The Blog

Missing Details On Suspected Terrorists

11:32 AM, Sep 22, 2009 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

There are at least three aspects of the ongoing investigation into suspected al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in Colorado and New York that are especially troubling.

First, Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan immigrant at the heart of the case, has reportedly admitted that he was trained in an al Qaeda training camp in Northern Pakistan as recently as last year. This is especially important because even though some counterterrorism analysts believe that the Internet alone is sufficient for conspirators to get together to execute a terrorist attack, it is clear that Northern Pakistan has been the hub for the most serious terrorist plots in recent years.

Just ask British authorities. Al Qaeda's July 7, 2005, bombings in London, a follow-on plot scheduled for later that same month, as well as the summer 2006 plot against as many as ten airliners can all be traced back to northern Pakistan. While most of the terrorists involved had been "westernized" to a large extent, they still needed to connect with their al Qaeda brethren to make their plots go. This was apparently true of Zazi as well. He certainly has transplanted roots on American soil, but in order to acquire vital bomb-making skills and other operational tradecraft he found it necessary to travel to Northern Pakistan.

Second, it is clear that law enforcement authorities still don't know much about the putative plot(s) Zazi was involved in, even though they are convinced it was major. Three men have been taken into custody, but federal authorities have told the press that perhaps as many as a dozen suspects were involved. The LA Times relays this troubling revelation:

"Authorities said that they did not know the exact number of potential suspects or many of their identities, but that they had been connected through electronic intercepts, surveillance, seized evidence and interviews."

Now, the FBI and other law enforcement officials have a significant amount of pocket litter, computer hardware, and surveillance reports in their possession. But they are still not sure who Zazi was working with or how various personalities related to each other. This reveals a key aspect of intelligence collection and analysis. Oftentimes, hard evidence is incredibly important, but it can be difficult for authorities to piece together how the various names and telephone numbers that are discovered relate to one another. This is why getting detainees to provide information is crucially important.When Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) was captured, for example, U.S. authorities also recovered hard drives from his residence. Those hard drives included thousands of names. Without some guidance from KSM and other al Qaeda detainees, it would have been next to impossible to put many of these names into an understandable context.

If the LA Times report and other press accounts are accurate (and I have no reason to doubt that they are), then Zazi has clearly not given up crucial details about what he was doing. Not only are authorities not clear on who he was working with, but they are also not certain what targets he and his alleged co-conspirators planned to strike. Surveillance pictures and video of various landmarks (including stadiums) and public transit nodes (Grand Central Station) were reportedly found in Zazi's possession. But it is not perfectly clear where he planned to strike.

Various television broadcasts here in the New York area have noted that authorities are also looking for an explosives mill. Investigators reportedly believe that Zazi and others had already gotten their bomb-making operation off the ground. If this is true, and the bomb-making facility exists somewhere, then Zazi has not told authorities where it is located.

Third, there are reports that authorities don't know more about Zazi's alleged co-conspirators and intended target(s) because the NYPD moved too quickly in pursuing its own investigation into the matter after being tipped off by the FBI. The NYPD allegedly contacted a would-be informant, who in turn warned Zazi. I don't know if this is true or not, but taken together with the second point above it means that authorities are missing crucial details about Zazi's plotting.