Lone wolf terrorists continue to confound law enforcement

PHOTO: http://mctdirect.com/preview.php?id=201512042135MCT_____PHOTO____US_NEWS_CALIF-SHOOTING_18_LABy Cindy Chang and Richard Winton

In 2005, Torrance, Calif., police officers searched the apartment of two men suspected of robbing a gas station.

There, the officers found a lengthy manifesto and a list of potential targets, including synagogues and military sites. They had stumbled on an Islamist terrorist cell in the advanced stages of an attack plan.The San Bernardino massacre, which killed 14 people, has focused new attention on “lone wolf” terrorists who plan attacks away from traditional high-profile targets without directly coordinating with others.

While the FBI typically takes the lead in major terrorism investigations, local police officers and sheriff’s deputies are the initial line of defense — especially in the case of home-grown plotters.

With their local intelligence and connections to the communities they serve, police are often the first to pick up on clues that something is wrong — or to fortuitously come across a dangerous situation. Large agencies like the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have sizable counter-terrorism units that comb the Internet for suspicious postings, follow up on tips and cultivate contacts in the community.

Neighbors or friends might notice strange behavior, an uptick in bulky package deliveries or changes to a person’s routine. Human intelligence is the key, and local authorities are more likely than their federal counterparts to be plugged into those sources, said Deputy Chief Michael Downing, who oversees the LAPD’s counter-terrorism bureau.

But the challenges are daunting. Sometimes, as with the San Bernardino assailants Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, even family members said they did not notice any warning signs. Federal authorities say Malik wrote a Facebook post pledging her allegiance to an Islamic State group, but there is no evidence so far that they were connected to a larger terror cell.

“Self-radicalization poses a tremendous problem, as it is hardest to detect,” Downing said. “For us, it has always been easier to detect a network group adversary, because someone is going to slip up or hit a trip wire, versus a lone wolf.”

At the LAPD, the Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau’s 900 officers include some Muslims and several who speak who speak Arabic or Urdu. The bureau maintains relationships with local mosques and works closely with other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI.

The LAPD’s version of the “If you see something, say something” program, which encourages residents to report suspected terrorist activity, has won praise but also raised concerns in recent years.

In 2007, the LAPD scrapped a plan to map the city’s Muslim population amid an outcry from Muslim groups and civil libertarians.

But law enforcement officials say it is precisely those kinds of grass-roots leads that could stop the next terror plot. Officers are constantly checking out reports of suspicious activity, searching for the smallest of clues, Downing said.

Chief Scott Edson, who oversees counter-terrorism at the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, said residents should not hesitate to report anything out of the ordinary.

“No one’s going to say you’re profiling if you report suspicious activity,” Edson said. “I think we just have to understand that in today’s climate, there’s nothing you can’t say. Give law enforcement an opportunity to listen to what you have to say, and let us legally determine whether there is something there or not.”