Near-fa­tal lapse in ter­ror­ism case

Ques­tions re­main af­ter an ap­par­ent lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that al­most al­lowed a Texas plot to pro­ceed.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Richard A. Ser­rano

WASH­ING­TON— When FBI agents re­al­ized El­ton Simp­son had slipped away from his north Phoenix apart­ment last month, they im­me­di­ately be­came con­cerned. Their wor­ries grew when they learned af­ter he van­ished that he had been surf­ing the In­ter­net us­ing the hash­tag “at­tack­texas.”

Ac­cord­ing to FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey and other top fed­eral of­fi­cials, the bu­reau im­me­di­ately warned Gar­land, Texas, po­lice that the a vowed ji­hadist, in­spired by Is­lamic State mil­i­tants, might be go­ing there to at­tack a car­toon con­test de­signed to mock the prophet Muham­mad.

But lo­cal law en­force­ment of­fi­cials in Gar­land, in­clud­ing the po­lice chief, in­sist they were never warned andthat only with the luck of some quick-act­ing of­fi­cers man­aged to stop Simp­son and an ac­com­plice from storm­ing the event with as­sault ri­fles and hun­dreds of rounds of am­mu­ni­tion.

Both men were shot dead, and a ter­ror­ist at­tack was averted.

Left unan­swered from that May 3 con­fronta­tion and the sub­se­quent fin­ger­point­ing are ques­tions raised years ear­lier by the 9/11 Com­mis­sion and at nu­mer­ous hear­ings on Capi­tol Hill: Are fed­eral and po­lice agen­cies do­ing enough to share in­tel­li­gence in­for­ma­tion with each other and co­op­er­at­ing to keep the coun­try safe from ter­ror­ism?

The com­mis­sion con­cluded that a key fail­ure in stop­ping the 9/11 hi­jack­ers was rooted in the re­sis­tance by in­tel­li­gence and law en­force­ment agen­cies to trade cru­cial in­for­ma­tion. Weeks af­ter the ter­ror­ist at­tacks, a com­mu­ni­ca­tions lapse be­tween fed­eral and lo­cal agen­cies was blamed by some law­mak­ers for slow­ing the re­sponse to the 2001 an­thrax at­tacks.

“The big­gest im­ped­i­ment,” the com­mis­sion warned, “is the hu­man or sys­temic re­sis­tance to shar­ing in­for­ma­tion.” In­tel­li­gence “should be pro­cessed, turned into re­ports and dis­trib­uted ac­cord­ing to the same qual­ity stan­dards, whether it is col­lected in Pak­istan or in Texas.”

In re­sponse to 9/11, of­fi­cials cre­ated Joint Ter­ror­ism Task Forces around the coun­try, where fed­eral, county and city po­lice work to­gether to gather, an­a­lyze

and act on in­tel­li­gence.

The Gar­land case has emerged as one of the big­gest tests of that sys­tem, and although the at­tack­was foiled it re­vealed that com­mu­ni­ca­tion lapses and dis­trust con­tinue to com­pli­cate the fight against ter­ror­ism.

The FBI main­tains it alerted the Gar­land po­lice rep­re­sen­ta­tive on the Dal­las-area joint task force about Simp­son and sug­gested the car­toon con­ven­tion might be at risk.

“We de­vel­oped in­for­ma­tion just hours be­fore the event that Simp­son might be in­ter­ested in go­ing to Gar­land,” Comey said at a May 7 news briefing.

He said the FBI quickly is­sued a bul­letin to the Gar­land po­lice warn­ing them that Simp­son or his ac­com­plice, Nadir Soofi, might showup there.

But Gar­land po­lice say they never re­ceived an im­me­di­ate warn­ing from the FBI and that their task force also was not alerted. Gar­land po­lice Chief Mitch Bates said re­ports that his de­part­ment re­ceived word that an at­tack might be im­mi­nent “are not ac­cu­rate.”

“No one,” the chief said. “Not the Gar­land Po­lice De­part­ment, the FBI, the Texas De­part­ment of Pub­lic Safety, nor any other agency had the in­for­ma­tion prior to the event that ei­ther sus­pect may tar­get this event. No in­for­ma­tion was missed or ig­nored.”

Bates said an FBI bul­letin was is­sued two days ear­lier, onMay1. But he said it in­di­cated “no known, cred­i­ble threats” and sim­ply said “what we al­ready knew, that the event was a po­ten­tial tar­get.”

“The iden­ti­ties of the two sus­pects were not known to us un­til many hours af­ter the shoot­ing.”

The ques­tions of who knew what and when, and whom they told, loom large, as does the is­sue of how the FBI lost track of Simp­son. Ac­cord­ing to FBI of­fi­cials, fed­eral agents are work­ing 100 or more ac­tive ter­ror­ism in­ves­ti­ga­tions and do not have the man­power or equip­ment to pro­vide 24hour sur­veil­lance on all of them.

Fed­eral of­fi­cials say the threat of “lone wolf” at­tacks like the one in Texas is only grow­ing.

Comey and oth­ers pointed to the ex­plo­sion of so­cial me­dia that makes it eas­ier for for­eign ter­ror­ist groups to re­cruit ji­hadists in this coun­try. “I know there are other El­ton Simp­sons out there,” the di­rec­tor said.

Michael B. Stein­bach, the FBI’s as­sis­tant di­rec­tor for its Coun­tert­er­ror­ism Di­vi­sion, tes­ti­fied at a June 3 House Home­land Se­cu­rity Com­mit­tee hear­ing that about 200 Amer­i­cans had trav­eled to Syria or tried to reach that re­gion to join Is­lamic State. All of them, he said, “po­ten­tially pose a sig­nif­i­cant threat to the safety of the United States.”

To com­bat that grow­ing threat, fed­eral agents are host­ing train­ing ex­er­cises with com­mu­nity lead­ers to heighten pub­lic aware­ness of sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­ity, said John Mul­li­gan, deputy di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Coun­tert­er­ror­ism Cen­ter, dur­ing the hear­ing. “We need to ef­fec­tively en­gage it be­fore it man­i­fests in vi­o­lence.”

Fran­cis Tay­lor, the Home­land Se­cu­rity De­part­ment’s un­der­sec­re­tary for in­tel­li­gence and anal­y­sis, ac­knowl­edged at the hear­ing that the Gar­land in­ci­dent had “re­in­forced the im­por­tance of close col­lab­o­ra­tion and in­for­ma­tion-shar­ing.”

For in­stance, Tay­lor said, au­thor­i­ties en­hanced their in­for­ma­tion-shar­ing when they be­came aware in late May of a planned rally where anti-Mus­lim pro­test­ers, many car­ry­ing weapons, gath­ered out­side a Phoenix mosque. Tay­lor said po­lice se­cu­rity was beefed up and, at the urg­ing of fed­eral of­fi­cials, of­fi­cers spoke with com­mu­nity and faith lead­ers to gauge the threat level.

Tay­lor said it­was all done “in real time to help en­sure lo­cal lead­er­ship and law en­force­ment have the nec­es­sary in­for­ma­tion to pro­tect their com­mu­ni­ties and cities.”

Bet­ter co­op­er­a­tion be­tween lo­cal and fed­eral agen­cies weighed heav­ily in Bos­ton last week, when a knife-wield­ing man who wanted to be head po­lice of­fi­cers was slain dur­ing a con­fronta­tion with an FBI agent and a Bos­ton po­lice of­fi­cer.

Mem­bers of the lo­cal joint task force in Bos­ton, in­clud­ing FBI agents and state and city po­lice of­fi­cers, were track­ing the man for sev­eral weeks, and moved in on him when he pur­chased three large knives and be­gan dis­cussing plans to be­head po­lice of­fi­cers.

In the end, a two-man team — com­prised of a fed­eral agent and a city po­lice of­fi­cer— worked to­gether in con­fronting him. They fa­tally shot him when he re­port­edly threat­ened them with one of the knives.

Rep. Ben­nie Thomp­son of Mis­sis­sippi, the top Demo­crat on the Home­land Se­cu­rity panel, said no one can say whether the Gar­land in­ci­dent would have had a dif­fer­ent out­come— with­out a gun bat­tle — had the FBI bul­letin got­ten through.

“But I do think this il­lus­trates we need to con­tinue look­ing into in­for­ma­tion­shar­ing,” he said, “and lis­ten­ing to the boots on the ground on how to rec­og­nize and pre­vent acts of home­grown vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism.”

‘Not the … FBI, the Texas De­part­ment of Pub­lic Safety, nor any other agency had the in­for­ma­tion … that ei­ther sus­pect may tar­get this event.’

— Mitch Bates,

Gar­land po­lice chief

Bran­donWade As­so­ci­ated Press

AN FBI IN­VES­TI­GA­TOR ex­am­ines the scene where twomen sus­pected of plan­ning to at­tack an anti-Is­lam event were fa­tally shot by po­lice in Gar­land, Texas.

Les Stuken­berg As­so­ci­ated Press

THE FBI says it sent Gar­land po­lice a warn­ing about El­ton Simp­son be­fore the at­tack.

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