Sunday, October 16, 2005

Stopping Sleeper Cells

Recent events in Oklahoma and New York City have again focused the public eye on frightening possibility of another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Indeed, it seems quite plausible that we only narrowly escaped a major attack recently, when an engineering student named Joel Hinrichs blew himself within eye-sight of the University of Oklahoma's football stadium where 84,000 fans had gathered to watch their team take on Kansas State. While the mainstream media has been painstakingly slow to grasp the reality of that event and the local, state, and federal officials have stone-walled the press, the blogosphere has been pursuing the story vigorously. However, the great investigative work done by bloggers has the significant advantage of hindsight.

While law enforcement officials seemingly had some evidence that Hinrichs was more than just a struggling college student, most of the evidence up until now was circumstantial - not enough for to warrant an arrest or probably even a phone tap. For example, we know that Hinrichs met a number of criteria common amongst terrorists. He was a young, middle class, educated male who apparently had grown a beard (a sign of devout Muslim belief); he reportedly frequented an Islamic mosque or community center (though there are conflicting reports); and he was living with a young Pakistani male. Some sources have said that Hinrichs was already known to authorities, probably for previous illegal or suspicious activity. But even combined with the possibility of a previous criminal record, such "life-style indicators" do not necessarily indicate terrorist activity themselves. After all, that could be the description of any college student.

This fact makes it very difficult for law enforcement personnel to meet the often strict criteria required by law to investigate a suspicious individual, even if an officer's gut instinct tells him or her that something is awry. The question then is what can we do, as a nation, to better protect ourselves against the threat of sleeper cells?

In general, sleeper cells are impossible to spot by the naked eye. Their members go to great lengths to blend into their surrounding environments by getting jobs and going to college, or adopting other life-style habits not dissimilar from the norm. To make matters more difficult, Al Qaida and other groups have made it one of their top priorities to recruit young 2nd and 3rd generation males (and even females) who already live in the countries they seek to target, and therefore have already adapted to their cultures. Despite the subversive and well-disguised nature of sleeper cells though, there are many steps along the road to a terrorist attack where law enforcement agencies have distinct opportunities to intervene and disrupt them.

First, and perhaps most importantly, most terrorists must begin by infiltrating into the target country. There are three reasons for this. The first is that it is often extremely difficult to recruit native operatives. Secondly, high-level terrorist cells put themselves at a greater risk of exposure by doing so, because recruiting a person in a completely different country requires an increased level of communications that could be detected by law enforcement agencies. And third, it is far more difficult to find local recruits who have the skills, and training, required to carry out a terrorist operation. Most of those who do are current or former members of law enforcement agencies or the military, and are more likely to turn over the terrorists than to support them. So, terrorist groups generally benefit most by infiltrating well-trained and reliable operatives into the target country. For this reason, adequate border security and the expedient enforcement of immigration and Visa laws are essential in preventing terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Our commitment to our borders and to our laws is our first line of defense.

Secondly, terrorists often resort to criminal activity to run their operation. They often acquire fraudulent forms of identification, or acquire them under false pretenses; they sometimes steal or launder money for funding; and at some point they come into possession of illegal, often stolen materials and equipment such as explosives and vehicles intended to be used in the attack. Additionally, data shows that a significant number of terrorists have prior criminal records, whether it be arrests, misdemeanor offenses such as a traffic ticket, or immigration violations - including some of those who were involved in the 9//11 attacks. In most cases though, the terrorist is simply fined, jailed temporarily, or released and order to appear in court at a later date. Like most illegal immigrants/aliens though, the terrorists never show up for their court date. Law enforcement agencies must do a better job at identifying possible terrorists during these critical encounters. We must continue to tear down walls between intelligence agencies which prevent information sharing, work within our country and with our neighbors to better coordinate terrorist watch lists, streamline our policies on the deportation of illegal immigrants/aliens, and we should seriously consider ways in which local and state agencies can better assist in the enforcement of the nation's immigration laws. That would be a good start at least, and improving in those areas would have broader benefits.

(See Wikipedia's page on the Ahmed Ressam - also discussed at length in the 9/11 Commission Report - which discusses how the "Millennium Bomber" managed to infiltrate the U.S. and Canada from Algeria by using a fake passport, over-staying his Visa, and failing to show up to court hearings on his immigration status.)

Third, almost all terrorist attacks are preceded by some degree of surveillance. This is particularly true of U.S. targets, which usually have some measure of security. For one, terrorists must determine the point at which striking the target would result in the most damage or greatest loss of life by examining the structure and patterns of human activity in and around the target. They also need to know the roads and buildings surrounding their target and the strengths, vulnerabilities, and patterns of security personnel. Surveillance equipment such as a camera is not always necessary, but without them, terrorists are forced either to work from memory or to surveil the target frequently, placing themselves at greater risk of being discovered. In general, the surveilling operative will have a camera or a note pad on which to write notes. Target surveillance can be a lengthy process and therefore provides another significant opportunity for security personnel and law enforcement officials to disrupt terrorist operations. However, it is often difficult to spot a terrorist surveilling a target without prior knowledge of what target the terrorists plan to attack. This is simply because of the possibility that any area frequented by large numbers of people can make a good terrorist target, and because terrorists are very good at disguising their activities by blending into their environments. It is not impossible though. Vigilance and alertness on the part of security and law enforcement personnel as well as the public is essential in these instances.

Lastly, electronic transmissions are vital to any terrorist operation. These transmissions can include money transfers between various entities used to fund the organization, as well as computerized and telephonic communications between cell members and between the sleeper cell and the senior terrorist leader(s) directing the group from overseas. Senior operatives must communicate with the sleeper cell constantly. First, to order the group into action; later to assist in the acquisition of financial and other resources; and if necessary to coordinate communications with other sleeper cells; to "refine the target package"; and to ensure that various sets of instructions are followed throughout the course of the operation. Electronic transmissions are a critical capability for any terrorist organization, and therefore it is critical that we do everything in our ability to better enforce our laws which prevent fund-raising by dubious "non-profit organizations", and to seek out and exploit the platforms and networks of communication used by terrorists.

Sleeper cells are notoriously difficult to identify, disrupt, and indict, but all three are well within our capabilities as a nation. It should go without saying that the activities that terrorists engage in habitually is already illegal, yet sadly they often carry out their actions unhindered, and the consequences are often deadly. The best method for thwarting terrorist plots before they come to fruition is also one of the most basic principles of this nation: we must enforce the laws of this country. In order to do so, tough and tedious decisions must be made, red tape must to be cut, and some bureaucracies will have to go on a diet, while others must expand. These things will also require funding. Perhaps most importantly though, adequately addressing the threat of terrorism to the United States requires an intelligent and steadfast leadership commitment to doing what is best for the American people.

……You may now commence with kissing your rear-end good-bye.

October 09, 2005


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