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New York City Terror Plot and the Post-9/11 Catch-22

Last week’s raids on a number of apartments in New York City and the subsequent questioning of an Afghan immigrant serve once again to remind us that our nation is at war — and that the war is not limited to the battlefields abroad. The threat of terror attacks against targets in the homeland remains high.

The case raises important questions about how domestic terrorism should be fought. Should law enforcement wait until a threat becomes “imminent” before acting? If not, then at what point should law enforcement intervene given that much of a plot’s details may remain unknown?

It also raises important questions about just how much faith law enforcement can place in the cooperation of some Muslim clerics in terrorism-related cases.

If press accounts can be trusted, here’s what we know about the case. FBI agents had been monitoring the movements of Najibullah Zazi, the son of Afghan immigrants living in Colorado, for over a year. He had traveled back and forth to both Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he is alleged to have met with al-Qaeda agents. Depending on the press you read, Zazi has now either confirmed that he has “ties” to al-Qaeda or has directly denied these “ties.”

Zazi lives with his parents in suburban Aurora, Colorado, and works as a shuttle driver at the Denver airport. Zazi also had close ties with a group of Afghan and Pakistani immigrants in New York City, where he worked for a time as a coffee cart vendor. This circle of friends may have sympathies with Islamic extremists.

Zazi had driven to New York with a rented car to visit these friends when the raids occurred. On his way into the city, Zazi was stopped by the police. His lawyer says the police told Zazi that it was a “routine drug inspection.” But two days later Zazi’s car was towed and searched, and the computer he had left in it was “cloned” by the FBI.

Both the “routine” stop and towing of the car now appear to have been excuses for the FBI to fill in the gaps on just what Zazi was up to.

It’s not clear what exactly triggered the raids in the wee hours of the morning of September 14. It may have been the fact that several of Zazi’s New York circle of friends had attempted (and failed) to rent a large truck on the very day before Zazi was scheduled to arrive. (Rented trucks were used in the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.)

Or it may have been the fact that the computer “cloned” by the FBI contained plans for making homemade bombs similar to the ones used in the 2005 London tube terrorist attacks. Or that the FBI had intercepted cryptic text messages between Zazi and his NYC friends saying “the wedding cake was ready” — a code similar to the ones used in previous bombings, meaning the preparations for the attack were near completion.

Whatever the proximate reason for acting when they did, members of the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force raided several residences in the heavily immigrant Flushing neighborhood of Queens on that night. Agents searched these premises looking for bomb-making materials and then began casing the entire neighborhood asking residents for information about the suspect and his associates. No bomb-making materials were uncovered, but new backpacks similar to those used in the London bombings were found.

Up to 12 people have been questioned in conjunction with the case, none of whom have been formally placed under arrest. In fact, Zazi was allowed to return to Colorado, where he has been meeting with the FBI since Wednesday. At least one report claims that Zazi has changed his story and has now admitted that he met with al-Qaeda agents.

However, in an interview with the Denver Post on Saturday, Zazi denied these reports. He says that he has “not admitted any link to the terrorist group, to participation in insurgency training in Pakistan or to involvement in a terrorist plot.” Zazi’s lawyers also say they’ve broken off all talks with the FBI.

On Friday, seven in Zazi’s New York circle of friends were taken into custody. As of this writing, they have not yet been charged.

How seriously has law enforcement taken the plot? Serious enough for the FBI to have sent out warnings to local law enforcement to be on the lookout for bombs and bomb-making material.

Was a terrorist attack “imminent”?

We may never know how close the alleged plotters were to actually carrying out their attacks. If this New York Post article is to be believed, sometime prior to the raid Zazi was warned that he was the subject of an FBI investigation. A friend of Zazi’s apparently was questioned by the FBI about him. He then notified an imam who in turned warned Zazi’s family.

Were the plotters then aware that the FBI was interested in them? That seems to be the implication. If so, one is left to wonder whether or not there was time for Zazi and his associates to get rid of important evidence.

The most troubling aspect of the story, if true, was the reaction by the imam to warn Zazi not to help the FBI or the NYPD root out a possible ring of terrorists among the local Muslim community.

One possible explanation for this behavior could be that Muslims now believe that law enforcement is out to get them, and their natural reaction is to shield members of the community whom they believe to be innocent  from a perceived witch hunt.

A more troubling explanation is that at least some members and leaders of the Muslim community may be giving lip service to democratic and liberal values while privately supporting Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Taliban, and even al-Qaeda.

In either case, this means that law enforcement cannot count on Muslims — the very people they need the most — to help stop future homegrown terror plots. And thanks to a tip to the suspect’s family through an imam, we may never know just how close to fruition the plot was.

When is the right time to act?

In the post-9/11 world all agree that law enforcement officials must act well before any plot nears fruition, but exactly when to intervene is always somewhat of a gamble. In the Zazi case, early reports indicated that the FBI was none too happy with their NYPD partners’ timing. They believed that the plotters should have been kept under surveillance longer so that more evidence could be gathered. However, the NYPD believed they could wait no longer without risking an actual attack.

Hollywood would have you believe that terror plots are always disrupted only moments before the bomb is about to be triggered. In real life there are no superheroes, and the consequences of waiting too long to act are just too dire to consider. In the real world, if a terrorist has his hand on the trigger, it’s already too late.

If you intervene too early, a group of serious terrorists intent on doing real harm may appear to be only a bunch of kids with fantasies full of grandeur and a lot of bravado. The weak evidence of an actual criminal conspiracy in these cases may lead prosecutors to seek lesser charges such as “lying to immigration officials.”

By nipping a terrorist plot in the bud we are saved from the consequences of acting too late (another 9/11). In doing so we also run the risk of feeding a preexisting fear in the Muslim community that they are being unfairly targeted by law enforcement. This, in turn, may lead to less cooperation from the very community we need the most in preventing a terror attack. It also means that the next 9/11 might go undetected because members of the Muslim community don’t take the threat seriously.

This is the post-9/11 Catch-22.

In the coming weeks we will learn just how close the plot came to being realized. If the suspects are charged with plotting domestic terrorism, then we will know we acted at the right time.

If the suspects are never directly charged but are brought up on lesser immigration violations, then we will know that we acted too early. If that is the case, then the lesson here is that we need to devote more resources to surveillance operations — enough resources that law enforcement officials feel certain that the the noose they have tied around the necks of potential conspirators is so tight that they feel confident in letting potential conspirators hang themselves without running the risk of acting too late.

But we live in an imperfect world with imperfect choices. If the choice is between acting too early and letting potential terrorists off the hook but disrupting the next 9/11 — then so be it.

I’d much rather have a bunch of potential terrorists who never got to live the dream running around screaming “discrimination” than dead “martyrs” who were able to kill thousands of Americans because we acted too late.