Terrorism is Local
On the 20th of December 2017, federal law enforcement agents executed a search warrant at the residence of Everitt Aaron Jameson in Modesto, California, disrupting his plans to use some combination of a heavy vehicle, explosives, and firearms to kill Christmas shoppers at San Francisco’s famous Pier 39. Jameson’s case is part of a recent trend in terrorist activity in the United States and can serve to address three facets of contemporary domestic terrorism, specifically:
1.) Terrorism in the United States is more likely to be conducted by individuals or very small groups using easily acquired materials with little outside support or contact; this activity is difficult to detect by national intelligence efforts.
2.) Detecting domestic terrorism will need to employ locally recruited confidential informants with appropriate access managed by officers or agents with specialized counter-terror training to include cultural familiarity and recent trends in terrorism.
3.) Though Jameson was investigated by the FBI, local agencies will benefit from additional, counter-terrorism continuing education, teaming with federal agencies and academic institutions to pool resources and gain a broad perspective.
The United States’ response to terrorism continues to emphasize 9/11 priorities. Namely that terrorism is born beyond its borders, from named terrorist organizations that can sometimes be pointed to on a map. Thus, counter-terrorism arguments almost always begin with controlling migrant flows. Intelligence agencies focus on monitoring the activity of known terrorists, especially who they contact and where they travel. These tasks are suited for national assets and policy-makers at the highest levels of the U.S. government. However, recent incidents seem to suggest that local fieldwork is actually the more critical counter-terror task.
Lethal, Dedicated, and Difficult to Detect
Jameson had been the subject of an undercover operation that revealed his intent to commit an act of terrorism. The alleged plan was to attack the popular shopping area Pier 39 in San Francisco during the week prior to Christmas, possibly using a combination of a vehicle, improvised explosive devices, and firearms, according to a criminal complaint filed by the FBI agent supervising the case. The complaint describes Jameson as having been enlisted in the Marine Corps, but discharged for failing to report that he had chronic asthma. He is a divorced father of two, an out of work tow-truck driver, and two years ago he adopted Islam as his faith. Nothing about Jameson was particularly alarming on the surface, and the attack he planned required nothing that couldn’t be easily acquired, either on his own, or with minimal assistance of others. According to the complaint, Jameson specifically referenced the terror attacks in New York, in which a truck was used to kill pedestrians and San Bernardino, where a husband and wife team shot and killed co-workers during a community center holiday party. He also referenced his basic military training and familiarity with the “Anarchists’ Cookbook” to create improvised explosive devices, which he would use to “funnel” victims into a smaller kill-zone where he could more effectively use a rifle. From what Jameson told the undercover agent and the confidential asset, it is plausible that he could have driven a heavy vehicle into the crowded market, (he was a tow-truck driver), detonated explosive devices, and then assaulted the panicked crowd with small-arms fire.
The New York attack referenced by Jameson was lethal enough but could have been worse. The truck used by Sayfullo Saipov to kill eight and injure dozens was rented from a Home Depot in New Jersey; according to Home Depot’s website, the five-ton truck can be rented for as little as $19.00, with a $50.00 deposit, a driver’s license, and proof of insurance. According to various media profiles, Saipov held a commercial driver’s license, and driving was apparently his occupation. He was married with no children and had lived in three different Uzbek migrant communities since arriving in the United States on a “Diversity Visa” in 2010. Saipov had no significant contact with law enforcement (a single safety violation in Missouri, for which he failed to appear of pay a fine). He is described as coming from an upper-middle class Uzbek family that was not particularly religious and Saipov himself had a reputation for reliability and moderation.
On October 31st, when his rental truck was disabled after hitting a school bus and a roadway median, stopping his deadly attack, Saipov exited the vehicle with a paint-ball gun and a pellet gun, according to the criminal complaint filed in New York. It was then that he was shot and wounded by police, and taken into custody. It is unclear what he intended to accomplish with the paint-ball and pellet guns, but just as easily he could have exited the truck with actual firearms. Interviews of Saipov during his hospital recovery revealed that he became inspired by ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham, aka Islamic State, Daesh) propaganda, that he had been planning the attack for approximately one year, and rented a similar truck nine days earlier to practice driving it, according to the same complaint. He was happy with what he had done, and asked that the ISIS flag be displayed in his hospital room (it was not).
In San Bernardino, as in Chattanooga, Orlando, and Fort Hood, firearms were easily acquired by people who went about their lives without raising any suspicion that they were about to carry out violence in the name of a distant, alien organization, as participants in a conflict that was for them both distant and near to home. Like Jameson and Saipov, none of the terrorists in these attacks committed any crimes as they prepared for their attack, and none did anything in particular that would have drawn the attention of federal intelligence analysts passively searching for a pattern of suspicious behavior. Absent a tip from a neighbor about acquiring firearms and ammunition or a from friend about radical musings online referencing violence in the name of jihad, these kinds of terror attacks are virtually undetectable in their planning stages. Fortunately for holiday shoppers in San Francisco, Everitt Jameson did say the right things to the right person—an FBI Confidential Human Source—and apparently needed help acquiring the tools necessary. The counter-terror win in the Jameson case highlights the importance of field-work and good training.
The sworn deposition given as part of the complaint against Jameson lays out a three-month process during which Jameson had several brief conversations with first, a confidential source of the FBI and then, undercover FBI employees. Initially the confidential source observed Jameson commenting on pro-ISIS posts on Facebook, and eventually the two began to communicate using the Facebook messaging system. During those conversations, the undercover source appeared to say precisely the right things to Jameson to gain and maintain his trust. Subsequently, undercover FBI employees began to converse with Jameson online and in person, again using language and employing an approach that gained and kept Jameson’s trust. The operation appears to have been inadvertently brought to a close when an FBI employee mistakenly dialed Jameson’s cell phone from an identifiable FBI Washington, D.C. area code. This appears to have had a chilling effect on Jameson’s resolve and that evening told one of the undercover employees that he had reconsidered carrying out an attack but that, god willing, “one day I can.” The next day a search warrant was issued for Jameson’s residence and was the warrant was executed on 20 December.
Laying aside the obvious unforced error by phoning the subject of the investigation from an identifiable 202 area-code number, the three individuals who reportedly handled Jameson appeared to have applied a successful approach, using religious affirmations and phrases to gain trust and put the subject at ease. That kind of performance requires training or is brought to the job from one’s personal life experiences. The recruitment of individuals who have such experience or those with the willingness and aptitude to receive condensed cultural, religious, or even language training is imperative. The criminal complaint does not (and should not) describe how the confidential source was placed in order to observe Jameson’s initial suspicious online activity, or why Jameson would contact the source. What is obvious is that this asset had precisely the correct placement and access to reach into a community typically distrustful of outsiders. This should serve to highlight the importance of finding and recruiting this sort of asset; those closest to communities of interest—members of local police, social services, and even educational institutions—are best suited to identify people who could be of help. The Jameson case should point to the importance of rigorous field work in which confidential human assets are identified, recruited, and developed and that field officers have the appropriate aptitude and training to lead such operations, regardless of what agency employs them.
Local Law Enforcement & Counter-terrorism
Though conducted by agents assigned to a Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) based in a Resident Agency (RA), a smaller branch of the FBI’s Sacramento Field Office, nothing except for jurisdictional precedence made the Jameson case beyond the capacity of any medium to large metropolitan law-enforcement office. This means sensitizing appropriately assigned police officers to indicators and current trends, and partnering with federal intelligence assets and even the academic community to develop the tools needed to address terrorist threats at the local level. One can imagine community-based policing extending beyond issues like drug abuse, child neglect, or gang activity to look for and prevent radicalization that could lead to acts of violence like those contemplated by Jameson. As witnessed in the Jameson and San Bernardino cases, perpetrators and would-be perpetrators of terrorist violence have occasionally reached out to co-conspirators for assistance acquiring material or to online friends to relieve potential psychological distresses associated with planning or helping to plan mass-murder. It was in these moments that they became most vulnerable to interdiction.
Local law-enforcement personnel in higher-risk areas should be educated about the nature of the conflict that brings the threat of violence close to home. That training can range from strategic analysis of transnational terrorism, to recent domestic trends, to relevant cultural familiarity. This kind of training should be only one element of an ongoing relationship between local officers, federal intelligence personnel following threats at home and abroad, and academics who study strategic trends in terrorism and effective counter-terror policy.
Having spent time in both the policy/operational world and now in academia, I can attest to some difficult, but not insurmountable obstacles. Academics often view law-enforcement as a foreign and sometimes hostile territory; cops are subjects to be studied, not aided. For their part, law-enforcement (put in a wider sense, “operators”) view academics as annoyingly unanchored to reality and at times hostile to law-enforcement procedures. That said, academic institutions can attract funding that is relatively free of strict guidelines and limitations on the kind of research they do; there are several institutions across the country with policy-focused centers that could easily support a locally focused counter-terror mission. That effort, when combined with federal grants for local law-enforcement training programs, amounts to substantial resources for broad-scope counter-terror training. From my experience, the best operators have worked to master not only the tactics that make them successful in a fight, but have also been eager to learn how a particular fight fits into the broader environment.
Terrorism is Local
The recent trend in terrorist violence is toward individuals or very small groups attacking close to home using easily acquired weapons. This kind of activity is difficult for national intelligence assets to detect since it is entirely domestic, with little continuing or regular contact with known terrorist organizations or propagandists, and requires little skill or preparation to execute. Local agencies are well situated to conduct effective counter-terror investigations. This calls for a renewed focus on providing local law-enforcement personnel with appropriate training to sensitize them to the current terror threat trends. This could include regular training with federal agencies and in partnership with academic institutions to connect the practical considerations of counter-terror investigations with strategic, conceptual understanding of trends and motives in terrorist violence.