January 28, 2016

January 28, 2016 | Issue Brief on National Security and Defense

80 Islamist Terrorist Plots: The U.S. Needs to Redouble Its Counterterrorism Efforts

It is less than a month into 2016, and two terrorist plots have occurred, one foiled and the other successful. Additional information has become available regarding a case from December 2015, resulting in another addition to The Heritage Foundation’s list of terrorist plots and attacks. The FBI’s release of more information in December about the shooting at two Chattanooga military facilities in July 2015 also adds to the list, bringing the total number of Islamist-inspired terrorist plots and attacks against the U.S. since 9/11 to 80.

Chattanooga, No. 74

The Heritage Foundation is now adding the July 16, 2015, shooting at two military facilities in Chattanooga that killed four Marines and a sailor to its list of Islamist terrorist plots. While there were news reports pointing to an Islamist motivation, Heritage preferred to wait for the outcome of the FBI’s investigation before making a final determination.

In December 2015, FBI Director James Comey announced that the shooter, Mohammad Abdulazeez, “was inspired, motivated by a foreign terrorist organization’s propaganda.”[1] Comey further claimed that it was difficult “to untangle which particular source,” as there “are lots of competing [terrorist] poisons out there.”[2] The FBI, however, certainly knows the general kind of terrorist poisons to which Abdulazeez was attracted: They were of a violent, Islamist nature.

The FBI’s failure to provide the American people with this information means that other sources need be relied upon. Multiple news organizations reported that Abdulazeez attacked these facilities for Islamist reasons. Counterterrorism sources for ABC reported that Abdulazeez searched the Internet to learn how such violence could remove his sins and found justifications and guidance on violent Islamist websites.[3] Reuters reported that Abdulazeez was inspired by the general propaganda of violent Islamists.[4] Sources for NBC reported that Abdulazeez had downloaded audio recordings of al-Qaeda cleric and propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki.[5] The FBI conclusion, added to varied news reports is enough evidence to add the Chattanooga attack to the list of Islamist-inspired attacks.

Mohamed Elshinawy, No. 77

Over the course of 2015, Mohamed Elshinawy conspired with others to support ISIS. Starting in February 2015, Elshinawy discussed with a co-conspirator the possibility of attacking the U.S., being careful to avoid discussing specific plans because he feared that he was being monitored. Elshinawy and his co-conspirator regularly took precautions to avoid detection by using false names and different phones, lying to authorities, and concealing connections to ISIS and to each other.[6]

Elshinawy pledged allegiance to ISIS while stating his desire to undertake jihad.[7] While he would remain in the U.S., Elshinawy stated that he had several targets but was taking his time. Elshinawy also discussed making “some sort of explosive device” and that he dreamt of using a gun to kill people in a church.

To support this plot, Elshinawy and his co-conspirator received at least $7,700 from a source that Elshinawy identified as an ISIS operative, to be used in carrying out an attack in the U.S. When initially questioned by the FBI, Elshinawy lied about how much he had received and took steps to hide his connections to other ISIS operatives.[8] He was arrested on December 11, 2015, on related charges.

Houston Malls, No. 79

Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan, a Palestinian born in Iraq who entered the U.S. as a refugee in 2009, was initially charged with attempting to provide support to ISIS and lying to officials on his citizenship application and associated interview.[9] This is all that could be gleaned from the indictment against Al Hardan, but more details came to light in court when Homeland Security Special Agent Herman Wittliff testified regarding whether to grant Al Hardan release on bond. According to Special Agent Wittliff, Al Hardan wanted to set off bombs using cellphone detonators at two Houston malls and told an FBI informant that he wanted to imitate the Boston Marathon bombing. Evidence collected at his house included electronic components, soldering equipment, a tool for stripping and crimping wires, a bag of fireworks, firecrackers, glasses with a hidden camera, and an ISIS flag.

Following the court appearance, an FBI official stated that there was no active or planned plot.[10] With security officials providing two competing versions of the crime, it is unclear just how much progress Al Hardan made in his plot. However, Al Hardan’s possession of the materials to make a bomb, discussion of potential targets, and noted inspiration by ISIS are sufficient evidence to add the plot to The Heritage Foundation’s list as the 79th Islamist-inspired terrorist plot or attack against the U.S. since 9/11. It is also at least the 17th plot targeting a public gathering such as a restaurant or mall, tying such gatherings with New York City for the second most targeted venue.

Shooting of Philadelphia Police Officer, No. 80

On January 7, 2016, 30-year-old Edward Archer shot and wounded Philadelphia Police Officer Jesse Hartnett. Firing at least 13 rounds, Archer hit Officer Hartnett in the arm three times as Hartnett was in his police vehicle. Despite his injuries, Hartnett was able to return fire and pursue the fleeing Archer, wounding him before his arrest by other officers. According to Police Commissioner Richard Ross, the gun used by Archer was stolen in 2013.[11]

While the investigation is still ongoing, it has been made public that Archer travelled to Saudi Arabia in 2011 and Egypt in 2012.[12] According to Homicide Captain James Clark, Archer has pledged allegiance to ISIS.[13] This attack matches many previous attacks by ISIS-inspired terrorists in which the suspect targeted law enforcement, making it at least the seventh time Islamist terrorists have targeted law enforcement in the U.S. since 9/11.

The Terrorist Threat Continues

With these additions, the number of terrorist plots and attacks in 2015 reaches 15, well more than any year since 9/11 and more than 2012, 2013, and 2014 combined. And there already have been two terrorist plots in 2016. Of the 80 plots since 9/11, 69 have involved individuals radicalized inside the U.S.: so-called homegrown terrorists. Of the 80 total plots, the shooting of Officer Hartnett brings the total number of successful attacks to nine.

Congress and the Administration should:

  • Support stronger action against Islamist terrorist groups. The United States and its allies need to take more effective steps to isolate, undermine, and defeat ISIS and al-Qaeda. Greater intelligence and law enforcement cooperation is needed to uncover and neutralize terrorist plots, curtail the flow of foreign fighters to Syria, and monitor the activities of foreign fighters who have returned to the United States and other countries. The existence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and continued ISIS propaganda across the Internet continues to influence disillusioned individuals to plan or commit acts of violence.
  • Maintain essential counterterrorism tools. Support for important investigative tools is essential to maintaining the security of the U.S. and combating terrorist threats. Legitimate government surveillance programs are a vital component of U.S. national security and should be allowed to continue. The need for effective counterterrorism operations does not relieve the government of its obligation to follow the law and respect individual privacy and liberty.
  • Streamline U.S. fusion centers. Congress should limit fusion centers to the approximately 30 areas with the greatest level of risk as identified by the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI). Some exceptions might exist, such as certain fusion centers that are leading cybersecurity or other important topical efforts. These centers should be fully funded and resourced by the UASI.
  • Stem the flow of fighters into Syria and Iraq. The U.S. should promote greater sharing of intelligence on the Islamic State, its recruitment activities, and the movement of new recruits to Iraq and Syria. In particular, Western, Arab, and Turkish intelligence agencies that have infiltrated the group should share information useful for disrupting the recruitment, mobilization, and training of potential ISIS terrorists.

Conclusion

With 2016 already on track to be yet another year of heightened terrorism activity, Congress and the Administration need to take a proactive approach to keeping the U.S. homeland secure.

—David Inserra is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security and Cyber Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation. Riley Walters is a Research Assistant in the Allison Center.

About the Author

David Inserra Policy Analyst, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Riley Walters Research Associate
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Show references in this report

[1] Kristina Sgueglia, “Chattanooga Shootings ‘inspired’ by Terrorists, FBI Chief Says,” CNN, December 16, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/16/us/chattanooga-shooting-terrorist-inspiration/index.html (accessed January 20, 2016).

[2] Laura Wagner, “Still No Evidence Linking San Bernardino Shooters To ISIS, FBI Says,” NPR, December 16, 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/12/16/460021165/still-no-evidence-linking-san-bernardino-shooters-to-isis-fbi-says (accessed January 20, 2016).

[3] Brian Ross, Doug Lantzjames, and Gordon Meek, “Chattanooga Shooter Researched Religious Justification For Violence: Official,” ABC, July 20, 2015, http://abcnews.go.com/US/chattanooga-shooting-fbi-recovers-gunmans-disturbing-diary/story?id=32558310 (accessed January 20, 2016).

[4] Reuters, “General Jihadist Propaganda May Have Inspired Chattanooga Shooter: Source,” July 20, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-tennessee-shooting-propaganda-idUSKCN0PU20320150720 (accessed January 20, 2016).

[5] Alastair Jamieson and Nader Salman, “Chattanooga Shooter Abdulazeez Was ‘Against Terrorism’: Family Lawyer,” NBC, July 24, 2015, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/chattanooga-shooting/chattanooga-shooter-abdulazeez-was-against-terrorism-family-lawyer-n396991 (accessed January 20, 2016).

[6] United States of America v. Mohamed Elshinawy, Indictment, filed on January 13, 2016, http://www.justice.gov/opa/file/813071/download (accessed January 20, 2016).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] United States of America v. Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan, Indictment, filed on January 6, 2016, http://www.justice.gov/opa/file/811706/download (accessed January 20, 2016).

[10] Cindy George, “FBI Said Accused Terrorist Had No ‘Planned Plot,’” Houston Chronicle, January 14, 2016, http://m.chron.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/FBI-said-accused-terrorist-had-no-planned-plot-6760005.php (accessed January 20, 2016).

[11] Scott Calvert and Devlin Barrett, “Suspect in Philadelphia Police Shooting Had Visited Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” The Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/suspect-in-philadelphia-shooting-of-policeman-is-said-to-have-traveled-to-saudi-arabia-egypt-1452360141 (accessed January 20, 2016).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Aubrey Whelan et al, “Police: Gunman Who Shot Cop Pledged Allegiance to the Islamic State,” philly.com, January 16, 2016, http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20160109_Officer_ambushed__wounded_in_West_Philly_shooting.html (accessed January 20, 2016).