American JihadBy James Kitfield | Friday, January 28, 2011 | 10:01 a.m. Photo: Newscom/Zuma Press/F31
Driving back from detonating a backpack bomb as a trial run for mass slaughter, Mohamed Osman Mohamud’s terrorist handler began to have doubts. The men were preparing to blow up a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Ore., and now Mohamud’s accomplice questioned whether his charge was capable of looking at all of the mangled bodies, including those of women and children.
The 19-year-old Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia and a former student at Oregon State University, was undettered. “Do you remember when 9/11 happened, when those people were jumping from the skyscrapers? I thought that was awesome,” Mohamud replied, according to government documents. “I want whoever is attending that event to leave, to leave either dead or injured.”
Mohamud soon matched his chilling thoughts with actions. After returning home from that trial run on November 4, 2010, he donned a white robe and recorded a video claiming responsibility for the upcoming bombing. (“Did you think you could invade a Muslim land and we would not invade you?”) Weeks later, on November 26, Mohamud is alleged to have parked a van near the tree-lighting ceremony and attempted to detonate what he thought was a bomb by calling a cell phone modified as a triggering device. Mohamud’s terrorist handler, who was actually an undercover FBI agent, arrested him.
The Portland scheme is just the latest in a raft of elaborate FBI sting operations designed to catch would-be jihadists in fake plots of their own fevered imaginings. It followed closely on the heels of a similar sting that ensnared Antonio Martinez, 21, a recent convert to Islam who in December was indicted on charges of scheming with an undercover agent to blow up a military recruiting station in Maryland. In October, four Muslim converts in the Bronx were convicted of planning, with an FBI informant, to bomb synagogues and shoot down military transports with antiaircraft missiles.
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These Potemkin plots are part of the new normal in homeland security—and, law-enforcement officials say, they are an indispensible tool in stopping terrorism inspired by extremist Islamist ideology. Rather than trying to penetrate thickening layers of U.S. security, al-Qaida and its affiliates are increasingly recruiting U.S. citizens remotely, inspiring them to launch terrorist attacks on their homeland. That development has pushed the FBI away from its traditional role as a post-facto criminal investigative service and transformed it primarily into a domestic intelligence agency with a mission to preempt acts of terrorism, but in a way that still wins convictions in federal courts. On this count, the FBI has accrued a 92 percent conviction rate in major federal terrorism cases.
But the technique of ensnaring young radicals, recent Muslim converts, and petty criminals in fantastical terrorist conspiracies has set the American Muslim community on edge, putting at risk a key source of intelligence on actual terrorist plots. The Muslim Public Affairs Council has documented 16 terrorist schemes that were disrupted with the Muslim community’s assistance, for instance—nine of which involved homegrown jihadists. Yet American Muslim leaders draw a distinction between those cases and FBI stings based on the hapless delusions of grandeur harbored by alienated and radicalized youths.
To this end, some American Muslim advocacy groups charge that an overhyped threat has encouraged the FBI to spy on mosques without evidence of criminality, infiltrate congregations using unreliable informants and “agents provocateurs,” and threaten deportation for religious leaders who refuse to spy on fellow Muslims.
“There has certainly been an uptick in terrorist cases in the past year and a half, but that doesn’t justify a lot of the Islamaphobic hyperventilation we’ve seen recently,” said Peter Bergen, a counterterrorism expert at the New America Foundation in Washington and the author of the recent book The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda. “The worst mistake you could make is to create a new ‘Red Scare’ that scapegoats the American Muslim community. The FBI risks that kind of a backlash with some of these stings that involve unreliable informants dangling hundreds of thousands of dollars and new cars before a bunch of hotheads and losers. Picking too much of that kind of low-hanging fruit can alienate an American Muslim community that has been the source of intelligence tips on some really dangerous individuals.”
The Justice Department disputes those charges, but officials concede they are worried that the perception of heavy-handed tactics will drive a wedge between law enforcement and the American Muslim community. Already, a number of American Muslim advocacy groups are advising their members not to talk to FBI agents without having lawyers present. The risk is that without invasive undercover sting operations, officials will miss a threat that blossoms into the next major terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland. Handled the wrong way, however, such operations could drive away an American Muslim community whose cooperation is vital in preempting the terrorist threat. Both positions are hardening, and lives are at stake.
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THE NEW THREAT
Ever since the United States reinforced its defenses and went on the offensive in the wake of 9/11, al-Qaida has been unable to launch a similar “terrorist spectacular” that involved years of meticulous plotting, training, and rehearsal. So top planners in al-Qaida and affiliated groups began looking for other ways to strike America.
“Because of the pressure placed on al-Qaida by global counterterrorism networks, the core organization is less able to plan these grand attacks that take a long time to develop and involve moving lots of money and many actors around the world,” a senior Justice Department official said. “Increasingly, we see al-Qaida looking for softer targets in the seams of our counterterrorism defenses and recruiting people over the Internet they may not have even bothered with 10 years ago.”
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer/Getty Images
The number of those who answered the call is still small. In nearly a decade since 9/11, 156 individuals have been arrested or indicted in the United States in connection with jihadi terrorism, out of a Muslim American population of more than 3 million. (A score or so of those were indicted not for planning an attack on the homeland but for trying to enlist with Islamist rebels in Somalia to fight that nation’s government.) Over that entire time, just 14 Americans have been killed on U.S. soil by jihadist terrorists of any stripe. Thirteen of them were shot at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009; Army Maj. Nidal Hassan is being held in that attack.
Be that as it may, said Brian Michael Jenkins, a longtime terrorism expert at Rand, “there’s no question that 2009-2010 saw the biggest increase both in the number of terrorist plots and individuals involved in them than any similar period since 9/11. Al-Qaida has changed its strategy, becoming more decentralized and depending much more on local affiliates to inspire online jihadis,” noted Jenkins, the author of the report “Would-Be Warriors: Incidents of Jihadist Terrorist Radicalization in the U.S. Since September 11, 2001.” As counterterrorism experts Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman point out in the 2010 paper “Assessing the Terrorist Threat,” “An embryonic terrorist radicalization and recruitment infrastructure had [possibly] been established in the U.S. homeland,” something the report called previously “unthinkable.”
Not all terrorists are created equal, however, and it is important to understand the difference between actual attacks tied to al-Qaida and its affiliates; “lone wolves” inspired by their ideology to perpetrate violence; “travelers” who go abroad and fall in with extremist groups; and plots involving homegrown extremists that grew out of FBI sting operations. Each represents one side of a multifaceted threat; together, they explain why counterterrorism experts view 2009 and 2010 as watershed years.
TAXONOMY OF TERROR
When Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified last September that “during the past year our nation has dealt with the most significant developments in the terrorist threat to the homeland since 9/11,” he was referring to a handful of instances, each one standing in for an archetype of the evolving threat.
First there was the menace that U.S. counterterrorism officials had most feared since 9/11: an American-based Qaida cell intent on executing a terrorist “spectacular.” It appeared in the form of a Denver airport shuttle-bus driver and former New York City pushcart operator named Najibullah Zazi, arrested in September 2009 in a plot to bomb the New York City subway system. An Afghan native and permanent U.S. resident, Zazi had family and tribal ties to the region in Pakistan where al-Qaida’s core operatives are thought to be hiding. He also closely fit the profile of three Pakistani-British terrorists who launched the coordinated suicide bombings on London’s public-transport system that killed 52 people during rush hour on July 7, 2005. Along with two co-conspirators and former classmates at Flushing High School in Queens, N.Y., Zazi traveled to Pakistan and received training and instructions on how to fabricate improvised explosive devises from top Qaida lieutenants.
Second was a variation on this theme: a domestic plot tied to a foreign terrorist organization whose operations had previously been focused regionally. That was the case with would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, who was trained not by al-Qaida but by the Pakistan Taliban, a group mostly dedicated to fighting the central government in Islamabad. Shahzad, a former financial analyst with the Elizabeth Arden cosmetics company in Connecticut, had tribal and family ties in Pakistan’s tribal regions that he used to make contact with extremists there. They gave him five days of bomb-making training and introduced him to the group’s leader, Hakimullah Mehsud. Eventually, Shahzad drove a car bomb into Times Square and attempted to detonate it during rush hour on May 1, 2010. Luckily, the bomb was a dud.
“Maybe because we have hit al-Qaida’s core so hard, in recent years we have seen these affiliates stepping up with their own plots against our homeland,” a senior Justice Department official said. “That changed our thinking. Now we have to consider these affiliates just as dangerous as al-Qaida, meaning we have to direct resources and develop intelligence on the likes of the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb [Algeria], Al-Shabab [Somalia], and, especially, al-Qaida in the Arabia Peninsula, where we have really reevaluated our threat assessment.”
Third was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who (unlike Shahzad and Zazi) had no preexisting ties to Pakistan but took it upon himself to join jihad. Leaving his native Nigeria, he connected with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a group based in Yemen, which armed and directed him to explode a bomb hidden in his underpants on a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. (Carlos Bledsoe, the homegrown extremist and recent Muslim convert who opened fire outside a Little Rock recruiting station, killing one recruiter and wounding another, also claimed to be an al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula operative.) As with the others, Abdulmutallab had slipped through several layers of U.S. intelligence and screening defenses; the plot failed only because his bomb didn’t detonate. President Obama admitted, “We dodged a bullet.”
The nation wasn’t so lucky in the fourth incident, the shooting rampage at Fort Hood involving Maj. Hassan, the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. Unlike Abdulmutallab, the gunman was a lone wolf operating without a terrorist organization to train him or handle logistics. His case shows how even a U.S. citizen in a position of authority can be seduced down the path to radicalization and mobilization, in this instance with the mentoring of cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula operative in Yemen who was born in New Mexico and went to Colorado State University. Al-Awlaki—who has also been linked to the radicalization of Abdulmutallab, Bledsoe, and Shahzad—has been placed on the U.S. government’s targeted assassination list despite his American citizenship. Some counterterrorism officials in the United States and Europe believe that the charismatic al-Awlaki poses a greater threat to the West today than Osama bin Laden.
Al-Awlaki isn’t the only American to join the ranks of jihadist propagandists. Others include Adam Gadahn, a Californian who became a spokesman for al-Qaida, and Omar Hammami, a U.S. citizen and former resident of Alabama, who produces Jihadist recruiting videos in English from Somalia. Al-Awlaki is also likely behind Inspire, an English-language magazine that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula publishes. Making its debut in July 2010, the magazine posts such articles as “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” and “I am Proud to Be a Traitor to America.” The latter was authored by Samir Khan, an American from North Carolina who authorities believe edits Inspire.
“Al-Qaida and its affiliates have adopted a strategy of recruiting English-speaking operatives, primarily American, and doing it in American English,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official, who notes that the terrorist groups have also deftly capitalized on social media to form intimate connections online. “We definitely see the fingerprints of al-Qaida and other extremist groups on YouTube, Facebook, and a host of other social media.”
Rand’s Jenkins believes that the spike in radicalization of homegrown extremists since 2009 is directly attributable to the fact that jihadist recruitment is increasingly couched in an American vernacular. “You now have more made-in-America communicators like al-Awlaki, pushing the narrative of a war between the United States and Islam,” he says. “And they know the American scene.”
The diversification of the threat, coupled with a series of near misses and miscues, has forced the U.S. government to amend its counterterrorism tactics. Officials know they should have stopped Abdulmutallab, whose father warned the CIA about him. They also knew that Hassan had exchanged e-mails with al-Awlaki. Even the 9/11 attacks were foreshadowed by an FBI agent in Phoenix who warned bureaus in Washington and New York City about the “possibility of a coordinated effort by Osama bin Laden to send students to the United States to attend civil-aviation universities and colleges.” His warning went unheeded.
The FBI’s response has been to transform itself into more of an intelligence agency, with a focus on preventive investigations that employ confidential informants and undercover agents in elaborate stings—a tactic the bureau has used to infiltrate organized-crime groups and drug cartels.
The threat “pushed the FBI and these joint terrorism task forces into a much more aggressive mode of prevention and intervening before a terrorist act can occur, or what one senior police official called ‘staying to the left of the boom,’ ” Jenkins said. “The problem is, America doesn’t have a long tradition or well-developed legal instruments for that kind of preventive law enforcement. We don’t have preventive detention in the United States, for instance, and we have rejected domestic intelligence agencies or omniscient secret police. And managing informants who want to curry favor with the authorities and are often recruited with a ‘stay out of jail’ card is a tricky business. If they cross the line and become agents provocateurs, sweeping up some poor losers who might not otherwise have joined a terrorist plot, it can raise the issue of entrapment.”
Craig Monteilh proved just how tricky handling counterterrorism informants can be. The FBI reportedly paid Monteilh, a felon and convicted forger, $177,000 to infiltrate mosques in Southern California, home to the nation’s largest concentration of Muslim Americans. His incendiary jihadist rhetoric so alarmed congregants at an Irvine mosque that the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported Monteilh to police and obtained a restraining order against him. Ultimately, Monteilh sued the FBI for instructing him to conduct random surveillance on mosques and entrap Muslims, and the Justice Department had to drop a case against accused bomb plotter Ahmadullah Niazi that was based on information Monteilh collected.
In another case, Imam Foad Farahi of the Shamsuddin Islamic Center in North Miami Beach said that the FBI tried to recruit him secretly to inform on the local Muslim community. An Iranian citizen who had lived in the United States for more than a decade, Farahi alleges that the FBI threatened to have him deported for links to terrorism and immigration violations when he refused to act as an informant. He has taken his case for political asylum to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
Critics of the FBI’s tactics charge that the Monteilh and Farahi incidents are among several in which the bureau has crossed the line into domestic spying on religious gatherings, strong-arm tactics in turning informants, and outright entrapment.
Farhana Khera is the executive director of Muslim Advocates, a legal advocacy and education group, and a former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “If the FBI has evidence that there is criminal activity going on at a particular mosque, by all means they should investigate,” she says. “But the record strongly suggests there is blanket surveillance going on targeting an entire community based on their religion, and that goes against core U.S. values and who we are as a nation.” There are also increased reports from the Muslim American community of ethnic profiling at borders, Khera said, further chilling relations between Muslim Americans and law-enforcement officials.
“We worry that the FBI is stoking anti-Muslim hate and sending the message to the public that there is a growing terrorist threat posed by American Muslims,” Khera said. Days after Mohamud was arrested in the Portland bombing plot, for instance, the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center, where he occasionally prayed, was the target of arson. Ever since the controversy last year over building the Park51 Islamic community center near Ground Zero, Khera said, the American Muslim community has reported a steady rise in anti-Muslim hate. Members of her group “are seeing harassment and bullying of their children at school as a result of this spike in anti-Muslim hate. We are seeing an even higher level of fear and anxiety among American Muslims about the safety of their families than immediately after 9/11.”
In assessing the FBI’s more aggressive surveillance and undercover activities in counterterrorism investigations, a number of experts point to new guidelines that in 2008 relaxed the rules governing domestic intelligence-gathering. The American Civil Liberties Union attained a redacted version of the Justice Department’s “Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide” through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The guidelines give agents greater leeway in hunting would-be domestic terrorists without hard evidence of wrongdoing, and they allow agents to use ethnicity and religion as factors for selecting subjects for scrutiny.
“By removing the requirement of a ‘factual predicate’ for launching investigations, the new guidelines open the door to all the investigative abuses that the FBI engaged in during the 1950s and 1960s,” said former FBI special agent Mike German, who now works for the ACLU, referring to the bureau’s surveillance and investigation of domestic civil-rights and antiwar groups. “As I used to tell agents, if you can’t sit down with a piece of paper and write what this person is doing wrong, then you probably should be spending your resources investigating someone else.”
Federal judges and juries, however, have given the government wide latitude, in weighing whether a counterterrorism sting rises to the level of entrapment. In its “Terrorist Trial Report Card,” for instance, the Center for Law and Security at New York University School of Law compiled evidence from the 50 most serious terrorist cases since 9/11. The report found that informants were used in 62 percent of the cases, and federal prosecutors won convictions in 92 percent of them. Even though defendants claimed they were entrapped in 28 percent of those cases, an entrapment defense has never been successfully used in a federal terrorism trial since 9/11.
That was true even in the Liberty City Seven case, an FBI sting that went through two mistrials before the government convinced a jury that five of seven defendants from Miami’s downtrodden Liberty City were guilty of plotting to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago. FBI officials admitted that the plot was more “aspirational than operational.” The entrapment defense also failed to deter a jury from convicting a group of four ex-convicts and drug offenders in Newburgh, N.Y., of plotting to blow up two synagogues and shoot down military transports with Stinger missiles. In that case, the FBI informant promised the defendants $250,000 and a BMW car, heady incentives for a group so ill-prepared to carry out the plot that none even had a driver’s license or car.
“Federal judges and juries weigh entrapment differently in terrorism cases, and that is not likely to change given all the talk about ‘homegrown terrorism’ in the last two years and the fearful atmosphere that has created,” said Karen Greenberg, executive director of New York University’s Center on Law and Security. Part of the confusion surrounding the subject of homegrown terrorism, she said, was distinguishing between major cases tied to real plots and far-fetched intrigues produced by FBI sting operations. The latter have included plans for mass-casualty bombings in Baltimore, Columbus, Ohio, New York City, Portland, and Washington, D.C.; a Mumbai-style suicide shooting attack in an Illinois shopping mall; the toppling of the Sears Tower in Chicago and an office building in Dallas; the rupturing of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline; attacks on John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Los Angeles International Airport; and the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
“As part of their preventive strategy, the FBI is now looking for those predisposed toward terrorist activities, and then testing whether they are willing to go through with it with these mock plots,” Greenberg said. “In terms of making us feel better about ferreting out potential terrorists in our midst, that strategy works, and it could be a deterrent against people putting these ideas out there. Whether it actually makes us safer is another question. In many of these stings, it’s the FBI informant actually teaching defendants about foreign terrorist organizations and weapons.”
The American Muslim community’s complaints, however, have frustrated some politicians. Recent plots have prompted Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the new chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, to schedule hearings in February on the radicalization of the American Muslim community and homegrown terrorism. In a blistering op-ed in Newsday last month, King criticized the “moral myopia” of Muslim leaders who refuse to acknowledge the threat posed by al-Qaida and its ilk or to cooperate with law enforcement, as well as “their apologists in the media.”
“The great majority of Muslims in our country are hardworking, dedicated Americans. Yet a Pew poll showed that 15 percent of Muslim Americans between 18 and 29 say suicide bombing is justified,” King wrote. “I also know of imams instructing their mosques not to cooperate with law-enforcement officials investigating the recruiting of young men in their mosques as suicide bombers. We need to find the reasons for this alienation.”
THE SEAMS OF RADICALIZATION
The changes in law enforcement tactics that have alarmed civil libertarians and American Muslim advocates, however, are in many ways a direct result of the hard lessons learned in a decade of the “global war on terror.” That mission has driven the feds to explore the elusive seam between radicalization and mobilization, and to act as circuit breaker between millions of sparks of overheated rhetoric and the potential currents of lethal terrorist intent. It was in that seam, FBI officials say, that they discovered an apparent live wire named Mohamed Osman Mohamud of Corvallis, Ore.
Mohamud might have lacked the know-how to pull off a terrorist spectacular, as some have contended, but according to the Justice Department affidavit, he was searching for an experienced enabler by reaching out to a suspected extremist in Pakistan. The plot to bomb a crowded square during a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony may have been grandiose, but as was the case in other recent FBI stings, it was a scheme he designed. Mohamud might have had second thoughts, recoiling from the mental image of all those mangled bodies of women and children; yet every time undercover agents offered him that off-ramp, Mohamud drove on. He may be just another hotheaded young man willing to pull the trigger, but that profile matches a lot of successful terrorists.
In balancing security and civil liberties, FBI officials insist they don’t launch investigations or surveillance without some indication of wrongdoing, and they deny engaging in ethnic or religious profiling. “But we are … focused on identifying and preempting the threats we see on the horizon,” a senior bureau official said. “That means our special agents in charge have to reach out and interact with all the communities we are supposed to protect, and to see in the seams between cases.… There’s no question that we have adopted a zero-tolerance attitude in terms of terrorism, because we think that’s what the American public expects of us.”
Justice Department officials believe that the case of the Somali “travelers” offers a workable model for engaging with the Muslim American community even in the midst of a terrorism investigation. Shortly after Election Day 2008, Ralph Boelter, the FBI’s special agent in charge in Minneapolis, learned that six Somali-American youths had disappeared from their homes in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. When word reached relatives that they had surfaced in Somalia, no one in the tight-knit community of Somali immigrants could explain how the young men could afford $2,000 airline tickets. Suspicion among law-enforcement officials focused on Al-Shabab (“the Youth”), an Islamist rebel group in Somalia.
Boelter needed answers, and he needed them fast, but he also sensed that the investigation had to be handled delicately. “I felt strongly going in that we could rush the investigation in a way that drove the Somali community away from us and exacerbated our problems,” he said in an interview. “So we developed a strategy to investigate the case in a way that drew the Somali community closer to us, and that meant overcoming a number of obstacles to mutual trust and understanding, chief among them the investigation itself.”
The FBI’s new mission of discerning threats on the horizon before they manifest themselves in acts of terrorism required getting closer to the community and opening good channels of communication. “So I impressed upon my investigators constantly that we need to resolve this case, but in a way that we don’t lose the Somali-American community,” Boelter said.
“We need to resolve this case, but in a way that we don’t lose the Somali-American community.” —FBI Special Agent Ralph Boelter
The strategy of community outreach developed by Boelter and B. Todd Jones, the U.S. attorney for Minnesota, is now cited as a model that builds on past FBI and Justice Department efforts. To overcome deep suspicion of government agents among the clannish émigré community, Boelter and Jones established regular consultations with local elders and religious leaders. Both men made themselves available to Somali newspapers and television stations in the region. They formed a council of Somali youth, where they learned of the frustrations and sense of split identity among young Somali-American men that made them such inviting targets for terrorist recruiters.
The investigation of the Somali “travelers” confirmed officials’ fears. Nineteen Somali-American youths eventually traveled to Somalia and joined forces with Al-Shabab. Some were probably recruited by Omar Hammami, who fled to Somalia from the U.S. and is under indictment on charges of providing “material support” to terrorists. It’s believed that the Somali-Americans were trained by Saleh Ali Nabhan, a longtime Qaida commander. Two of the Somali youths from Minnesota would later become the first known Americans to carry out suicide bombing attacks.
But what developed during the U.S. investigation was a two-way cultural exchange that the Justice Department is now trying to replicate nationwide. “We basically provided the Somali-American community with a ‘Civics 101’ lesson, explaining how our criminal-justice system works, telling them what was and was not a federal crime, and answering their concerns about the immigration system and suspicions that they were being profiled,” Jones said in an interview. “At the same time, we learned a lot about the Somali community, about their clan structure and approach to Islam. In the process of developing those personal relationships and trust, we also hit on an important point of commonality: We are all parents, and all parents are worried about bad things happening to their kids.”
That’s the kind of trust that could keep federal investigators apprised of threats lurking in their communities, enabling them to head off plots to bomb tree-lighting ceremonies, Times Square crowds, and Christmas Day airline flights.