On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attack, the FBI’s greatest fear is the lone wolf inspired by the jihadist terrorist message.
“Our great fear is a self-radicalized individual or an individual who has been radicalized through modern media who makes a decision to act on his own,” an FBI official says.
“He is careful about his planning and uses tools that are not necessarily going to trip one of our trip wires,” the official says. “That is the fear.”
The FBI is on heightened alert around Sept. 11 because of the possibility of attacks timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary. Most field offices are not granting leave.
On Thursday, the United States received what counterterrorism officials called specific, credible information that al-Qaida could be planning an attack on Washington and New York around the anniversary involving car bombs.
The FBI, the CIA, and the National Counterterrorism Center sort through dozens of new possible threats each day. Very few ever turn out to be real. Because of the obvious possibility of an attack around the anniversary, counterterrorism officials decided to make this threat public.
“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. “We are going to treat that period as having significance,” the official adds. “But there is no information of a specific threat.”
By definition, because lone wolves act alone rather than as part of al-Qaida, they are more difficult to uncover. Terrorists acting in concert may be detected by intercepting their communications, tracking their finances, or recruiting informants. A lone wolf could lurk anywhere and requires no support system.
As noted in my book “The Secrets of the FBI,”
the FBI has developed what are called trip wires to try to detect lone wolves as well as al-Qaida plotters. 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. Shipping companies are also asked to report suspicious shipments.
To supplement that, Art Cummings, who headed counterterrorism and counterintelligence until last year, initiated a $350,000 project to, in effect, reverse engineer a terrorist operation. It looked at a potential terrorist incident and then worked backward 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 says. “Someone does that, boom! We have an alert, either a HUMINT [human intelligence] alert from an individual or a technical alert.”
In addition, “The public often serves as a trip wire,” the FBI official says. “Citizens pay attention to radicalized behavior.”
The official cites the arrest in July of Taser Jason Abdo, 21, an Army soldier who allegedly was plotting a deadly terrorist attack on soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas. Employees at the Guns Galore gun shop in Killeen said Abdo came into their store wearing a burnt orange University of Texas Longhorns T-shirt.
“What kind of raised a red flag at the point in time is he asked the manager, ‘What is smokeless powder?’” said gun store employee Greg Ebert, who said Abdo purchased six, one-pound canisters of smokeless powder, three boxes of shotgun shells and one magazine for a semi-automatic pistol.
Ebert called police after Abdo left the gun store. Working with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and other enforcement agencies, police caught Abdo quickly and discovered material in his motel that could be used to make a bomb.
As noted in my story FBI and CIA Fight a Silent Battle
, sweeping changes in the intelligence community since 9/11 have kept America safe. But the possibility of a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction is what 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 the book.
“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,” Mueller says. “Although the damage would be far less than from a nuclear detonation, the threat is still there today.”
“While we don’t have anything that says there will be an attack, you will see preparedness on the part of the government in many quarters, including transportation and at public events,” an FBI official says. “There will be a presence and an invisible security apparatus behind that. It’s part of paying the price for security post-9/11.”
Invisible security refers to plainclothes police officers and FBI agents, surveillance cameras, and sensors that detect radiation.
“If in fact there was a threat, it would not be hidden,” the FBI official says. “If we thought there was a sign of a plot afoot, we would not put the public at risk. If we could not identify the group, we would put out whatever we do know.”
The FBI continues to try to develop new ways to discern what lone wolves may need to pull off an attack.
“There is concerted work every day to think about finding indicators that a lone wolf is contemplating some sort of action,” the official says. “If a lot of people are targeted, he needs explosives or WMD. That works in our favor.”
Despite trip wires, “In our free and open society, there are always going to be gaps and vulnerabilities,” the FBI official says. “The fear of the lone wolf is the worry that we haven’t thought of something. If a lone wolf does not give reason to question him, there is a chance he will be successful.”
But, the official says, “We think we are in pretty good shape. We know there will be a lone wolf attack at some point, and we will learn from that. The public is now far more vigilant, and during anniversaries like the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attack, that vigilance is heightened.”
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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