Local task force fights terrorism on many fronts

FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Keith Slotter holds a replica bomb similar to the one used in a May 2008 bombing of the federal courthouse in downtown San Diego. The incident is one of the many investigated by a local Joint Terrorism Task Force. Bruce K. Huff

Local terrorism cases

Sept. 11, 2001: Two Saudi men who spent the previous year living in Clairemont and Lemon Grove hijacked a plane and flew it into the Pentagon. Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid al-Midhar trained for the moment by taking flying lessons at Montgomery Field. The men became known by the CIA a year before the attack when one of the men’s names was connected to associates of the bombing of the USS Cole. The CIA never shared that intelligence with San Diego FBI agents. After 9/11, the task force looked into the pair’s network in San Diego.

March 2002: What began as a drug investigation in San Diego turned into a terrorism case when agents learned three men wanted to sell four Stinger missiles in exchange for hashish and heroin. The trio — Syed Mustajab Shah, Ilyas Ali and Muhammed Abid Afridi — traveled from Pakistan to Hong Kong on Sept. 15, 2002, to meet several times with undercover agents posing as drug and arms dealers. The men assumed the missiles would make their way to al-Qaeda or Taliban forces. The three pleaded guilty.

January 2005: An immigrant smuggler, José Ernesto Beltran Quiñónez, called 911 and told authorities he had smuggled across the Mexican border four Chinese chemists who were possibly planning to detonate a nuclear bomb in Boston. Beltran also threw a plastic bag containing passports of four Chinese people over the border fence and told authorities where to find it. The tip triggered a national security alert but ended up being a hoax. Beltran was sentenced to three years in prison.

May 4, 2008: A pipe bomb in a backpack exploded outside the San Diego federal courthouse early on a Sunday morning, shattering the glass doors. Two women and a man were charged with detonating the explosive, and Donny Love, a former city of San Diego worker, was charged with orchestrating the bombing. Prosecutors allege Love did it so he could offer information on the crime to authorities in exchange for a $75,000 reward and leniency for past offenses. His trial starts today.

Task force squads

Five squads work out of the Law Enforcement Coordination Center, a nondescript converted warehouse in Kearny Mesa that opened in 2008 with help from federal homeland security grant money. There, authorities collect and analyze various kinds of intelligence and then forward terrorism-related leads.

• Three squads are dedicated to international terrorism, with a focus on long-term investigations. Each squad focuses on a different global region.

• One squad focuses on domestic terrorism, investigating cause-based groups that believe in using violence to overthrow the government or espouse change. Examples include white supremacists, militias and eco-terrorists such as the Earth Liberation Front, which in 2003 claimed responsibility for burning down a 206-unit residential development in University City.

• One squad, dubbed the Counterterrorism Threat Squad, responds to reports of suspicious activity — everything from white-powder letters to bomb threats to a shady person snapping photos of a federal building. The squad has responded to 400 to 500 incidents annually over the past five years.

They do some of the most important, clandestine law enforcement work in San Diego County, yet most of their dealings never make headlines.

The more than 100 investigators, FBI agents and intelligence analysts who are part of the local FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force are fine with that because it means they’re doing their job — thwarting terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

“We disrupt things day in and day out,” said FBI Special Agent Matt Brown, a supervisor in the multi-agency task force. “The vast majority of what we do is prevention.”

While the task force’s mission has remained unchanged since forming 13 years ago, how that mission is accomplished has evolved considerably in the past decade following the terrorism attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Local law enforcement agencies are no longer kept in the dark but are instead part of a formalized network of intelligence sharing with federal authorities.

That change has never been more evident than today, as the task force steps up its vigilance after the killing this month of Osama Bin Laden, the al-Qaeda architect of the 9/11 attacks.

As CIA analysts continue to identify tips from the cache of evidence seized from bin Laden’s Pakistan compound, the FBI passes the relevant warnings to local law enforcement, asking in return that beat officers share vital intelligence they might gain on the street.

“In a perfect world, some obscure piece of intelligence from a deputy in Santee could find its way into the national terrorism task force in D.C., and that might be the piece in the puzzle that fits into something a CIA agent found overseas,” said San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, a former special agent who was in charge of San Diego’s FBI office when 9/11 happened.

Special Agent-in-Charge Keith Slotter, current head of the FBI’s San Diego office, said police chiefs across the county have expressed their appreciation at the regular intelligence bulletins.

“In the past, the FBI and probably all federal agencies held onto information longer for fear of case compromise,” said Slotter, a 24-year bureau veteran. “Everyone came to realize a long time ago that fear of something tragic happening far outweighs the fear of compromising a case.”

Slotter said no specific or credible threats have been aimed at the San Diego region since bin Laden’s death.

The beginnings

When the county’s Joint Terrorism Task Force started in 1998, it consisted of the FBI and the agency that was once called U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services — a natural partner considering that most of the people under investigation for international terrorism aren’t U.S. born.

Three years later, the 9/11 attacks left local counterterrorism officers spinning, especially upon learning that two of the men who hijacked planes that day had lived in the San Diego area and gotten their flight training here.

Within months, there were 8,000 leads to follow locally as investigators sought to identify and probe the hijackers’ network here.

“It was overwhelming, as you can imagine,” Brown said.

The single-squad task force immediately reached out to other federal, state and local agencies for help in sifting through the tips. That cooperation formed the basis of today’s task force, which includes 30 full-time officers from 18 federal, state and local agencies — from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to the Internal Revenue Service to San Diego and Coronado police.

Similar Joint Terrorism Task Forces operate throughout the nation under the FBI’s leadership, emphasizing the bureau’s top priority of counterterrorism.

FBI officials would not say how many arrests and prosecutions have been made by the task force because of the secret nature of its work.

They also would not disclose how much of the agency’s $2 billion counterterrorism budget is allocated to the local task force, saying it is not public information.

However, in 2005, the FBI was budgeted to spend $375 million on the nation’s 103 joint terrorism task forces, according to an inspector general’s audit. The local, state and federal agencies that make up the task force generally pay the salaries and benefits for their own officers, but the FBI pays for their overtime.

Terror threats

San Diego’s cultural diversity, large military and defense industry contingent, and proximity to San Ysidro, the nation’s busiest land border crossing, puts the region in a potentially vulnerable position when it comes to terrorism.

The groups currently of most concern to the task force are al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which counts former San Diego State University graduate student Anwar al-Awlaki among its leaders, and al-Shabaab, an East African militia trying to overthrow the Somali government.

The task force has investigated alleged links between San Diego’s large Somali community and al-Shabaab over the past few years. Three San Diego men — including a prominent imam — and one woman have been charged in federal court with sending money to aid the radical Islamic organization. A 29-year-old man, a U.S. citizen from San Diego, also has been charged with providing material support to the group and is believed to be in Somalia.

While al-Shabaab primarily operates overseas, authorities remain concerned about the group’s ability to attack the United States.

There is also intelligence suggesting the disparate terrorism groups are forming alliances with one another, given their similar ideologies and global proximity.

Closer to home, agents have received information about foreigners from countries with active terrorism cells who are associating with drug cartels in Mexico.

“We’ve never faced a more dynamic or complex terrorism threat than we do today,” said FBI Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Anita Meyer, who oversees the task force.

She pointed to the increase in Internet access to radical videos and the ability to connect with others who share violent ideologies, which in turn threatens to produce more homegrown terrorists who may act on behalf of a group or on their own accord.

“The threat can come from anywhere,” Meyer said.

‘One mission, one fight’

What makes the local task force so robust is not only the number of officers from a variety of agencies, but the depth of knowledge they can bring to a single investigation, officials say.

If there’s a suspicious foreigner, for example, a U.S. State Department liaison can answer questions about the person’s visa, an IRS agent can find out tax history, a sheriff’s deputy can look into the person’s business license, a San Diego police officer can provide details about a past encounter with police and a federal prosecutor can fast track a search warrant request.

“It’s a one-stop shop, a fusion center for terrorism in San Diego,” said FBI Special Agent Todd Temple, a squad supervisor. “Daily collaboration is the key to ‘one mission, one fight.’”

It’s also why in San Diego no terrorism cases are investigated outside the task force.

Investigative methods

Task force members mostly use tried-and-true investigative methods — they respond to reports of suspicious activity, tap phones, conduct undercover surveillance, serve search warrants, interview witnesses, track bank account activity, work informants.

But building successful terrorism cases can oftentimes be extremely complex and take several years, which is why many of these cases never make it to court or are charged as lesser crimes.

“We have lots of other tools at our disposal,” said Mike Carney, deputy special agent-in-charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations. “We can charge immigration violation, visa fraud or marriage fraud, and we can follow that up with deportation. At the end of the day, it’s the mitigation of the threat.”

Tactics criticized

Some in the Muslim-American community have criticized tactics they say counterterrorism officers use — spying on mosques, pressuring people to become informants, threats of deportation.

A report released Wednesday by New York University’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice raised concern about how the FBI and New York police targeted Muslims, including paying informants to pose as radical Muslims and push ideas of violence.

“We want to be partners with law enforcement that tackles terrorism, but it seems like they are looking at us as suspects rather than partners,” said Edgar Hopida, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in San Diego. “We are the first line of defense with regards to extremism and terrorism.”

San Diego defense attorney Mahir Sherif, who has represented defendants in terrorism-related cases, including the imam recently charged with aiding al-Shabaab, said government officers can sometimes be overzealous in their quest to “neutralize the threat.”

“They’re doing whatever they can do if they perceive that person to be a threat, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of reasonable suspicion,” Sherif said.

If the task force officers and critics agree on one thing, it’s that the majority of people — Muslims, foreigners or U.S. citizens — are not engaged in trying to build bombs or aid terrorists.

“They are interested in building their lives,” Sherif said.