FBI copes with the changing face of terror

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by DAVID SCHECHTER

Bio | Email | Follow: @davidschechter

WFAA

Posted on September 11, 2011 at 10:30 PM

Updated Sunday, Sep 11 at 10:42 PM

DALLAS — If you want to know what the war on terror looks like today, it looks a lot like a black pickup truck loaded down with fake explosives.

In 2009, undercover FBI agents, posing as a terrorist sleeper cell, supplied the fake bomb to 20-year-old Jordanian national Hosam Smadi.

"He left this truck there believing it would lead directly to the deaths of thousands of Americans — and we stopped that from happening, so it has tremendous significance for us," said Bob Casey, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's Dallas field office.

Smadi is now serving a 24-year prison sentence for attempting to blow up the Fountain Place building in downtown Dallas.

Though the FBI supplied what Smadi thought was a means for mass destruction, he supplied the will, and that now represents the kind of threat the nation faces now: A terrorist acting alone, but influenced — on the Internet — by global terror organizations.

So, with these kinds of high-profile arrests — and the absence of a major domestic attack since September 11, 2001 — is Casey sleeping better at night when he thinks about the nation's progress in the war on terror?

"No; no," Casey said. "I don't feel comfortable any day. This is a fight every day. It's going to be a fight for a long time. And the FBI's first priority — among all work, all efforts — is preventing a terrorist attack in the United States or against U.S. interests overseas."

Experts say the tightening of airport security has greatly reduced the possibility of grand, 9/11-style attack. The greatest threats now, they say, are lone wolves, like Hosam Smadi.

Or Mumbai-style attacks in which a group of gunmen take over a public place, execute civilians, and draw out the drama on TV.

"There's a lot more focus now on disrupting that kind of attack," said Sebastian Rotella, a senior reporter with ProPublica. He has covered counter-terrorism for ten years, and is the author of the new book, "Triple Crossing."

He says historically, law enforcement would not engage these kind of attackers. No more.

"The new approach for police departments across the U.S. is to intervene quickly — even if it's just a lone police officer — and try to engage and disrupt that kind of attack," Rotella said. "That's the determination that's been made, to try to break it up early in the process."

The FBI's Dallas field office has changed with the changing nature of the threat. From its terrorism-funding investigation into the Holy Land Foundation in 2001 to the Smadi case and another lone-wolf arrest in Lubbock of Khalid Aldawsari. He is the 20-year-old Saudi Arabian college student arrested in February for allegedly plotting to blow up the Dallas home of President George W. Bush.

"The lone individual who is isolated — where you call him a 'lone wolf,' 'lone offender,' 'homegrown violent extremist' — it much more difficult to detect, more difficult to predict when they might move from ideology and sympathy to an act of terrorism," Casey said.

Finding them and stopping them, says the FBI, will remain the challenge for years to come.

E-mail dschechter@wfaa.com

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