SAN FRANCISO — In less than a week, six men in five states have been charged with terrorist plots to blow up federal buildings, attack Americans, and bring about the sort of mass destruction not seen here since 9/11.
The alleged plots are separated by geography and scale, but the suspects appear to share a belief in radical jihad and be influenced by Al Qaeda in their desire to strike against the West, in particular, the US.
“What we are dealing with is this extreme fringe who believe they need to commit violence in the name of God,” says Matthew Levitt, a counterterrorism expert with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Arrests Thursday in Dallas and Springfield, Ill., followed on the heels of a separate investigation stretching from New York to Colorado. Some of the suspects acted alone and others in small groups, but none seemed to be part of an organized Al Qaeda cell.
Together the cases demonstrate that Americans remain vulnerable to domestic terrorism, albeit from “a tiny fraction of society,” that has been radicalized by extremists operating in such places as prisons and via the Internet, says Dr. Levitt. (See a timeline of terror plots against the US since 9/11.)
The string of terrorism investigations should renew efforts to bolster counter-radicalization strategies at home, Levitt adds.
“The vast majority of the Muslim and Arab American population is well integrated and rejects this violent ideology. Unfortunately, the US government has not always empowered these communities effectively to provide an alternative to the extremist narrative,” said a Washington Institute report on global counter-radicalization efforts earlier this year.
The different plots
The terrorism suspects named last week are a mix of legal residents and US citizens, and appear to have been drawn to radicalism in various ways.
- Najibullah Zazi, the Denver airport shuttle driver indicted in New York Wednesday for plotting to carry out attacks with homemade bombs, was born in Afghanistan and raised in Pakistan. He has lived in the US since 1999, but allegedly told federal agents that he had received training in an Al Qaeda camp in Pakistan.
- In a separate case in Texas, a young Jordanian-born man, Hosam Maher Husein Smadi, was arrested and charged Thursday for trying to blow up a Dallas skyscraper. According to the FBI affidavit, he told undercover agents “he came to the US for the specific purpose of committing ‘jihad for the sake of God.’ ” He was set up by agents with fake explosives.
- In a similar but unrelated federal investigation, agents charged Michael Finton of Illinois with trying to blow up a Springfield courthouse. Mr. Finton apparently converted to Islam after being released from a state prison where he served time on aggravated robbery and battery convictions. He was also provided with a bogus bomb by agents.
- In New York, Betim Kaziu was indicted Thursday for trying to join a terrorist group overseas and fight US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mr. Kaziu, a US citizen from Brooklyn, was arrested in Kosovo where he was apparently trying to join an Islamist militant group.
- In an ongoing North Carolina investigation of seven men charged with supporting foreign terrorist groups, two defendants were indicted Thursday for planning to attack the Marine base in Quantico, Va.
Sending a message?
Experts say they are unsure why these allegations have come to light in fairly quick succession. It could be due to the recent 9/11 anniversary, the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, or the G20 gathering in Pittsburgh. Or, they say, it could be just coincidence.
At least in the case against Mr. Zazi, there has been speculation that investigators may have acted too soon in making an arrest.
But the arrests could also be intended to send a message to others who seek to carry out domestic terrorism, says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia.
The moves shows the government is willing to act quickly in counterterrorism operations, he says. And from the government’s perspective, he adds, they demonstrate the utility of some controversial aspects of the Patriot Act set to expire this year, such as wiretapping individuals under suspicion.