Posted 12/14/10


Two more wannabe Jihadists accept bombs from the FBI

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  “The threat was very real.  Our investigation shows that Mohamud was absolutely committed to carrying out an attack on a very grand scale.” That’s how Oregon’s top FBI agent described the menace  posed by Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, a naturalized citizen who was arrested for attempting to bomb a Portland Christmas-tree lighting ceremony on November 26.

     A criminal complaint charged the Somali native with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, an offense that could land him in prison him for life. According to the FBI it all began last year when Mohamud, who was eager to become a Jihadist, exchanged e-mails with a terrorist in Pakistan.  That man referred Mohamud to someone else, but a mixup involving e-mail addresses kept Mohamud from making contact. Not to worry! In August 2010 the FBI, who had been monitoring the e-mails, had an undercover agent contact Mohamud and identify himself as a representative of the group he was trying to reach.

Click here for the complete collection of terrorism essays

     Mohamud bought the story line, hook and sinker. He couldn’t fly (the FBI had placed him on the “no fly” list, preventing a trip to Alaska) so going overseas was out of reach. Happily, the informer offered Mohamud a range of options that he could exercise in the good old U.S.A., from praying five times a day to “becoming a martyr.” Guess which one Mohamud chose.

     A second undercover was brought in, and from that point on it was a piece of cake. To avoid later claims of entrapment they had Mohamud select the target (the Christmas tree lighting ceremony) and specify the means (a bomb). They even had him buy some of the components. Mohamud was clueless about explosives, so the FBI helpfully built a “bomb” and installed it in their van.  To show Mohamud how to set it off they had him participate in a practice run where they remotely detonated a small device.

     On the appointed day the FBI delivered the van. Mohamud looked at the bomb and called it “beautiful”. He rode in the vehicle as an agent parked it near the location where the ceremony would take place. As celebrants gathered, Mohamud dialed the appropriate number.


     Why do real terrorists need amateurs to help?  Alas, that question apparently never crossed the mind of Antonio Martinez, aka Muhammad Hussain.  Only twelve days after Mohamud’s arrest the 21-year old Maryland man tried to blow up a military recruitment office using a car bomb given to him by, you know, the FBI.

     Described as “a recent convert to Islam” in the criminal complaint, Martinez had told an FBI informer in October that he wished to attack the recruitment station.  In subsequent meetings, many caught on tape, Martinez suggested approaches ranging from armed assault to propane bombs.  He even suggested forming an armed band that would stage “short, small attacks or ambushes, which is how the brothers in Chechnya...dominated.”  If POW’s were captured he would “talk to them about accepting Islam, and ransom them for something what would benefit the mujahideen.”

     Martinez apparently tried to enlist others in his schemes but found no takers.  One man whom Martinez described as a potential gun source said that it would take a long time to form a guerrilla army and to forget it.  Unable to stir up followers, Martinez soon asked to meet the “Afghani Jihadist” (actually, an undercover FBI agent) that the informer had previously mentioned.

     The informer happily obliged.  During the meeting the FBI agent negotiated the strike down to a single car bomb, which he would provide.  He repeatedly asked Martinez to affirm that attacking the recruiting station was his idea and that no one had talked him into it.  Martinez helpfully insisted that the plan was his, and his alone.

     Indeed, everything was going swimmingly when Muhamad’s arrest hit the news.  An “agitated” Martinez called the informer and said “that he needed to know who this brother [the agent] is...I’m not falling for no b.s.”  After a little bit of reassurance the plot was back on track and Martinez, who was definitely not intent on suicide, started talking passports and escape routes.

     On December 7, one day before the planned attack, the FBI agent brought in the bomb-laden SUV and showed Martinez how to arm the device.  He returned with the vehicle the next day.  Martinez “armed” the bomb and parked the SUV at the recruiting station.  The informer picked him up and they waited nearby.  A call came in from the FBI man, confirming that soldiers were present in the center.  Martinez tried to activate the device.


     It’s hard to work up sympathy for either Mohamud or Martinez (let’s call them M & M for short.)  They’re clearly very sick puppies.  Yet if the government’s only goal was to protect the public, it was completely unnecessary to stage such elaborate ruses.  M & M could have been arrested much earlier in the game for violating 18 USC 373, solicitation to commit a Federal crime.  It’s a serious offense, carrying a penalty of one-half the solicited crime or twenty years if the maximum is life.

     M & M are the latest in a string of terrorist wannabes to accept bombs from the FBI.  As we discussed in Taking Bombs From Strangers, neither can expect any relief from the entrapment doctrine, as their extensive yakking about killing and Jihad would surely convince a judge and jury that they were predisposed.  Stung by past criticism, the FBI took special care to demonstrate that M & M weren’t roped in.  Mohamud could have chosen prayer.  But he didn’t.  Martinez didn’t have to say it was all his idea.  But he did.

     Why were these cases taken to such extreme ends?  Several reasons come to mind.  Pretend bombings make a big splash, giving the FBI and the U.S. Attorney a lot of favorable publicity.  These really big shows, with really big ends, help justify the government’s phenomenally expensive counterterrorism program (at last count, involving one out of three FBI agents) and prove that taxpayer money is being well spent.

     Internally, rope-a-dopes are good for morale.  FBI agents assigned to traditional crimes like fraud and bank robbery actually get to arrest people and go to trial.  That’s far more satisfying than the countless hours of surveillance and innumerable dead ends that confront the poor souls assigned to terrorism squads.  Getting a dope to plant a bomb must be a welcome relief.  For agents and attorneys who run such cases it’s a great career booster as well.

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     Of course, there are downsides.  Rope-a-dope cases create the illusion that we’re really doing something about terrorism.  After all, leaving aside the Times Square fiasco (well, the bomb did fizzle out) the FBI has apparently prevented one-hundred percent of all planned attacks!  Worse, when agents deposit fake bombs at synagogues (The Men Who Talked Too Much), public places and military recruiting stations, they may be planting ideas in some very unstable minds.  Now that their celebration has been validated as a terrorist target, citizens who intend to attend Portland’s 2011 tree-lighting ceremony will have something new to worry about.

     At least one thing’s for sure.  It won’t be Martinez.

UPDATE (5/1/19): After getting kicked out of the Army for misbehaving, Mark Steven Domingo, 26, converted to Islam. His online calls for revenge after the massacres in New Zealand mosques led the FBI to contact him online through an informant. Domingo was arrested after accepting an inert bomb from  an agent and an informant at a park where he intended to detonate the device during a far-right rally.

UPDATE (8/16/17): On August 12, 2017 FBI agents arrested Jerry Varnell, 23, after the Oklahoma City man tried to set off a fake bomb that he assembled with the help of undercover agents. Varnell, a schizophrenic, was first approached by an undercover agent who pretended to be a bomb-maker after an informer told the FBI that Varnell wanted to go after Government officials.

UPDATE (3/2/17): The Kansas City Star’s retrospective on controversial FBI terrorism “stings” features the recent arrest of Robert Hester Jr., who was targeted after posting comments on Facebook. Hester accepted supposed ingredients for a bomb from undercover agents. No bomb was made.

UPDATE (12/6/16): The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the terrorism conviction of Mohammed Mohamud. A panel of Justices ruled that Mohamud had been predisposed and was thus not  entrapped. They also found that warrantless collection of his e-mail correspondence was proper, as it was “incidental” to the legal, warrantless interception of e-mails to and from the foreign national with whom Mohamud was corresponding, as provided for in the so-called “Prism” law (FISA Section 702.)

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NYU “Targeted and Entrapped” Report     FBI press release (Mohamud)     Ethics and Undercover


Means, Ends and 9/11     Notching a “Win”     A Fearful Nation     Written, Produced and Directed

Taking Bombs From Strangers     The Men Who Talked Too Much     Dopes, Not Roped     Rope-a-Dope

If You Can’t Find a Terrorist, Make One!      Damned if they do     Terrorists II

Posted 11/1/10


How far should the Government go in fighting terrorism?

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Just when those nasty Jihadists thought it was safe to emerge from the shadows, another loudmouth fell prey to a terrorist sting.  On October 27 FBI agents arrested Farooque Ahmed, 34, a naturalized citizen of Pakistani descent for plotting to bomb commuter rail stations in Virginia.  But not to worry!  Just like in the case of the “Men Who Talked Too Much,” public safety was never at risk.  Ahmed’s “conspirators” were  Government agents.

     Flash back to the 1970’s and 80’s when police departments used Federal grants to fund sting operations against fences and thieves.  Your blogger, then with ATF, worked undercover on two such projects in the Phoenix area.  (His observations formed the basis of a Master’s thesis.  For the abstract click here.)  Posing as someone looking to buy stolen goods, he learned that it was ridiculously easy to get people to bring in loot.  Most turned out to be opportunists looking for a fast buck.  Their enthusiasm quickly depleted the budget and led to the worry that sooner or later a citizen would get hurt.  How greedy were they?  One small-time thief asked your blogger if he needed a front-end loader.  When told “yes” he hot-wired the nearest one handy and drove it across town.  (Patrol officers intercepted him enroute.)

Click here for the complete collection of terrorism essays

     It’s not just sting operations.  Undercover work that isn’t tightly controlled can cause crimes to happen that would not have otherwise occurred.  In a journal article inspired by his experiences your blogger identified two characteristics that seem especially pertinent.

     “Targeting” means how suspects are selected.  It ranges from focused, where a known offender is approached, to diffused, where officers transact business with anyone whom they manage to lure.

     “Opportunity structure” denotes the settings and inducements.  It ranges from authentic, where transactions are realistically staged, to unauthentic, where they are not.

     For example, if an undercover officer buys drugs from a known drug dealer (focused targeting) and pays the going price (authentic opportunity structure) the transaction falls in cell number 1.  If too much money is offered or the seller is asked to deliver larger quantities of drugs than they normally deal (unauthentic opportunity structure) the transaction falls in cell number 2.

     Focused targeting is far less likely to lure opportunists and create surplus crime.  If focused targeting is impossible – for example, when mounting a sting against car burglars – opportunity structures should be as authentic as possible.  Leaving a purse in a locked car (cell number 3) is a far better practice than in one with the windows rolled down (cell number 4).

     Post-9/11 domestic terrorism cases tend to lack in one or both dimensions.  In the Liberty City/Sears Tower plot of 2006, an FBI informer encouraged members of a bizarre Miami religious sect to make plans to bomb the famous Chicago landmark.  That case went through two mistrials before convictions were returned.  It was followed by the 2007 arrest of the Fort Dix Six, another group that was talked into a terrorist frenzy by an FBI informer.

     Criticisms that only wannabes were being snared led the FBI to start giving targets make-believe bombs to plant.  That strategy figured in three cases last year.

  • In May 2009 four ex-cons were arrested for placing a “bomb” in a car parked at a Jewish synagogue.  They were convicted last week despite serious reservations by the judge and jury about the informer’s conduct.  (For more see the post below.)
  • In September 2009 the FBI arrested Hossam Smadi, 19, a Jordanian national who overstayed his visa.  Smadi had parked a supposedly bomb-laden FBI car in an underground garage of a Texas office tower.
  • Also in September 2009 the FBI arrested Michael Finton, 29, an embittered ex-con with dreams of Jihad.  He parked his FBI-furnished vehicle across the street from an Illinois Federal courthouse.  It too had a “bomb.”

     Last week we wrote about the entrapment defense.  This time we’re taking a different approach.  Whether or not the government can legally entice persons to commit crimes, should it?  Consider the two dimensions, targeting and opportunity structure, mentioned above.

  • As to targeting, should agents or informers keep going to mosques or other places where Muslims gather until someone bites?
  • As to opportunity structure, should agents or informers supply targets with everything they need, from the motivation to proceed, to the knowledge to do so, to the implements (i.e. the bombs) themselves?

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     Unlike Times Square Bomber Najibullah Zazi, who acted on his own initiative, the dupes mentioned above lacked the  independent capacity to bomb anyone.  They also frequently wavered after things were set.  By then, of course, a lot of effort and money had already been spent, and it was very much in the agents’ self-interest that the investigations not come apart.

     We only know about the characters whom the FBI stumbled across that agreed to do Jihad.  Having done a bit of police work himself, your blogger is convinced there are likely thousands of candidates.  Fortunately, bizarre law enforcement practices tend to have a limited life-cycle.  Police sting operations became less productive as word spread that cops were buying loot.  It’s inevitable that amateur Jihadists will in time stop accepting bombs from strangers.

     As for those we really should worry about, rest assured they never would.

UPDATE (5/1/19): After getting kicked out of the Army for misbehaving, Mark Steven Domingo, 26, converted to Islam. His online calls for revenge after the massacres in New Zealand mosques led the FBI to contact him online through an informant. Domingo was arrested after accepting an inert bomb from  an agent and an informant at a park where he intended to detonate the device during a far-right rally.

UPDATE (8/16/17): On August 12, 2017 FBI agents arrested Jerry Varnell, 23, after the Oklahoma City man tried to set off a fake bomb that he assembled with the help of undercover agents. Varnell, a schizophrenic, was first approached by an undercover agent who pretended to be a bomb-maker after an informer told the FBI that Varnell wanted to go after Government officials.

UPDATE (3/2/17): The Kansas City Star’s retrospective on controversial FBI terrorism “stings” features the recent arrest of Robert Hester Jr., who was targeted after posting comments on Facebook. Hester accepted supposed ingredients for a bomb from undercover agents. No bomb was made.

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NYU “Targeted and Entrapped” Report     Ethics and Undercover Work


Means, Ends and 9/11     Notching a “Win”     A Fearful Nation     Written, Produced and Directed

They Didn’t Read Police Issues     The Men Who Talked Too Much     Dopes, Not Roped     Rope-a-Dope

If You Can’t Find a Terrorist, Make One!      Damned if they do     Terrorists II

Posted 10/25/10


For those in the Federal bulls-eye the entrapment defense offers little refuge

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  In June 2008 two men met outside a New York mosque in Newburgh, New York.  One, James Cromitie, was a 46-year old parolee who had served twelve years for selling dope.  The other, Shahed Hussain, was an ex-con on probation for identity theft.  He was also a highly experienced FBI informer.  Under the guise of being a wealthy recruiter for Pakistani Jihadists, Hussain had been chatting up members of the mosque for a year.

     Hussain’s persistence – he went so far as to offer one member money “to join the team” – led the imam and others to suspect that he was a snitch.  But Cromitie, who infrequently attended services and had never met Hussein, bought his story hook, line and sinker.   One month later, at a second meeting, Cromitie said that yes, he wanted to do Jihad, and by all means sign me up.  With Hussain’s encouragement he recruited three others, each a Muslim convert.  Two, Onta Williams, 34 and David Williams IV, 29, were, like Cromitie, convicted drug dealers.  The third, Laguerre Payen, 29, a Haitian national, was on parole for felony assault.  He was reportedly on medication for psychological problems whose symptoms included “talking in circles.”

Click here for the complete collection of terrorism essays

     From that point on it was a piece of first class theater.  Hussain had the men regularly meet at a home that the FBI had wired for audio and video.  His prodding included offers of thousands of dollars in rewards.  Cromitie became a particularly voluble participant:

    I just want to do one big example.  That way I can sit home and go, yeah, I did that.  And I’m getting me a Purple Heart for that, and Mr. President, I mean, he gave...Purple Hearts for killing a whole family for no reason.  So give me a Purple Heart for that, Mr. President....

     As time passed the men hatched plans to blow up synagogues in the Bronx and down military cargo planes with Stinger missiles.  Hussein, the informer, said he would furnish the explosives.  But talk is cheap and the Government wanted more.  After helping the four dupes case and photograph the principal objectives, including the Riverdale Jewish Center in the Bronx, Hussain drove them to a warehouse where they examined (inert) bombs and a (dud) Stinger missile and tested a remote-controlled detonator.  (All these items had been carefully prepared by the FBI.)  Satisfied, they transferred the goodies to a nearby storage container and went out to celebrate.    Everything was set.

     On Wednesday evening, May 20, 2009, not quite one year after Hussain and Cromitie first met, the four would-be terrorists planted bombs in two cars they had pre-positioned outside the Jewish center.  Their plan was to activate the bombs by remote control while simultaneously shooting down aircraft at a nearby military base.  But as they tried to drive off an NYPD semi blocked their way. Then SWAT swooped in and that was that.

     In 1969 a Federal narcotics agent met with three men who had been making large batches of meth but had run out of a necessary chemical.  Pretending to be a buyer, the agent furnished the ingredient, then arrested the suspects for making and selling meth.  Their conviction was reversed by the Ninth Circuit, which found that the Government had participated to an “intolerable” degree.  But the Supreme Court disagreed.  In U.S. v. Russell it held that, given predisposition, simply providing the opportunity to commit a crime is not entrapment.

    It [does not] seem particularly desirable for the law to grant complete immunity from prosecution to one who himself planned to commit a crime, and then committed it, simply because Government undercover agents subjected him to inducements which might have seduced a hypothetical individual who was not so predisposed.

     Entrapment is a matter of  law and of fact.  In the Newburgh case, defense lawyers argued during pre-trial motions that the scenario had been a work of make-believe, and that their clients “lacked the capability to commit the crime before the government came along.”  Indeed, the Government readily conceded that the plot was “aspirational,” meaning that the defendants had no independent access to explosives and that at each step their activities were fully under control, as the interests of public safety would naturally require.

     The judge declined to dismiss the case.  Her decision nonetheless reflected deep skepticism about the Government’s role in instigating a crime:

    Did the government become aware of potential criminal activity and take action to neutralize a real terrorist threat or did it locate some disaffected individuals, manufacture a phony terrorist plot that the individuals could never have dreamed up or carried out on their own, and then wrongfully induce them to participate in it?

     That left entrapment for jurors to decide.  Here is a standard Federal jury instruction on entrapment.  (See pp. 84-85.  Note that these are from the 7th. Circuit as we could not find the equivalent 2nd. Circuit instructions online.)

    The government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was not entrapped.  Thus, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt either (1) that, before contact with law enforcement, the defendant was ready and willing or had a predisposition [emphasis added] or prior intent to commit the offense, or (2) that the defendant was not induced or persuaded to commit the offense by law enforcement officers or their agents...

     The instruction goes on to set out factors that may be considered.  It ends with this reminder:  “While no single factor necessarily indicates by itself that a defendant was or was not entrapped, the central question is whether the defendant showed reluctance to engage in criminal activity that was overcome by inducement or persuasion.”

     According to a professor at an NYU security think-tank, claims of entrapment have failed to derail any of the more than thirty post-9/11 terrorism prosecutions that involved informers.  It didn’t work in the Albany “pizza sting,” where Hussain (yes, the same snitch as in this case) induced two Muslim men to set up a money-laundering operation that would purportedly transmit cash to terrorists.  And it didn’t work in the Newburgh case.  In the end the planting of devices and the defendants’ violent rants, all helpfully caught on tape, persuaded both the judge and jury that however much the accused had been led by the hand they were indeed “predisposed.” Each was found guilty on multiple counts and faces a life sentence.

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     We may not have heard the last word.  It’s possible that a legal line was crossed, and we’re eager to see what comes from the appeals that are certain to be filed.  But there’s more than just the law.  Newburgh and other terrorism cases have raised issues that go to the heart of the proper role of the police in society.  We’ll examine some relevant concerns next week.

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NYU “Targeted and Entrapped” Report


A Fearful Nation     Written, Produced and Directed     They Didn’t Read Police Issues

Taking Bombs From Strangers     Dopes, Not Roped     Rope-a-Dope

If You Can’t Find a Terrorist, Make One!      Damned if they do     Terrorists II

Posted 5/23/10


Concerns about gun rights trump worries about terrorism

    Moderator to panelists (at 17:50):  Should people on the no-fly watch list be able to purchase a gun? Mr. Campbell?
    Tom Campbell (pauses, then whimsically):  No!  (audience laughs)
    Moderator:  Mr. DeVore?
    Chuck DeVore:  Yes, if they haven’t been convicted of a felony.
    Moderator:  Ms. Fiorina?
    Carly Fiorina:  Yes.
    Tom Campbell (feigns shock):  Oh, my goodness! (audience laughs)

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  One would think that a five-term Republican congressman with an economics Ph.D and a Stanford law degree (he’s currently a visiting professor at Chapman Law School) would know better than to push that button.  Yet there was Tom Campbell, Senator Barbara Boxer’s leading challenger, advocating gun control.  His competitors in the Republican primary, State Assemblyman Chuck DeVore and former HP chairperson Carly Fiorina, could hardly contain their glee.

     “It’s all the Second Amendment, Tom,” snickered DeVore.  “That’s why Tom Campbell has kind of a poor rating from the National Rifle Association right there,” echoed Fiorina.

Click here for the complete collection of terrorism essays

     She wasn’t exaggerating.  According to an NRA spokesman Campbell’s last rating was an “F.” You can’t say it wasn’t earned.  While serving in the House (he left in 2000) Campbell supported both the assault weapons ban and a waiting period to buy guns, positions that probably played well in his leftie San Francisco Bay-area district but left the Grand Old Party cold.

     Well, just how often do terrorists buy guns?  A recent GAO report revealed that between 2004 and 2010 six-hundred fifty persons on the NCIC “known or suspected terrorist file” (it draws from terrorist watch lists) made 1,225 firearm transactions at licensed gun dealers, and three explosives transactions at licensed explosives dealers.  Since records are automatically purged once a check is complete we can’t know if they really went through with a purchase, and if they did, how many guns changed hands.  But there’s plenty of indication that many returned for seconds.  About two-thirds of the putative buyers had their records checked on more than one occasion, and six on ten or more.  In all, 1,119 transactions including the three explosives sales were approved, while 109 were denied for reasons such as a disqualifying criminal record.

     How is it that a “known or suspected terrorist” can buy guns or explosives in the first place?  Title 18, United States Code, section 922(g) bars felons, those under felony indictment, fugitives, unlawful drug users, persons adjudged of being mentally defective, and those convicted of domestic violence or under a restraining order from having guns.  18 USC 842i does the same for explosives.  When the Gun Control Act of 1968 was enacted there was no such thing as a terrorist watch list, so “terrorists” are nowhere mentioned.

     In their report the GAO suggested how the Attorney General could deny guns to suspected terrorists while assuring “accountability and civil liberties protections.”  As one might expect, the NRA is having none of it.  Calling such notions “anti-American,” the nation’s preeminent gun rights organization accused proponents of SB 1317 and H.R. 2159, which would implement the GAO’s recommendations, of using fear and what Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) disparagingly called “some list that is, at best, suspect” to strangle the Second Amendment.

     Considering the GOP’s lack of concern about the civil rights of terrorism suspects (think “enhanced interrogation techniques”) their position on terrorists and guns reeks of contradiction.  Yet the view of some anti-gunners seems equally opportunistic.  In a website breathlessly entitled “Terror Gap,” Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the group co-chaired by New York City Mayor and ardent gun foe Michael Bloomberg, demands that Congress enact a law to prohibit persons on terrorist watch lists from buying guns and explosives:  “We can't afford another tragic event that leads to the loss of American lives because of this flawed and dangerous policy.”

     But would a ban really keep us safer?  For the answer look no further than to another Mayors Against Illegal Guns website, “Close the Loophole.”  There you’ll find spine-tingling accounts of the ease with which anyone can go to a gun show, peruse tables where private citizens display dozens of firearms for sale from their “personal collections” and legally buy everything from .22 caliber pistols, to 7.62 mm. assault rifles with high-capacity magazines, to cases of ammunition, and all without showing ID or going through any checks whatsoever!

     Neither Federal law nor the laws of most States requires a criminal records check or any paperwork for gun transfers between private parties.  With a “loophole” that big, one would think that no self-respecting terrorist would bother patronizing a licensed dealer.  But private sellers capitalize on the anonymity they offer by charging considerable premiums.  Their stock is also less ample, and much of it is used.  For the best price and selection criminals and other unsavory characters often have straw buyers purchase guns directly from licensed dealers.  Really, who’s to find out?  Feds are prohibited from keeping a central registry of gun sales, while 18 USC 922t mandates that completed record checks be purged.

     In most states, until a firearm physically falls into the hands of police its existence is a cipher.  That’s the concern addressed by yet another proposal to help close the “terror gap.”  Senate Bill 2820, introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), would give authorities a heads-up on suspicious gun purchases by preserving criminal record checks for ten years in the case of buyers on terrorist watch lists, and six months for others.  Naturally, if a gun is privately sold or purchased from a dealer by a straw buyer, all bets are off.  In any event, the bill is strongly opposed by the NRA so its chances of being enacted are nil.

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     More than four decades after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and the passage, that same year, of the pitifully weak Gun Control Act of 1968 (since hobbled even more) meaningful reform of the gun marketplace remains out of reach.  Meanwhile the lethality and ubiquity of firearms has exponentially increased.

     Terrorists and criminals: rest easy!

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Shootout at Times Square     Gun Show and Tell     Where Do They Come From?

Posted 5/9/10


Can terrorists be caught before they act?

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Fifty-three hours and, to be precise, twenty minutes after a would-be terrorist dropped off a smoldering, bomb-laden SUV at Times Square, Federal agents were escorting him off a commercial flight that was about to depart for Dubai.  Given that Faisal Shahzad bought the vehicle off an Internet ad, for cash and without completing any paperwork, and that the seller couldn’t as much as remember his name, the quick arrest seemed a remarkable piece of detective work.

     Actually, the person who helped the most in catching Shazhad was another inept bomber, Umar Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow himself up on Christmas day on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.  You see, right after that incident the Feds decreed that everyone entering the U.S. from one of a specified list of countries – including Pakistan, where Shazhad recently spent five months – had to be rigorously screened.  When he returned in February, Shazhad got caught up in these checks, and during the process gave inspectors the number of his prepaid, anonymous cell phone.  They entered that information into a database.

Click here for the complete collection of terrorism essays

     Two months later, agents desperately trying to identify the SUV bomber punched in the phone number that the vehicle’s buyer gave to the seller.  Bingo – Shazhad was a mystery no more!

     Agents quickly determined that Shazhad lived in a Bridgeport, Connecticut apartment complex.  They arrived just in time to watch their quarry pull up in a vehicle registered under his name.  But as a surveillance was organized he somehow managed to slip away.  At JFK airport Shazhad paid cash for a one-way ticket and boarded the aircraft.  He would have been long gone, too, had government analysts at a data center not noticed his name on the final passenger manifest filed by Emirates Airlines as a matter of routine.

     It’s become a truism that real terrorists always get caught after the fact; that is, once the harm has been done.  Well, almost always.  In a 2009 case that an expert called “one of the most serious terrorist bomb plots developed in the United States,” the FBI arrested Najibullah Zazi, Adis Medunjanin and Zarein Ahmedzay for conspiring to detonate bombs on the New York subways (so far Zazi and Ahmedzay have pled guilty.)  Although it’s unknown exactly what first led agents to the trio, who like Shazhad had recently returned from Pakistan, the case was built on extensive physical and electronic surveillance and to all appearances interrupted a Madrid-style attack ostensibly planned for the September 11 anniversary.

     Groups produce more noise and more opportunities for detection and intervention than individuals.  But when evildoers are lone-wolves like Shazhad, a naturalized U.S. citizen without known extremist ties, prevention may be hopeless.  Timothy McVeigh, executed for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was a Gulf-war veteran with a Bronze star.  Obsessed with guns and carrying an intense hatred for the government, the obscure militant with a clean record committed the second most devastating terrorist act in U.S. history, taking 168 lives and injuring nearly 700.

     Fifteen months later one person was killed and more than one-hundred were wounded when another shadowy radical set off a bomb during 1996 Summer Olympics.  Eric Rudolph went on to bomb several abortion clinics, killing an off-duty cop and severely injuring several other bystanders before he was caught.

      According to House intelligence subcommittee chair Rep. Jane Harman (D - Calif.), anticipating what unknowns like McVeigh, Rudolph, Abdulmutallab and Shazhad might do is a daunting task.  “It’s a tough problem.  Think about this kid [Shazhad] living in the suburbs of Connecticut.  Nobody knew who he was.  How do you uncover this?”

     If going after individuals is too tough, what about restricting the sale of bomb-making materials?  Unfortunately, these are exceedingly commonplace.  “Are we going to regulate the purchase of propane gas, firecrackers and fertilizer?” asks Paul Rosensweig, a senior security official under Bush.  “That means regulating every farmer in America.”

     Others hold out more hope.  Another former Bush official, Frances Townsend, favors a “dynamic and target-based intelligence system” that would take into account factors such as Shazhad’s odd trip to Pakistan (he spent five months there, not paying his mortgage and leaving the bank to foreclose on his house.)

     Her suggestion – that intelligence databases expand their reach to encompass a host of factors that may be associated with terroristic intent – is an old idea.  Collect as much information as possible on individuals who trip the system in any way, from foreign travel to association with known troublemakers to cell phone numbers, then filter it using whatever indicia of terrorism can be developed.  Presto – a terrorist lead is born!

     Indeed, that’s one of the approaches that your blogger and his former ATF colleagues successfully used to develop leads on gun traffickers.  Police agencies in Southern California recover thousands of guns each year.  These were traced to the first retail dealer and the results entered into a database.  Leads were developed by filtering guns recovered soon after purchase – say, within six months – with known indicators of trafficking (e.g., guns purchased by females and recovered from gang members).  Naturally, at some point inquiries must shift to the field, where processing becomes far more resource-intensive.  In the end, there is only enough time and manpower to give attention to very few leads, meaning that many worthwhile targets will remain unmolested.

     While the ultimate consequences of gun trafficking are grim, they’re obscured by the everyday criminal mayhem that we accept without blinking an eye.  That’s not true for terrorism, where one episode is one too many.  Yet whether it’s generating leads on gun traffickers or terrorists the constraints are the same.  Cast too wide a net and you’ll be overwhelmed, swamping the system, irritating honest citizens and possibly infringing on their rights as well.  Select too few and should a bomb go off you’ll be criticized for overlooking what critics will quickly point out should have been obvious from the start.

     A lot seems to depend on just how long it’s been since the last attack.  Three months after the government invoked a broad-spectrum approach to screening foreign travelers (its response to the Christmas Day bombing attempt) President Obama announced a major relaxation.  An official justified the loosening.  “It’s much more tailored to what intelligence is telling us and what the threat is telling us, as opposed to stopping all individuals from a particular nationality or all individuals using a particular passport.”

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     Of course, had this more permissive approach been in place when Shazhad returned from Pakistan his cell phone number would have never been become a matter of record.  He’d be in Pakistan right now, thumbing his nose at America.

     Regrettably, when it comes to terrorism, it takes only one wacko to tango.

UPDATE (12/6/19): Usman Khan, 26, served eight years in a British prison for participating in a terrorist cell that planned to carry out attacks across England. During his term he supposedly reformed and, on release, became a role model for others. Considered thoroughly rehabilitated, he traveled unsupervised to a prison conference in London. That’s when he suddenly pulled a knife and began slashing, killing two and injuring three before he was shot dead by police.

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Preventing Mass Murder     Make-Believe     Loose Lips Enable Terrorists     After the Fact

Sometimes There is no Second Chance     Written, Produced and Directed     Doing Nothing, Redux

Dopes, Not Roped     Rope-a-Dope     Damned if They Do     Making Terrorists     Making Terrorists II

Posted 4/4/10


Economic woes and inflammatory rhetoric feed a resurgence of extremism

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  With the arrest of nine top members, including “Captain” David Brian Stone and his son, David Stone Jr. on Federal charges ranging from seditious conspiracy to attempted use of weapons of mass destruction, Michigan’s obscure “Hutaree” militia finally got its fifteen minutes of fame.  According to the indictment, the group intended to kill a local cop, attack his funeral procession with home-made bombs, retreat to defensive positions ringed with booby-traps, and then lead the popular uprising that was certain to follow.

     Was the latest camouflaged band to emerge from America’s underbelly of conspiracy loonies, gun fanatics and all-purpose hate-mongers a serious threat?  Or is it mostly a gaggle of poseurs?  At present that’s hard to know, yet they apparently fell to the oldest trick in the Fed playbook: an undercover agent.  And not just any agent, but one who forged such an intimate relationship with papa and boy Stone that he attended both their weddings.

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     After spending months training with the Hutarees, secretly recording many hours of incriminating conversation, the mole learned of a chilling plan.  It seems that instructions for a “covert reconnaissance exercise” scheduled in April included the suggestion that “anyone who happened on the exercise who did not acquiesce to Hutaree demands could be killed.”  Before that could happen – possibly, before they had all the evidence they sought – the Feds swooped in.  Game over.

     Although acting as the vanguard of a mass uprising sounds like something straight out of the Commie playbook, Hutarees are hardly lefties.  Inspired by prophesies of an anti-Christ, they’ve apparently concluded that their mortal foe is already here, in the form of the Federal Government and all its helpers down to the cop on the beat.

     Racist, government-hating, conspiracy-obsessed organizations tend to bubble to the surface during hard times.  Based in the industrial belt state of Michigan, the Hutaree drew its members from a region where even poorly-educated persons who were willing to work enjoyed ready entrée into the middle class.  No more.  Ravaged by market forces and globalization, it’s an area that now suffers from the highest unemployment in the U.S.

     Still, most people adjust to adversity and move on.  But there’s no denying the attractiveness of nativist, religiously-tinged philosophies that blame everything on immigrants and minorities.  Special contempt is reserved for government bureaucrats who distribute benefits to the ungrateful while leaving the worthy to fight over crumbs.  Well, the majority is no longer silent.  And what it says is this: those who support the failed system aren’t just wrong – they’re traitors, in cahoots with a socialistic “New World Order” (some claim, under the aegis of the U.N.) that seeks to enslave God-fearing citizens, and that only by taking up arms can their threat be forestalled.

     Whatever the precise ideology – and it’s a jumble of contradictions, with Christianity uttered in one breath and assassination in the next – militias like the Hutaree give angry men an opportunity to assuage their hopelessness, vent their frustration and gain power and status, and all in the time-honored tradition of taking up arms to fight their oppressors.

     Of course, there have always been extremists and hate groups.  There’s also been no shortage of individual fanatics.  But when the horrific events of September 2001 brought the country together, shifting the focus to external threats, bitter memories of Ruby Ridge and Waco were set aside.  Militias virtually disappeared from sight.

     Alas, domestic tranquility was not to be.  Less than a decade later, with the economy tanking and the U.S. embroiled in wars on two fronts the country again veered left, going so far as to elect a black President.  Pundits on the right were overjoyed: step aside, bin Laden – here was a new object of scorn!  Chatter about socialist conspiracies returned to center stage.

     Danger signals soon appeared.  Some were in the form of physical threats to the President, none thankfully carried out.  Emboldened, perhaps, by intemperate anti-government rhetoric that drove discourse to new lows, some crazies did go over the brink.  In July 2008 an unemployed 58-year old mechanic walked into a Tennessee church, pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and blasted away, killing two parishioners and wounding six.  In a rambling manifesto mailed to a local newspaper he railed against the “liberalism that’s destroying America” and vowed to kill Democrats “’til the cops kill me.”

     In November 2008 the NRA issued a breathless warning that the new President was planning “to ban guns and drive law-abiding firearm manufacturers and dealers out of business.”  Gun sales shot through the roof.  Five months later three Pittsburgh police officers lay dead and a fourth was seriously wounded when a jobless 22-year old conspiracy theorist opened fire.  A fan of extremist websites, the gunman had told a buddy that he feared Obama was about to take away their guns.  “We recently discovered that 30 states had declared sovereignty,” the friend later said.  “One of his concerns was why were these major events in America not being reported to the public.”

     According to the Southern Poverty Law Center armed militias are on a roll, with an astonishing 363 forming only last year.  Their resurgence comes as no surprise.  When men openly wearing guns shadow Presidential visits; when a group ostensibly comprised of current and retired cops and soldiers declares that its members will refuse to confiscate guns or retake any State that withdraws from the Union; and when citizens billing themselves as “Guardians of the Free Republicsorder Governors to step down, it’s clear that a strange malady has taken hold of the body politic.  Odd ducks who would otherwise be candidates for the funny farm make bizarre, slanderous pronouncements, and instead of parsing their rantings for evidence of mental illness we’re putting them on the airwaves and treating them as sages.

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     Just like in the sixties and seventies, when crazed lefties ran around with guns and bombs, extremism has torn the social fabric, encouraging marginal characters to follow their worst instincts.  Restrained by the same freedoms that enable the provocateurs, there’s little that police can do.  Perhaps some distraction will come up and the wackos will return to their caves before the ship of State founders.

     Anger and intolerance are besetting the Republic.  Armed bands that have nothing in common with the “well-regulated militias” of the Constitution traipse through the woods of the South and Midwest.  No, it’s not what the framers intended, but until the gap between rich and poor narrows and civility comes back into fashion the law of the gun threatens to become the new American way.

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Patriot Movement     Guns and Hate     Montana Human Rights Network

Southern Poverty Law Center


The Face of Evil     Bigger Guns Aren’t Enough     Tale of Three Cities     Looking Beyond the Gun Barrel

Gun Crazy     Don’t Blame the NRA

Posted 1/3/10


What’s more frightening than terrorism?  Relying on analysts to prevent it.

    What we are focused on is making sure that the air environment remains safe, that people are confident when they travel. And one thing I'd like to point out is that the system worked...The passengers and crew of the flight took appropriate action...Within literally an hour to 90 minutes of the incident occurring, all 128 flights in the air had been notified to take some special measures...So the whole process of making sure that we respond properly, correctly and effectively went very smoothly.

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano’s pitiful attempt to deflect blame for letting a bomb-carrying terrorist board a U.S.-bound plane didn’t work.  Only a day later, as Al Qaeda openly gloated about an operation that “penetrated all modern and sophisticated technology and devices and security barriers in airports of the world,” the would-be spinmeister was forced to concede that the system had really not worked, at least not in the way that really matters.

     Unfortunately, it will take a lot more than a Presidential scolding to improve flight security.  It seems that the vaunted “system” installed after 9/11 is hopelessly porous, with all measures short of a strip search having proved incapable of stopping determined evildoers.  Although Homeland Security insists that every security checkpoint will soon be equipped with machines that can detect liquid explosives, PETN, the substance used in this episode (and earlier, by shoebomber Richard Reid) is a powder.  Canines and wildly expensive electronic sniffers that can detect vapors from PETN and other explosives are tied up screening checked baggage.  Meanwhile deployment of phenomenally costly full-body scanners is on hold due to privacy concerns.

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     What about intelligence?  Weren’t analysts sitting at glowing terminals supposed to be the solution?  Indeed, America’s first line of defense, the FBI Terrorist Screening Center, maintains a “Consolidated Terrorist Watchlist” listing 550,000 persons suspected of terrorist ties.  Most are foreigners.  For reasons of efficiency TSA usually checks passenger lists against two subsets of individuals considered to pose the greatest threat, a “no-fly” list of 4,000 persons who are flat-out prohibited from boarding commercial aircraft, and a larger group of 14,000 “selectees” who must be thoroughly searched.  (For the controlling Government regulations click here.  Numbers given are the latest reported.)

     Alas, Umar Abdulmutallab was only on the master list, so when he got to the airport he was treated just like you and me (assuming that you’re not a bad guy, of course.)  Why he wasn’t flagged for a more thorough search demonstrates just how fragile a process security screening really is.

     A Nigerian national from a rich family, Abdulmutallab was enrolled at a prestigious London university between 2005-2008 and presided over the student Islamic society.  On graduation he acquired an American multiple-entry visitor’s visa, good for two years, and briefly vacationed in Houston.  In January 2009 he attended a college in Australia.  In May he tried to renew his British student visa using the name of a bogus college that was known to serve as a front for illegal immigration.  That got him permanently barred from Great Britain.  No matter – by August he was in Yemen, purportedly to study Arabic.  Before dropping from sight he sent his parents text messages mentioning his radical intentions and saying that his family should forget about him.  His alarmed father alerted his own government and went to the American embassy, where he met with officers from the State Department and CIA.  But the kid remained unmolested.  After meeting with an Al Qaeda cell in Yemen, he returned to Nigeria and flew to Amsterdam, where he boarded his final flight to the U.S.

     As one might expect this episode has provoked a great deal of finger-pointing.  Britain never told the U.S. that it placed the youth on a no-entry list.  Despite the father’s anguished warning the State Department didn’t revoke the son’s visa. Neither did the CIA tell the FBI that it had opened a file on Abdulmutallab.  An NSA alert about an Al Qaeda attack that was to be carried out by an unnamed Nigerian national was filed and forgotten.  And so on.

     Now wait a minute: wasn’t creating a new über-agency, the Department of Homeland Security, intended to correct the lapses in coordination and information sharing that supposedly contributed to 9/11?  Sure.  But while less-potent bureaucracies such as Customs, Immigration and the Secret Service got yanked from their former homes and placed under a single umbrella, the three national security organizations that really matter – the FBI, CIA and NSA – have way too much political clout and to this day remain virtually independent.

     Yes, the system is hopelessly fragmented.  But should that be blamed for what took place?  As we pointed out in Missed Signals, there is simply so much data and so little opportunity to do anything about it that anything other than an obvious red flag tends to get discounted.  Really, the notion that those at the end of the information superhighway can successfully detect fast-moving conspiracies in time to avert a catastrophe is frightfully naive.  Warnings that foreigners have it in for America aren’t exactly in short supply.  Analysts didn’t know Abdulmutallab and they surely hadn’t spoken to his father.  It’s a credit to the FBI that it placed the youth on any list at all.

     In truth, the best opportunity to detect a threat isn’t at a centralized analytical bureau that might as well be in another Galaxy – it’s in the field.  Just how often do wealthy former government ministers walk in to warn foreigners about their own sons?  Had officers at the American embassy in Nigeria made a few calls and consulted a few databases they might have easily come up with enough to nix Abdulmutallab’s visa, if not more.

     But they didn’t.

     Had airport security officers or airline employees in Nigeria or Amsterdam paid attention to someone who was flying to the U.S. without checked baggage, on an airline ticket paid for in cash, they might have prevented a terrorist’s boarding.

     But they didn’t.

     When the everyday pressures of business are overwhelming it’s awfully easy to rationalize things away – in effect, to do nothing.  Let’s review the closing paragraph from Missed Signals:

    Rare events such as mass murder are difficult to predict precisely because they are rare. Our best shot at preventing them lies in avoiding the urge to routinize and in paying close attention to the unusual and offbeat, like naked women falling from the sky and military officers e-mailing with terrorists.

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We were referring to Cleveland serial killer Anthony Sowell and Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan.  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab wouldn’t come until later.

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Make-Believe     Sometimes There is no Second Chance     Catch and Release     Missed Signals

Hidden in Plain Sight     An Illusion of Control


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