Terror Probe Targets Prison in Folsom
Counterterrorism officials investigating an alleged plot to attack National Guard recruitment centers, synagogues and other sites in Southern California said Tuesday they are investigating the possibility that the plot was hatched by Islamic extremists and gang members at a state prison in Folsom.
Details remained closely guarded, but law enforcement sources said they were actively investigating the breadth of possible connections between three men now in custody in Los Angeles and inmates at California State Prison, Sacramento, one of two prisons in Folsom, about 25 miles east of the capital.
The possibility of connections between prison gangs and potential terrorists has been a worry for U.S. officials for some time.
There are at least several significant investigations into the alleged use of federal and state prisons as bases for recruiting potential Islamic terrorists, according to a senior FBI counterterrorism official in Washington.
Investigators emphasized that they have not proved the alleged plot in the current case was hatched at the prison. Nor are they certain how many of about two dozen targets involved in the case might have been the site of a planned terrorist attack.
“We have no indication so far how many they might have gone after,” said a law enforcement official involved in the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the continuing investigation.
The investigators say they do know that an Islamic group called Jamiyyat Ul Islam Is Saheeh, or JIS, has had a presence at the prison for about five years and that its followers include both inmates and former inmates. The group’s name translates from Arabic into the Assembly of Authentic Islam.
Devan Hawkes, a gang specialist with the Corrections Department, said the group was the smaller and newer of two Islamic gangs, referred to by agents as “disruptive groups,” known to be operating in California prisons.
Officials involved in the investigation have three people in custody who are believed to be connected with the alleged plot -- Levar Haney Washington, 25; Gregory Vernon Patterson, a 21-year-old former employee of a duty-free shop at Los Angeles International Airport; and Hamad Riaz Samana, 21, of Inglewood. Washington is a former inmate at California State Prison, Sacramento, and a former gang member.
Authorities have filed only local robbery charges against Washington and Patterson. Both remain in custody at the Men’s Central Jail.
Samana was arrested more than a week ago by counterterrorism officials in connection with the investigation. He is being held on unspecified charges at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles.
Samana, a Pakistani national, is a student at Santa Monica College who has been in the United States for five years and has no known criminal history or connections to overseas extremists.
A call to his family’s apartment was not returned Tuesday, and his attorney could not be reached for comment.
In the course of the current investigation, authorities have been looking into allegations that the plot was conceived by two inmates at California State Prison, Sacramento, Peter Martinez and Kevin Lamar James.
Prison officials declined to discuss that allegation, citing the FBI investigation of the alleged plot. Todd Slosek, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said only that Martinez was from Alameda County and was serving a 40-year sentence for attempted second-degree murder, following earlier stints in the system for drug offenses. James, of Los Angeles County, is incarcerated on a 10-year term for attempted second-degree robbery, Slosek said. He also had a history of juvenile offenses.
The investigation by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force began last month after Torrance police arrested Washington and Patterson in connection with a string of robberies and allegedly recovered evidence at Washington’s apartment suggesting that a terrorist attack might be in the offing. The alleged evidence included addresses of locations as well as dates -- among them, Sept. 11 -- for a possible terrorist attack, according to officials familiar with the investigation.
How Washington and Patterson became acquainted and got to know Samana is one of many unanswered questions in the investigation, which has involved more than 200 FBI agents, Los Angeles detectives and other federal and state counterterrorism officials.
One law enforcement source said authorities determined long ago that the three men had attended an Inglewood mosque just blocks from Samana’s residence. But that location, Jamat-E-Masijidul Islam, is only one of the mosques the men attended in the Los Angeles area, the source said, adding that there was no evidence that the mosque played a role in any alleged plot.
The degree to which Islamic groups in prison may be recruiting grounds for terrorist acts has been hotly debated, particularly since the arrest in 2002 of Jose Padilla, an American Muslim convert and gang member who authorities say planned a “dirty bomb” attack after he left jail.
Earlier this year, FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Intelligence Committee that “prisons continue to be fertile ground for extremists who exploit both a prisoner’s conversion to Islam while still in prison, as well as their socioeconomic status and placement in the community upon their release.”
But others reject the notion that American prisons are a breeding ground for terrorists. One critic cited in a report by New Jersey’s Office of Counter-Terrorism called the suggestion dangerous speculation and questioned why a terrorist organization would want soldiers who are fingerprinted and whose personal data is recorded by the criminal justice system.
Another skeptic is David Shwartz, retired religious services administrator for the federal Bureau of Prisons, who argues that Islam is a positive force in the rehabilitation of inmates.
Overall, California prisons are home to about 1,000 “disruptive groups” -- or street gangs and splinter organizations -- as well as seven prison gangs, defined as having their origins behind bars, said Hawkes, the gang specialist who works at the Pelican Bay State Prison, in Crescent City.
Perhaps the best known of the prison gangs are the Mexican Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood and Nuestra Familia. All told, the seven gangs claim about 1,000 members -- those with official authority -- plus tens of thousands of associates.
Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Richard Fausset, Anna Gorman, Josh Meyer and David Rosenzweig and Times researcher Nona Yates.