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Grassroots Jihadists and the Thin Blue Line

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In this members-only podcast, Fred gives further insight on the way Islamist militant activities are carried out and why local police departments are moving to the front lines.Want to listen but not a member? Take out a risk-free trial today.

By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

As STRATFOR has observed for some years now, the global response to the 9/11 attacks has resulted in the transformation of the jihadist threat. Whereas six and a half years ago, the threat came from "al Qaeda the organization," today it emanates from "al Qaeda the movement." In other words, jihadism has devolved into a broader global phenomenon loosely guided by the original al Qaeda core group's theology and operational philosophy. We refer to the people involved in the widespread movement as grassroots operatives.

In analyzing this metamorphosis over the years, we have noted the strengths of the grassroots jihadist movement, such as the fact that this model, by its very nature, is difficult for intelligence and law enforcement agencies to quantify and combat. We also have said it has a broader operational and geographic reach than the core al Qaeda group, and we have discussed its weaknesses; mainly that this larger group of dispersed actors lacks the operational depth and expertise of the core group. This means the grassroots movement poses a wider, though less severe, threat — one that, to borrow an expression, is a mile wide and an inch deep. In the big picture, the movement does not pose the imminent strategic threat that the core al Qaeda group once did.

It is important to recognize that this metamorphosis has changed the operational profile of the actors plotting terrorist attacks. This change, in turn, has altered the way operatives are most likely to be encountered and identified by law enforcement and intelligence officials. As grassroots operatives become more important to the jihadist movement, local police departments will become an even more critical force in the effort to keep the United States safe from attacks. In short, local police serve as a critical line of defense against grassroots jihadists.

Grassroots Operatives

The operatives involved in the 9/11 attacks attended al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, received thousands of dollars from the group via wire transfers and were in regular contact with al Qaeda operational managers. Grassroots operatives have a different operational profile. While some grassroots operatives — such as Mohammed Siddique Khan, the ringleader of the July 7, 2005, London bombings — have had some degree of contact with the al Qaeda organization, others have had no discernable contact with the group. This lack of contact makes it difficult for law enforcement and intelligence officials to identify grassroots operatives because efforts to identify these militants have been designed to focus on such things as personal contact, travel, financial links and operational communication.

U.S. security agencies have made great efforts since 9/11 to recruit human intelligence sources within communities that are likely to harbor militants. Such sources are invaluable, but they can only report on what they observe within their limited areas of operation. It is simply impossible to recruit enough sources to cover every potential jihadist operative within a given city or even within a given neighborhood or large mosque. Human intelligence sources are scarce and valuable, and they must be used wisely and efficiently. Intelligence pertaining to militant activity and planned terrorist attacks is only obtained if a source has had an opportunity to develop a relationship of trust with the people involved in planning the attack. Such information is closely guarded, and, in most cases, a source must have an intimate relationship with the target to gain access to it. Such relationships take a large investment of a source's time and efforts because they are not established quickly and cannot be established with too many individuals at any one time. This means that the people charged with recruiting and running human intelligence sources generally point them toward known or suspected militants — people who have been identified as having connections with known militant actors or groups. They cannot waste their limited resources on fishing expeditions.

Moreover, in places such as London, Houston and New York, there are so many individuals with some sort of link to Hezbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda or another militant group that it is almost impossible to sort through them all. There is precious little intelligence or surveillance capacity left to focus on finding unknown individuals. The problem is that these unknown individuals many times are the ones involved in grassroots militant plots. For example, Khan came to the attention of British authorities during the course of an investigation that did not directly involve him. After briefly checking him out, however, authorities determined that he did not pose enough of a threat to warrant diverting resources from more pressing cases. Although that assessment proved to be wrong, it is not hard to understand how and why the British authorities reached their conclusion, given the circumstances confronting them at the time.

The strength of U.S. intelligence has long been its signals intelligence capability. The vast array of American terrestrial, airborne and space-based signals intelligence platforms can collect an unimaginable amount of data from a wide variety of sources. The utility of signals intelligence is limited, however; it does not work well when suspects practice careful operational security. In the case of grassroots operatives, escaping scrutiny can be as simple as not using certain buzzwords in their communications or not communicating with known members of militant groups.

In the end, most counterterrorism intelligence efforts have been designed to identify and track people with links to known militant groups, and in that regard, they are fairly effective. However, they are largely ineffective in identifying grassroots militants. This is understandable, given that operatives connected to groups such as Hezbollah have access to much better training and far greater resources than their grassroots counterparts. In general, militants linked to organizations pose a more severe threat than do most grassroots militants, and thus federal agencies focus much of their effort on countering the larger threat.

That said, grassroots groups can and do kill people. Although they tend to focus on softer targets than operatives connected to larger groups, some grassroots attacks have been quite successful. The London bombings, for example, killed 52 people and injured hundreds.
Grassroots Defenders
As we have said, grassroots militants pose a threat that is unlikely to be picked up by federal authorities unless the militants self-identify or make glaring operational security blunders. All things considered, however, most operational security blunders are far more likely to be picked up by an alert local cop than by an FBI agent. The primary reason for this is statistics. There are fewer than 13,000 FBI agents in the entire United States, and less than a quarter of them are dedicated to counterterrorism investigations. By comparison, the New York City Police Department alone has nearly 38,000 officers, including a counterterrorism division consisting of some 1,200 officers and analysts. Moreover, there are some 800,000 local and state police in other jurisdictions across the country. Granted, most of these cops are not dedicated to counterterrorism investigations, though a larger percentage of them are in a good position to encounter grassroots jihadists who make operational security errors or are in the process of committing crimes in advance of an attack, such as document fraud, illegally obtaining weapons and illegal fundraising activities.

Many terrorist plots have been thwarted and dangerous criminals captured by alert officers doing their jobs. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, for example, was not captured by some terrorism taskforce or elite FBI team; McVeigh was arrested shortly after the bombing by an Oklahoma state trooper who noticed McVeigh was driving his vehicle on Interstate 35 without a license plate. A large federal taskforce unsuccessfully hunted Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph for more than five years, but Rudolph ultimately was arrested by a rookie cop in Murphy, N.C., who found him dumpster diving for food behind a grocery store. Yu Kikumura, the Japanese Red Army's master bombmaker, was arrested on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1988 by an alert New Jersey state trooper. Additionally, Hezbollah's multimillion-dollar cigarette smuggling network was uncovered when a sharp North Carolina sheriff's deputy found the group's activities suspicious and tipped off the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, thus launching the large "Operation Smokescreen" investigation.

Local traffic cops also have identified several potential grassroots jihadists. In August 2007, two Middle Eastern men stopped by a sheriff's deputy for speeding near Goose Creek, S.C., were charged with possession of a destructive device. The deputy reported that the men's behavior and their Florida license plates led him to believe they were involved in drug smuggling. A search of the car, however, turned up bombmaking materials rather than dope. Likewise, a traffic stop by a police officer in Alexandria, Va., in September 2001 led to an investigation that uncovered the Virginia Jihad Network. In that case, network member Randall Royer was found to have an AK-47-type rifle with 219 rounds of ammunition in the trunk of his car. However, at least one notorious militant was able to slip through a crack in the system. At the time of the 9/11 attacks, there was an outstanding bench warrant for the operation's leader, Mohamed Atta, for failure to appear in court after driving without a license.

In July 2005, police in Torrance, Calif., thwarted a grassroots plot that came to light during an investigation of a string of armed robberies. After arresting one suspect, Levar Haney Washington, police searching his apartment uncovered material indicating that Washington was part of a militant jihadist group that was planning to attack a number of targets, including the El Al Israel Airlines ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport; synagogues in the Westside area of Los Angeles; California National Guard armories in western Los Angeles, Manhattan Beach and Torrance; and U.S. Army recruiting centers in Long Beach, Torrance and Harbor City.

Cases such as this highlight the fact that grassroots operatives are more likely to indulge in petty crimes such as credit card theft, cargo theft or armed robbery than they are to have telephone conversations with Osama bin Laden. When these operatives do commit such crimes, local cops — rather than the National Security Agency, FBI or CIA — have the first interaction with them. In fact, because of the lack of federal interaction, any records checks run on these individuals through the FBI or CIA most likely would turn up negative. Indeed, even Atta had no CIA 201 file until after Sept. 11, 2001. Therefore, it is important for local cops to trust their instincts and hunches, even if a suspect has no record.

Also, since jihadism is a radical Islamist concept, when we discuss fighting grassroots jihadists, we are talking about militant Islamists, including converts to Islam. With that in mind, there are certain crimes that, when perpetrated by Muslims, warrant thorough investigation. Most observant Muslims are excellent law-abiding citizens. However, it should be a red flag to law enforcement when an otherwise-observant Muslim is found engaging in document fraud or financial frauds such as bank fraud, credit card fraud, interstate transportation of stolen property, fencing stolen property, cigarette smuggling, selling pirated goods (such as software or designer handbags) or even dope smuggling. These crimes are especially significant if the perpetrator has made millions of dollars and yet still lives modestly, raising questions about where the proceeds from such crimes have gone. Obviously, not every Muslim who commits such crimes is a terrorist, but these crimes are an indication that further investigation is required. Of course, this follow-on investigation could prove difficult — getting leads run in Pakistan or Lebanon can be tough — but it can be successful if the officer has determination and the proper mindset. An officer with such a mindset will look at such crimes and consider whether they could have been perpetrated for some purpose beyond self-enrichment — such as terrorism.

Like in the cases of Operation Smokescreen and the Virginia Jihad Network, the instincts and observations of an experienced street cop can launch an investigation with far-reaching implications. This fact makes local cops a critical line of defense against grassroots operatives.

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