The six men arrested on charges of plotting a terrorist action against the Fort Dix Army base in New Jersey may turn out to have been the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, a bunch of wannabes who might never have gotten their destructive act together.
Even if that’s the case, however, it might well be better to have them in custody than on the outside still making disjointed plans. Even disjointed plans can be destructive.
It is instructive to note that, assuming FBI special agent J.P. Weiss of the Philadelphia office was correct when he said, “Today we dodged a bullet,” this cell was broken by a tip from a citizen some 16 months ago followed by old-fashioned gumshoe police work.
As Tim Lynch, who follows civil liberties and criminal-justice issues at the libertarian Cato Institute said, the special new powers granted to the federal government under the Patriot Act did not come into play, nor did widespread telephone surveillance of U.S. residents turn up this nasty little group of would-be terrorists.
Instead, a clerk at a Circuit City store, still unidentified, noticed that a request to transfer videotaped material to a DVD featured people on the tape shouting about jihad as they fired weapons while at a shooting range.
He alerted authorities, and the government began a surveillance operation that included infiltration of the group by two informers who recorded apparently incriminating conversations and plans.
The six men — described as Muslim but not regular attendees at any local mosque — had apparently been inspired by jihadist Web sites to want to inflict damage on the United States, especially on the military, and had assembled some weapons.
This kind of home-grown terrorist cell — consisting of people who may be “inspired” by al-Qaida or other international terrorist operations but not directly in contact with foreign terrorist groups — is a recurring nightmare for law enforcement and for ordinary Americans.
So far most of those who have been arrested or stopped by law enforcement since 9/11 appear to be more bumblers than skilled and organized terrorists. But even bumblers with weapons and a willingness to die can do significant damage.
“When people say, ‘If you don’t like the Patriot Act, how would you deal with would-be terrorists?’” Lynch said, “this kind of operation springs to mind. The authorities listened to concerns from a citizen, assessed the situation, took action to determine just how real the potential threat was, and stepped in before the would-be jihadists could act.”
We can be grateful that some citizens are alert and some authorities take their concerns seriously.