Hmmm. That Doesn’t Sound Good

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These are still allegations from unnamed law enforcement officials. So keep that in mind. But several major news organizations this morning are reporting that the man who bought the two assault weapons for Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a friend and relative by marriage named Enrique Marquez, says that he and Farook had planned but eventually called off another attack in 2012. That sounds like a pretty big deal to me – in terms of how far back Farouk’s radicalization went and that he had at least one other person in his circle with whom he felt comfortable discussing and plotting a terror attack.

I’m not sure of the legal intricacies of admitting to and being charged for a prior conspiracy, which was never carried out, and for which the person being charged is the only witness. But given an open willingness to plan an attack in the past, it’s hard for me to imagine that the FBI won’t find a way to charge him for providing the assailants with the weapons. Proving criminal intent would seem fairly straightforward.

What interested me though was why the 2012 attack was called off. According to the account provided by unnamed law enforcement authorities, Marquez said they “became apprehensive and shelved the plan because of law enforcement activity and arrests in the area.”

Presumably this means counter-terrorism police activity. I was curious about this. So I did a cursory Nexis search to see if there was anything in the area that had happened in 2012. And I think I’ve found it.

On November 19th, 2012, federal agents arrested four men who lived slightly west of San Bernardino on conspiracy to provide material support to terrrorists and join al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The reports and the FBI were clear that they did not believe the four were planning an attack in the area. Rather, they wanted to go to Afghanistan and join al Qaida/Taliban to among other things mount terror attacks against US military facilities and personnel overseas.

The arrestees were:

Sohiel Omar Kabir, 34, a former resident of Pomona and naturalized United States citizen, born in Afghanistan

Ralph Deleon, 23, of Ontario, a lawful permanent resident alien, born in the Philippines

Miguel Alejandro Santana Vidriales (further described herein and in the criminal complaint as “Santana”), 21, of Upland, a lawful permanent resident, born in Mexico and whose application for citizenship is pending in the United States

Arifeen David Gojali, 21, of Riverside, a United States citizen

As I mentioned, this is where I grew up. I went to the public schools in Upland. I know the geography. These towns are all 20 to 30 miles west or southwest of San Bernardino. Notably, these four got arrested because they were working with a confidential informant.

Presumably, Marquez and Farook saw this, got spooked and decided to call off their plan.

This raises an issue we’ve covered extensively and which I’ve thought a lot about over the last decade. We’re all familiar with the numerous terrorist ‘plots’ that the FBI has rolled up with high profile arrests over the years. Almost always there’s a confidential informant or undercover agent in the mix. Usually the authorities had been monitoring and even facilitating the plot for some time. Quite often the would-be terrorist is clearly not the brightest or most capable fellow coming out of ranks of contemporary terrorism. Put more directly, he’s usually a hapless doofus who the feds gave all the help he needed to get himself sent to prison for years or decades.

Some of these cases have been particularly comical: like the guy who wanted to blow up the East River tunnels so Manhattan would flood. Physics has that angle taken care of better than any counter-terror operation ever could. There was also the immortal ‘Liberty 6’ conspirators, a clubhouse-cum-cult-cum-calisthetics-space group who, in perhaps my favorite TPM turn of phrase ever, were so early in plotting their jihadist attack that they hadn’t yet gotten around to converting to Islam.

But this isn’t just a matter of the feds grabbing a few low-hanging doofuses who probably weren’t or may not have had the wherewithal to pull off a terror attack in the first place. There may be some of that, though it’s worth noting that with a machine gun and a willingness to die you can be a pretty big moron and still hurt a lot of people. There have also been some cases where there were legitimate entrapment arguments. But basically there’s a reason for sweeping up these would be conspirators. Not just to get off the street anyone who is looking to or open to killing a lot of people. But because it creates a climate of suspicion, non-trust and uncertainty amongst the tiny but critical population of people open to committing attacks. That’s a big deal. If you’re living in San Bernardino and have fallen under the spell of ISIS or Anwar al-Awlaki and you’re chatting up friends about starting a plot, there’s a decent chance it’s someone already working with the FBI or perhaps even an FBI agent. If you know that, that’s major sand in the gears of moving a plot forward.

I don’t deny this is kind of work has a big potential for abuse. Of course it does. There are all those half-serious, maybe serious? stories of mid-century radical left or black nationalist groups whose membership was actually half made up of FBI agents. But it’s worth understanding the utility these arrests can have.

You might ask: Well, if you’re saying these arrests have a value, why have you and TPM so frequently mocked and made fun of them? Good question. Here’s the answer. Working closely with members of the U.S. Muslim community to get tips about individuals who may seem like they’re up to no good is the most effective defense against San Bernardino types of attacks. It’s why building bridges rather than isolating these communities is important. The problem is that when these ‘plots’ are publicized they’re are usually used — by government design, media frenzy or just plain derp — to whip people up into fears that a big terror attack was just foiled when in fact that’s not even remotely the case. There’s no such thing as perfect safety. But these operations play a key role in complicating, disrupting or simply preventing terror attacks.

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