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State and local law enforcement: contributions to terrorism prevention.

On April 12, 1988, New Jersey State Trooper Robert Cieplensky entered the Vince Lombardi service area of the New Jersey Turnpike. He noticed a man later identified as Yu Kikumura twice begin to walk from his car to the service area, only to return to his vehicle abruptly after making eye contact with him. After Kikumura exhibited more suspicious behavior, he began to drive away. Trooper Cieplensky ordered Kikumura to stop and then observed fresh burn marks on Kikumura's neck, bandages on his neck and hands, and a black bag in the car that contained seven empty gunpowder canisters. After noticing other questionable items in the vehicle, he arrested Kikumura. Unbeknownst to Trooper Cieplensky, he had just uncovered three lethal, homemade firebombs prepared for a major terrorist bombing on U.S. soil. (1)


Subsequent evidence at Kikumura's trial proved that he was a member of the Japanese Red Army, a violent terrorist organization that trained in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon and had connections to Libyan terrorist aims. As noted by the U.S. district court judge in the case, "But for the alert and professional conduct of Trooper Cieplensky, Kikumura would have succeeded in murdering and maiming countless numbers of people for no other reason than they are Americans." (2)

Since 9/11, the U.S. government's efforts to prevent terrorist acts have substantially increased and included many aspects of government policy, such as military, immigration, economic, intelligence, and law enforcement. Terrorism prevention has been a long-standing mandate of the FBI. Moreover, the approximately 800,000 state and local law enforcement officers like Trooper Cieplensky are on the front lines of this mission. They are the eyes and ears of the community and nation and play an essential role in preventing heinous acts of terrorism. (3)

Community Eyes and Ears

On July 29, 1997, Abdelrahman Mossabah, who was living in Brooklyn, New York, informed officers of the New York City Police Department that his roommates, Lafi Khalil and Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, had bombs in their apartment and planned to detonate them soon. According to Mossabah, Abu Mezer was angry about the situation in Jerusalem and Palestine and planned to detonate the bombs in a crowded subway or bus terminal.

On July 31, 1997, officers entered Abu Mezer and Khalil's apartment, shooting and wounding both of them after one dove to grab an officer's gun. Officers also believed that the suspects were lunging to detonate the bombs in the apartment.


Subsequent interviews with Abu Mezer indicated that he had made five bombs to kill as many Jews as possible because of his opposition to U.S. support for Israel. Abu Mezer also admitted that he was with Hamas and planned to bomb a subway at 8 a.m. on July 31, 1997. He advised that when he realized the police were in his apartment that morning, he wanted to blow himself up. (4) This case clearly illustrates a community's law enforcement presence as an important link in thwarting a large-scale terrorist attack. Quick police action in an extremely dangerous situation likely saved lives and prevented an imminent bombing. (5)

Rural Locations

Some local or state officers may believe that most international terrorism cases are like the Khalil case, affecting only big cities, such as New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. However, many international and domestic terrorists have contact with officers in rural areas all over the country. For example, on September 29, 2001, Deputy Sheriff Mark Mercer of the Skamania County, Washington, Sheriff's Office was dispatched to a gravel pit in a rural area after a neighbor heard rapid gunfire. Deputy Mercer was alone as he approached the gravel pit and observed a group of men shooting firearms. He approached the group, talked to them, and wrote a police incident report that included the identities of the individuals.

Among others, Deputy Mercer identified Ali Khalid Steitiye as one of the shooters. Steitiye was a convicted felon and eventually indicted in Oregon on firearms charges. After the Skamania County sheriff saw a news report on this indictment, he called the FBI's Portland, Oregon, office to advise them of Deputy Mercer's report, which was a critical piece of information leading to one of the United States' most important post-9/11 terrorism investigations, the Portland Seven case. Subsequent investigation determined that the group, which referred to itself as Katibat Al-Mawt (the squad of death), attempted to enter Afghanistan in October 2001 to fight U.S. troops. Taped conversations with one of the defendants, Jeffrey Leon Battle, revealed that members of the group had considered killing Deputy Mercer when he encountered them in the gravel pit but decided against it because of his demeanor. Battle stated to a cooperating source, "We was up there blowin' it up. ... We was lightin' it up. ... We looked at it as worship because what our intentions were, to learn to shoot for. And a cop came up, and he was like hey. ... You don't understand how close he was gonna get popped. ... " (6) Battle later indicated that because "the cop was cool" and a "gun guy," they decided not to kill him. Eventually, seven individuals were indicted in this case and pled guilty to terrorism-related charges. In addition to attempting to get into Afghanistan, Battle expressed interest in targeting Jewish schools and synagogues in the Portland area.

Proactive police work also uncovered and prevented an international terrorist plot in rural Richford, Vermont, in 1987. On the night of October 23, 1987, a local police chief, Richard Jewett, saw an unknown person, later identified as Walid Kabbani, walking with a black duffle-type bag. After passing Kabbani, Chief Jewett noticed a van parked with its lights off. He approached the van and gave directions to two men, Walid Mourad and George Younan, and then went back to look for Kabbani. He located Kabbani and questioned him about his reasons for being in Richford. After Kabbani provided a suspicious story concerning his travels, the chief took him to immigration authorities at the border where he provided inconsistent statements. Chief Jewett then went back to where he first saw Kabbani and located the black duffle-type bag he had hidden. He brought the bag back to the border crossing where officials searched it and found an explosive device inside.

This discovery also led to the arrest of Kabbani's coconspirators, Mourad and Younan, the next day. Subsequent information determined that the three were members of a Lebanese terrorist group on an unknown mission in the United States. The assistant U.S. attorney in the case stated that the chief's solid police work and ability to follow his instincts most likely prevented a terrorist attack.

The Portland Seven case and the Kabbani case clearly show that international terrorism is not just a big-city problem. Officers performing duties in rural areas of the United States have proven essential in preventing such acts from occurring on U.S. soil.

Involvement in Criminal Acts

Law enforcement instincts also played a role in disrupting a terrorist-financing case. In early 1995, Detective Sergeant Robert Fromme of the Iredell County, North Carolina, Sheriff's Office was working off duty in uniform at a discount tobacco shop when he observed Middle Eastern individuals carrying $20,000 to $30,000 in cash in plastic grocery bags into the store to buy cartons of cigarettes. (7) During the next few months, Detective Fromme documented this activity, which occurred almost daily. He realized that by shipping the cigarettes to Michigan and avoiding the heavy tax in that state, profits totaled over $ 13,000 per van load.

After Detective Fromme brought the case to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the FBI became involved in 1999. Investigators determined that the cigarette smugglers were using some of the proceeds of their criminal activity to fund Hizballah, a terrorist group based in Lebanon. This case, known as Operation Smokescreen, led to the indictments of 26 individuals on charges ranging from immigration violations to racketeering, material support, and terrorism. (8)

The FBI case agent in Operation Smokescreen stated that the defendants were full-time criminals and part-time terrorists. This case demonstrates that terrorists commit every crime imaginable in the course of supporting themselves, terrorist groups, and plots, often putting state and local officers in the most advantageous position to detect their activities prior to an attack.

Another example includes the Jami'iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh, or JIS, terrorist cell in California. Law enforcement officials investigating a July 2005 gas station robbery in Torrance, California, found a cell phone dropped during the crime. Based on information in the phone, police arrested suspects and executed a search warrant at their home where they found material concerning violent Islamic extremism. The U.S. attorney in California, whose office prosecuted the case, stated, "This investigation worked because street cops recognized the value of that material." (9)

The Torrance armed robbery was the latest of about a dozen perpetrated to gather money to fund terrorist attacks. The investigation led to Kevin James who formed JIS while in prison and recruited another inmate, Levar Washington. Once Washington was released from prison, he enlisted others into the group, and they began their armed robbery spree. Targets identified for attack included military recruiting stations and a list of Jewish sites in the Los Angeles, California, area. In December 2007, James, Washington, and a third defendant, Gregory James, pled guilty to conspiring to wage war against the United States.

The JIS case demonstrates a terrorist plot in the advanced planning stages prevented by the watchful work of a local police officer. Similar to Detective Fromme, Torrance police officers discovered this plot while conducting an investigation into what they thought was a criminal act unrelated to terrorism.

Joint Terrorism Task Forces

The JIS and Portland Seven cases also illustrate the importance and effectiveness of the joint terrorism task force (JTTF) concept, which has been substantially enhanced since 9/11. Every FBI field office has at least one JTTF that serves as a local or state law enforcement agency's point of contact for any terrorism-related information. By combining efforts and leveraging resources, the JTTF ensures that all terrorism information is properly gathered and threats are immobilized.

In the Portland Seven case, the cooperating source who recorded conversations with Jeffrey Battle was developed by an Oregon state trooper on the task force. The trooper found someone within the Portland Islamic community who had access to Battle and was willing to assist in the investigation. Those recorded conversations were essential to understanding the intent of the cell and securing successful prosecution.

Each state and local participant in a JTTF brings unique abilities and information-sharing capacities extremely important in the terrorism-prevention mission. Many task force accomplishments are by-products of this collaborative effort that has proven instrumental in the disruption of numerous terrorist plots since 9/11.

Fragility of Plots

One of the most difficult issues facing law enforcement officers when serving as first preventers, rather than first responders, is that the terrorist attacks they prevent may not become apparent to them. Although it is difficult to measure such an intangible accomplishment as the deterrence of a criminal or terrorist act, many instances probably have occurred in which a state or local officer unknowingly prevented one.

Even the 9/11 attack could have failed because of some hurdle or roadblock posed by law enforcement. The 9/11 Commission Report states that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the chief planner of 9/11, might have cancelled the operation if he had known of Zacarias Moussaoui's arrest in Minneapolis in August 2001. In addition, tension existed between two of the 9/11 pilots, Ziad Jarrah and Mohamed Atta. Jarrah flew to Germany and saw his girlfriend in late July 2001 and may have been contemplating withdrawing from the attack.


While speaking at the FBI National Academy, an Israeli police chief stated that when suicide attacks in Israel were at their peak, Israeli police often would receive vague information that an attacker was on the way to their jurisdiction to carry out an attack. Among other tactics, the police frequently sent all available officers to the border area to "make noise," or make their presence known. The chief did not know for certain that these displays of police presence were successful, but he considered them useful. Some terrorism-prevention police work in the United States is based on this same notion of making noise. Police presence in subways or train stations, for example, may convince potential attackers to delay or abandon their plans. Any police encounter or perceived presence can potentially slow down or prevent an attack.

Traffic Stops

One of the most common ways a state or local officer likely will encounter a terrorism suspect is during a traffic stop. Although the 9/11 hijackers only were in the United States for relatively short periods of time, officers had stopped all but one for various reasons. On April 26, 2001, Mohamed Atta was stopped pursuant to a driver's license checkpoint and received a citation from the Broward County, Florida, Sheriff's Office for driving without a license. Atta obtained a Florida driver's license 6 days later. He again was stopped on July 5, 2001, by the Delray Beach, Florida, Police Department and received a written warning for speeding. On 9/11, he piloted American Airlines Flight 11 as it hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Hani Hanjour flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon on 9/11. He had received a speeding ticket from the Arlington County, Virginia, Police Department on August 1, 2001.

Ziad Jarrah was at the controls of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11. A Maryland State Police trooper had stopped him for speeding on September 9, 2001, as Jarrah made his way to Newark, New Jersey, where Flight 93 originated.

Two of the nation's most notorious domestic terrorists, Timothy McVeigh and Eric Robert Rudolph, were arrested by police officers involved in traffic stops and patrol duties. On April 19, 1995, Oklahoma Highway Patrol Officer Charles Hangar stopped McVeigh, who was leaving the Oklahoma City area after bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. McVeigh had no license plate on his car, and Patrol Officer Hangar subsequently arrested him for carrying a loaded firearm. Just before his release on the gun charge, the FBI identified him as a suspect in the bombing and located him in jail.

Eric Rudolph, more commonly known as the Olympic Park Bomber, was wanted in connection with a series of bombings, including one at the Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia; two at abortion clinics; and another at a nightclub. At two of the bombings, he left secondary devices designed to kill first responders, and, at his last bombing in 1998, an explosive device killed Officer Robert Sanderson.

In 1998, Rudolph was named as a suspect in the bombings, and a massive manhunt began that centered on his home in Murphy, North Carolina. On May 31, 2003, nearly 5 years later, Officer Jeffrey Postell of the Murphy Police Department was investigating a possible burglary behind a grocery store at 4 a.m. He turned off his patrol car lights, quickly drove around the building, and surprised Rudolph, who was looking for food in the store's dumpster.

Terrorism Screening Center

One of the most powerful and important information-sharing systems available to state and local law enforcement is the Terrorism Screening Center, or TSC, which maintains a consolidated database of the names and identifying information for all known and suspected terrorists. Information from this database is entered into the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and available whenever a law enforcement officer runs a wanted query on a suspect. If officers encounter someone in the database, NCIC most commonly advises them to conduct their investigative activity without letting the individual know they are listed as a known or suspected terrorist. These types of encounters can provide valuable information about a terrorism suspect, such as travel patterns, companions, and other information gathered by the officer. In rare circumstances, the NCIC entry will request the arrest or detention of suspects based on their terrorist acts. However, in the majority of cases, the encounter with a known or suspected terrorist in the TSC database serves as a tool to collect information for officials to use in intelligence analysis and possible criminal prosecution.

The potential power of the TSC is evident in one of the missed opportunities prior to 9/11. Nawaf Alhazmi, one of the hijackers aboard United Airlines Flight 93, was known to U.S. intelligence agencies prior to 9/11 and listed in a U.S. Department of State database for terrorists. On May 1, 2001, Alhazmi reported to the Fairfax County, Virginia, Police Department that he was the victim of an assault. Officers took a report on the incident but were not aware that Alhazmi was known to U.S. intelligence as a possible al Qaeda member. Today, an individual like Alhazmi will be in NCIC, advising officers running a wanted query that they are dealing with a known or suspected terrorist.


The ways in which state and local law enforcement personnel continue to assist in the effort to prevent terrorist attacks is multifold and extremely critical to thwarting atrocities and protecting citizens. Officers always have been on the cutting edge of this mission, and, now, they have better tools at their disposal to sharpen that edge.

Officers encounter known and suspected terrorists in urban areas, as well as rural ones. With the growth of the joint terrorism task force concept and the information sharing of the Terrorism Screening Center, obtaining and analyzing information is substantially enhanced. These new instruments and the proactive nature of state and local law enforcement authorities have played and will continue to support an essential role in preventing future terrorism.


(1) U.S v. Kikumura, 918 F.2d 1084 (2nd Cir. 1990).

(2) U.S. v. Kikumura, 706 F. Supp. 331 (D.N.J. 1989).

(3) For additional information, see Earl M. Sweeney, "The Patrol Officer: America's Intelligence on the Ground," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September 2005, 14-21.

(4) .S. v. Khalil, 214 F.3d 111 (2nd Cir. 2000).

(5) The Khalil case led to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, concerning immigration issues surrounding Abu Mezer and Khalil. The Inspector General's report in March 1998, "Bombs in Brooklyn: How the Two Illegal Aliens Arrested for Plotting to Bomb the New York Subway Entered and Remained in the United States," concluded that the case exposed pervasive and long-standing weaknesses in the immigration process. Abu Mezer illegally entered the United States from Canada at least three times. After the third instance, Canada refused to take him back, and Abu Mezer was released by the U.S. immigration judge on $5,000 bail.


(7) For additional information, see Robert Fromme and Rick Schwein, "Operation Smokescreen: A Successful Interagency Collaboration," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, December 2007, 20-25.

(8) Ibid; and Dean T. Olsen, "Financing Terror," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 2007, 1-5.

(9) "Thwarting Terror," Newsweek, December 15, 2007.
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Author:McCormack, William
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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