Alleged Terror Plot Seen as Homegrown
The federal indictment of four Los Angeles men for allegedly plotting a string of attacks on military and Jewish targets concerns officials because it suggests that Islamic extremists can take root in the United States without the help of international terrorists, federal authorities said Wednesday.
“This summer, Americans watched so-called homegrown terrorists unleash multiple bombings in the city of London. Some in this country may have mistakenly believed that it could not happen here,” U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales said at a Washington news conference to announce the charges. “Today we have chilling evidence that it is possible.”
Kevin Lamar James, 29; Levar Haney Washington, 25; and Gregory Vernon Patterson and Hammad Riaz Samana, both 21, were charged with crimes including conspiracy to kill U.S. and foreign government officials, firearms violations and conspiracy to levy war against the U.S. through terrorism.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said that to date, the plot appeared to have no connections to international terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda or Pakistani militant groups.
“We do not have currently ties to international terrorist groups, but in the same breath I’ll tell you the investigation is continuing,” Mueller said.
The indictment says the plot was designed behind the walls of California State Prison, Sacramento, in Folsom. Investigators say the prison served as a kind of incubator for a potentially violent brand of Islam.
Until now, Muslim terrorists operating in the United States have generally originated abroad. This investigation, however, could realize long-expressed fears by terrorism experts that American Muslim converts serving time in prison could be lured into extremism.
It was unclear how close the men were to executing any of the attacks they allegedly planned. Some counterterrorism investigators believe they were within weeks of an assault, others said nothing was imminent.
At a Los Angeles news conference, however, law enforcement officials made it clear they thought the plot was ready to go.
“The evidence in this case indicates that the conspirators in this case were on the verge of launching their attack,” said U.S. Atty. Debra Wong Yang.
“Make no mistake about it,” added Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, “We dodged a bullet here. Perhaps many bullets.”
Randy Parsons, acting assistant director of the FBI in Los Angeles, said he wanted to reassure the public that there was “no current threat to public safety based on what we’ve learned in this investigation.”
Though federal authorities have filed numerous terrorism-related cases since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many have been prosecuted as immigration violations or other lesser charges. Several major cases have fallen apart in court.
A new trial was ordered for three North African men convicted in Detroit of terrorism and fraud-related charges after federal officials conceded that exculpatory evidence had been withheld from the defense.
A Muslim attorney from Portland, Ore., who was held because his fingerprint was allegedly linked to the 2004 Madrid train bombing, was released amid disclosures from Spanish officials that they had told the FBI the print did not match.
Former federal prosecutor Laurie Levenson said Wednesday’s indictments appear to be stronger than some terrorism-related cases. “It reads much more like a prison-gang type of case, and they do have success with those,” said Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
According to the indictment, one year after James’ imprisonment for a 1996 armed robbery, he founded a group known as Jamiyyat Ul Islam Is Saheeh, or JIS, based on his radical interpretation of Islam. James preached to JIS members that it was their duty to target for violent attack the U.S. government and Jewish or non-Jewish supporters of Israel, the indictment alleges.
He allegedly required prospective members of the group to take an oath of obedience and promise not to reveal the organization’s existence. And he sought to establish JIS cells outside of prison to carry out violent attacks, the indictment says.
Just before his release from prison, Washington allegedly told James he was prepared to follow James “to victory or martyrdom,” the indictment says.
Washington allegedly set about -- on James’ orders -- to recruit five people without felony convictions who could be trained to carry out attacks. Washington, the indictment adds, also was told to acquire two firearms with silencers and to appoint someone from the group to find contacts for acquiring explosives.
Washington renewed his pledge of loyalty at least once more before he and Patterson were arrested July 5 on suspicion of committing a string of gas station robberies, the indictment says.
After the arrests, robbery detectives went to Washington’s apartment in South Los Angeles and allegedly discovered evidence suggesting that a terrorist plot was in the making. The evidence allegedly included bulletproof vests, radical Islamic literature and lists of addresses of military sites, synagogues and other locations.
The indictment does not specify which target the men allegedly planned to attack.
It does, however, say that between December and the day he was arrested, Patterson conducted Internet research on El Al Israel Airlines, the Israeli Consulate and the Los Angeles calendar for the Jewish holy day Yom Kippur, according to the indictment. On other occasions he updated James on the progress of the planned attacks, and just days before his arrest, he purchased a rifle, the indictment says.
Samana conducted his own Internet research on potential targets, including specific officials at the Israeli Consulate and military recruitment offices in the L.A. area, the indictment says. Days before Patterson and Washington were arrested, Samana allegedly participated in firearms training at a local park and drafted a document listing potential U.S. and Israeli government targets in Los Angeles.
All four men remain in custody. If convicted of all charges they could be sentenced to life in prison.
Times staff writers Solomon Moore, Megan Garvey and Henry Weinstein in Los Angeles and Josh Meyer in Washington contributed to this report.