By Josh Meyer
The Los Angeles Times
Read the NYPD report (PDF)
CHICAGO — In December, when a young Muslim convert named Derrick Shareef was arrested near here for allegedly plotting to blow up holiday shoppers with hand grenades, he was described as one of those homegrown "lone wolf" terrorists that the FBI had been warning about for more than a decade.
But federal law enforcement officials have changed their minds about Shareef — and about what kinds of bred-in-America Islamic militants represent the greatest threat to the United States.
Shareef, they have concluded, was not a loner who came out of nowhere bent on a single act of violence. Instead, U.S. authorities now allege, he was plotting with another American Muslim convert who they say had ties to terrorists in the United Kingdom. The two were discussing a variety of targets and tactics, including sniper attacks on U.S. troops and assaults on military recruiting stations, a federal prosecutor said in a July 28 court hearing.
And, law enforcement officials now say, it is small groups like this — rather than disaffected individuals acting alone — that constitute the most dangerous form of homegrown terrorism. They can plan multiple attacks, use varied weapons and tactics, and draw on a wider range of resources. More important, members largely operate under the radar and can goad and encourage each other, increasing the likelihood of talk turning into action.
Today, the New York Police Department released a report citing at least 10 well-known recent plots that were developed either completely or in large part by such homegrown militants with little or no support from Al Qaeda.
Current and former U.S. and European counter-terrorism officials note that homegrown teams, not individuals, were blamed for the deadly London bus and subway bombings of 2005, as well as the aborted plot to detonate multiple car bombs there and in Scotland last spring.
The new view of Shareef also corresponds in significant ways with alleged plots that targeted the Ft. Dix Army base in New Jersey and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York last spring, and in Tower Sears Chicago's Sears Tower in June 2006.
Investigators even have a name for these groups. They call them BOGs, for "bunch of guys," or GOGs, for "group of guys."
At a counter-terrorism summit in May in Florence, Italy, security officials Armando Spataro of Italy and Baltazar Garzon of Spain said they were seeing a sharp increase in such groups in their countries, fueled by the Iraq war and a recent barrage of Internet-based Al Qaeda videos.
"It's an international phenomenon," according to one U.S. intelligence official, who said authorities were monitoring such cells in the United States, Europe, Canada, the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere.
The danger — and the problem in identifying these groups — is magnified by the fact that they usually lack any connection to Al Qaeda or other trans-national terrorist groups beyond occasional contact or downloading propaganda from the Internet.
"If we don't bump into them directly or have someone involved in some form of interaction with them, we'll have a difficult time finding them," said Arthur M. Cummings II, the FBI's deputy assistant director for counter-terrorism.
And while larger groups offer more opportunities for penetration by law enforcement agents, these ones seldom have the kind of structure, hierarchy or charismatic leader that authorities have locked onto in the past.
They form so spontaneously and "self-radicalize" so quickly that the first sign of their existence might be an attack, Samuel J. Rascoff of the New York Police Department told participants at the Florence conference, which was sponsored by New York University's Center on Law and Security.
Rascoff, director of intelligence analysis for the NYPD, said that BOGs could "serve as an echo chamber," amplifying the influence of the most radical members.
Individually, "they don't have the courage to do it, but collectively they do," said Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer and psychiatrist who is credited with articulating the "bunch of guys" concept. Sageman consults law enforcement agencies worldwide on how to identify the groups.
Some defense lawyers and other critics say the threat is overblown, and arises mostly from law enforcement informants who have entrapped or even pushed small-time troublemakers into actions that gave form to violent talk that would otherwise have gone nowhere.
"There are very many cases in which the informants are the ones creating the terrorist plots," said Rocco Cipparone Jr., a lawyer for one of the so-called Ft. Dix Six.
Some of the alleged plotters, such as those in the Sears Tower and JFK cases — and even the 23-year-old Shareef — have been portrayed as bumblers.
The FBI's Cummings says, "It could be a fatal mistake to minimize the danger that guys like that pose. It takes very little in the way of skill to go out and murder somebody."
More than seven years ago Canadian authorities were watching a small group of Algerian men who seemed angry but so incapable of inflicting real harm that investigators dubbed them just a "bunch of guys."
Canadian authorities realized they had underestimated the group when one of its members, Ahmed Ressam, was caught with a car trunk full of explosives that he intended to detonate at Los Angeles International Airport on the eve of the 2000 millennium.
"The Canadians made a mistake. They didn't know what was happening right in front of them. These guys were radicalizing themselves," according to Sageman, author of the upcoming book "Leaderless Jihad."
In the United States, authorities began taking the threat presented by small homegrown groups seriously in 2005. In August of that year, Kevin James and three other men were indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to attack Los Angeles-area military facilities and synagogues and of attempting to fund their campaign by robbing gas stations.
Shareef's case is similar to many of the others in that one of the alleged "bunch of guys" he confided in was an FBI informant.
A bureau affidavit says that Shareef, a former video store clerk, became acquainted in September with the informant in the northern Illinois city of Rockford.
The informant, who has not been publicly identified, began taping their conversations, which make it clear that both men were encouraging each other to advance the plot.
Shareef, from the small town of Genoa between Rockford and Chicago, said he was interested in killing Jews, attacking a government building or killing a judge, according to an FBI affidavit.
Ultimately, Shareef and the man he believed to be his partner settled on a plan to detonate hand grenades in garbage cans at the CherryVale Mall about 90 miles northwest of Chicago on the Friday before Christmas.
"I am from America, and this tape is to let you guys know, who disbelieve in Allah, to let the enemies of Islam know, and to let the Muslims alike know, that the time for jihad is now," Shareef said in a martyrdom video, according to the affidavit.
The informant arranged for Shareef to trade two stereo speakers for four grenades and a semiautomatic handgun from an undercover law enforcement officer.
The FBI arrested him in a parking lot Dec. 6 after the deal was made, the affidavit says.
Shareef has pleaded not guilty to terrorism-related charges. His family and work associates have said that they had no reason to believe he was engaged in terrorist activity. His lawyer, Michael B. Mann, had no comment.
Recently, federal authorities asserted that Shareef was also engaged in a conspiracy with a former U.S. sailor named Hassan Abujihaad. In 2000 and 2001, Abujihaad, whose real name is Paul R. Hall, allegedly exchanged e-mails with suspected terrorist leader Babar Ahmad in London, and has been charged with providing Ahmad's website with information about battleship movements.
After Abujihaad left the military, he and Shareef became friends and roommates in Phoenix. And between 2003 and 2006, the two discussed killing U.S. troops by sniper fire and attacking U.S. military recruiting installations, Assistant U.S. Atty. Stephen B. Reynolds said in a July 28 court hearing in Abujihaad's case.
Abujihaad's lawyer, Daniel LaBelle, said he was waiting for prosecutors to present details of their claims. He said the case in which Abujihaad had been charged was weak.
Shareef also introduced Abujihaad to the undercover informant, authorities say.
Two days after Shareef's arrest, Abujihaad allegedly negotiated to buy two AR-15 assault rifles from the informant.
Later that day, the informant told Abujihaad about Shareef's arrest and said, "He was acting like you and him were tight like brothers," the affidavit said.
"We are tight like that," Abujihaad allegedly responded.
Copyright 2007 The Los Angeles Times
NYPD warns of homegrown terrorists in new report