Saturday, November 06, 2010

Terrorism: Terror plot foiled - inside the Hosam Smadi case

Source: FBI

Hosam Smadi will be spending the next 24 years in prison for trying to blow up a Dallas skyscraper in 2009. His recent sentencing brings to a close a successful FBI operation—one that potentially saved many lives—and it also illustrates the threat posed by lone offenders.

Smadi, at the time a 19-year-old Jordanian citizen living in Texas, came to our attention in January 2009 through his pro-violence writing on a radical Islamic website.

“He was on a very extreme website, where people were saying a lot of unspeakable things, endorsing and celebrating acts of violence against U.S. citizens and our allies,” said Special Agent Tom Petrowski, who oversaw the investigation out of our Dallas office.

“What made Smadi’s postings stand out from the other rhetoric was that he was saying, ‘I want to act.’ That’s what really got our attention,” Petrowski added. “Smadi wanted to imitate 9/11 and bring down a skyscraper and kill thousands of people. And he was already in the country. He said he just needed the tools—essentially he was online asking for someone to help him build a bomb.”

Although he espoused loyalty to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, Smadi was not affiliated with any group or other would-be terrorists. With the help of the Internet, he had become radicalized on his own.

Smadi entered the U.S. legally but overstayed his visa. “Based on that expired visa, law enforcement could have immediately arrested and deported him,” Petrowski said, “and that would have been the easiest thing to do.”

But it would not have been the right thing to do—because after conferring with the experts in our Behavioral Analysis Unit, it became clear that Smadi was not making empty threats. He wanted to mount an attack. During the undercover operation, Petrowski noted, Smadi said if he were to be deported, he would go to Pakistan or elsewhere overseas to seek out terrorist training.

The Bureau decided to use undercover agents to set up a sting. Three FBI agents—all Arabic speakers—began to talk with Smadi, first online and later in person. “He believed he had found an al Qaeda sleeper cell in the U.S. and that he was now planning the next 9/11 attack,” Petrowski said.

What followed was 10 months of around-the-clock surveillance, until the moment Smadi was arrested—after dialing a cell phone number he believed would detonate a truck bomb. But the bomb—which was made to Smadi’s specifications—was a fake, supplied by our undercover agents.

“This case involved a lot of work by many people throughout the FBI and our partner agencies,” Petrowski said. In addition to the undercover agents, surveillance teams, and behavioral analysts, contributions were made by our bomb experts, the multi-agency Joint Terrorism Task Force, attorneys in the U.S. Department of Justice, and other members of our Counterterrorism Division in Washington, D.C.

The Smadi case ended successfully, with no injuries or loss of life. But the threat from lone offenders continues—and requires constant vigilance.

“One big takeaway from this case,” Petrowski said, “is the question of how many other potential violent extremists are out there, being exposed to terrorist ideologies online and contemplating an attack.”