On Friday, April 10, the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) in Topeka, Kansas, arrested John T. Booker Jr., as he prepared a car bomb for use against the nearby Fort Riley Army post. Booker, a 20-year-old U.S. citizen who goes by the name Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, expressed a desire to support the Islamic State by engaging in violent jihad here in the U.S. Through the use of confidential informants, the FBI tracked Booker’s statements, plans, and actions, and arrested him before the public was in danger.
This homegrown, lone-wolf terrorist plot is the 66th known Islamist terrorist plot or attack aimed at the U.S. homeland since 9/11. It is also the third terrorist plot that has been foiled in the past 17 days, and the fourth in the past four months in which the plotter expressed support for ISIS. This surge in terrorism demonstrates yet again that the threat of terrorism continues to be very real, and that stopping terrorists before they attack is more critical than ever.
John Booker was accepted into the Army in February 2014, but before he entered basic training the FBI became aware of multiple messages on Facebook in which he claimed to be excited to wage jihad. When interviewed, Booker “admitted that he enlisted in the United States Army with the intent to commit an insider attack against American soldiers like Major Nidal Hassan had done at Fort Hood, Texas.” As a result, Booker was not allowed to join the military.
Starting in October of 2014, Booker began to communicate with an FBI confidential informant, and “repeatedly expressed to [the informant] his desire to engage in violent jihad on behalf of ISIL.” Booker told the informant of his desire to go to the Middle East to join ISIS and kill Americans. As their conversations continued into November, Booker showed the informant videos of suicide bombers and spoke fondly of them. When the informant indicated that he had a cousin who could get Booker overseas, Booker excitedly accepted the offer and expressed a willingness to wage jihad in the U.S. to prove his dedication.
In December 2014, Booker told the informant that he was thinking about attacking American soldiers at a nearby military base with a gun or a grenade, believing it justified by the Koran. Then in February, Booker referenced an ISIS propaganda video and expressed a desire to create a similar video. Booker thought that capturing and killing an American soldier in the U.S. would “scare this country” and warn it that “we will be coming after American soldiers in the streets…we will be picking them off one by one.”
In March, the confidential informant introduced Booker to his “cousin,” another informant; the two told Booker that the cousin was a sheik planning terrorist attacks. Booker said that he had studied suicide bombing and wanted to build and detonate a truck bomb, following in the footsteps of an American called Jihad Joe, who died as a suicide bomber in Syria. Booker then filmed a video threatening the U.S. and rented a storage unit for gathering bomb components. By the end of March, Booker began purchasing bomb materials and gathering information on military targets, settling on Fort Riley. Booker provided the bomb components to the confidential informants, believing that they would provide the explosive material, which was actually inert. He then proclaimed that “I am going to do this Friday,” meaning April 10, and prepared a second threatening video. On April 10, the two informants drove to Fort Riley and, as Booker was arming the inert bomb, FBI agents arrested him.
Getting Serious About Terrorism
This plot is the 55th homegrown plot or attack, meaning that the terrorist was radicalized here in the U.S. It is also the 18th attack or plot aimed at U.S. military targets, the most common target of Islamist terrorists. Despite suggestions to the contrary in the media and in politics, the threat of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other Islamist terrorists striking the U.S. has not diminished.
On June 1, a subsection of the Patriot Act—section 215 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Action, the telephone metadata collection program—is set to expire if not reauthorized. There is no way of knowing whether section 215 was used in this case. Congress is now set to debate section 215 before it expires. A healthy discussion of U.S. security and privacy is an important one that the U.S. should have. In this debate, it is important that Congress understand that intelligence programs are critical to preventing terrorists before they strike. Security alone is not enough since the U.S. cannot make every school, military base, mall, government building, or subway secure and hardened against every type of terrorist attack. Lawful intelligence, collected under proper warrants and court orders, is the best tool that the U.S. has in this battle against terrorists, who have increased the number of plots in recent months. The U.S. government has a responsibility to protect Americans from danger and respect their liberties—and it must do both well.
Stopping Terrorists Before They Strike
As the U.S. faces an apparently growing wave of terrorism, Congress should:
- 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 also a vital component of U.S. national security and should be allowed to continue. The need for effective counterterrorism operations, however, does not relieve the government of its obligation to follow the law and respect individual privacy and liberty. In the American system, the government must do both equally well.
- Emphasize community outreach. Federal grant funds should be used to create robust community outreach capabilities in higher-risk urban areas. These funds must not be used for political pork or so broadly that they no longer target those communities at greatest risk. Such capabilities are key to building trust within these communities, and if the United States is to be successful in thwarting lone-wolf terrorist attacks, it must place effective community outreach operations at the tip of the spear.
- Prioritize local cyber capabilities. Building cyber-investigation capabilities in the higher-risk urban areas must become a primary focus of Department of Homeland Security grants. With so much terrorism-related activity occurring on the Internet, local law enforcement must have the constitutional ability to monitor and track violent extremist activity on the Web when reasonable suspicion exists to do so.
Keeping the Homeland Safe
Vigilance is necessary to combat terrorism. With three terror plots disrupted in 17 days, the idea of vigilance should take on new meaning for Americans. The U.S. must have the strategies and tools it needs to stop terrorists before they attack again.
—David Inserra is a Research Associate for Homeland Security and Cyber Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation. Charles D. Stimson is Manager of the National Security Law Program and Senior Legal Fellow in the Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs (2006–2007) and was a local, state, federal, and military prosecutor, defense attorney, and military judge in the United States Navy JAG Corps.