There are some interesting anecdotes and observations in former New York City Police Department Intelligence Director’s Wall Street Journal op-ed on the prospective dangers that radical Islamist violence in Syria and Iraq pose here in the United States:
In 2008, for example, the NYPD identified a young Staten Island man who admired Osama bin Laden and American-born terrorist leader Anwar al-Awlaki and sought to travel to Pakistan to join the Pakistani Taliban. Fortunately, an NYPD undercover officer managed to penetrate the cluster of radicalized men around him and learned of his plans. This police work allowed U.S. intelligence agencies to alert Pakistani authorities.
As a result, 18-year-old Abdel Hameed Shehadeh would be denied entry to Pakistan and sent back to the U.S., where he was later arrested for making false statements related to the reasons he gave for his travel. After Pakistani officials denied him entry, Shehadeh had told investigators from the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force that he had traveled to Pakistan to visit a university. But he later admitted that his true purpose was to wage violent jihad against U.S. forces; he was convicted in 2013 for lying about his attempt to join the Taliban and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
In June 2010, two men from New Jersey, 24-year-old Carlos Almonte and 20-year-old Mohamed Alessa, were seized at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport while trying to leave the country on separate flights for Cairo, en route to Somalia to join the Somalia-based al Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabaab. The men had stated that their goal was to train to kill Americans overseas—or when they returned. Once again, a NYPD undercover officer detected and penetrated their conspiracy, allowing the FBI and NYPD to work together to thwart their travel plans. In 2011, Almonte and Alessa pleaded guilty to conspiring to murder people outside the U.S. and were sentenced to 20 and 22 years in prison, respectively.
In January 2013, counterterrorism agents and NYPD officers intercepted 18-year-old Justin Kaliebe as he tried to board a flight to Oman at JFK airport on his way to Yemen. Prosecutors alleged that Kaliebe began plotting to join al Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate, al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, in 2011. An undercover NYPD officer with whom Kaliebe was in contact was able to record their conversations and alert the authorities before Kaliebe attempted to leave for Yemen and jihad. He was arrested at the airport by members of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division and the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force and charged with attempting to provide material support to an al Qaeda affiliate, to which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
We have seen the implications, most clearly on 9/11, of trying and failing to detect individuals trained and radicalized to launch terrorist attacks once they have arrived on U.S. soil. As for homegrown terrorists, it is not easy to detect when thoughts and intentions turn to action unless covert sources are in place to observe these sometimes subtle changes. As the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings showed, missing the signs can be deadly.
I think his key observation, that radicals who have honed their skills overseas can bring them back here, is actually a more severe problem for Germany, France, and the United Kingdom than it is for us. We are the natural destination of immigrants from Latin America. They are are the natural destination of immigrants from the Middle East. Still, it highlights a problem I’ve noted for some time.
There are some very contentious and troubling questions we should be discussing but aren’t. Why is dual citizenship tolerated? Why don’t we keep track of visa holders? Under what circumstances does a naturalized American citizen implicitly renounce his or her citizenship? A native-born American citizen?
I don’t claim to have answers for any of those questions but I do believe we should be thinking about them. I also don’t claim that we can completely eliminate risk. Dealing with risk is a process of mitigation not elimination. If we’re not willing to take any steps to mitigate risk, that means that we accept the risks. It seems to me that’s something that should be explicit rather than implicit.
I do know that sanitary war in which no Americans are killed, only violent radicals are killed, and is enough to mitigate our risks here at minimal cost is a phantasm. That’s true whether it’s practiced by neoconservatives or liberal interventionists.