Friday, Dec. 31, 2010 | 9:42 p.m.
As an isolated event, it might not raise many eyebrows — the theft of a propane tank.
But when law enforcement officials at the Southern Nevada Counter Terrorism Center noticed an increase of propane tank thefts across the valley prior to New Year’s Eve last year, they did what they are trained to do. They put smaller pieces of information together to form the bigger picture.
“If you put enough (propane tanks) together, you could do some bad stuff,” said Metro Police Sgt. Brian Hibbetts of the intelligence collections section of the SNCTC.
As it turned out, there was no need for alarm. “We were able to say it was not in preparation for an attack,” Hibbetts said.
Officials breathed a sigh of relief, then continued monitoring intelligence like they do 24 hours a day, all year.
It’s a never-ending process heightened by post-9/11 fears that Las Vegas could be the next terrorist target, especially given its decadent image. “The seven deadly sins — we have them all,” Hibbetts said.
The SNCTC — or “Fusion Center” for short — opened in 2007 to coordinate information sharing among law enforcement agencies in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Officials know at least six of the 9/11 hijackers spent time in Las Vegas, possibly scouting the area, Hibbetts said.
“We don’t know whether those 9/11 hijackers were here doing those plans for a future attack,” he said. “Could be, and that’s the assumption we have to go under.”
The nondescript building in Las Vegas houses about 70 officials from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Federal Aviation Administration and local police and fire departments, among others.
It’s one of 72 in the nation and the only 24-hour center in the state. And on nights like New Year’s Eve, it’s humming with activity.
“It’s a big night for us because we have 300,000-plus people down there on the Strip that we’re responsible for,” Hibbetts said. “It’s the same things we do every day, just more of it.”
Shortly before 6 p.m. tonight, officials in the analytics section on the second floor tracked a small power outage near the Strip.
Downstairs, officials gathered in a high-tech conference room examining information on laptop computers, news stations and digital maps. And outside, officials geared up a large truck from the ARMOR unit that serves as a communications platform.
In addition to the center’s normal intelligence activities, it’s serving as a staging center for the operations designed to keep the city’s biggest bash safe.
Otherwise, it’s business as usual.