Shadow Hunters

It started with a phone call. On April 23, 2004, a Friday, a man calling himself “Al” contacted the Homeland Security Department in Washington. He claimed that he knew a group of terrorists who were going to blow up a building. Al knew this, he said, because he was once a member of Al Qaeda.

The shadowy warning could have easily been swallowed up in the flow of hundreds of crank calls and sketchy leads about airport attacks and bombs on bridges that flooded government hotlines that year. But this call was different: Al named a place, and a date.

Los Angeles, next Thursday, the 29th, Al said. A shopping mall near the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard and the close-by campus of UCLA. Al said that a cell of three terrorists would enter the country from Canada. He even gave names. This didn’t sound like a crank. Could it be for real? Could this be the one?

Forget about what you think homeland security really means. For now, put aside thoughts of stripping down at airport security checks. Never mind those seemingly random spikes in the color-coded national threat level — and whatever happened to those alerts, anyway? From a city’s point of view, where distinguishing hoax from horror can turn on a single phone call, this is how you fight a war on terrorism.

Officials in Washington immediately called L.A.’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, a team of FBI agents, Homeland Security officials, and local police and sheriff’s officers. The FBI set up dozens of these task forces in cities across the country after 9/11, and they quickly became magnets for bureaucratic turf tussles. But in L.A., partly owing to a long history of cooperating on anti-gang and drug squads, the local cops and the feds got along well.

After getting Washington’s call about Al, the FBI set up a team within the task force to vet incoming tips, including other bomb threats. The police department’s terrorism analysts canceled their weekend plans. Unnoticed in the hustle and flow of city life, L.A. went into terror mode.

At least two big malls were near the Federal Building and UCLA. On busy West Pico Boulevard was the Westside Pavilion, with more than 160 stores. Over in the Fairfax District, a historically Jewish neighborhood, the fashionable outdoor plaza called the Grove beckoned shoppers and moviegoers to its stores and cinemas. Before the Los Angeles Police Department and the mayor told thousands of Angelinos to stay away from these two sites, the authorities needed to know what they were up against.

FBI agents traced Al’s call to a prepaid phone card. They tracked down the card seller, who gave agents a log of Al’s calls. It turned out that his real name was Zameer Mohamed and that he had called in the bomb threat from Room 308 of a Comfort Inn in Calgary.

Hotel management told agents that a Samier Hussein had rented the room. Authorities ran the name and got a hit in federal records: Mohamed had used Hussein as an alias in Texas, where officials had investigated him the year before on a theft charge. Was Mohamed changing names to cover his tracks? That would have helped him if he wanted to evade U.S. authorities or the Qaeda members he had ostensibly just ratted out.

Life Goes On

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, local authorities were analyzing the bomb threat. The city’s top terrorism officials were seasoned experts. John Miller, the head of the LAPD’s counter-terrorism operation at the time, was a former journalist with deep ties to the FBI. He was also the last Western reporter to interview Osama bin Laden before 9/11.

The department’s chief, William Bratton, was perhaps the most famous cop in America. He was appointed New York City’s police commissioner a year after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and he led a dramatic reduction in crime citywide. Miller was Bratton’s spokesman then. The two were plugged in to those who knew the national threat picture.

No one in Washington had said it publicly yet, but even as Mohamed made his call in April 2004, multiple and credible sources had convinced counter-terrorism officials that Al Qaeda was planning a major attack in the United States. The “chatter” about a strike was at its highest level since 9/11, intelligence agencies calculated.

A month earlier, coordinated bombings on commuter trains in Madrid had killed 191 people. Some senior officials believed that Al Qaeda struck Spain in an effort to turn popular support against the conservative government, which backed the war in Iraq and was up for re-election.

The Americans thought that the terrorists might try something similar in the United States, possibly with attacks at the upcoming national political conventions. Senior officials also feared the possibility of strikes aimed at the Group of Eight summit in Sea Island, Ga., and even the opening of the World War II Memorial in Washington.

There had also been worried talk about a dirty bomb. Specifically, intelligence and diplomatic officials had homed in on three Qaeda operatives who had overseen experiments to build explosives containing radioactive material or deadly chemicals. America was bracing for a hit. In that anxious atmosphere, how could anyone ignore Mohamed’s tip that three terrorists were about to go after L.A.?

On Wednesday, the day before the threatened attack, city officials informed the shopping mall owners. On Thursday, Bratton stood before news cameras at the Grove and asked Angelinos for help. “We need the eyes, the ears” of the citizenry, he stressed. He reminded people that bin Laden had recently issued another taped warning promising more violence.

Then-Mayor James Hahn said that people should go about their daily business but should be alert to the out-of-place: “a truck that seems to be parked somewhere for too long, or someone … wearing bulky clothing on a hot day.”

Police stepped up patrols around the two malls and across West Los Angeles. News helicopters whirled above the supposed targets. But by Friday, everything seemed back to normal. Shoppers trolled the window fronts, while L.A. traffic flowed as usual. Nearby, a movie crew erected the set for a day’s shooting.

“This just happens all the time…. This is no different than any anonymous bomb threat that gets called in,” Gene Thompson, the head of corporate security for the Westside Pavilion’s owners, told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “Life goes on,” said Tom Miles, the Grove’s general manager.

In fact, life did go on, unimpeded by a bomb or any other shopping disruptions. On the day Mohamed had warned that his Qaeda friends would strike, federal authorities apprehended him as he crossed the U.S.-Canadian border into Montana.

Mohamed confessed that he’d made the whole thing up. There was no bomb. Those supposed Qaeda operatives were actually friends of his girlfriend. Mohamed had called Homeland Security to get back at her for stealing his paycheck from a Toronto bank where they used to work together. He had asked the three men to help him get the money back, but they had refused. Mohamed said he picked the two malls because he knew the area, having once visited the UCLA Law Library.

Life went on. But the city never really slept.

The Listening Post

Mohamed’s unusually specific threat inspired a rare frenzy of activity. To be sure, Los Angeles doesn’t ramp up to full alert for every lead that comes over the transom. That would be impossible, because, by officials’ count, they have received more than 4,000 tips, leads, and other vague insinuations about possible terrorist attacks in the greater L.A. area in just the past three years.

Most of them turn out to be bogus. Anonymous callers see “Arabs” taking photographs of bridges. Electrical plant owners notice a van driving slowly by their security gates. Some concerned citizen sees “Middle Eastern-looking” men loading fertilizer onto a truck in her neighbor’s driveway. Authorities have documented literally thousands of such leads in cities across the country, and few of them come to anything. The camera-toting terrorists are actually tourists; the driver of the van was lost; the men loading fertilizer were Mexican gardeners.

Occasionally, of course, the leads are more substantial and are worth investigating. Some are sourced to U.S. intelligence agencies or to the Homeland Security Department, which is nominally tasked with keeping states and localities abreast of threats to their areas. But the river of leads pouring into L.A. contains mostly unofficial reports from locals, and they run the gamut from the useful to the useless. At such a dizzying pace — 4,000 in three years — how could anyone keep up?

Today, in L.A. and in more than four dozen other cities across the country, state and local officials, using mostly federal grant money, have built a network of lead-vetting teams to do just that. They call them “fusion centers,” and Bush administration officials, along with powerful members of Congress in both parties, believe that they are one of the best ways to prevent the next attack.

Usually run in partnership with federal agencies, such as the FBI and Homeland Security, fusion centers employ teams of terrorism analysts, many of whom are self-educated. They take every lead, hold it up to the light, and ask, Could this be connected to terrorism? To answer that question, the leads are examined using a wealth of other information, including analysts’ own expertise, local police reports, statewide crime databases, and sometimes intelligence from the federal level. “Fused” together, all that analysis tells police and security agencies whether they should rest easy or call out the guard.

In L.A., a city that makes its living spinning fact into fiction — the buttoned-down terrorism analyst has morphed into Jack Bauer, terrorist-fighting force of nature on “24” — you might expect the fusion center to pulse at the city’s heart. Wrong. To get to the lead-filtering complex — called the Joint Regional Intelligence Center, or “Jay-Rick” — you have to leave the beauty bars of the Sunset Strip and the curvy overlooks of the Hollywood Hills. Go south about 10 miles, take the 105 freeway east until it ends, then head down an industrial road, past a taco stand, a carwash, and a movie theater.

There, amid a warren of stout office buildings in the industrial L.A. suburb of Norwalk, is a sand-colored 525,000-square-foot edifice. JRIC is on the seventh floor, next to the corporate headquarters of Bally Total Fitness. This is homeland security’s next frontier.

JRIC is L.A.’s terrorism “listening post,” says Stephen Tidwell, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office. Tidwell, LAPD’s Bratton, and L.A. County Sheriff Leroy Baca are among JRIC’s most enthusiastic supporters. The three men are friends and self-professed true believers in chasing terrorists down at the local level. Their comradeship has caught Washington’s attention. When JRIC opened last summer, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff came out for the ribbon-cutting. Federal officials call JRIC a “model fusion center,” one for others to emulate.

JRIC’s roster is a bureaucratic potpourri. It contains FBI agents, LAPD officers, L.A. County sheriff’s deputies, public health experts, contract analysts who study radical Islam, a liaison from the Homeland Security Department, and officers detailed from other local law enforcement agencies across the Los Angeles region.

The “region” is a seven-county, 44,000-square-mile sprawl that, historically, has never much cared for jurisdictional spats. As any L.A. cop, firefighter, or paramedic will attest, during an earthquake, fire, or a flood — all of which the region suffers every year — you don’t much care what color uniform the person coming to your rescue wears. The region adheres to a pact of “mutual aid,” which all but eliminates turf tensions. Cooperatively fighting terrorism fits right in with that culture.

Dead Ends

At 9 a.m. every Monday through Friday, the JRIC staff sits down and sorts through the daily cache of leads, to make sure that they’re vetted and that all agencies are on the same page. If there’s a report that terrorists are spiking the water supply with biotoxins, JRIC will ask a microbiologist to take a look. How credible is the threat? Could that toxin actually live in water? How many people might be affected?

If there’s a call about suspicious activity in Long Beach, the appropriate JRIC officer will run it past his sources. Some have likened the hunt for terrorists to looking for a needle in a haystack. But JRIC members go through haystacks, straw by straw, asking, “Could this be a needle?”

So far, none of the leads has revealed an active terrorist conspiracy in the L.A. region. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent are false,” says Bob Galarneau, a sheriff’s department lieutenant and a JRIC program manager. “But we still investigate…. Every one is followed up on.”

Considering the gravity of the potential threat, one might expect daily life at JRIC to resemble a scene out of a Tom Clancy movie. Wrong again. There are trappings of adventure — wall-mounted televisions tuned to cable news channels, including Al Jazeera; table tops strewn with copies of Counterterrorism magazine. Beyond that, JRIC looks like just another banal workplace. If this were a TV show, it would be “24” meets “The Office.”

But that is what homeland security looks like. A lot of waiting, a lot of wading through noise, and then life goes on, in all its reassuring regularity.

“I wish it were like ’24,'” says Kristen von KleinSmid, the FBI supervisory special agent in charge of the threat squad, a JRIC team that can decide to open investigations on particular leads. “I can’t redirect satellites. I’m sure there’s someone who can. But I just can’t make a phone call and have it done.”

The threat squad, also called CT-6, worked the 2004 bomb threat on the shopping malls. Today it comprises about 20 analysts and officers from a variety of federal and local agencies. The squad is permanently attached to the fusion center and has “right of first refusal” on all incoming leads. Von KleinSmid says that it handles, on average, about 25 tips a week. “You have to be very organized,” she says. “It’s hard to keep the leads straight.”

As leads go, CT-6 has a low bar. “The only ones we won’t work are if we know the person who wrote this complaint is completely crazy,” von KleinSmid says — if the person rambles, or if “it’s just some woman saying she saw two Middle Eastern men taking photos of a building.” Those tips have no “lead value,” she continues, meaning they’re dead ends. It’s “common,” von KleinSmid says, for people to anonymously file complaints about their neighbors.

“Most of the leads are dead ends,” Sheriff Baca says. “It’s well-meaning information from people who don’t know exactly what they’re talking about.”

Distractions and hoaxes come with the job, but officials are also trying to dissuade future cranks. In one case, officials say, the threat squad responded to a complaint from a military contractor who claimed that his Filipino girlfriend had stolen plans for a shoulder-fired missile and intended to sell them to Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist network based in the Philippines.

CT-6 investigated, and officers tracked down the woman, who, it turned out, was in the country illegally. She and her boyfriend had recently fought, and to get back at her, he reported her as a terrorist supporter, hoping she would be deported. The U.S. attorney’s office is prosecuting him for making false claims, officials say.

“About one out of every 100 leads, there’s something good that comes out of that, where really useful information is obtained,” von KleinSmid says. Agents “know that a lot of the stuff they’re working isn’t going to go anywhere.”

Which makes one wonder: If nothing will come of most — nearly all — of the leads that have poured into L.A. over the years, why bother chasing down each one? Because, officials say, chasing ghosts and possible hoaxes is the best chance they have of finding a bona fide threat. One time out of thousands, the lead might bear fruit. The terrorist hunters might get lucky. In fact, they say, it has already happened.

Terror Comes to Town

In the summer of 2005, police officers in Torrance, south of downtown L.A., investigated an armed robbery at a gas station. It was the latest in a string of heists, and each time the bandits had fled without a trace. But this time one of them dropped his cellphone, giving police a rare lead.

Officers traced the phone to Gregory Vernon Patterson, a 21-year-old local man with no criminal record. They placed him under surveillance. According to a criminal complaint, on the evening of July 5, Patterson and Levar Haney Washington, who, later investigations showed, was an L.A. gang member, drove to a gas station in Fullerton, east of Torrance in Orange County.

Washington, dressed in a dark hooded sweatshirt and carrying a shotgun, robbed the clerk, according to the complaint. Police arrested the two men and then searched Washington’s apartment in South Los Angeles.

That search, authorities say, ultimately enabled them to disrupt a major terrorist plot aimed at local military recruiting stations, the Israeli consulate, and other targets across L.A. Torrance police officers found documents outlining an imminent attack, possibly timed for the anniversary of September 11, as well as knives, bulletproof vests, and “jihadist” material that wasn’t available from the usual sources on the Internet, investigators said.

Almost immediately, one of the officers involved in the search, who had been trained to spot terrorist warning signs in the course of his normal duties, called local counter-terrorism officials. The entire L.A. terrorist hunting apparatus was on alert again.

More than 200 federal and local investigators worked the case, pursuing leads, tracking evidence, and grilling Washington and Patterson. “Virtually every agency in the area jumped on the hunt,” says Tidwell, the FBI assistant director in charge. “It was textbook.”

According to an FBI affidavit, Washington told investigators that he led an “Islamic council” that was planning a jihad in the United States, “to respond to the oppression of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan by the U.S. government.”

Washington said that his group had scouted targets, to determine whether they should use a bomb or “rifles and inflict as many casualties as possible.” Patterson, the affidavit said, had purchased an AR-15 assault rifle and was only days from picking it up at a sporting goods store. Investigators charged that the men committed the gas-station robberies to pay for their citywide offensive. Planning for the attacks, the FBI said that Washington told them, was nearly complete.

Officials later charged that Washington and Patterson acted at the behest of Kevin Lamar James, a Muslim convert doing time in Folsom prison since 1996 for armed robbery in gang-related crimes. Police said that James had founded a radical Islamic cell called Jamiyyat Ul Islam Is Saheeh, or JIS — “the Association of True Islam,” — and, from inside Folsom’s walls, directed a plot to conduct a violent jihad.

Federal officials had warned about the spread of Islamic radicalism in prisons. Local authorities said that Washington and Patterson had met at an area mosque, and had become radicalized by James’s vision. On August 31, 2005, a federal grand jury indicted the three men, along with a Pakistani national, on charges of plotting the L.A. attacks. A trial is scheduled for August.

Ask any of the terrorist hunters in L.A. to cite a plot they’ve disrupted as a result of their post-9/11 vigilance, and they’ll immediately point to JIS. To this day, the FBI calls the incident the closest thing to an “operational” terrorist plot since the September 11 attacks.

Miller, the former LAPD counter-terrorism official who is now the FBI’s chief spokesman, has called JIS a “homegrown” terrorist cell. He said that it “is the best example of how the threat now is as much out there on our streets, among some disaffected Americans, as it is teams of sleeper cells who are sent from faraway training camps.”

Before 9/11, officials in L.A. agree, the police officers who searched Washington’s apartment might have been alarmed by the weaponry and the jihadist literature but wouldn’t have known to immediately call the terrorism task force. The JIS case is proof, they say, that the relentless pursuit of leads, the hyper-alertness, the constant probing of every piece of evidence for a terrorist link, actually prevents attacks.

Many terrorism experts, however, aren’t so sure. If the evidence is correct, then Washington and Patterson were clearly capable of violence, and very well may have attacked targets in the city. But is it accurate to call them domestic terrorists, members of a homegrown cell?

The case demands comparisons to bona fide homegrown extremists, such as those involved in the London subway and bus bombings in 2005, which killed 52 people. Is JIS the same? Are L.A. terrorist hunters, so intent on turning over every rock, seeing threats where they don’t exist?

Seeing Things

Since 9/11, the FBI and local law enforcement have produced few cases of legitimate terrorism, critics say. Miller said recently that the bureau “has had a part in stopping five terrorist plots in progress” in the past year and a half. Among those, he counts the foiled attempt last year to bomb commercial airliners in midflight on their way from England to the United States.

But Miller also includes a plot to blow up a New York City commuter rail line, which investigators have said involved suspects who were never in the United States; the arrest of members of a suspected terrorist cell in Canada who aimed to blow up government buildings there; the arrest of two men in Georgia who the FBI says were linked to the Canadian group and who also discussed attacks on oil refineries and military bases; and the arrest of members of a suspected terrorist group in Florida called “the Seas of David” who officials say wanted to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago.

Terrorism experts hotly debate whether those four cases and others, including JIS in Los Angeles, can or should be called examples of domestic terrorist cells. Tom Kean, the former co-chairman of the 9/11 commission, has dismissed the comparison of JIS to Al Qaeda.

JIS, he said, is part of a long history of anarchists and disaffected groups that have wanted to harm the government. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, is a worldwide organization that has declared its intention to harm Americans and has the personnel and financial capabilities to do it, Kean said. “That is the enemy,” he told the PBS series “Frontlin” last year. “And that is who we’re fighting, and we’ve got to always keep our focus on that.”

Amy Zegart, an associate professor of public policy at UCLA and a leading national authority on counter-terrorism, says that officials are too quick to label as terrorists groups that express some outrage at the government. “When you parade things that clearly aren’t at the level of 9/11 as successes, you undermine the FBI’s credibility with the public,” she says.

Zegart is a prominent FBI skeptic. After she wrote a scathing op-ed in the Los Angeles Times last year in which she said that the FBI was “still stupid” about terrorism, Tidwell called her to his office for a dressing down.

Still, after examining the city’s terrorist-hunting efforts, including JRIC, Zegart says that there’s some reason to take heart. “They have a very forward-thinking approach,” she said.

JRIC, for instance, built upon the work of another outfit, the Terrorism Early Warning Group, created in 1996 by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. Experts have lauded the group and the city’s leaders for taking local responsibility for terrorism prevention seriously years before national agencies made it a priority.

But there’s a flip side to the city’s ceaseless pursuit, Zegart says.

“What worries me about the follow-every-lead approach is that it is done in a strategic void. I think this is an endemic problem that is true across U.S. intelligence. We’re ramping up … saying, ‘Let’s look at today’s threat list,’ ” Zegart says. “The current news cycle and the terrorist threat are putting more pressure on people to focus on the here and now.”

As a result, counter-terrorism officials might miss the bigger, longer-range picture about terrorism trends, and overlook new threats that could be emerging below the daily radar sweep, she fears.

Zegart says she believes that the threat of domestic terrorism is real. Nevertheless, she’s unconvinced that other cities should try to emulate L.A.’s approach. “In many ways, we’ve been the model in terms of prevention and response,” she says. “I always say that the good news and the bad news is, L.A. leads the country in counter-terrorism.”

Help From Above?

In Washington, many intelligence officials want to push the running of homeland security as far away from the nation’s capital as possible. In November 2006, President Bush approved a set of guidelines to govern how federal agencies share terrorism information with states, localities, tribal governments, and the private sector, which owns and operates 80 percent of the nation’s infrastructure.

The guidelines were submitted to the White House by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, but they were developed by state and local officials, including many of those running fusion centers like JRIC.

The guidelines call for a “federalist, or shared-responsibility, approach to information-sharing.” The federal government will “promote … a network of fusion centers” but won’t control it. The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and the Homeland Security Department, which is legally the point of contact for states and localities, are cast as partners, not directors.

“Fusion centers cannot carry out their efforts in a vacuum. They rely on intelligence and other information from federal entities so that they can develop intelligence priorities,” says John Cohen, a spokesman for Thomas McNamara, the former U.S. ambassador-at-large for counter-terrorism and the man who heads the information-sharing environment office that submitted the guidelines to the president.

“They also need to be able to view local events within the context of national, even global, terrorist patterns,” Cohen says. “State and local officials need this federal information so that they can protect their local communities, and they are telling us that they still are not getting the information they need from the federal government. We are listening and are working aggressively with these states and localities, as well as the intelligence community, Homeland Security, the Defense Department, and the FBI to fix it.”

Today, some threat reporting comes from the Homeland Security Department and some from the FBI. Those entities have sparred over which should be the primary conduit for states and localities, and who should decide how much they get to know.

State and local officials, meanwhile, complain that threat reporting is inconsistent and that much of what they know comes from their own residents. Even in Los Angeles, where relations have remained congenial, Chief Bratton says that the federal agencies need to settle their disputes and to give the locals more information.

“How do we get the feds to make nice with each other — that’s still the big issue,” Bratton says. From his perspective, local officials have already made a sizable investment in homeland-security policy. “I easily spend 40 percent of my time on terrorism matters,” Bratton says, including talking to journalists and members of Congress. Of the federal agencies whose intelligence Bratton wants, he says, “Locals have to be accepted into what was a private club…. We’re the new kids knocking on the door.”

“We’re Gonna Get Hit”

Ask Stephen Tidwell where the FBI and his friends in L.A. are looking for the next terrorist threat, and you’ll get no specifics. “We’re looking everywhere…. We spend hours upon hours,” he says. “Got people not sleeping very much. People walking around like zombies…. We can’t have enough eyes looking.”

Considering his obsession with standing vigil over L.A., it’s odd that Tidwell’s office on the 11th floor of the Federal Building looks not to the south and east, over the city’s concrete expanse, but to the northwest, taking in the verdant Santa Monica Mountains, which run east to west, to the Pacific Ocean. It’s a vivid reminder that Los Angeles sits in a bowl, surrounded by natural forces that also conspire to wipe the city off the map.

Immediately outside Tidwell’s panoramic window, the Los Angeles National Cemetery spreads in a gradual upward slope toward the mountain range. Dedicated in 1889, the 114-acre garden of stone holds the remains of more than 84,000 veterans of four American wars, from the Spanish-American to the Korean.

“We game out in our heads multiple suicide bombers or multiple IED attacks,” Tidwell says, referring to Iraqi insurgents’ weapon of choice, the improvised explosive device. He pauses and glances out the window. What really scares him, Tidwell says, is what happens after the attack. “Eighteen million people, trying to self-evacuate out of here, will collapse this place.”

“We’re gonna get hit here,” Tidwell says. “When it does happen, how are we going to hunt them? How are we going to find them?” By his calculus, every set of eyes, every listening post, every JRIC is one more barrier that terrorists have to overcome. The best chance to save L.A. is to make their job harder. “We’re building fences,” Tidwell says. “We want enough fences between us and them.”

Published in National Journal.