Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Fort Dix Plotters: More Vulnerable Than First Appearances Suggested?

I haven't yet had a chance to read the complaint against the Fort Dix plotters, but the New York Times summarizes it in this article. It appears the plotters may have been more vulnerable than first appearances suggested:

They seemed to be prepared: with terror training tapes, with computerized ballistic simulations, even with what appeared to be a template of the last will and testament drawn up by two of the hijackers from Sept. 11. At the same time, one of the men worried aloud to a government informer: "I just want to be safe, brother. I got five kids, so I don’t want to go down."
Sidestepping the question of whether it's rational to think you could be "safe" after attacking a U.S. military base with automatic weapons, a more interesting question emerges:

How can homeland security professionals exploit the apprehension of individual terrorists?

As background, it is important to remember that jihad is a voluntary enterprise, as RAND's Brian Michael Jenkins testified to Congress last month (my post is here):
Volunteers move on by self-selection. There may be powerful peer pressure, but there is no coercion. Submission is voluntary. Not all recruits complete the journey. Commitment is constantly calibrated and re-recalibrated. Some drop out along the way. A component of our counter-recruiting strategy must be to always offer a safe way back from the edge.
The possibility that one or more members of a cell may pull back is a serious vulnerability for a terrorist organization, from the perspective of both operational security and tactical effectiveness.

But don't take my word for it. Recall that an al Qaeda strategist argued, and Terrorism Monitor reported earlier this year, that it is vital for terrorist organizations to maintain the strongest possible ideological commitment among their members:
The decisive factor for successful jihadi training is the moral motivation and the desire to fight, not knowledge in the use of arms, al-Suri asserts. If the ideological program is not fully digested and the mental preparation is absent, weapons training is of no use.
(Also see my post.)

So the hesitance and vacillation of the Fort Dix plotters was a serious problem for them:
The recorded conversations indicate that the suspects shifted between a deadly intent to kill and a fear of losing heart. They appear at times to bolster one another — "I’m in, honestly, I’m in," one says — or to give one another pretexts to avoid the plot. One says they need a fatwa, or religious decree, before they actually proceed. Another unwittingly suggests that the informer take the lead in the attack since he is a former soldier and is thought to be more seasoned than the rest.

Throughout, however, there are anxieties about the law, resulting in what soon sounds like a plot within the plot. Fearing the informer is betraying them, one of the men confronts him. "I don’t know whether you’re F.B.I.," he says. But the planning goes on, according to the complaint.

When the informer asks one suspect, Shain Duka, if he is "with them," Mr. Duka says, "God willing, we will see." Mr. Duka’s brother Eljvir is quoted as saying they need a fatwa before they can attack. And another suspect, Serdar Tatar, asserts he is "in" but cautions that they must take steps to ensure their families’ safety.
It is clear that they were acutely aware of their own vulnerabilities regarding the commitment of cell members.

But that wasn't their only worry. They were also aware that the commission of precursor crimes (i.e., illegal firearms possession) made them vulnerable:
In the next few months, the men talk guns (somewhat oddly, they seem troubled by the thought of weapons that are fully automatic, noting they are, after all, illegal) and take shooting practice on state land in the Poconos, in Pennsylvania.
And in a stunning move, they actually contact the police to inquire about the bona fides of a cell member. (Talk about a lack of operational security...)
There are also lingering suspicions. In November, for example, trying to determine if the first informer is a plant, Mr. Tatar contacts the police in Philadelphia, according to the complaint, and tells a sergeant he has recently been approached by a man who "pressured him to acquire maps of Fort Dix." In a remarkable turn, he tells the sergeant he is fearful that "the incident was terrorist-related."
This incident is really intriguing. The plotters exposed a new vulnerability by going to the police with information about their own plot. And - significantly - from the perspective of the Philly Police, this would almost certainly have been a raw tip. It is unlikely that they would have had any prior involvement with the FBI's investigation.

This raises some cricital questions about the federal-state information-sharing system. If this was a raw tip from the perspective of the Philly Police, then what happened after Tatar talked to the Philadelphia Police sergeant?
  • Did the Philly Police share this information with the FBI?
  • Did the FBI, who was already on the case, share information with the Philly Police?
  • Was the fusion center contacted?
In short, did the information-sharing system work?

Cross-posted in IPS Blogs at the Institute for Preventive Strategies.

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