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August 21, 2014, 12:16 am

Experts: Terrorist threats hard to predict

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, those charged with safeguarding national security have been maintaining a high level of vigilance in the ongoing effort to protect America from a repeat of that tragic day.

So far, those efforts have been successful, and several planned attacks have been thwarted; but as recent history shows, a single maniac with the means and the motive can inflict a lot of harm — and counter-terrorism experts don’t soften their commentary on the reality of that threat and the fact that it can happen again, despite strong, continuous vigilance.

“The threat is real and the threat is immanent,” said Chief Inspector Joe Sullivan, head of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Counter Terrorism and Homeland Security Unit during the kickoff breakfast for the Anti-Defamation League’s Walk Against Hate. The event is scheduled for May 20. “The threat is very real and what makes it difficult to detect and disrupt on the domestic level is that there is no group to infiltrate, no paper trail to follow. Many times we’re talking about white supremacist groups — who really aren’t that important in Pennsylvania right now, but have a higher profile in other states — and radical Islamists. But the real concern is the single individual like Jihad Jane in Montgomery County or Nidal Hasan, who shot 13 people at Fort Hood.”

Sullivan, who recently spent a week in Israel learning from that government’s experts in counter-terrorism, said that when it comes to domestic terrorism, the threat often doesn’t concern a group with a radical agenda, but citizens who don’t recognize the government of the United States.

“Domestic terrorists like David Coleman Headley and Colleen Renee LaRose are the toughest to stop, and these people are by no means stupid,” Sullivan said. “Some of these potential terrorists may have strong feelings against the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, or they may hate the fact that we have an African-American president, or may have Second Amendment issues. There was a rumor going around a few years ago that the government was going to take away legal firearms, which stirred up militia groups. What I’m here to say is that these people are willing to do literally anything in furtherance of their beliefs, and the organizations often overlap.”

According to law enforcement reports, David Coleman Headley is a U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent. He has pleaded guilty to a host of federal charges, and admitted that he participated in planning the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. In February 2006, while in Philadelphia, Headley changed his name from Daood Gilani to facilitate his activities on behalf of a Pakistani national by portraying himself in India as an American who was neither Muslim nor Pakistani. Colleen Renee LaRose has been held in U.S. custody on suspicions that she provided material support to terrorists and traveled to Sweden to launch an attack. Authorities accuse LaRose of recruiting both men and women in the United States, Europe and South Asia to become involved in the Islamic extremist jihad against western nations. Sullivan said groups like Al-Qaida are constantly looking for domestic sympathizers to join their cause and they make substantial use of the Internet to reach out to these potential terrorists — and even have a glossy publication called Inspire to disseminate their views.

A recently published research report conducted by the National Convention for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism or START states that almost a third of all domestic terrorist attacks from 1970 to 2008 happened in five metropolitan counties. The report also shows that attacks continue to occur in rural areas — again, conducted by domestic terrorists and the greatest number of events clustered around major cities: Manhattan (343 attacks), followed by Los Angeles (156 attacks), Miami-Dade County (103 attacks), San Francisco (99 attacks) and Washington, D.C. (79 attacks).

“Mainly, terror attacks have been a problem in the bigger cities, but rural areas are not exempt,” said Gary LaFree, director of START and Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland in a published report. “The main attacks driving Maricopa County, Arizona into recent hot spot status are the actions of radical environmental groups, especially the Coalition to Save the Preserves. So, despite the clustering of attacks in certain regions, it is also clear that hot spots are dispersed throughout the country and include places as geographically diverse as counties in Arizona, Massachusetts, Nebraska and Texas.”

Sullivan said counter terrorism personnel watch for threats on what they call “soft targets” like the city’s historical monuments. They watch for vandalism against Jewish and other religious sites and he said that mass transit facilities are always a major concern because of their exposure. He also said terrorist groups look for troubled youths to recruit and that domestic terrorists can acquire bomb-making materials from any Home Depot or Lowe’s. Cyber terrorism remains a high concern as well as violent drug gangs such as MS 13.

“Gangs with a national presence might not espouse a political ideology, but they can be considered terrorist groups because of the fear and violence they spread in the communities where they are entrenched,” he said. “Fortunately, MS 13 hasn’t really established itself in Philadelphia, but they are becoming a serious problem in New Jersey. As for prison gangs that have embraced the Muslim faith, well they’re not really a problem yet. We really don’t want to stop those guys from praying. Prayer is always a good thing, right?”