Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Vulnerabilities of the Fort Dix Plotters

According to the AP report, via CBS News, the six would-be jihadists who were arrested for plotting to attack Fort Dix were essentially a homegrown plot. These guys were apparently not tied to al Qaeda:

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Tuesday there is "no direct evidence" that the men had ties to international terrorism.
This demonstrates the evolving threat of al Qaeda. While the core organization is still dangerous, it is also becoming a "franchise" operation, in which small cells can go operational on their own, only taking inspiration from the parent organization and developing capabilities independently.

The good news about this is, self-taught terrorists are apt to show less operational discipline and make more mistakes than those who have been more professionally trained. From the early reporting, I can see five vulnerabilities of this group - some of which were exploited, some of which weren't. First, there are immigration violations:
Four of the men were born in the former Yugoslavia, one in Jordan and one in Turkey, officials said. All had lived in the United States for years. Three were in the country illegally; two had green cards allowing them to stay permanently; the other is a U.S. citizen.
But their immigration status didn't trip them up; their other vulnerabilities did. Their worst mistake was to show their jihadist tendencies outside their inner circle:
The FBI was tipped off in January 2006 when a shopkeeper alerted agents about a "disturbing" video he had been asked to copy onto a DVD, according to court documents. The video showed 10 men in their early 20s "shooting assault weapons at a firing range ... while calling for jihad and shouting in Arabic 'Allah Akbar' (God is great)," the complaint said.
Not good operational security, that.

Note that the "shopkeeper" episode demonstrates the value of maintaining good relationships between law enforcement and the public, especially with Arab-American and Muslim populations. (See this post for background on that.)

The group's third vulnerability was to try to expand its ranks.
By March 2006, the group had been infiltrated by an informant who developed a relationship with Shnewer, according to court documents.

In conversations secretly recorded by an FBI informant over the past year, the men talked about killing in the name of Allah and attacking U.S. warships that might dock in Philadelphia, according an FBI criminal complaint.
The group allowed this vulnerability to be exploited not once, but twice. In a timeline of the group's activities from January 2006 to May 2007, the New Jersey Star-Ledger revealed that there were two cooperating witnesses:
July 7, 2006: A second cooperating witness is approached by six men, one of whom identifies himself as "Sulayman," a name used by Eljvir Duka.
Note that this witness didn't go to them; they approached him.

This exposes a truism of terrorist recruiting. Terrorists are vulnerable when they try to expand their ranks. During recruiting, they have to poke their heads above ground and communicate their violent desires, and that's a significant risk to them.

Their fourth area of vulnerability was their attempt to acquire the high-powered weaponry they needed to attack Fort Dix. They were after M-16s and AK-47s. Again from the Star-Ledger:
May 7, 2007: Federal investigators arrest the three Dukas, Shnewer, Tatar and Abdullahu, after several of them are lured to a meeting with a secret FBI informant posing as an arms-seller.
A final potential vulnerability, which went unexploited, was the necessity of finding a place to do their training. Like others before them, they chose a remote area.
The Allentown (PA) Morning Call provided specifics on the group's training in the Poconos:
Six men who allegedly plotted to attack Fort Dix trained with automatic weapons on state game lands in the Poconos and rented a house in that area, according to the criminal complaint filed by the U.S. attorney's office in Camden.

The six men first visited the firing range at State Game Land 127 near Gouldsboro in January 2006, according to the complaint. The men, who had been under surveillance by the FBI for more than a year, returned to the Poconos in February 2007 and rented a house in a gated community called Big Bass Lake near Gouldsboro where they watched videos of U.S. military vehicles being destroyed in various attacks.

The men again visited the firing range, where they practiced with numerous weapons, including handguns and automatic rifles. According to the complaint, each man fired over 400 rounds each.
Their preparations were pretty typical; acquiring weapons, practicing in the woods. What this means for local law enforcement is that if you are in a remote or rural area, there's a chance that terrorists may come to you, even if you consider your community low on the target list.

But the group's vulnerability during training wasn't exploited. It's possible that they didn't do anything to raise suspicions while in the Poconos.

One thing that comes through clearly is the group's determination. They would not be deterred by the risk of jail time, or even death:
"It doesn't matter to me whether I get locked up, arrested or get taken away," a suspect identified as Serdar Tatar said in another recorded conversation. "Or I die, it doesn't matter. I'm doing it in the name of Allah."
It's possible that there's an element of braggadocio here, but not likely. Other homegrown groups, such as the London subway bombers and the recent group in Morocco, have shown the capacity to conduct suicide operations or fight to the finish rather than give up.

The only way to deter these guys would have been to convince them that their chances of success were so small that they wouldn't make the effort. Even then, they would have moved on to another target. They conducted reconnaissance on a number of sites:
The men also allegedly conducted surveillance at other area military institutions, including Fort Monmouth, a U.S. Army installation, the official said.
An important bit of information from the story is that they had access to the target:
[U.S. Attorney Christopher] Christie said one of the suspects worked at Super Mario's Pizza in nearby Cookstown and delivered pizzas to the base.
It is easy to imagine these guys piling into the pizza-deliverer's car, perhaps in the trunk, when he made a delivery to the base, and then coming out firing when he reached a populated area of the base.

In other words , it may be unlikely that the base's gates and other rings of protection would have prevented the immediate attack. They certainly would have been dispatched pretty quickly once the firing started, but they could have done some damage before that happened.

To summarize:

This group had a number of vulnerabilities, but a lack of mission doesn't appear to be one of them. Deterrence was unrealistic. They had done their homework well enough to develop a scheme that may have gotten them past Fort Dix's protective system of gates and guards.

It was up to law enforcement to detect their activities and preempt the attack before it occurred. Some of their vulnerabilities were unexploited. So the tip-offs and informants were critical, as we have seen in prior cases.

Update 2007-05-09: The U.S. Attorney and FBI are giving a lot of credit to the anonymous store clerk who made the original tip:
"If we didn't get that tip," said U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, "I couldn't be sure what would happen." FBI agent J.P. Weis called the clerk the "unsung hero" of the case.
Trust is the basis for information-sharing. It's essential to maintain public trust, so that people feel confident in coming forward with information. It's especially important in the case of these groups that can pop up spontaneously. They're harder to spot, because they make fewer connections. The people who are most likely to notice this type of behavior are the people in the community close to them:
Weis said the U.S. is seeing a "brand-new form of terrorism," involving smaller, more loosely defined groups that may not be connected to al-Qaida but are inspired by its ideology.

"These homegrown terrorists can prove to be as dangerous as any known group, if not more so. They operate under the radar," Weis said.

"We believe they are their own cell," said Christie. "They are inspired by international terror organizations. I believe they saw themselves as part of that."
Update #2 2007-05-09: A few more details from the Chicago Tribune.

The Tribune quotes Daniel Benjamin, who points out the plotters' lack of operational security. As I mentioned earlier in this post, he's absolutely right that, compared to the disciplined 9/11 plotters, these guys were all too careless about maintaining operational security:
Daniel Benjamin, a terrorism expert and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington ... said he knew too little about the New Jersey case to draw a conclusion about the seriousness of the threat. But the fact that the men took a video of themselves firing assault weapons to a store for copying onto DVDs, he said, "somewhat indicates they weren't the A-team of terrorists."
The Tribune story reveals that group was apparently deterred from attacking Dover Air Force Base by what they perceived to be stronger security, choosing what they perceived to be a softer target in Fort Dix:
The plotters also targeted Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, but determined it was too well-guarded to attack, the FBI said.
This is another data point demonstrating that protection of one target generally means that a determined adversary will find a softer target. (And by extension, that simply protecting targets is an insufficient strategy for preventing terrorism.)

For its part, Fort Dix defended its security operations:
A successful attack on Ft. Dix is considered to be highly unlikely. Armed soldiers guard every gate, whose approaches have curbs or barriers that force traffic to slowly snake as they get near.

The soldiers perform "a 100 percent identification check" and conduct random vehicle searches, Carolee Nisbet, a public information officer at Ft. Dix, said.
I haven't been to Fort Dix, so I will assume that security there is strong. But defending the guard system at the gate misses a larger point: The system must stop guys like this before they ever reach the gate. The time to stop a terrorist attack is early, not when the car is loaded with shooters and automatic rifles.

The system worked this time, but it's discomforting to think that if not for the Circuit City clerk who called in the tip, the vulnerabilities of the group might have gone unexploited.

Update 2007-05-10: More on Fort Dix security from AP:
The fort considers its policy for screening delivery people adequate for now, but said it could be reviewed in the future, base spokeswoman Carolee Nesbit said.

Before they are cleared to make deliveries at Fort Dix, drivers must register in advance, undergo a criminal background check, and obtain an access pass that has to be reviewed every 30 days.

Drivers who arrive at the military installation's gate are greeted by armed guards, who check their identification and issue a pass. The delivery people are not followed or monitored once they clear security, Nesbit said.

"There are 16,000 people that come through the gates every day," she said. "It's practically impossible to follow everyone."

Guards are a necessary but insufficient form of protection. They will not stop a genuine threat unless: A) It is imminent (i.e., the shooters are in the car) or B) The potential threat is identified at an earlier phase of development.

All of which demonstrates the value of targeting terrorism's precursor crimes (e.g., immigration violations, firearms possession, financial scams, etc.) - the "Capone Strategy" I wrote about last week.

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

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