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Aug 16, 2004 | 17:07 GMT

5 mins read

Law Enforcement, Al Capone and al Qaeda

In the run-up to the Republican National Convention — to be held Aug. 30-Sept. 2 in New York City — federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have returned to a time-tested police tactic to pre-empt potential violent protests. The FBI is encouraging agents and local law enforcement to aggressively canvas their communities in an effort to single out individuals who might be involved in violent and/or disruptive protests during the convention.

The strategy essentially involves monitoring activist organizations and suspected domestic terrorist groups and rounding up the "usual suspects" in an effort to send the message that they are being closely watched. The same strategy was employed before the August Democratic National Convention in Boston and was likely used prior to the G8 summit in Sea Island, Ga., in June — where, given the lack of violent demonstrations, it might have been effective. However, what is worth noting is that this combination of law enforcement techniques and counterterrorism is not limited to domestic groups. It is being applied to the fight against Islamist militants as well, and — for better or worse — seems to be one of the few tactics left to the U.S. in the war against terrorism

Limited by a number of restraints — ranging from constitutional limitations to lack of resources to the secretive nature of al Qaeda — law enforcement is left with few options to interdict potential militant organizations beyond what has come to be known as the Al Capone model. Capone was finally jailed for tax evasion because charges related to his more violent and serious crimes could never be made to stick.

Law enforcement agencies now are Al Caponing known or suspected militants and their sympathizers — utilizing run-of-the-mill violations and technicalities. The recent examples are numerous:

  • Ansar Mahmoud, a Pakistani immigrant, was detained in the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks for allegedly taking photographs of a New York reservoir. But taking pictures is not a crime and Mahmoud could not be arrested or deported for it. Mahmoud was deported under a charge of harboring illegal immigrants for co-signing on an apartment lease and registering a car for an illegal Pakistani couple.

  • Two Muslim men were arrested in Albany, N.Y., on Aug. 5 after allegedly being involved in a plan to assassinate the Pakistani ambassador to the United States. As details emerged about the circumstances of their arrest, it became apparent the men were essentially set up by the FBI, which reportedly had intelligence that they were sympathetic to the Islamist militant cause.

  • Kamran Akhtar was arrested on July 20 for "suspicious behavior" while videotaping skyscrapers in Charlotte, N.C. Akhtar had in his possession a number of videotapes of buildings and facilities throughout the United States. Federal investigators are still trying to determine if Akhtar has any ties to Islamist militant groups — something his family denies. Akhtar was taken into custody for immigration violations and for allegedly making false statements to police when initially questioned. If it turns out that no ties to militant groups can be established Akhtar will likely be deported because he allegedly was in the country illegally.
This strategy of interdiction is being used for a number of reasons. First and foremost U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have not been able to infiltrate Islamist militant organizations and are forced to find ways to nibble at the periphery of the groups. The inability to infiltrate stems directly from the cultural differences between the Americans and extremists within the Muslim community. They are differences field manuals and training cannot overcome. The FBI has a difficult time recruiting agents who could easily gain access to an Islamist militant organization such as al Qaeda. An organization comprising predominantly white Christian men will have extreme difficulties in infiltrating a fundamentalist Muslim organization.

Additionally, law enforcement is restricted by constitutional limits from simply profiling whomever it believes might be prone to Islamist militancy. In fact, an unidentified FBI employee even charged that within the past year the FBI's activities involving domestic activist groups — rounding up known activists and questioning them in an effort to scare them off — was tantamount to breeching constitutionally protected freedoms.

Finally, the nature of al Qaeda makes it nearly impossible for U.S. agencies to infiltrate the organization, forcing Washington to rely on countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for actionable intelligence. This creates a double-edged sword for the United States because countries are left to balance intelligence sharing with their national interests. Even if a U.S. agent could successfully penetrate an Islamist militant cell there is no guarantee he would be able to glean valuable intelligence. Al Qaeda seems to be an organization in which the lower level operatives know little or nothing about plans or personnel above their level.

These are just a handful of the hurdles facing U.S. security and intelligence agencies that are adjusting their strategies and tactics as a result. The verdict is still out on whether or not the Al Capone model is effective in countering extremist organizations and preventing operations before they happen. And if it is successful no one will ever know.

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