Criticisms of post-9/11 efforts to protect the United States from attack range from claims that America is more vulnerable than ever to the contention that the transnational terrorist danger is vastly over-hyped. A review of publicly available information on at least 19 terrorist conspiracies thwarted by U.S. law enforcement suggests that the truth lies somewhere in between these two arguments.
U.S. agencies are actively combating individuals and groups that are intent on killing Americans and plotting mayhem to foster violent extremist political and religious agendas. A review of the data suggests several important conclusions:
- Combating terrorism is essential for keeping America safe, free, and prosperous.
- Counterterrorism operations have uncovered threats that in some cases, although less sophisticated than the 9/11 attacks and at most loosely affiliated with "al-Qaeda" central, could have resulted in significant loss of life and property if they had been conducted successfully.
- The best means to prevent terrorist attacks is effective intelligence collection, information sharing, and coordinated, determined counterterrorism operations that can stop attacks before they are mounted.
- Effective operations often require federal, state, local, and international cooperation.
Few of the planned attacks were potentially as devastating in scope as the September 11, 2001, attacks on Washington and New York. In addition, the successful interdiction of these efforts offers no guarantee that future attacks will also be prevented.
Nevertheless, the government's success in protecting the homeland argues that vigilant and proactive counterterrorism operations are an essential part of keeping America safe in the 21st century. Future efforts to mitigate the threat of transnational terrorism should follow the example set by post-9/11 operations by respecting both the rule of law and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and the necessity of conducting concerted efforts to seek out and frustrate terrorist conspiracies before they come to fruition.
Richard Reid, December 2001
A British citizen and self-professed follower of Osama bin Laden, Reid allegedly hid explosives inside his shoes aboard a flight from Paris to Miami and attempted to use a match to light the fuse in his shoe. The explosives were strong enough to cause damage to the plane if detonated. Caught in the act, Reid was apprehended on board the plane by the flight attendants with the assistance of passengers. FBI officials then took Reid into custody after the plane made an emergency landing at Boston's Logan Airport.
Reid was found guilty of charges of terrorism in 2003, and a U.S. federal court sentenced him to life imprisonment.
Jose Padilla, May 2002
U.S. officials arrested Padilla in May 2002 at O'Hare Airport in Chicago as he returned to the United States from Pakistan, initially charging him with being an enemy combatant and planning to use a "dirty bomb" (an explosive laced with radioactive material) in an attack against America. Prior to his conviction, Padilla brought a case against the federal government stating that he had been denied the right of habeas corpus (the right of an individual to petition against his or her imprisonment). The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, found that the case had been filed improperly. In 2005, the government officially indicted Padilla for conspiring with Islamic terrorist groups.
In August 2007, Padilla was found guilty by a civilian jury after a three-month trial and a day and a half of deliberations.
Lackawanna Six, September 2002
When the FBI arrested Sahim Alwan, Yahya Goba, Yasein Taher, Faysal Galab, Shafal Mosed, and Mukhtar al-Bakri, the press dubbed them the "Lackawanna Six" (also the "Buffalo Six" or "Buffalo Cell"). Five of the six had been born and raised in Lackawanna, New York. The six American citizens of Yemeni descent were arrested for conspiring with terrorist groups. They had stated that they were going to Pakistan to attend a religious training camp but instead attended an al-Qaeda "jihadist" camp.
All six pled guilty in 2003 to providing support to al-Qaeda. Faysal Galab received a seven-year sentence. Sahim Alwan got seven and a half years, while Yesein Taher and Shafal Mosed both received eight-year prison sentences. Mukhtar al-Bakri, the first to plead guilty, received a 10-year sentence, as did Yahya Goba.
Iyman Faris, May 2003
A naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Kashmir and living in Columbus, Ohio, Iyman Faris was arrested for conspiring to commit a terrorist act. He was suspected of planning to use blowtorches to collapse the Brooklyn Bridge. The New York City Police Department had learned about the plot and increased police surveillance around the bridge. Faced with this additional security, Faris and his superiors decided to cancel the attack.
Faris pled guilty to conspiracy and providing material support to al-Qaeda. During his sentencing trial, he stated that he was innocent and had admitted a role in the plot to FBI agents only in order to trick the agents and secure a book deal. Faris was sentenced in Federal District Court to 20 years, the maximum allowed under his plea agreement.
Virginia "Jihad" Network, June 2003
In Alexandria, Virginia, 11 men were arrested for weapons counts and for violating the Neutrality Act, which prohibits U.S. citizens and residents from attacking countries with which the United States is at peace. Of these 11 men, four pled guilty. Upon further investigation, the other seven members of the group were indicted on additional charges of conspiring to support terrorist organizations. They were found to have connections with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Lashkar-i-Taiba, a terrorist organization that targets the Indian government. The authorities stated that the Virginia men had used paintball games as a form of training and preparation for battle. The group had also acquired surveillance and night vision equipment and wireless video cameras.
The spiritual leader of the group, Ali al-Timimi, was found guilty of soliciting individuals to assault the United States and was sentenced to life in prison. Ali Asad Chandia received 15 years for supporting Lashkar-i-Taiba but maintains his innocence. Randoll Todd Royer, Ibrahim al-Hamdi, Yong Ki Kwon, Khwaja Mahmoud Hasan, Muhammed Aatique, and Donald T. Surratt all pled guilty and were sentenced to prison terms. Masoud Khan, Seifullah Chapman, and Hammad Adur-Raheem were found guilty at trial.
Dhiren Barot, August 2004
A terrorist cell under the leadership of Dhiren Barot was arrested for plotting to attack the New York Stock Exchange and other financial institutions in New York, Washington, and Newark, New Jersey, and later accused of planning attacks in England. The plots included a "memorable black day of terror" with the employment of a "dirty bomb." A July 2004 police raid on Barot's house in Pakistan discovered a number of incriminating documents in files on a laptop computer that included instructions for building car bombs.
Dhiren Barot pled guilty and was convicted in the United Kingdom for conspiracy to commit mass murder and sentenced to 40 years.
James Elshafay and Shahawar Matin Siraj, August 2004
James Elshafay and Shahawar Matin Siraj were arrested for plotting to bomb a subway station near Madison Square Garden in New York City before the Republican National Convention. The New York City Police Departments intelligence Division helped to conduct an investigation leading to the arrests. An undercover agent infiltrated the group, provided information to authorities, and later testified against Elshafay and Siraj.
Elshafay, a U.S. citizen, pled guilty and received a lighter sentence for testifying against his co-conspirator. He received five years. Shawhawar Matin Siraj was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain, August 2004
Two leaders of an Albany, New York, mosque were charged with plotting to purchase a shoulder-fired grenade launcher to assassinate a Pakistani diplomat. An investigation by the FBI, the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and the local police contributed to the arrest. With the help of an informant, the FBI was able to set up a sting that lured Mohammed Hossain into a fake terrorist conspiracy. Hossain brought Yassin Araf, a Kurdish refugee, as a witness. The informant offered details of a fake terrorist plot, claiming that he needed the missiles to murder a Pakistani diplomat in New York City. Both agreed to help.
Both Aref and Hossain were found guilty of money laundering and conspiracy to conceal material support for terrorism.
Umer Hayat and Hamid Hayat, June 2005
In Lodi, California, Umer Hayat and Hamid Hayat, a Pakistani immigrant and his American son, were arrested after allegedly lying to the FBI about the son's attendance at an Islamic terrorist training camp in Pakistan.
The son, Hamid Hayat, was found guilty of supporting terrorism and was sentenced to 24 years. Umer Hayat's trial ended in a mistrial. He later pled guilty to lying to a Customs agent in his attempt to carry $28,000 into Pakistan.
Levar Haley Washington, Gregory Vernon Patterson, Hammad Riaz Samana, and Kevin James, August 2005
Arrested in Los Angeles, California, the members of the group were charged with conspiring to attack Los Angeles National Guard facilities, synagogues, and other targets in the Orange County area. Kevin James allegedly founded a radical Islamic prison group and converted Levar Washington and others to the group, which was known as JIS, short for Jamiyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh. The JIS allegedly planned to finance their operations by robbing gas stations. After Washington and Patterson were arrested for robberies, police and federal agents began a terrorist investigation when a search of Washington's apartment revealed a suspicious target list.
All of the defendants pled not guilty and currently await trial.
Michael C. Reynolds, December 5, 2005
Michael C. Reynolds was arrested by the FBI and charged with being involved in a plot to blow up a Wyoming natural gas refinery; the Transcontinental Pipeline, a natural-gas pipeline stretching from the Gulf Coast to New York and New Jersey; and a New Jersey Standard Oil refinery. He was arrested while trying to pick up the $40,000 owed to him for planning the attack. His purported contact, Shannen Rossmiller, was a Montana judge who was working with the FBI. The FBI later found explosives in a locker in his home town, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Reynolds claimed that he was working as a private citizen to find terrorists.
Reynolds was convicted of providing material support to terrorists, soliciting a crime of violence, unlawful distribution of explosives, and unlawful possession of a hand grenade and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Mohammad Zaki Amawi, Marwan Othman El-Hindi, Zand Wassim Mazloum, February 2006
In Toledo, Ohio, Mohammad Zaki Amawi, Marwan Othman El-Hindi, and Wassim Mazloum were arrested for "conspiring to kill or injure people in the Middle East" and providing material support to terrorist organizations. They allegedly intended to build bombs to be used in Iraq. The investigation was begun through the help of an informant who was approached to help train the group.
All defendants have pled not guilty.
Syed Haris Ahmed and Ehsanul Islam Sadequee, April 2006
Syed Haris Ahmed and Ehsanul Islam Sadequee from Atlanta, Georgia, were accused of conspiracy, having discussed terrorist targets with alleged terrorist organizations. They allegedly met with Islamic extremists and received training and instruction in how to gather videotape surveillance of potential targets in the Washington area. They videotaped places such as the U.S. Capitol and the World Bank headquarters as potential targets and sent the videos to a London extremist group.
They were indicted for providing material support to terrorist organizations and have pled not guilty.
Narseal Batiste, Patrick Abraham, Stanley Grant Phanor, Naudimar Herrera, Burson Augustin, Lyglenson Lemorin, and Rotschild Augstine, June 2006
Seven men were arrested in Miami and Atlanta for allegedly being in the early stages of a plot to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago, as well as the FBI offices and other buildings. The arrests resulted from an investigation involving an FBI informant. It is alleged that Narsearl Batiste was the leader of the group and first suggested attacking the Sears Tower in December 2005.
All individuals have pled not guilty and are awaiting trial.
Assem Hammoud, July 2006
Conducting on-line surveillance of chat rooms, the FBI discovered a plot to attack underground transit links with New Jersey. Eight suspects, including Assem Hammoud, an al-Qaeda loyalist living inLebanon, were arrested for plotting to bomb the New York City train tunnels. Hammoud was a self-proclaimed operative for al-Qaeda and admitted to the plot. He is currently in custody in Lebanon, and his case is pending. Two other suspects are in custody in other locations, and investigators continue to hunt down the other five suspects.
Liquid Explosives Plot, August 2006
British law enforcement was able to stop a terrorist plot to load 10 commercial airliners headed to the United States with liquid explosives. The areas said to be targeted were New York, Washington, D.C., and California. Approximately 24 British persons were arrested in the London area. The style of the plot has raised speculation that al-Qaeda was behind it, but no concrete evidence has proven this.
The United Kingdom has charged 15 of the 24 arrested individuals, and trials are expected to begin in 2008. The charges vary from conspiring to commit murder to planning to commit terrorist acts.
Fort Dix Plot, May 2007
Six men were arrested in a plot against Fort Dix, a U.S. Army base in New Jersey. The plan included attacking and killing soldiers using assault rifles and grenades. Five of the alleged conspirators had conducted training missions in the nearby Pocono Mountains. The sixth helped to obtain weapons. The arrests were made after a 16-month FBI operation that included infiltrating the group. The investigation began after a store clerk alerted authorities when he discovered a video file of the group firing weapons and calling for "jihad." As far as is known, the group had no direct connections to any world terrorist organization.
Five of the defendants have been charged with conspiracy to kill military personnel. The sixth is facing weapons charges.
JFK Plot, June 2007
Four men plotted to blow up a jet fuel artery that runs through residential neighborhoods at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. It is alleged that they believed this would create more destruction than September 11. Authorities stated that the attack would have caused major damage.
Russell Defreitas, the leader of the group was arrested in Brooklyn. One of the men was a former airport worker, and two other individuals had links to Islamic extremists in South America and the Caribbean. Two others, Abdul Kadir and Kareem Ibrahim, are being held in Trinidad. Kadir was an imam in Guyana, former member of parliament, and mayor of the town of Linden, Guyana. Ibrahim is a Trinidadian citizen. The fourth suspect-Abdel Nur, a Guyanese citizen-remains at large.
Cases are pending.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, March 2007
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, captured in 2003, is alleged to have been involved in a number of terrorist plots and is among the most senior of Osama bin Laden's operatives to have been captured. He is currently held at the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Mohammed admitted in March 2007 to helping to plan, organize, and run the September 11 attacks and also claimed responsibility for the first bombing at the World Trade Center and the bombings of nightclubs in Bali in 2002 and a Kenyan hotel. He has stated that he decapitated American journalist Daniel Pearl and took responsibility for helping to plan the failed attack by Richard Reid, along with plots at Heathrow Airport, Canary Wharf, and Big Ben, as well as targets in Israel and the Panama Canal. He also helped to develop plots surrounding Los Angeles, Chicago, and the Empire State Building as well as U.S. nuclear power stations. He also had plotted to assassinate Pope John Paul II and former President Bill Clinton.
The U.S. government intends to try him before a military commission authorized by Congress.
The list of publicly known arrests demonstrates conclusively that the lack of another major terrorist attack is not a sign that organizations have relinquished their essential goals. A number of plots conducted by individuals have been prevented as a result of the increase in effective counterterrorism investigations by the United States in cooperation with friendly and allied governments. Continuing these operations, which include sound, effective, and lawful intelligence, surveillance, and investigations, is one of the best weapons in America's arsenal for the long war.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for Intenational Studies and a Senior Research Fellow in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Davis Institute, at The Heritage Foundation. Pamela Siegel, an independent researcher, contributed to the writing of this paper.