For years, terrorism experts have cautioned that the next terrorist attack in the United States could be carried out by a homegrown cell, inspired by radical propaganda but with no formal ties to any terrorist organization. On May 8 these warnings gained some gravity when the U.S. Department of Justice announced the arrests of six men in New Jersey who were allegedly plotting an armed assault (Newsweek.com) on the Fort Dix Army base. Four of the accused conspirators came from the former Yugoslavia, one from Turkey, and one from Jordan; none had any known ties to other terrorist groups. Their capture capped a fifteen-month FBI investigation (PDF).
Stories like this have become increasingly familiar. The New York Police Department received high praise after a yearlong undercover operation (New York) resulted in the arrest and conviction of two men plotting to bomb the Herald Square subway station in 2004. Defendants in that case claimed entrapment, as did Hamid Hayat, a Pakistani-American teenager from Lodi, California, who in 2006 was convicted in federal court of providing support to terrorists. He maintains an undercover FBI agent openly pressured him to explore radical ideologies (LAT). As with previous cases, family members of the six men arrested in New Jersey claim their innocence (WashPost). In earlier instances, local Muslim communities felt unfairly targeted by law enforcement, a sentiment which, as this Backgrounder explains, could help radicalize some American Muslims while leading others to mistrust the police.
All this speaks to the difficulties faced by law enforcement officials charged with combating homegrown terrorism. Jihadi propaganda, easily accessed on the Internet, has led to a rise in self-starting terrorist cells across the globe. Some experts say the United States needs a domestic intelligence agency similar to Britain’s MI5, a proposal considered in this Online Debate. But MI5 has had its own troubles; a recent Economist report details how a massive investigation into a group of men plotting bomb attacks in Britain failed to discover that two of the group’s affiliates were plotting the July 2005 attack on London’s mass transit system.
Some experts suggest the best defense against homegrown terrorism is effective community policing (PDF)—beat cops who know a community well enough to sense when something is amiss. Since 2002, New York City has built one of the world’s premiere counterterrorism police units. Local police have also made effective use of recent changes to domestic surveillance law. Though the Bush administration took criticism for its warrantless wiretaps, legitimate electronic surveillance proved useful in the recent New Jersey arrests.
Intelligence sharing can also help detect homegrown cells. Most states have developed intelligence “fusion centers” to cull information from various state and federal agencies. The FBI has established one hundred Joint Terrorism Task Forces to help coordinate efforts between local and federal authorities. The National Journal takes an in-depth look at how such cooperation (PDF) has played out in Los Angeles.