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Federal officials say help from American public and informants is necessary to quell domestic terrorism

LA Times | May 13, 2007 

WASHINGTON - Even as the FBI hails as a major success story its breakup of an alleged plot by "radical Islamists" to kill soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J., federal authorities acknowledge the case has underscored a troubling vulnerability in the domestic war on terror.

They say the FBI, despite an unprecedented expansion during the past 5 1/2 years, cannot possibly counter the growing threat posed by homegrown extremists without the help of two often unreliable allies.

One is an American public that authorities lament is prone to averting its attention from suspicious behavior and often reluctant to get involved. The other is a small but growing army of informants, some of whom might be in it for the wrong reasons - such as money, political ax-grinding or their own legal problems.

Such dependence on amateurs is "not something that we would like. It's something that we absolutely need," said Special Agent J.P. Weis, who heads the task force that conducted the Fort Dix investigation.

Weis and other FBI and Justice Department officials acknowledged they probably never would have known about the alleged plot had it not been for a Circuit City employee who reported a suspicious video.

And, they said, an FBI informant was instrumental in gathering evidence by infiltrating the suspects' circle for 16 months as they allegedly bought and trained with automatic weapons and discussed their plans.

Militants who associated with known al-Qaida figures or who spent time in training camps have for the most part been identified and arrested or deported, senior FBI and Justice Department officials said.

The primary threat now comes from an unknown number of individuals with no criminal backgrounds and few, if any, ties to militants overseas. Operating locally, these groups and individuals can evade security nets such as international wiretaps and travel surveillance.

Weis described them as "lone wolves, cells that stay below the radar screen." "Nobody really knows about them. They're not affiliated with any major group, but held together by a common ideology," he said.

In recent years, authorities have arrested about 60 individuals from the much larger pool of angry and disaffected people, charging them with terrorism, said FBI officials and others. Dozens of other suspects have been deported or are being kept under surveillance.

Many of these suspects do not fit any easily identifiable profile, which also was true of some of the men arrested last week in the Fort Dix case.

Bureau officials conceded that they are disappointed that more people don't come forward with tips, despite their pleas for assistance.

"A lot of times, people think that someone else will report it," Weis said. "But now, with the changing times, you can't take that chance."

The bureau also has spent millions of dollars cultivating paid informants, particularly in Muslim communities.

On many occasions, as was the case last week, the FBI has benefited from evidence collected by those informants. But in some cases, the bureau has been accused of not vetting its sources or of allowing them to pressure some suspects into committing illegal acts.

In one case, the FBI paid an informant $230,000 to infiltrate a suspected Pakistani terror cell in Lodi, Calif. The agency found many of his claims did not hold up - but only after people were prosecuted.

In the Fort Dix case, FBI officials used two confidential informants, one a former Egyptian military officer. The FBI affidavit filed in the case shows that the man was intimately involved in the alleged plot, from talking about hatred of the United States to trying to procure weapons for the suspects. He even went on surveillance missions and at one point had grown so trusted that one suspect asked him to lead the alleged plot.

Rocco Cipparone, the lawyer for one of the defendants, said informants can be the most valuable weapon in the fight against domestic terrorism.

"But it also comes with a lot of risks, a lot of pitfalls," he said. "... Informants can be crafty, they can be creative, and informants can dupe law enforcement officers as well.""

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