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On our turf

Experts say the threat of domestic terrorism is growing.

Illustration by Krieg Barrie

On our turf
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While the rest of us were working, cooking, paying the bills, and carpooling our kids, some in our own midst, many of them fellow citizens, were plotting to kill us.

Since May of this year, federal agents have knocked down five elaborate terror plots to kill Americans on American soil:

May 2009: FBI agents arrested four men-three U.S.-born, one Haitian-born, all Muslim converts-after they planted bombs in cars outside the Riverdale Temple and the Riverdale Jewish Center in the Bronx. The conspirators (James Cromitie, 44, David Williams, 28, Onta Williams, 32, and Laguerre Payen, 27) had also obtained from an FBI confidential informant what they thought was a fully operational surface-to-air missile that they planned to fire at an Air National Guard aircraft on the same day.

July 2009: A North Carolina grand jury returned a seven-count indictment against eight men, all devout Muslims, for conspiracy to provide material support for terrorists. On Sept. 24, the grand jury upgraded the charges for two men-Daniel Boyd, 39, and Hysen Sherifi,24-to conspiring to murder U.S. military personnel at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va. Seven of the men, including Boyd, were U.S. citizens. In fact, friends described Boyd as a model citizen.

September 2009: Federal agents arrested al-Qaeda operative Najibullah Zazi, 24, and his father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, at the younger man's suburban Denver home. Another man, Ahmad Wai Afzali, 37, of Flushing, N.Y., was also arrested. Zazi was charged with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction against targets in the United States that may have included sports stadiums and Grand Central Terminal in New York City.

September 2009: Authorities arrested Hosam Smadi, 19, of Jordan, for attempting to destroy the 60-story Foundation Place office tower in Dallas, Texas, with a weapon of mass destruction. Smadi actually pushed the button on a cell phone he thought would detonate a truck bomb he'd staged in a parking garage underneath the structure. But the bomb was a fake, provided by FBI undercover operatives.

October 2009: Authorities charged Tarek Mehanna, 27, and Ahmad Abousamra, 28, both of Massachusetts, in a 10-count indictment with providing and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, conspiracy to kill in a foreign country, and other charges. In intercepted communications, Mehanna expressed admiration for the 9/11 hijackers and Osama bin Laden; he conspired with Abousamra to join a terrorist camp overseas, launch an attack on shoppers at a suburban U.S. mall, and assassinate two members of the U.S. government's executive branch.

Then, in November, one plot slipped through the cracks.

On Nov. 5, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. citizen and devout Muslim, allegedly shot and killed 14 people, including an unborn child, and wounded 30 others at Fort Hood, Texas. During the murder spree, witnesses heard Hasan bellowing the Islamic jihadist battle cry, "Allahu Akbar!"

Before the shooting, Hasan reportedly gave away his possessions, appeared (uncharacteristically) in Muslim religious garb, and visited a strip club, an activity strictly forbidden to devout Muslims, but typical of those about to become shaheed-martyrs in the cause of jihad. Some of the 9/11 hijackers stopped in to similar joints before their deadly mission: According to jihadist teaching, the shaheed are the only Muslims granted immediate forgiveness of all sins, as well as direct entry into jannah (paradise), so there is no reason not to indulge in a little earthly pleasure before the trip.

While Hasan has yet to be found guilty and U.S. officials and media outlets remain reluctant to brand an active-duty U.S. Army officer a terrorist, those who study Islamic jihad say that Hasan's alleged rampage was the worst domestic terror attack since 9/11.

And yet, with a string of thwarted terror plots capped by the spectacular strike at Fort Hood, there have been no threat-level changes by the Department of Homeland Security, no alerts to Americans of an uptick in domestic terror plots, no issuance of warning signs for the U.S. public.

The problem, one former Pentagon expert in jihadist law told me in a telephone interview, is one of doctrine:

"We're completely off our doctrine on this whole discussion," said the analyst, whose current job consulting with U.S. government agencies on terror threats requires him not to appear by name in media. The doctrine, called Intelligence Preparation of the Environ­ment, requires analysts to create a profile of an enemy based first on who the enemy says he is. But U.S. analysts, constrained by politics, are loath to conclude and publicize what the facts already show: that jihadist Muslims who state that they kill non-Muslims because their religious ideology demands it are in fact doing so. They have successfully infiltrated the United States from foreign countries, have won and radicalized Muslim converts among U.S. citizens, and-if the uptick in busted plots is any indication-are planning violence at an increasing rate.

Today, the main domestic terror threat does not emanate from the al-Qaeda core, said Scott Stewart, vice president of intelligence at Stratfor Global Intelligence, an intelligence analysis firm. "The U.S. government and our allies have done a very good job of dismantling the organization," Stewart said. "While they haven't been able to take out apex leaders such as Osama bin Laden . . . they've done a very good job of taking out the mid-level guys, the operational planners, who are really a critical link in conducting an attack" coordinated overseas.

In Stratfor's estimation, the biggest domestic threat now comes from "grassroots jihadists," people who form loose conspiracies and from "lone wolves," attackers who act on their own as it appears Hasan did at Fort Hood.

Since 9/11, the only successful jihadist attacks to occur on U.S. soil have involved lone wolves:

On June 1, 2009, Muslim convert Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad shot and killed Pvt. William Long at the U.S. Army/Navy recruiting center in Little Rock, Ark.

On July 4, 2002, Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, 41, an Egyptian national, opened fire at the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport, killing two Israelis and wounding four others before being shot dead by a security guard for the Israeli airline.

Rarely mentioned as lone wolf jihadists are the so-called "D.C. Snipers" John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo. After the pair was arrested following a killing spree that left 10 dead in the Washington, D.C., area in 2002, Malvo, then 17, told prosecutors that Muhammad's motive was to kill as many infidel "devils" as possible. Malvo's own artwork, submitted at trial, expressed jihadist sentiments. Malvo is serving six life sentences. Muhammad was executed with little fanfare on Nov. 10.

"For several years, there have been several Middle Eastern jihadists who have called for these grassroots guys to rise up in a global way and conduct attacks," Stewart said.

Such a call went out in late October when al-Qaeda leaders in the Arabian Peninsula released the 11th edition of the online magazine Sada al-Malahim (The Echo of Battle). In it al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader Nasir al-Wahayshi called for jihadists via Islamic websites to conduct simple attacks against "any tyrant, intelligence den, prince" or "minister" (referring to Muslim governments such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen), and "any crusaders whenever you find one of them, like at the airports of the crusader Western countries that participate in the wars against Islam, or their living compounds, trains etc.," an obvious reference to the United States and its allies.

A key problem for law enforcement officials is that lone wolf attacks rarely involve conspirators and, as a result, there are no electronic communications trails for federal agents to latch onto. Rogue actors are also difficult to preempt because there's often no evidence of an impending crime until the crime actually occurs.

Whether acting alone or with conspirators, some grassroots jihadists-Quantico plotter Daniel Boyd, for example-travel to places like Peshawar, Pakistan, to train in al-Qaeda camps. But domestic terrorists can also train here in plain sight, said Ron Sandee, research director at the NEFA Foundation, a nonprofit group that investigates terrorism. "If you are a U.S.-born citizen or a naturalized citizen, you can buy a gun, you can go to a shooting range and practice, and it's all legal," said Sandee, a former counter­terrorism analyst with the Dutch Defense Intelligence Service. "You can sell your guns inside state lines. You can go to a martial arts center and do your martial arts training. You can fly an instructor in from Europe to help radicalize the group. The whole group can be trained and radicalized with the government looking on but not able to do anything because the group hasn't done anything illegal."

According to a NEFA analysis of case documents, the Fort Dix plotters conducted tactical training in the Pocono Mountains, trained at a firing range in Gouldsboro, Pa., and emulated the Army's paintball-training method in preparation for jihad.

Now, with three years' worth of new jihadist plots uncovered, U.S. officials still seem loath to link fundamentalist Islam with terror. So much so that warnings to Maj. Nadal Hasan's superiors about his increasingly radical pronouncements went unheeded. And before families of the Fort Hood fallen could weep for their slain loved ones, the Obama administration warned against "backlash" against Muslims. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey opined that a loss of diversity in the military would be "worse" than the mass murder of American soldiers on U.S. soil.

Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch, blames such official tap-­dancing in part on a largely successful post-9/11 campaign by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) to "demonize anyone who speaks out against jihad." CAIR had long styled itself an educational nonprofit and turned up regularly in the mainstream press defending nearly any Muslim who had a brush with law enforcement, vilifying ex-jihadists who had crossed over to speak out against radical Islam, and even consulting with the U.S. government on Islam "awareness" training. Then, in 2007, CAIR was named an "unindicted co-conspirator" in a case that linked the Holy Land Foundation, an Islamic charity, with terror groups, but that case ended in a mistrial. A federal court filing, however, described CAIR as "having conspired with other affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood to support terrorists."

"The biggest lesson of the Fort Hood attacks is that political correctness kills," Spencer said. "The 13 dead and 30 wounded are the fruit of the CAIR campaign that has so cowed and intimidated ordinary Americans that in this case, even U.S. military personnel who heard Hasan make statements in support of Islamic jihad remained silent because they were worried about being labeled racists, bigots, or 'Islamaphobic.'"

"Now Americans face a hideous choice: Continue to ignore signs of support for jihad out of fear of being branded a bigot or a racist," Spencer added, "or speak up and subject themselves to demonization and civil rights claims, but maybe prevent the next attack."

Feeding jihadi fever

Anwar al Awlaki's blog on Nov. 16 read, "The website will be back to normal within a few days time." And an earlier blog post (Nov. 9) titled "Nidal Hasan Did the Right Thing" is no longer accessible there. The American-born Yemeni imam may have gone too far even for al-Qaeda jihadists when he called Hasan "a hero" after he allegedly killed 13 U.S. soldiers and one unborn infant and wounded 29 at Fort Hood Nov. 5.

Salman Al-Awdah, a Saudi cleric who helped to shape the early radicalism of Osama bin Laden, called the Ft. Hood shootings "irrational" and "empty of thought," according to a post on his website and recent television appearance in Saudi Arabia picked up by jihadi watcher NEFA Foundation.

The debate among jihadists and teachers of radical Islamic is part of something Patrick Sookhdeo of the Barnabas Fund has called "a war within Islam." Part of that war has to do with a shift in the thinking of potential terrorists who have come of age post-9/11-and could be more erratically violent, if that's possible. "The naive younger guys have been raised and fed on bright-eyed propaganda about the 'Shaykh of the Slaughters' [former al-Qaeda in Iraq leader] Zarqawi, beheadings, and suicide bombings," NEFA senior analyst Evan Kohlmann told Wired magazine's Danger Room blog. The younger generation is more likely to stoke its jihad ideology via the internet, according to Kohlmann, and as a result may follow the "lone wolf" pattern evidenced by Hasan and others. Meanwhile, ideologues like Awlaki hide behind ever-changing blog sites.

The FBI has acknowledged that Hasan came to its attention over communication with Awlaki going back to December 2008. In a statement the FBI said agents "assessed that the content of those communications was consistent with research being conducted by Major Hasan in his position as a psychiatrist at the Walter Reed Medical Center."

But while emails between the two may not have raised alarms, Awlaki published a blog post in July titled "Fighting Against Government Armies in the Muslim World." In it he argued that U.S. armies were "defending apostasy in the Muslim world" and said, "These armies are the number one enemy of the ummah. They are the worse of creation. Blessed are those who fight against them and blessed are those shuhada who are killed by them."

Under such influence, it's not hard to see how Hasan grew more incensed by Army deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Federal authorities charged Hasan, still recovering from gunshot wounds in a Texas hospital and possibly paralyzed by his injuries, with 13 counts of premeditated murder, and military officials did not rule out the possibility he could face additional charges, including an additional count of murder for the unborn child killed along with victim Francheska Velez, who was almost to term with her pregnancy. Under the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, Hasan may be "guilty of a separate offense" for causing "the death of, or bodily injury (as defined in section 1365) to, a child, who is in utero at the time the conduct takes place."

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is executive editor of WORLD Magazine and producer/host of the true crime podcast Lawless. She is the New York Times best-selling author or co-author of a dozen nonfiction books, including Same Kind of Different As Me and Indianapolis. Lynn lives in the mountains east of San Diego, Calif.


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