New Terror: Cells With No Links to Al Qaeda

The men who gathered inside the small Bronx apartment were tense, and they chatted nervously before the ceremony. The participants, among them a New York City musician and an emergency-room doctor from Florida, had allegedly gathered to meet a "brother" from Canada who called himself Ali. The brother had come with a message—from "Sheik Osama."

"You are in the belly of the enemy," the man from Canada warned, and cautioned his audience to be careful whom they spoke to. "The oppressors are everywhere." Once it was clear they all understood, the jazz musician bent to his knees, clutched the visitor's hand and took a solemn oath. He pledged to be "one of Islam's soldiers ... on the road to jihad." The doctor allegedly did the same. Then they each embraced the oath giver, the final step in Al Qaeda's sacred initiation ritual.

An audiotape of that extraordinary scene played in a federal courtroom last week as one of the initiates, Dr. Rafiq Sabir, a graduate of Columbia University Medical School, stood trial on federal charges that he provided material support to terrorists. What Sabir and the others didn't know when they attended the ceremony two years ago was that the man administering the oath was not really a jihadist, but Ali Soufan, an undercover FBI agent who had spent the better part of his career hunting Qaeda operatives.

Sabir's defense lawyer has cried entrapment. The accused himself later testified he had no idea that the Sheik Osama he was heard pledging his loyalty to was the Qaeda terror chief named bin Laden. But the musician, an accomplished jazz bassist named Tarik Shah who once played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, has already pleaded guilty to a terror-related charge. So have two other men in the case, a Washington, D.C., cabdriver and a Brooklyn bookstore owner. The FBI counts the case as one more victory in what it considers to be its top-priority mission: finding would-be terrorists before they can carry out their plans.

Federal officials say the case—along with a half dozen other recent investigations—is part of a worrisome trend: copycat jihadist cells that spring up inside the United States without any concrete connection to Qaeda central or other foreign terror organizations. Concerns were reinforced last week when the Justice Department announced it had busted a plot by six men—including four ethnic Albanians, three of whom had entered the country illegally more than 20 years ago—to attack Fort Dix Army base in New Jersey. The Feds say the men undertook firearms training in the Pocono mountains and conducted surveillance of Fort Dix and other U.S. military facilities. But they weren't exactly professional conspirators. The men made a video of themselves shooting guns and shouting "God is great" in Arabic, and took it to a local Circuit City to have DVD copies made. A store employee, alarmed by the content, called the police. The group ended up talking to undercover federal informants about acquiring weapons, including fully automatic assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. (The men were charged but not indicted last week.)

Homegrown groups lack the expertise of terrorists who undertake training in Qaeda camps, which probably makes them more prone to blunder. But terrorists overseas do aim to encourage such freelancers, who—in theory—are harder to identify and track because they can pop up anywhere. Al Qaeda and its affiliates are now using sophisticated English-language videos and Web sites to inspire followers in Europe and America to start their own jihadist cells. "We have seen an increase in the number of self-radicalized groups that use the Internet ... and are not organized by overseas groups," FBI Director Robert Mueller told reporters last week.

Al Qaeda puts out a steady supply of videos to inspire the faithful; last year the group produced 48. And they are no longer the clumsy and amateurish productions of a few years ago. Many have English subtitles or are narrated in perfect English by a man who calls himself "Azzam the American"—a California expat, born Adam Gadahn—who converted to Islam and joined Al Qaeda. Law-enforcement officials compare this to a Madison Avenue ad campaign. "Al Qaeda is banking on the idea that if they pump up the volume and increase the number of messages, they'll be able to push fence-sitters over the edge," says a senior law-enforcement official who asked not to be named discussing intelligence issues.

How effective is the propaganda? It's impossible to quantify. The New Jersey case seems to show that at least some believers get inspiration from what they can download from the Web. According to the FBI complaint in the case, one of the key figures in the plot had DVD files of the last will and testament of two of the 9/11 hijackers on his laptop. He also had images of bin Laden and other jihadist leaders exhorting believers to join the cause. The FBI complaint describes defendants erupting in laughter when they watched a war video showing an American Marine's hand being blown off.

But some of the FBI's operations have rounded up disaffected losers who might have been looking for trouble anyway. Over the past two years, the FBI has brought a spate of domestic terrorism cases involving people who were allegedly plotting attacks. In August 2005, the Justice Department indicted four men on charges of planning to attack synagogues and U.S. military installations in southern California. The alleged ringleaders were two former inmates of California's Folsom prison who converted to Islam and formed a radical group dedicated to "killing infidels." (All of the defendants pleaded not guilty; their trial is scheduled for August.) In January the FBI arrested Derrick Shareef, of Rockford, Ill., on charges that he was allegedly planning to plant hand grenades in garbage cans in a local shopping mall. (He pleaded not guilty.) A law-enforcement official who asked not to be named talking about intel matters tells NEWSWEEK that the Feds discovered Shareef had downloaded a 48-minute video by Gadahn, with an intro by bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In other cases, the Feds also arrested alleged plotters in Florida and Ohio.

A list like that can make it seem as though terrorists are all around us. But law-enforcement officials don't know whether any of the alleged conspirators had the will or means to carry out actual attacks. Critics have claimed that in some of the cases, including the one in New York, FBI informants, posing as radicals, encouraged defendants to say questionable things. "It's not like these were spontaneous plots," said Niwad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "What you have are informants who are going to disgruntled, totally messed-up people and trying to provoke them."

But FBI officials insist that they have to rely on undercover agents and informants to identify future terrorists before they strike. That's what they did in the New York case. The investigation began more than four years ago when a confidential informant reported to the FBI that Tarik Shah, the jazz musician, was trying to establish links to Al Qaeda. Shah, who at one time was associated with the Nation of Islam, was also a martial-arts instructor. He purportedly wanted to help train Qaeda members in hand-to-hand combat. Acting under instructions from the FBI, the informant set up a meeting between Shah and FBI agent Soufan, who was posing as a Qaeda operative.

Soufan was the rarest of G-men—a Muslim native of Lebanon, he spoke fluent Arabic and was regarded as one of the bureau's leading Qaeda experts. He had worked the FBI's biggest cases against the organization. Still, when he donned a wire and began meeting with Shah, Soufan was nervous. Shah would boast of his martial-arts expertise. "You really want to learn how to rip somebody's throat out?" Shah asks Soufan at one point on the FBI tape. Shah later introduced Soufan to his other friends, including Sabir, the Florida ER physician, who was also a former Nation of Islam follower. During the meeting in the Bronx apartment, he allegedly volunteered to help treat wounded Qaeda "brothers" during an upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia.

Even though neither Shah nor Sabir ever had a real relationship with Al Qaeda, Soufan says the case is a classic example of how the FBI should work. During the course of their dealings, Shah had identified three associates—including one who had been to a training camp in Pakistan, and another who had offered to provide funding to mujahedin in Afghanistan and Chechnya. "It was a good catch," he says. "We got three guys. We got them cold and we got them by the book. I consider this a proactive counterterrorism operation."

The FBI says it is doing all it can to forge links with members of the Islamic community that will lead to tips about suspicious behavior. John Miller, the bureau's assistant director for public affairs, told a Senate panel last week that the FBI has been stepping up its recruitment programs in American Muslim communities—it even sponsored a "Children's Day" fair at Giants Stadium last year for the Muslim community in New Jersey.

But for all its efforts, the FBI still has only a handful of Muslim agents and only 40 who are "proficient" in Arabic despite incentive packages that include 25 percent pay hikes for Arabic speakers. (It has been unable to find any agents who are proficient in Urdu and Pashto, the key languages in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Qaeda leaders are believed to be hiding.) The bureau and other agencies have been hampered in part by tight security restrictions against hiring Arabic and other foreign-language specialists who have traveled or have relatives overseas—a rule that makes it more difficult to recruit native speakers.

Hanging on to the ones they have isn't easy, either. Soufan himself has gone the way of many hardworking agents. After struggling against some of the government's tactics in the war on terror (he reportedly objected to the CIA's aggressive interrogation techniques), he left the agency. Now he's putting his expertise to work for Rudy Giuliani's private security firm. The pay is better, and it's a lot less dangerous. But it means there's one less gumshoe working the Qaeda beat.

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