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Tripping Up Terrorists

​WHEN KHALID ALDAWSARI purchased a large quantity of the chemical phenol from Carolina Biological Supply of Burlington, North Carolina, he had made a mistake that would doom his terrorism plot. It was January 30, 2011, and Aldawsari was a 20-year-old Saudi national in the United States on a student visa and living in Lubbock County, Texas. What he didn’t know was that the company only received such orders for delivery to businesses. Aldawsari was requesting delivery to a shipping service from which he would retrieve it. That led the company to report the purchase as suspicious to the FBI office in Charlotte.

As a result of the company’s tip, the FBI began surveillance on Aldawsari, which included searching his apartment when he was not at home. The agency discovered that Aldawsari had everything needed to make an improvised explosive device, including precursor chemicals, lab equipment, wiring, detonation materials, and a hazmat suit. In searching his computer, agents also found that his potential targets included hydroelectric dams, nuclear power plants, and the Dallas residence of former President George W. Bush.

Carolina Biological Supply had known it should alert the FBI thanks to an FBI program known as Operation Tripwire, designed to enlist business in the government’s effort to detect terror plots. Tripwire is an example of public-private cooperation that appears to be yielding results.

Established in 2003, Operation Tripwire tasks FBI agents with communicating, preferably face-to-face, with critical infrastructure stakeholders and select businesses to help raise their awareness and teach them what to do if they see something suspicious. In many ways, it’s a more focused forerunner to the Department of Homeland Security’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign to generate suspicious activity reports from the American public.

“Tripwire is intelligence,” says Section Chief Michael Clancy of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division. “It’s going out and talking to people...and gathering intelligence and understanding our domain, knowing what the threats are, and using that to inform how we move resources.”

Currently about 30 different industries—like beauty supply stores, gun stores, and chemical companies—are actively involved with the program. These are the industries the FBI believes are important to disrupting terrorism plots before they go operational, Clancy explains.

During meetings with agents, Tripwire liaisons are given cards that explain what suspicious activity to look out for. Clancy says there’s nothing “earth shattering” on the cards, just commonsense things to be aware of, like customers purchasing large quantities of fertilizer or short lengths of pipe, stockpiling arms, or using cash for large transactions, among other things. The FBI also tells its Tripwire liaisons to talk to their customers, to ask questions, and to listen and observe their responses and to try to sense whether something is amiss. If an interaction or transaction seems unusual, Tripwire participants are told to call the nearest FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), the bureau’s counterterrorism investigative offices at 104 locations across the country.

Legitimate terrorism suspicions can also lead to other criminal activity, says Clancy, describing another Tripwire success from his time running a JTTF in Richmond, Virginia. In May 2010, a Home Depot that received Tripwire cards reported four individuals who came into the store and bought up the store’s supply of acetone, a common explosive precursor chemical. Then another suspicious activity report came from a nearby Lowe’s about the same individuals purchasing acetone. Then a smaller, privately owned hardware store called to report large acetone purchases as well as the individuals’ desire to purchase as much acetone as the store owner could get.

“We immediately set up a command post and launched a major investigation, and we tracked these guys down,” says Clancy. “They weren’t trying to build an explosive, they were making synthetic marijuana.” Nevertheless, the case showed Tripwire’s worth. “We thought that was a real success because people knew, ‘I better call the JTTF on this one,’” he says.

The program is resource intensive, because tips require agent follow-up. Clancy, however, could not divulge how much Tripwire costs because there is no line item for it in the FBI budget.

But follow-up is important and a valid use of resources, he says. “We don’t leave any leads sitting out there,” Clancy explains. “Even the ones that sound absolutely harmless.”

The reason behind this, he says, is the specter of homegrown radicalization turning violent fast. “They go from aspirational to actually planning an event within days,” explains Clancy.

Not everyone agrees that this is the right approach. Political Science Professor John Mueller, the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security at Ohio State University, argues that suspicious activity reporting programs like Tripwire abandon risk-management methodologies and waste resources. Running down every lead, no matter how absurd, argues Mueller, ignores not only probability but cost.

He’s not just talking about the probability of one tip being valid versus one that’s not, however. Mueller is skeptical about the value of devoting resources toward homeland security instead of basic crimes, which are more prevalent. With the probability of being killed by a terrorist at 1 in 3.5 million per year and the probability of being murdered at 1 in 22,000 per year, the government would spend its resources more wisely if it concentrated on solving murders, he says.

Dr. James Carafano, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, does not agree that just because the risk of a terrorist attack is low, it is a waste of resources to try to spot nascent plots. “The problem is what happens when you pass up the one tip that turns out to be the terrorist attack,” he says.

Clancy says that the FBI continues to broaden the program’s reach to additional industries when new intelligence surfaces that changes the threatscape. Recently the FBI added construction companies, railways, and farm supply stores to the list. One new addition stands out though: hobby shops. The rationale behind this is the recent arrest of a 26-year-old Massachusetts man, Rezwan Ferdaus, who plotted with undercover FBI agents to attack the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol using explosive-laden model airplanes.

Private security professionals not aware of Operation Tripwire should call their local JTTF, and see how they can get involved.