N.J. terrorist case reveals problem

Despite success, federal authorities say it underscores vulnerability within U.S.

May 12, 2007|By Josh Meyer | Josh Meyer,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Even as the FBI hails as a major success story its breakup of an alleged plot by "radical Islamists" to kill soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J., federal authorities acknowledge that the case has underscored a troubling vulnerability in the domestic war on terror.

They say the FBI, despite an unprecedented expansion over the past five years, cannot possibly counter the growing threat posed by homegrown extremists without the help of two often unreliable allies. One is an American public that they lament is prone to averting its attention from suspicious behavior and often reluctant to get involved. The other is a small but growing army of informants, some of whom might be dodgy and in it for the wrong reasons -- such as money or legal problems of their own.

Such dependence on amateurs is "not something that we would like. It's something that we absolutely need," said Special Agent J.P. Weis, who heads the FBI's Philadelphia field office and the Southern New Jersey Joint Terrorism Task Force, which conducted the Fort Dix investigation.

Weis and other FBI and Justice Department officials acknowledged that they probably would never have known about the six men and their alleged plans had it not been for a Circuit City employee who reported a suspicious video to police.

And, they said, an FBI informant was instrumental in gathering the evidence needed to file criminal charges against the men by infiltrating their circle for 16 months as they allegedly bought and trained with automatic weapons, made reconnaissance runs and discussed their plans.

Weis and others said the bureau's reliance on the public and on informants in domestic counterterrorism investigations is a necessary byproduct of the changing nature of the global jihad and the threat it poses within the United States.

Militants who associated with known al-Qaida figures or who spent time in training camps have for the most part been identified and either arrested, deported or placed under constant surveillance, senior FBI and Justice Department officials said.

The primary threat now comes from an unknown number of individuals with no criminal backgrounds and few if any ties to militants overseas. Operating locally without the need to travel or send communications overseas, these groups and individuals can evade security nets such as international wiretaps and travel surveillance.

Weis -- like other federal law enforcement, counterterrorism and intelligence officials -- described them as "lone wolves, cells that stay below the radar screen."

"Nobody really knows about them; they're not affiliated with any major group, but held together by a common ideology," Weis said. "So to try and infiltrate them, some of the traditional means may not be effective."

FBI officials estimate there are potentially thousands of these disaffected individuals in the United States.

Josh Meyer writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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