The FBI will be on heightened alert around Sept. 11 because of the possibility of attacks timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
“In the past, al-Qaida has not been fixated on anniversaries,” says an FBI official. “But from the material seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound, we see references to the 10th anniversary indicating it had significance to him.”
As a result, “Every office will be on heightened alert,” the official says.
No agents will be given leave during that period, meaning that all of the bureau’s nearly 14,000 agents will be on duty.
“We are going to treat that period as having significance,” the official adds. “But there is no information of a specific threat.”
However, evidence that terrorists remain intent on launching an attack in the United States came with the arrest of Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, a 20-year-old college student from Saudi Arabia who allegedly was planning to blow up the Dallas home of former President George W. Bush. He has been charged with attempted use of weapons of mass destruction.
And it is the possibility of a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction that really keeps FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III awake at night.
“The possibility of a nuclear attack is relatively remote, but you can never dismiss it, because of the devastation that would occur,” Mueller told me in a rare interview for my book “The Secrets of the FBI.”
“A radiological attack is not so remote, because it’s relatively easy to get radiological materials and have some sort of radiological improvised explosive device. Although the damage would be far less than from a nuclear detonation, the threat is still there today.”
In fact, Dr. Vahid Majidi, chief of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, says the probability that the U.S. will be hit with a WMD attack at some point is 100 percent. Such an attack could be launched by foreign terrorists, lone wolves who are terrorists, or even by criminal elements, Majidi says. As Mueller suggests, it would most likely employ chemical, biological, or radiological weapons rather than a nuclear device.
Even a WMD attack that does not kill a great number of people would have a crushing psychological impact.
“A singular lone wolf individual can do things in the dark of the night with access to a laboratory with low quantities of material and could hurt a few people but create a devastating effect on the American psyche,” Majidi says.
To hunt down terrorists, the FBI devised what Art Cummings, who headed counterterrorism and counterintelligence until last year, calls trip wires that might tip off the bureau to terrorist activity. For example, the FBI urges chemical supply companies to develop profiles that pinpoint large or suspicious purchases of chemicals that can be used to make explosives.
To supplement the trip wire concept, Cummings initiated a $350,000 project to, in effect, reverse engineer a terrorist operation. It looked at a potential terrorist incident and then worked backwards to pinpoint all the elements a terrorist might require to achieve his goal so that the FBI could be on the lookout for those clues.
“We set these trip wires, and when people come across them, we have abilities to report that, wait a minute, someone is buying dual-use technology or the precursors to make nerve gas or industrial strength peroxide,” Cummings told me for the book. “Someone does that, boom! We have an alert, either a HUMINT [intelligence from a human] alert from an individual or a technical alert.”
To be a terrorist, “You need communications strategy, you need to be able to raise money, you need to be able to move money, you need an organizational structure that allows for that to happen, and you need communications that go back to the mother ship,” Cummings says.
So the FBI looks at people caught by Customs with cash in excess of $10,000, he says.
“I’m going to correlate this person who is leaving the country with money with his communications. If he is raising money for Hamas and is communicating with the occupied territories, that is of interest.”
Then, he says, “You get the personal transaction reports from the bank and find he is depositing or withdrawing funds just under the $10,000 reporting requirement. You find he is a guy who is Palestinian, goes to a mosque that is dominated by Hamas supporters and Palestinians, and is wiring money on a regular basis to the occupied territories. Right there, I’ve just built a picture of a Hamas fundraiser.”
In the same way, the FBI has asked beauty shops and beauty supply stores to contact an FBI office to report purchases of chemicals like hydrogen peroxide in high concentrations.
“They are asked, if they have any suspicion of any kind whatsoever about people buying large quantities of such chemicals in industrial strength, to make a phone call to the FBI,” Cummings says. “Our guidelines are such that we’re not going to violate anybody’s civil liberties simply because they bought a certain amount of hydrogen peroxide.”
As lone wolves become an increasing threat, trip wires have become especially important. Lone wolves have no ties to existing terrorist organizations or networks.
With lone wolves, “You don’t have financial networks that if you look really, really closely you see a thousand dollars going to an operator somewhere,” Cummings notes.
“We don’t see it, because there isn’t someone sending that lone wolf a thousand dollars. This is very difficult, so we rely heavily on trip wires and HUMINT. These are the eyes and ears on the street. And we rely heavily on the lone wolves’ breaking out of that complete and absolute isolation. Human nature being what it is, they do. We’ve caught several recently who were pretty isolated, but they still wanted to talk and share their ideology with people.”
Trip wires led to the arrest of Aldawsari and thwarted the possible attack on former President Bush’s home and other sites.
The FBI received a report from Carolina Biological Supply on February 1, 2011 that Aldawsari had tried to buy large quantities of concentrated phenol, which can be used to make a deadly explosive. The order was sent to a freight company, which called police in Lubbock, Texas, where Aldawsari lived, and the police also notified the FBI.
In two covert entries of his Lubbock apartment, FBI agents assigned to Tactical Operations teams found a hazmat suit, chemicals for making explosives, and bomb-making paraphernalia. In his journal, the team found this entry: “And now, after mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for Jihad.”
The subject line of one email message Aldawsari allegedly sent to himself said “Tyrant’s House” and included Bush’s Dallas address. Other emails listed “nice targets,” including reservoir dams, nuclear power plants, and hydroelectric plants. In addition, he emailed himself ways to construct an explosive device and convert a cellular phone to detonate an explosive device. The suspect posted jihadist sentiments on an extremist blog he created and made it clear he had been inspired by Osama bin Laden.
Aldawsari was arrested on Feb. 23 and faces life behind bars.
Mueller adds: “The biggest threat comes from individuals who have had some association with the United States, understand the United States, can move either individually or with others relatively freely into the United States and within the United States.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. He is a New York Times best-selling author of books on the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA. His latest, "The Secrets of the FBI," has just been published. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via email. Go Here Now.
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