Long a mainstay of the drug war, undercover agents have found a new calling in netting so-called “lone wolf” terrorists, including playing a major role in the case of Amine Al Khalifi, the Moroccan man arrested on Friday after he allegedly set into motion a plot to blow himself up inside the US Capitol in hopes of killing at least 30 people.
The arrest was the latest in a long string of foiled plots with undercover agents at the heart of investigations. Not thought to be affiliated with Al Qaeda, Mr. El Khalifi worked with what he thought was an Al Qaeda associate to take possession of a weapon and a suicide bomb vest – both of which turned out to be fakes provided by an undercover agent who had gained the man's confidence.
According to security experts, the US law enforcement approach is to identify potential lone wolf plotters, usually through tip-offs or online activity, and then deploy squads of covert agents to glean details of the plot. If the suspected terrorist is seen to be seriously planning an attack, agents will scheme to assist in the attack to create a record that can be later used in court.
The tactic has proven highly effective, playing a role in almost all of the 36 homegrown terror plots authorities have unraveled in the last three years. Since 2009, according to one senior US terrorism official quoted by CNN, all terrorist plots in the West have been the work of lone individuals, sparking President Obama last August to call such threats "the most likely scenario that we have to guard against right now."
At the same time, security officials aren't convinced that using undercover agents to act as accomplices has actually proven effective in defusing the overall threat of lone wolf terrorism.
“While this approach has proven very effective in catching would-be terrorists, it is not at all clear whether it is something that actually is eliminating – or accelerating – the problem of lone wolf terrorism,” writes Raffaello Pantucci , an associate fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, in a recent Homeland Security Today article. “The approach of identifying possible lone wolves and then persuading them that they are part of a plot might be having the effect of turning armchair observers into active radicals. Who is to say they would have progressed to the point of actually carrying out an attack if they had not had the support of the network of undercover law enforcement operatives around them?”
Other experts have also rebutted growing official concerns about lone wolf terrorism, suggesting that actual evidence shows the real terror threat receding as the number of terror arrests have steadily declined since spiking in 2009. The profile of alleged plotters like El Khalifi proves this theory, they say.
“We're not seeing a high level of spycraft among these individuals,” University of North Carolina professor Charles Kurzman, author of “The Missing Martyrs,” told the Monitor recently. “They're for the most part not professional killers, and their plots come to the attention of authorities fairly quickly.”
In lone wolf investigations, undercover agents are the horn of a vast surveillance cast net built up under the Department of Homeland Security since the 9/11 terror attacks, part of a growing, largely secret, bureaucracy in Washington profiled by the Washington Post in its “Top Secret America” series last year.
Authorities in the Khalifi case were tipped off to the would-be bomber early last year when his landlord suspected a home “luggage business” was a front for bomb-making activities.
The tip-off began the meshing of the nation's surveillance gears, as the capitol region's Joint Terrorism Task Force, a conglomerate of local, state and federal law enforcement officers, swooped in to start surveillance.
According to John Miller, a former assistant FBI director, the JTTF moved swiftly to ascertain Khalifi's intentions and document his plan.
“By ... December, [agents] had introduced El Khalifi to 'Hussein,' who was cooperating with the FBI,” Mr. Miller writes for CBS News. “On Dec. 1, 2011, 'Hussein' drove El Khalifi to Baltimore to meet with a shadowy figure named Yusuf. Hussein told El Khalifi that Yusuf was a man who could help him realize his goal: To attack America. Yusuf claimed to be from al Qaeda, but was actually an undercover officer working for the JTTF.”
Similar tactics were employed by JTTF offices against other recent alleged terror plotters, including Jose Pimentel, who was arrested in November for plotting attacks on targets in New York, as well as in the case of Rezwan Ferdaus of Massachusetts, who was arrested in September 2011 for allegedly planning to fly bomb-filled remote controlled airplanes into the dome of the US Capitol.
El Khalifi, who came to the US as a teenager, was in the country illegally, but had flown for years under the radar of immigration authorities. A number of questions confronted the FBI and other federal authorities as they watched him, including whether moving in and arresting him would scatter other potential accomplices into the shadows.
That question became moot on Friday as El Khalifi began putting his plan into motion. He was arrested, authorities say, near the Capitol, wearing the non-functioning suicide vest provided to him by the undercover agent.