Articulo Josh Tyrangiel. www.time.com. 03/07/06
The arrest of some unusual suspects in Miami says less about homegrownterror than a new attempt to police it.
Were the consequences of underestimating terrorists neither so grave nor so fresh, it would be tempting to look at the seven men indicted on conspiracy charges for plotting to blow up the Sears Tower and laugh. Not so much at the suspects--five American citizens, a legal immigrant from Haiti and an illegal Haitian national, all of whose hardscrabble bios make them seem more sad than sinister--but at those who considered them a real threat to wage, as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales put it, "a full ground war against the United States." FBI deputy director John Pistole conceded that the men, part of a Miami group called Seas of David, were "more aspirational than operational," and its aspirations reeked of ineptitude. When alleged ringleader Narseal Batiste, 32, presented an FBI informant he thought was an al-Qaeda operative with a list of materials necessary for jihad, it did not include explosives. Instead Batiste asked for $50,000, radios, uniforms and steel-toed boots. Was the plan to blow the Sears Tower up or kick it down?
Of course, it once would have been easy to dismiss the four working-class British men who strapped on backpacks and bought Tube tickets. Or the 19 men who imagined they could hijack passenger jets with box cutters. Historically, it's been law enforcement's job to separate the genuinely scary people from the goofballs--particularly when the goofballs are American citizens whose eccentricities, however radical, are protected by the Constitution. But times change, and as shown by last week's indictments and dozens of other arrests over the past five years, the Bush Administration appears less focused on trying to gauge the ability of domestic terrorism suspects to carry out their wildest plots and more on rooting out those who may have the intent, though not yet the ability, to harm the United States.
You could call it the broken-windows theory of domestic terrorism--after James Q. Wilson's and George L. Kelling's much lauded crime policy that suggests that by cracking down on minor offenders, you send a message to the major ones, and sometimes catch them too. The policy, reiterated by FBI director Robert Mueller in a conveniently timed speech late last week, is to never dismiss the grand schemes of small men, even if those men are Americans and their schemes are more dream than reality. "Radicalization often starts with individuals who are frustrated with their lives, with the politics of their home governments," said Mueller. "And as talk moves to action, an extremist can become a terrorist." Says Ron Suskind, author of The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11: "You find a reversal of the general posit that it is sufficient that 100 guilty men go free so that one innocent man is not convicted. It's now sound that 100 innocent men are swept up so that one guilty man not slip away."
At a time when a handful of terrorists can trigger an exponentially larger tragedy, such a policy can seem prudent. But the recent arrests in Miami, and of 17 Canadian residents who allegedly plotted to use fertilizer bombs on sites in Ontario, ultimately raise more questions than they answer about the level of threat. Are these men the tip of the iceberg, with many other home-grown cells lurking below the surface? Or is America so inhospitable to made-in-the-U.S.A. terrorism that street-corner confidence men are all we're producing?
CRACKDOWN IN LIBERTY CITY: Many residents in
this poor area of Miami were skeptical
about the arrests.
There have been 441 arrests in domestic terrorism investigations since Sept. 11, but drawing any conclusions about homegrown terrorism from these cases is risky--largely because so many of them involve foreign nationals arrested on American soil. As for native suspects, Seas of David--a partly Christian, Muslim, martial-arts, Bible-study group that wore black outfits with a Star of David on the sleeve and met in a pastel orange clubhouse--should defy any attempt at logic. But in cases from Toledo, Ohio, to Lodi, Calif., we do have a rough sketch of which Americans are getting nabbed. Mostly, they're young, lower-middle-class Muslims, Americans who flirt at some level with radicalism. They get caught when they try to get training, weapons or, as was apparently the case in Florida, when they reach out, however ham-handedly, to a larger network. "Anyone who forms their own little group and then tries to connect with al-Qaeda is more likely to run into government agents than al-Qaeda agents," says John Nutter, a terrorism expert and professor at the University of Toledo. "Clearly our government is watching those types of contacts."
The feds are monitoring nonverbal forms of contact too. As revealed last week, a U.S. deal with an international banking consortium, SWIFT, lets intelligence officials look at the financial transactions of suspected terrorists. In its pursuit of serious jihadists with moneyed connections abroad (a category the FBI admits Seas of David does not belong in) the program, run out of the CIA, targets millions of bank transfers, some of which appear to have involved U.S. residents, or even U.S. citizens, and many others that did not.
While computers sift through reams of transfers in the hunt for terrorism's big guns, the gumshoe task of proving guilt in Miami could be tricky. Some legal scholars suggest that the government's case creeps to the edge of entrapment. Would the accused have taken the bayat--al-Qaeda's loyalty oath--had they not been prompted to do so by the informant posing as an al-Qaeda operative? Is it possible that the defendants were more interested in money than in joining al-Qaeda? [As a hedge, charges were brought under both federal statute 18 U.S.C. 2339(a), which makes it illegal to intend to join any terrorist organization, and 18 U.S.C. 2339(b), which specifically lists al-Qaeda.] A senior Administration official told TIME the inquiry might have provided more answers, but arrests had to be made because "indications were that the group was starting to catch on to the informant."
Even more revealing than who gets busted is that the Department of Justice doesn't seem particularly concerned about how it convicts those it arrests. The Attorney General's office trumpets 218 guilty pleas, but admits that in many cases those are for minor immigration offenses that were uncovered during the course of a terrorism investigation. In response to critics who noted that one of the few patterns to emerge from domestic prosecutions is that the suspects seem too incompetent to carry out the deeds they're accused of, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty acknowledged last week that the Department of Justice's goal is "prevention through prosecution."
Americans have become experts at civic calculus since Sept.11. Four years ago, about 60% of those polled said that a small abrogation of rights is an acceptable price for feeling -and perhaps being- a little safer, but recent polls put the number at 34%. While they may not want their own rights restricted, the real question is whether Americans care if the rights of their fellows -specifically the young American Muslims most likely to get cauht in an aggresive prosecutorial dragnet -areabridged. Says Suskind, "The downside of overreaching is that it's not a judicious exercirse of power. It's inefficient." It's also possible that in treating kooks like radicals, you radicalize some otherwise reasonable people. The predicament for law enforcement, though, is that it's not enough to fix broken windows. You have to shout it out to the whole neighborhood.
Canadian police arrest 17 men in Toronto for allegedly plotting al-Qaeda-inspired attacks. Six of them have been charged with planning to set off an explosion after they bought three tons of fertilizer -the same kind used in the Oklahoma City bombing.
Brooklyn, N.Y. native and part-time South Florida resident Jose Padilla, top, is arrested in Chicago on a return trip from Pakistan. Held as an “enemy combatant” for three years, he was formally charged with aiding foreign jihadists in a Miami court last year. He pleaded not guilty.
Seven men, five of whom are U.S. citizens, are charged with plotting to support al-Qaeda. Ringleader Narseal Batiste, bottom, and the others were allegedly planning an attack on Chicago’s Sears Tower. They have yet to enter pleas.
Authorities arrest a Pakistani immigrant and his American-born son in the agricultural town of Lodi, above, for lying to the FBI about the younger man’s training at a jihadist camp in Pakistan. Hamid Hayat, the son, was found guilty (a decision he intends to appeal). His father’s case ended in mistrial.
Three men from Los Angeles and a Sacramento prison inmate are indicted for conspiring to attack military bases and synagogues in Southern California. The men have pleaded not guilty and await trial. All but one were born in the U.S.
Marwan Othman el-Hindi, top, a U.S. citizen, is arrested along with two other men in Toledo for providing material support to terrorists. One of the men is accused of downloading videos on the use of suicide-bomb vests. The trio has pleaded not guilty.
A naturalized U.S. citizen from Kashmir, Iyman Faris of Columbus, bottom, pleads guilty to supporting al-Qaeda. Among other things, he had cased the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City for a possible attack. He is later sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In the case known as “Virginia jihad,” the FBI charges 11 men of various national backgrounds (nine of whom are U.S. citizens) with being part of a conspiracy to support holy war overseas. Ali al-Timimi of Fairfax, above, the group’s purported leader, is later convicted on separate charges of inciting others towage war.
Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, a Texas.born citizen of Falls Church, is arrested abroad and charged with plotting to kill the President. In 2005 he is convicted by a U.S. court and later sentenced to 30 years in prison.
The “Lackawanna Six,” all American citizens of Yemeni descent living outside Buffalo, depicted above, are arrested for having attended an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. All six later plead guilty and receive prison sentences of seven to 10 years.
Uzair Paracha, a young Pakistani born man who was raised partly in New York City, is apprehended by the FBI. He is eventually convicted of conspiring to help an al-Qaeda terrorist –who was plotting an attack of gasoline storage thanks in Maryland- to enter the U.S.
Pakistani American Mohammed Junaid Babar, who grew up in Queens, is arrested by agents in New York City. Two months later, he pleads guilty to, among other things, supporting terrorist in Pakistan and aiding a plot to bomb pubs and train stations in Lodon.
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