In the wee hours of July 4, FBI counterterrorism agents in the Boston area scrambled to thwart the last of a string of Islamic State terror plots they feared could be conducted during the patriotic holiday or soon after.
Just weeks earlier, an agent and Boston officers had shot and killed an ISIS sympathizer on the same streets, right before he boarded a bus armed with a military-style knife and plans to attack cops and behead a woman.
Now, an undercover operative set up a weapons buy on the streets with a young Massachusetts man, the son of a respected cop but now someone who had been radicalized by the Islamic State. Agents believed he was plotting to shoot or blow up students at an out-of-state campus with bombs laced with Styrofoam, which sticks to skin and worsens the burns.
The buy went down, the young man was arrested and a search of his apartment quickly confirmed agents’ fears.
The harrowing ending to the two Boston cases this summer seemed ripped from a Hollywood movie script — except the threats were real and the consequences of stumbling could have been lethal.
With another round of holidays fast approaching in the shadows of last Friday’s Paris attacks, FBI officials on the front lines of the war on terrorism see a new round of threats rising and worry they don’t have all the tools to cope, according to interviews with The Washington Times.
Officials familiar with the bureau’s preparations, speaking only on condition of anonymity, said Director James Comey has put a brave public face on the bureau’s fight against ISIS that masks significant tensions behind the scenes with the Obama administration.
Bureau officials are deeply worried they don’t have enough resources to track a growing number of radicalized Americans inspired by the Islamic State, with more possibly entering as President Obama opens the borders to thousands of Syrian refugees.
Those fears are also shared in Congress, where support is building for a measure by House Speaker Paul Ryan to temporarily halt any new refugees from entering the country.
Rep. Blake Farenthold, Texas Republican and a member of both of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform Committees, told a Washington Times radio show Tuesday that the U.S. government does not have the resources to screen a new wave of Syrian refugees for terror ties as the administration has promised.
“They’re basically lying to you saying, ‘oh we’ve got this vetting process to make sure that they’re safe.’ But you had the FBI director testify before Congress, under oath saying that if they have no information on someone they have nothing to vet them against,” Mr. Farenthold said on the “Capitol Hill Show” with Tim Constantine.
“We have testimony saying, and I think common sense also dictates that in a failed state like Syria you don’t have any government information, police reports to rely on to vet somebody,” the congressman added. “So there’s no way to do a background check from somebody coming out of Syria. There’s no way we can find out whether they’re safe or not.”
Likewise, the bureau is frustrated that the White House and Justice Department have not pressured Congress to act more quickly to force technology companies to help break the encrypted communications of suspects, fearing political appointees have been too deferential to a politically connected, well-monied industry.
“We have suspects we’ve been tracking that have gone dark, because we can no longer follow their encrypted activities. Physical surveillance can only take us so far and the urgency to solve that gap in the political realm isn’t there,” one official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
Added another official: “The administration has a calming public storyline that we have this all under control and life can go on as normal. But we’re one crack in the sidewalk away from a tragedy, and that crack could be an encrypted message we can’t follow, a lead we couldn’t resource or a refugee who slips in like we saw in Paris.”
FBI officials have seen a spike in Islamic State supporters in the U.S. switching to mobile and gaming apps with deep encryption to carry out their communications, suddenly cutting off the FBI’s ability to monitor them.
One official told the Times the U.S. has credible evidence that the Paris attackers used a PlayStation 4 to plan the attacks and talk with plotters through encrypted means.
“These apps and games have encryption we currently can’t penetrate,” the official said. “A legislative solution isn’t even possible with the time we have left with the potential threats in the U.S. for these holidays.”
A senior FBI official in headquarters, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that agents on the front lines have frustrations with the speed of a policy or legislative solution, but that officials in headquarters were working hard to strike a short-term deal with technology companies to improve the FBI’s access in terror cases.
“We continue to have productive conversations with communications providers, based on a shared belief of safety and security on the internet, the benefits of strong encryption, and the need for reasonable access pursuant to court orders,” the official said.
Adding to the concern is that the activity among Islamic State recruits in the U.S. has slowed since July when the FBI announced it had disrupted multiple plots and arrested at least 10 U.S.-based sympathizers.
“While it has reduced the load a bit this fall, there are some in the intelligence community who fear it may be a sign that the sleeper cells are already here or that the arrests and publicity this summer tipped off ISIL to change its tactics and communication patterns,” one counterterrorism official said.
Mr. Comey, who conducted a classified briefing Tuesday evening with House members, has been candid in his open testimonies with Congress about the concerns with encryption and the lack of resources for vetting a wave of new refugees.
But at the same time, he has also been diplomatic.
A few days before the disrupted plots were announced, the FBI director pressed Congress but also made clear he appreciated the privacy benefits of encryption software and wasn’t picking a fight with the technology companies.
“I am not here to fight a war,” he told senators.
Unfortunately, the Islamic State is fighting a war and put a new bull’s eye on Washington D.C. and other American cities this week with a videotaped threat after the Paris attacks.
CIA Director John Brennan on Monday acknowledged that more attacks and plots are likely already in the “pipeline.” And Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, unequivocally disputed Mr. Obama’s claims this week that the Islamic State is “contained” and said she had “never been more concerned.”
FBI officials see a high terror threat over the next seven weeks through the New Year’s holiday, fearing such attacks could have been plotted months ago in Syria to be carried out by Islamic State trained fighters using small arms, suicide bombers, grenades and other conventional means on soft targets like sporting events, hotel parties, restaurants or entertainment venues.
The FBI also has growing evidence that the Islamic State has advanced its bomb making skills in places like Brussels — the staging location for the Paris attacks — and disseminated that lethal knowledge to sleeper cells or home-grown terrorists radicalized across the Internet.
“The attackers could look and act just like everyday Americans until they strike with weapons we haven’t seen in terror attacks here,” one official said, summarizing current threat assessments.
The Boston case thwarted on the Fourth of July offered that perfect storm: an unlikely suspect who used the Internet to become radicalized, advance his plot and learn about explosives.
Alexander Ciccolo, a recent convert to Islam who took the name Ali Al-Amriki, is the son of a respected Boston police captain who tipped off the bureau to his son’s ill intentions. He was arrested on the street after, according to authorities, trying to buy semiautomatic weapons from an FBI undercover operative on the morning of Independence Day.
A raid of his apartment turned up a pressure cooker, explosives and other materials confirming the FBI’s suspicions he was plotting an attack that he planned to broadcast live on the Internet, according to court records.
In his confession to the FBI, the younger Mr. Ciccolo detailed his hatred for non-Muslim Americans and the violence he was indoctrinated by the Islamic State to carry out via the Internet, according to court records.
His Facebook account under his alias divulged both his allegiance and his intent: “Thank you Islamic State. Now we won’t have to deal with these kafir (non-Muslims) back in America,” the young man wrote in one post in fall 2014 showing a dead American soldier.
He has trained in the woods for an attack with a machete, the account shows.
By June, authorities claim, Mr. Ciccolo had graduated to meeting with an undercover informant and describing his plans to attack two bars and a police station with pressure cooker bombs. He later changed those plans to carrying out a more massive strike on a state university campus in which students were to be executed by guns and explosives while the attacks were being broadcast live across the internet, according to an FBI agent’s affidavit.
The FBI kept Mr. Ciccolo under constant surveillance as he developed his plot, buying a pressure cooker, arranging to buy an arsenal of weapons and carefully constructing “firebombs” to cause the maximum pain to the students, the FBI affidavit says.
Those bombs found “contained what appeared to be shredded Styrofoam soaked in motor oil which CICCOLO told CW-1 (undercover operative) would cause the fire from the exploded devices to stick to people’s skin and make it harder to put the fire out,” the FBI affidavit said.
Mr. Ciccolo’s violent intentions didn’t stop with his arrest, according to court documents that state he stabbed a nurse in the head with a pen after his detention.
He is being held without bail after pleading not guilty to a weapons charge related to the transaction with the undercover operative and an assault charge related to the attack on the nurse. His lawyer has said he is uncertain whether terrorism charges will be added at a later date.
Most Americans went to firework celebrations and picnics on July 4 never knowing of the threat, or the other nine radicalized suspects rounded up in the days before the Independence Day festivities in connection with other terror plots.