Crime and terrorism
NYPD warns of homegrown terror threat
August 15, 2007 Average citizens who quietly band together and adopt radical ways pose a mounting threat to American security that could exceed that of established terrorist groups like al-Qaida, a new police analysis has concluded.
The New York Police Department report released Wednesday describes a process in which young men — often legal immigrants from the Middle East who are frustrated with their lives in their adopted country — adopt a philosophy that puts them on a path to violence.
The report was intended to explain how people become radicalized rather than to lay out specific strategies for thwarting terror plots. It calls for more intelligence gathering, and argues that local law enforcement agencies are in the best position to monitor potential terrorists.
"Hopefully, the better we're informed about this process, the more likely we'll be to detect and disrupt it," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said during a briefing with private security executives at police headquarters.
The study is based on an analysis of a series of domestic plots thwarted since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, including those in Lackawanna, N.Y.; Portland, Ore.; and Virginia. It was prepared by senior analysts with the NYPD Intelligence Division who traveled to Hamburg, Madrid and other overseas spots to confer with authorities about similar cases.
The report found homegrown terrorists often were indoctrinated in local "radicalization incubators" that are "rife with extremist rhetoric."
Instead of mosques, those places were more likely to be "cafes, cab driver hangouts, flop houses, prisons, student associations, non-governmental organizations, hookah bars, butcher shops and bookstores," the report says.
The Internet also provides "the wandering mind of the conflicted young Muslim or potential convert with direct access to unfiltered radical and extremist ideology."
The threat posed by homegrown extremists — from "eco-terrorist" groups to neo-Nazis — has long been a top concern for federal counterterror officials.
Recently, authorities have taken a closer look at radicalization happening in U.S. prisons, where a study last year by George Washington University and the University of Virginia found that Islamic extremists were turning jail cells into terrorist breeding grounds by preaching violent interpretations of the Quran to their fellow inmates.
Additionally, the Justice Department last year indicted 28-year-old Adam Gadahn, who was raised on a farm in southern California, with treason and supporting terrorism for serving as an al-Qaida propagandist.
Gadahn is believed to have tried to recruit supporters through videos and messages posted on the Internet.
The NYPD report warns that more intelligence gathering is needed since most potential homegrown terrorists "have never been arrested or involved in any kind of legal trouble," the study says.
They "look, act, talk and walk like everyone around them," the study adds. "In the early stages of their radicalization, these individuals rarely travel, are not participating in any kind of militant activity, yet they are slowly building the mind-set, intention and commitment to conduct jihad."
Kareem Shora, legal adviser for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, called the findings faulty and potentially inflammatory.
Police "paint such a broad brush," Shora said. "It plays right into the extremists' plans because it's going to end up angering the community."
A recently released National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Osama bin Laden's network had regrouped and remains the most serious threat to the United States.
Kelly insisted the NYPD report made no effort to provide a "cookie-cutter" profile for terrorists. He also argued that the NYPD report "doesn't contradict the National Intelligence Estimate — it augments it."
Nearly 100,000 murdered since Sept. 11, 2001
August 15, 2007 On Saturday in Newark, N.J., three young friends whose lives and dreams vanished in a nightmarish eruption of gunfire in a rundown schoolyard were buried.
On Sunday in a small town in Missouri, a pastor and two worshippers were murdered by a gunman who opened fire in a church.
Murder, that darkest of American pastimes, celebrated in film and song and fostered by the firearms industry and its apologists, continues unabated.
It has been nearly six years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the nation's consciousness of terror was yanked to new heights. In those six years, nearly 100,000 people – an incredible number – have been murdered in the United States.
No heightening of consciousness has accompanied this slaughter, which had nothing to do with terrorism. The news media and most politicians have hardly bothered to notice.
At the same time that we're diligently confiscating water and toothpaste from air travelers, we're handing over guns and bullets by the trainload to yahoos bent on blowing others into eternity in armed robberies, drug dealing, gang violence, domestic assaults and other criminal acts.
Among those who have noticed the carnage are the nation's police chiefs, and they are alarmed. Surges of homicides and other violent crimes in many cities and towns over the past couple of years have prompted Bill Bratton, the police chief in Los Angeles, to warn of the possibility of a “gathering storm” of criminal violence in the United States.
“Philadelphia and Baltimore are having horrendous problems,” he said in an interview. “You just had that awful shooting in Newark. What we'd like to do is bring this issue of crime back into the national debate in this election year. What you don't want is to let it get out of control like it did in the late '80s and early '90s.”
Bratton is a past president of the Police Executive Research Forum, a group based in Washington, D.C., that is composed of the heads of some of the largest state, county and local law enforcement agencies in the country. The group's report on crime trends in 2005 and 2006 tracked disturbing increases in robberies, aggravated assaults and murder.
The report described violent crime as “making a comeback,” not to the same degree as the crack-propelled violence of the late '80s and early '90s, but in frightening numbers, nevertheless.
Chuck Wexler, the forum's executive director, offered a particularly chilling statistic. The number of cases of aggravated assault with a firearm is about 100,000 a year. In some cases, the gunman misses, but each year roughly 60,000 people are actually shot.
“Over the past five years,” said Wexler, “more than half a million people have been the victim of an aggravated assault with a firearm. We have become numbed in this society.”
Law enforcement officials believe there is something more vicious and cold-blooded, and thus more deadly, about the latest waves of crime moving across the country. Robberies involving juveniles with little regard for the lives of their victims are becoming more prevalent. Individuals with cell phones, iPods and other electronic devices are particular targets.
In the forum's report, Chief Heather Fong of the San Francisco police described a phenomenon called “rat-packing” in which robbers using cell phones call in fellow assailants to surround a victim.
Former Police Chief Nanette Hegerty of Milwaukee noted that in a number of holdups a cooperative victim was shot anyway.
Local authorities need help coping with violent crime. Huge numbers of criminals were locked up over the past 10 or 15 years, and they are leaving prison now by the hundreds of thousands each year. With few jobs or other resources available to them, a return to crime by a large portion of that population is inevitable.
The federal government played a big role in the effort that reduced crime substantially in the 1990s. But much of that federal support has since vanished, in part because of the tremendous attention and resources directed toward anti-terror initiatives, and in part because the Bush administration and much of the Republican Party have held fast to the ideological notion that crime is a local problem.
A similarly rigid ideological stance is undermining the effort to control the flow of guns and ammunition into the hands of criminals.
We have not returned to the bad old days of the late '80s and early '90s, but the trends are ominous. “We have to get the feds back into this game,” Bratton said. “They have the resources. They can help us.”
Insurgency able to pay all costs of operations
Criminal activities fund actions, U.S. report says
November 26, 2006 BAGHDAD, Iraq – The insurgency in Iraq is now self-sustaining financially, raising tens of millions of dollars a year from oil smuggling, kidnapping, counterfeiting, connivance by corrupt Islamic charities and other crimes that the Iraqi government and its American patrons have been largely unable to prevent, a classified U.S. government report has concluded.
The report, obtained by The New York Times, estimates that groups responsible for many of the insurgent and terrorist attacks across Iraq are raising $70 million to $200 million a year from illegal activities. It says $25 million to $100 million of that comes from oil smuggling and other criminal activity involving the state-owned oil industry aided by “corrupt and complicit” Iraqi officials.
As much as $36 million a year comes from ransoms paid to save hundreds of kidnap victims in Iraq, the report said. It estimates that unnamed foreign governments – previously identified by senior U.S. officials in Iraq as including France and Italy – paid Iraqi kidnappers an estimated $30 million in ransoms last year.
A copy of the report was made available to the Times by U.S. officials who said the findings could improve understanding of the challenges the United States faces in Iraq.
The report offers little hope that much can be done, at least anytime soon, to choke off insurgent revenue. For one thing, it acknowledges how little the U.S. authorities in Iraq know – 3½ years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein – about insurgent operations. For another, it paints an almost despairing picture of the Iraqi government's ability, or willingness, to take steps to tamp down the insurgency's financing.
“If accurate,” the report says, its estimates indicate that these “sources of terrorist and insurgent finance within Iraq – independent of foreign sources – are currently sufficient to sustain the groups' existence and operation.” To this, it adds what may be its most surprising conclusion: “In fact, if recent revenue and expense estimates are correct, terrorist and insurgent groups in Iraq may have surplus funds with which to support other terrorist organizations outside of Iraq.”
Some terrorism experts outside the government who were given an outline of the report by the Times criticized it as imprecise and speculative.
Completed in June, the report was compiled by an interagency working group investigating the financing of militant groups in Iraq.
A Bush administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed the group's existence. He said it was led by Juan Zarate, deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, and was made up of about a dozen people, drawn from the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the State Department, the Treasury Department and the U.S. Central Command.
If the group's $200 million-a-year estimate of the financing for the insurgency is close to the mark, it amounts to less than what it costs the Pentagon, with an $8 billion monthly budget for Iraq, to sustain the U.S. war effort there for a single day.
For Washington, the report's most dismaying finding may be that the insurgency now survives off money generated from activities inside Iraq, and no longer depends on the money Hussein and his associates seized as his regime collapsed. As troops entered Baghdad, U.S. officials said at the time, Hussein's oldest son, Qusai, took more than $1 billion in cash from the Central Bank of Iraq and stashed it in steel trunks aboard a flatbed truck. Large sums were found in Hussein's briefcase when he was captured in December 2003.
But the report says Hussein's loyalists “are no longer a major source of funding for terrorist or insurgent groups in Iraq.” Part of the reason, the report says, is that a U.S.-led effort has frozen $3.6 billion in “former regime assets.” Another reason, it says, is that Hussein's erstwhile loyalists, realizing that “it is increasingly obvious that a Baathist regime will not regain power in Iraq,” have turned increasingly to spending the money on their own living expenses.
The Hussein loyalists – some leading insurgent groups in Iraq, many others fugitives – retain control of “tens or hundreds of million dollars,” the report says.
The trail to those assets “has grown cold,” the report says.
The document says the pattern of insurgent financing changed after the first 18 months of the war, from the Hussein loyalists who financed it in 2003 to “foreign fighters and couriers” smuggling cash in bulk across Iraq's porous borders in 2004, to the present reliance on a complex array of indigenous sources.
“Currently, we assess that these groups garner most of their funding from petroleum-related criminal activity, kidnapping and other criminal pursuits within Iraq,” the report concludes.
The possibility that Iraq-based terrorist groups could finance attacks outside Iraq appeared to echo Bush administration assertions that prevailing in the war is essential to prevent Iraq from becoming a terrorist haven like Afghanistan became under the Taliban. But that suggestion was one of several aspects of the report that drew criticism in interviews with Western terrorism experts who were given the outline of the findings.
While noting that the report appeared to go beyond any previous investigation of the subject, the experts said the document appeared to be speculative, at least in its estimates of funds available to the militants. They noted the wide spread of the estimates, the report's failure to specify which groups the estimates covered, and the absence of documentation of how authors arrived at their estimates.
Although data may have been omitted to protect sources and methods – the document has a heading on the front page saying “Secret” and a warning that it is not to be shared with foreign governments – several security and intelligence consultants said in interviews that the vagueness of the estimates reflected how little U.S. intelligence agencies know about the militant groups.
“They're just guessing,” said W. Patrick Lang, a former chief of Middle East intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency who now runs a security and intelligence consultancy. “They've been very unsuccessful in penetrating these organizations.”
Lang was equally skeptical about the report's assertion that the insurgent and militant groups may have surpluses to finance terrorism outside Iraq. “That's another guess,” he said.
“A judgment like that, coming from an NSC-generated document,” is not an analytical assessment as much as it is a political statement to support the administration's contention that Iraq is a central front in the war on terrorism, he said. “It's a statement put in there to support a policy judgment.”
Several analysts said that, except for the possibility that al-Qaeda of Mesopotamia might be transferring money to al-Qaeda factions elsewhere, the assertion that insurgent money might be flowing out of the country was doubtful, considering the single-minded regional focus of most of the militants operating in Iraq.
Magnus Ranstorp of the Swedish National Defense College, an author of extensive studies of the Iraqi insurgency, said he doubted Iraqi groups were ready to finance terrorism outside Iraq. “There's very little evidence that they're preparing to export terrorism from Iraq to the West,” he said. “I think it's much too early for that.”
The document acknowledges that investigators have had limited success in penetrating or choking off terrorist financing networks. The report says U.S. efforts to follow the financing trails have been hamstrung by several factors. They include a weak Iraqi government and its nascent intelligence agencies; a lack of communication between U.S. agencies, and between the Americans and the Iraqis; and the nature of the insurgent economy, which is primarily sustained by couriers carrying cash.
“Efforts to identify key financial facilitators, funding sources and transfer mechanisms are yielding some results, but we need to improve our understanding of how terrorist and insurgent cells interact, how their financial networks vary from province to province or city to city, and how they use their funds,” the report says.
Several U.S. security consultants, all former members of government intelligence agencies that deal with terrorism, said in interviews that the ineffectiveness of efforts to impede the money flows is reflected in the continuing, if not growing, strength of Iraq's militants.
“You have to look at what the insurgency is doing,” Lang said. “Are they hampered by a lack of funds? I see no evidence that they are.”
Jeffrey White, a defense fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former Middle East analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency, agreed. “We've had some tactical successes where we've picked off a financier or whatever, but we haven't been able to unravel a major component of the system,” he said. “I've never seen any indication that they're strapped for cash, never seen any indication that they were short on weapons.”
White said the insurgency had shown strong regenerative properties. “The networks fix themselves; they heal themselves,” he said. He pointed to the success of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia to withstand the loss of combatants and major leaders. “They keep coming back, and I think the same thing has happened to the financial system,” he said.
Theft rings hit grocers
Medicine cabinet items apparently swiped for resale
May 10, 2006 By the way they are organized, you'd think they were planning a high-class heist -- Paul Allen's art collection, perhaps.
Instead, teams of criminals linked by cell phones have fanned out across Western Washington to steal all the Visine eye drops, Crest White Strips, Prilosec heartburn medication, Similac infant formula and Excedrin pain relievers they can get.
It's a major headache for supermarket chains that have reported losing hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of targeted products, often in just a few months.
No one knows how many organizations are involved, said Jason Moulton, Safeway's loss-prevention director in Western Washington.
"It's organized retail theft," said Moulton, a former FBI assistant special agent-in-charge in Seattle. "They've got production schedules, crew chiefs and ship the stuff back to California," where it is sold.
One shoplifter arrested recently in Pierce County told investigators that six groups were working in Pierce and South King counties, and that he was recruited by someone from Southern California.
On March 29, Safeway investigator Jeff Scales caught a man at the store in Crown Hill who had pocketed 21 bottles of Visine. A check of surveillance videotapes revealed that the man had been targeting the store -- wiping out supplies of certain products in nine separate visits.
Chains such as Safeway are responding by placing plainclothes officers in their stores and taking other security measures.
In Washington, supermarket chains and other major retailers persuaded lawmakers last session to adopt new criminal statutes, including theft with intent to resell and organized retail theft.
The laws "up the seriousness level above and beyond what you would be prosecuted for if it were a straight theft," said Clif Finch, vice president of the Washington Food Industry, a trade association representing independent grocers and supermarket chains. Finch said no industrywide figures on losses in Washington from organized retail theft are available, but grocery chains have reported major increases in theft-related losses.
In this region, it became apparent a couple of years ago that supermarkets were facing more than the occasional addict looking to turn stolen merchandise into quick cash. In March 2004, a Safeway investigator began looking into the systematic theft of baby formula from Pierce County stores.
"Store employees reported that groups consisting of both males and females using cell phones to communicate were entering the stores and cleaning the shelves out of Similac Advance with iron, 12.9 oz, $12.99 each," according to an internal Safeway report.
When the investigator began reviewing the surveillance tapes, a pattern became apparent.
"Two to six people in minivans with tinted windows hit several stores in one day, usually weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.," the investigator wrote in the report. "They would park in the perimeter of the parking lot and send one or two people in at a time.
"A male would act as a lookout while the females would put up to eight cans of baby formula into a shoulder bag and walk out of the store. The women typically wear black leather jackets and have black handbags. The whole process takes less than five minutes."
It's the same story in King County.
On Dec. 23, 2004, two of Moulton's investigators, Scales and Stacy Smalls, were working undercover in Kenmore in an attempt to catch whoever was wiping out the store's stock of baby formula.
Just before noon, they spotted a woman with six cans of Similac in her hand basket. The woman was talking on a cell phone and looking toward the direction of the store's doors, according to a Safeway report.
She moved up the aisle and met a man who took the cans from the hand basket, put them in a cloth bag hanging from his shoulder and walked out of the store without paying for them. Smalls followed him while Scales kept an eye on the woman.
The investigators alerted nearby King County Sheriff's Deputy Jeff Durrant, who approached the man as he entered a minivan and ordered him to get out.
When Durrant searched the vehicle, he found 30 cans of Similac worth $430 and 16 packages of Pepcid AC worth $325. The man admitted stealing the merchandise that day from Safeways in Kenmore and Kingsgate.
"It's like the flavor of the day -- almost like they steal to order," said Safeway investigator Gene Blahato of the regional headquarters in Bellevue. "And every time we take countermeasures, they switch products."
Moulton said that "the frustration is we can't get anybody to look at this. There's no law-enforcement organization that is following up."
The local FBI office cited competition for its investigative resources as the reason it has not addressed the organized retail theft problem.
"Terrorism is the No. 1 priority in the state of Washington, and we have fewer and fewer resources to devote these days to other criminal activity like retail theft," said Special Agent Robbie Burroughs.
There's been a lot of speculation on the structure of retail-theft rings: Are they crime syndicates? Terrorist funding schemes?
A U.S. Treasury Department terrorist-financing task force called "Green Quest" lists the theft and resale of infant formula as well as interstate cigarette smuggling as ways by which terrorist groups finance their operations.
FBI agents in Portland broke up a retail theft ring last August that was a traditional criminal enterprise. Agents arrested 27 people on suspicion of trafficking in stolen merchandise and money laundering stemming from the theft of goods from grocery, hardware, drug and department stores, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Oregon.
The goods were resold for 10 to 20 cents on the dollar to "secondhand" stores, which would resell to "wholesalers" for a healthy profit. FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Jordan said the shoplifters were driven by addiction to drugs.
The federal officials in Oregon seized more than $2 million in stolen products, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie Westphal. The investigation revealed that an enormous amount of stolen goods are flowing through the pipeline, and they are turned over quickly.
"It's huge," Westphal said. "It has an impact economically that we are not capturing and measuring. But it's certainly there."