrorists to access and attack.

“Certainly, the Midwest is an easier target without a doubt,” Gomez said. “However that doesn’t necessarily equate that terrorists would target those cities, because you get less bang for your buck. They want a high value target such as New York City. It has always been and always will be their crown jewel. They want to attack the greatest population to get international notoriety. It’s also the financial heart of the country. It’s always been and quite frankly will always be the number one target.”

Gomez, who is also a former NYPD Sergeant, said that it is easier for a terrorist attack to occur in the Midwest due to several factors.

“They are not as prepared and they don’t have as many resources as we do here in big cities,” Gomez asserted. “However, for them to have a successful attack is difficult. What I mean by successful is that it’s going to gain international attention for the long term and it’s going to have a large carnage count. That’s going to be difficult because everything is so spread out in the Midwest.”

Additionally, terrorists are looking for places to attack that would bring them more credibility and international recognition, Gomez said.

But that kind of credibility comes with the bigger targets within the biggest cities. That’s one of the reasons terrorism expert Anthony F. Lemieux, Ph.D., a researcher with the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, doesn’t believe that cities in the Midwest are at a higher risk for an attack.

“I don’t think cities in the Midwest are at a higher risk than cities like New York City,” Lemieux told CBS DC. “One of the biggest cities in the Midwest is Chicago and certainly there have been plots there in the past. Any time that you have a popular center of any magnitude, that will make it a more attractive target. I don’t think there would be any kind of shifting because there is increased security in bigger cities.”

Lemieux says terrorists aren’t just coming from overseas, but some are home grown here in America and that the country has seen terrorist attacks in the Midwest recently.

“Kansas City had an attack and we are seeing terrorism in some of these Midwest pockets,” he said. “The Jewish center shooting is terrorism by any definition. The Las Vegas attack is terrorism by any definition. Everywhere has potential strengths and vulnerabilities to face a terrorist attack at the end of the day.”

What worries Lemieux the most is the potential for terror cells to grow domestically as a result of the uprisings by groups overseas. He points to Al-Shabaab, who have reportedly sought out Somali Americans living in cities like Minneapolis, which has a large Somali population.

“Terrorism is a huge concern, but I’m really concerned about the recent activity of our domestic groups,” Lemieux stated. “With the influx of our foreign fighters in Syria, Al-Shabaab pockets that have moved into Kenya from Somalia, these things that I see have the greatest potential to attack us in the U.S. A lot of groups are producing English language recruiting materials to target western audiences and that is not good in my eyes.”

Some cities that are targeted or attacked, Lemieux says, are sometimes chosen because they hold deeper meanings to the terrorists.

“The larger cities have more symbolic value and are still high on terrorist lists in terms of their symbolic value,” Lemieux said. “It has been harder for them to attack those cities because of law enforcement agencies and intelligence communities doing great work in protecting them. Some cities have units just for protecting local areas like New York City.”

But Gomez says that it is difficult for some cities in the Midwest to allocate financial resources to build a stronger terrorist surveillance community, which would make them a much easier target than those larger cities.

“After the September 11th attacks, things have changed and so the entire country has unequivocally, if not most of the world, been on top of a potential attack. That being said, it’s expensive. You have to look at the cost benefit analysis, what resources they can and would allocate to a potential attack. If you are a decision maker working for state, county, or a city, do you allocate resources to build a new school or put money to counter terrorism? It comes down to dollars and cents at the end of the day.”

Both experts agreed that the recent “See something, Say something” campaigns have really aided law enforcement officials across the country in foiling terrorist plots.

“We need to educate and urge people to act as everyone else’s eyes and ears so that we can become a force multiplier,” Gomez asserted.