Traffic Stops and Thwarted Plots

MIN READAug 8, 2007 | 18:43 GMT

By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart Fred BurtonTwo Middle Eastern men stopped by a sheriff's deputy for speeding near Goose Creek, S.C., on Aug. 4 were charged with possession of a destructive device after a search of their vehicle turned up potential bombmaking materials. The suspects, however, contend they were hauling fireworks, which are widely sold at roadside stands in South Carolina, and that they are the victims of an overzealous sheriff's department. According to Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt, the deputy was approaching the suspects' stopped vehicle when he saw one of the men close a laptop computer and attempt to hide it. This raised the deputy's suspicions and he requested permission to search the vehicle. The men consented to the search, noting that they had fireworks in the trunk. The deputy, however, concluded that the trunk contained more than a few fireworks, and called for backup. The items discovered inside the vehicle include potassium nitrate, sugar, gasoline and PVC pipe. Also found were so-called "hobby rocket igniters" and "hobby fuse," materials that can be used to make both model rockets and pipe bombs. A bomb squad summoned to the scene reportedly performed an operation to break apart, or "disrupt," one section of PVC pipe, which authorities said contained a "suspicious substance." It is indeed possible that these materials were intended for use in some innocent fun — though they also could have been used for something far more sinister. Authorities will need to examine all of the evidence more closely to make that determination. Regardless of the outcome, however, the case serves to highlight the often-overlooked importance of local street cops to the security of the U.S. homeland. Regular patrol officers doing their job can have — and have had — a tremendous positive impact on security. Furthermore, with no end in sight to the threats against the U.S. public, they will continue to play an important role. The Suspects The two suspects — 26-year-old Ahmed Abda Sherf Mohamed and 21-year-old Youssef Samir Megahed — are students are the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa. University officials said Aug. 6 that Mohamed, an Egyptian, is a permanent U.S. resident who has been a USF student since 2004, but has no declared major. Megahed, a Kuwaiti, is a civil engineering graduate student who did his undergraduate work in Egypt. The two men, who are being held in the Berkeley County Jail, are technically eligible for release if they can post their bonds, which were set high ($300,000 for Megahed and $500,000 for Mohamed) because they were deemed to be flight risks. However, a federal detainer reportedly has been filed that would keep the men in custody even if they do raise the necessary bail on the state charges. Furthermore, the FBI has assumed responsibility for the investigation and the two men could face federal charges. The FBI said Aug. 6 it has uncovered no information linking the two men to terrorism. The Components Potassium nitrate (or saltpeter) is the oxidizer used in the manufacture of black powder. When potassium nitrate is mixed with sugar and confined — as in a PVC or metal pipe, thermos bottle or tin can, for instance — it will function as a low explosive. Indeed, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) manufactured from potassium nitrate are common in many parts of the world. Hobby fuses and rocket igniters could be used to activate such a device. Potassium nitrate and sugar, however, also can be used as a rocket propellant — so it is possible the two men intended to make and launch a homemade rocket. The major difference between a bomb and a rocket is the configuration of the PVC pipe. If the pipe was sealed only at one end it might have been intended for use as a rocket (or it was an incomplete IED.) If the PVC pipe was sealed at both ends, it clearly was intended to be an IED. Under the law, however, either construction could be considered a pipe bomb, depending on the details. Another potentially incriminating item in this case is the gasoline can found in the trunk of the car. Gasoline, which has no application in model rocketry, can be combined with the other materials seized to create an explosive-actuated incendiary device — which can be more destructive than a pipe bomb alone. Of course, it is possible the men were simply transporting a can of gasoline for innocuous reasons, though it is dangerous to transport gasoline in close proximity to incendiary mixtures, especially in the heat of the South. Investigators undoubtedly are attempting to determine the men's intent. The laptop computer seized at the scene will be thoroughly reviewed for any evidence of plans to build bombs or rockets. Investigators also will look for any maps, diagrams or photos of potential target sites as well as any jihadist literature and propaganda. They also will search the suspects' residences, review their phone records, scrutinize their past travel and comb over any miscellaneous pocket litter found on the men or in their vehicle. And they will interview friends and associates of the two. Regardless of whether investigators turn up evidence of a conspiracy to use the device as a bomb, however, the men are facing serious legal problems. The PVC device that was disrupted appears at this point to fit the legal definition of a pipe bomb, which is considered a "destructive device" under federal firearms law. As a result, the two men will likely face federal charges such as possession of an unregistered destructive device and interstate transportation of an unregistered destructive device. Megahed, who is in the United States on a student visa, is not permitted to possess any firearm (which would include a pipe bomb.) So, even if the men were naively transporting the device with the intention of shooting off rockets in the countryside, they are still in trouble. It is noteworthy that Megahed is an engineering student. Although there is no evidence at this point to indicate that Megahed is anything but a normal student, past cases suggest that radical Muslim youth studying the applied sciences are disproportionately more prone to embrace jihadism than are those who pursue studies in social sciences, humanities, liberal arts, business, etc. In addition to the recently deceased engineer Kafeel Ahmed, the driver of the vehicle used in the Glasgow bombing attempt, some other notable jihadist engineers include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a mechanical engineer; Nidal Ayyad, a chemical engineer; Abdel Basit (a.k.a. Ramzi Yousef), an electrical engineer; Mohammed Atta, a civil engineer; and Ziyad Jarrah, an aircraft engineering student. Furthermore, USF has been the focus of law enforcement attention in the past because of former computer engineering Professor Sami al-Arian's acknowledged connection to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization. USF also gained attention in 2006, when two Saudi students attending the university were arrested on trespass charges after hitching a ride on a school bus transporting high school students. An Important Tactical Reality In a recent analysis we discussed several of the tactical realities that make the job of protecting the United States from attack so challenging. These include transnational and homegrown operatives working in the United States, the many vulnerable targets, the ease of constructing IEDs and the simplicity of staging small-scale IED attacks. Another important tactical reality, however, is the tremendous impact that street cops can have on the security of the U.S. homeland. Many terrorist plots have been thwarted and dangerous criminals captured by alert officers doing their job. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, for example, was not captured by some terrorism task force or elite FBI team. McVeigh was arrested shortly after the bombing by an Oklahoma state trooper who noticed McVeigh was driving his vehicle on Interstate 35 without a license plate. A large federal task force hunted Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph unsuccessfully for more than five years. The task force, which at times had hundreds of federal agents and police officers assigned to it, spent years combing the North Carolina mountains looking for Rudolph. They used bloodhounds, professional trackers and high-tech equipment such as helicopters with infrared sensors. However, Rudolph was arrested by a rookie cop in Murphy, N.C., who found him dumpster-diving for food behind a grocery store. There also was the little-known 1988 arrest of Japanese Red Army master bombmaker Yu Kikumura. Following the April 15, 1986, U.S. Air Force bombing of Libya, the Libyans employed Kikumura and several of his Red Army colleagues to conduct attacks against U.S. interests. Calling themselves the Anti-Imperialist International Brigade, Kikumura and his associates conducted a string of attacks against U.S. interests in Spain, Italy and Indonesia. Kikumura, a fastidious bombmaker, also traveled widely through the United States to obtain the components necessary to fabricate his sophisticated IEDs, which he packed in metal fire-extinguisher canisters. In spite of all this travel, however, Kikumura's bombmaking endeavors did not bring him to the attention of the authorities. On April 12, 1988, three days before the second anniversary of the 1986 air attack, Kikumura was arrested at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike after a New Jersey state trooper noticed that he was behaving suspiciously. Kikumura's vehicle was found to contain three powerful IEDs and a map with markings that suggested he planned to target a U.S. Navy recruiting center, the United Nations and a Veteran's Administration building. Kikumura, who was convicted in November 1988, served 221 months in a federal penitentiary. He was released in April and turned over to Japanese authorities, who plan to try him in connection with several other terrorism-related crimes. Law enforcement officers, like all Americans, are far more attuned to the terrorist threat today than they were prior to 9/11. The problem in many jurisdictions is that useful intelligence is not disseminated down the chain of command to the individual officers on the street. This happens, in part, because some criminal intelligence and counterterrorism specialists fail to understand the critical role that officers on the street play in protecting homeland security. In many cases, however, an officer's initiative and instincts make up for this lack of intelligence reporting. It remains to be seen whether the Goose Creek sheriff's deputy averted a terrorist attack or simply arrested two students who were naively transporting hazardous materials. The role that street cops play in protecting the American public against terrorist attacks, however, cannot be denied.

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