- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2015

As the Boston Marathon bombing trial wound to a close Monday, a parallel debate continues to rage inside federal law enforcement circles about whether the United States has the capability and resources to track down “lone wolves” like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who admitted helping his elder brother detonate two pressure cooker bombs amid a crowd of thousands.

The challenge of stopping a growing number of homegrown wannabe terrorists being courted by a romantic illusion of an Islamic State has been highlighted in recent weeks by FBI Director James B. Comey and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who was quoted in a broadcast Sunday night as saying it is “one of the things that, frankly, keeps me up at night.”

Federal authorities have disrupted several recent suspected plots involving Americans, but the group that represents federal law enforcement agencies says its members don’t have enough staffing and adequate equipment to keep up with the quickening pace of the threat.

Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, told The Washington Times he is concerned that lawmakers are spending too much money on “footprints thousands of miles away” instead of defense in the homeland.

“There’s a fatal inverse relationship between the spending on foreign aid versus the spending on our homeland defenses and, in fact, the priority should be funding our homeland defenses and the law enforcement components here on our soil first,” Mr. Adler said.

The federal law enforcement community is getting hit in the personnel budget, Mr. Adler said.

Staffing levels for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division are on the level they were in the 1970s, he said. In addition, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has had to shutter the doors of dozens of its satellite offices in recent years and is experiencing other money problems.

In order to better cover the U.S., each federal law enforcement agency would need a 15 percent to 25 percent boost in its operating budget, Mr. Adler said.

Other law enforcement sources have raised similar concerns. An FBI whistleblower recently came forward to say staffing decisions for the secret surveillance teams that the bureau uses to track potential terrorists were being made for political reasons unrelated to merit, creating worries of shortages to deal with emerging threats.

While the debate rages among policymakers, the Boston trial provided a public case study of how a quiet student converted to pursue a deadly plot.

Mr. Tsarnaev “wanted to punish America,” a prosecutor told the jury in closing arguments Monday. His attorneys said Mr. Tsarnaev did indeed carry out the attacks but was under the influence of his brother, Tamerlan, who the attorneys said orchestrated the plot and built the bombs. Tamerlan was killed while trying to flee from police.

If found guilty of federal terrorism charges, the 21-year-old Dzhokhar will be imprisoned for life or executed.

The Tsarnaev brothers targeted the marathon because it was a day when the international spotlight would be shining on Boston, Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke Chakravarty said in closing arguments.

“The defendant thought that his values were more important than the people around him,” said Mr. Chakravarty. “He wanted to awake the mujahedeen, the holy warriors. He wanted to terrorize this country. He wanted to punish America for what it was doing to his people.”

Prosecutors described Mr. Tsarnaev’s acts as deliberate retaliation for Muslim deaths in the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as an act of jihad. Although authorities say there is no evidence the brothers, of Chechen origin, were affiliated with an organized terrorist group overseas, they both became radicalized by online propaganda.

Mr. Tsarnaev had radical jihadi materials on every device he owned and had been listening to jihadi messages for over a year before the attacks, U.S. prosecutor William Weinreb said Monday.

The use of the Internet to spread such jihadi messages has local and federal law enforcement worried because it is hard to predict which potential lone-wolf actors may become radicalized and when.

“The one common characteristic they have — which is unfortunately not a great marker for finding them — is they are people who are troubled souls seeking meaning in life,” FBI Director James B. Comey said in a March 25 hearing.

“But there’s not a poverty marker. Some of them have jobs. They just have a misguided sense that they need to participate in the apocalyptic battle. Some of them are kind of losers who had a couple of jobs or petty crimes,” he said.

Mr. Johnson, the Homeland Security chief, echoed those concerns when questioned on CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday night about the ability of federal law enforcement to track young adults being radicalized in the comfort of their homes via terrorist group websites.

Relying on members of the public to come forward about warning signs complicates the picture, he said.

“That’s the challenge, isn’t it?” Mr. Johnson said. “And that’s one of the things that, frankly, keeps me up at night. Because we would have little or no notice if somebody decides to commit an act of violence. So if the family member, the religious leader, the teacher trusts us enough to inform us, we’re in a position to make a difference.”

Within the past few weeks, federal authorities have made several arrests.

Federal law enforcement on March 26 thwarted a plot to kill soldiers at an Illinois military facility by an Army National Guard specialist and his cousin. On Thursday, authorities charged two Queens, New York, women — ages 28 and 21 — with planning to attack military, government or police targets on behalf of the Islamic State. On Friday, authorities charged a 30-year-old Philadelphia woman with similar crimes.

The FBI has expanded its counterterrorism efforts to track down these types of people to all 50 states, Mr. Comey said. To date, agents have not identified a pattern that links the lone wolves as potential terrorist threats, he said.

Trying to stop the lone wolf — even with additional law enforcement spending — may be fruitless, said Dan Byman, director of research and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“The lone wolf — the true lone wolf — is by definition inherently difficult because you are trying to identify someone who does not have a track record and does not have associations,” he said. “And those associations are usually how someone finds out about a threat.”

Agents became wary of a potential uptick in lone-wolf attacks in January after the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS, released a video on social network sites encouraging lone-wolf attacks in Western countries, said Michael Steinbach, assistant director of the FBI Counterterrorism Division.

The video suggested that lone wolves should launch attacks on soldiers, law enforcement officers and members of the intelligence community.

In the weeks after the “call to arms” video, several incidents have occurred in the U.S. and Europe, indicating that the social media message has resonated among Islamic State supporters and sympathizers, Mr. Steinbach told Congress in February.

“The FBI remains concerned the recent calls by ISIL and its supporters on violent extremist Web forums and the recent events in Europe could continue to motivate homegrown extremists to conduct attacks in the homeland,” he said. “Online supporters of ISIL have used various social media platforms to call for retaliation against the U.S. in the homeland.

“In one case, an Ohio-based man was arrested in January after he obtained a weapon and stated his intent to conduct an attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Using a Twitter account, the individual posted statements, videos and other content indicating support for ISIL, and he planned his attack based on this voiced support,” Mr. Steinbach said.

• Maggie Ybarra can be reached at mybarra@washingtontimes.com.

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