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Posted 11/4/18


With gun control a no-go, early intervention is key. Might artificial intelligence help?


     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. “We’re under fire! We’re under fire! He’s got an automatic weapon and firing at us from the synagogue. Every unit in the city needs to get here now!” Broadcast by one of the first officers at Pittsburgh’s “Tree of Life” synagogue, the stunning message graphically conveys the unimaginably lethal threat that just one of America’s well-armed citizens gone wrong can pose to the public and the police.

     On Saturday morning, October 27, Robert Bowers, a 46-year old loner, armed himself with an AR-15 rifle and three Glock .357 pistols and burst into the Tree of Life, gunning down eleven congregants and wounding two. He then opened fire on arriving patrol officers and wounded two who approached on foot. Two SWAT team members would eventually encounter Bowers on the third floor; during an exchange of gunfire both sustained multiple gunshot wounds. According to the police chief, that officer might have bled to death had a colleague not applied a tourniquet. Bowers was also wounded, although not as seriously. While being cared for he reportedly said “that he wanted all Jews to die and also that they (Jews) were committing genocide to his people.”

     Apparently, those whom Bowers claimed as “his people” are white supremacists. This “isolated, awkward man who lived alone and struggled with basic human interactions” secretly wallowed in a vicious subculture, frequently posting flagrantly bigoted comments disparaging Jews on “Gab,” a social media site popular with extremists:

    The vast majority of [Bowers’] posts are anti-Semitic in nature, using language like “Jews are the children of satan,” “kike infestation,” “filthy EVIL jews” and “Stop the Kikes then worry about the Muslims.” Other posts repeat standard white supremacist slogans, such as “Diversity means chasing down the last white person.”

     Bowers, who has a concealed-carry license, waxed enthusiastically about guns and posted photos of his Glocks. Police found three more handguns and two rifles in his residence and a shotgun in his vehicle. To law enforcement, though, the sometime truck driver was a cipher. “At this point,” said the local FBI head, “we have no knowledge that Bowers was known to law enforcement before today.”

     Cesar Sayoc is different. Before his arrest on October 26 for mailing more than a dozen explosives-laden packages, the 56-year old bodybuilder/male stripper accumulated a criminal record that included a conviction for grand theft as well as arrests for theft, battery, fraud, drugs and, in 2002, threatening to settle a dispute with a bomb, a transgression that ultimately earned him a year’s probation.

     As one might suspect, Sayoc’s personal life was a mess. Estranged from his birth family, divorced and bankrupt, he was living in a beat-up van festooned with pro-Trump messages. Sayoc promoted far-right conspiracy theories and lambasted liberals on social media. In contrast to Bowers, though, Sayoc posted on major platforms: Facebook and Twitter. His rants had recently turned downright scary:

    He directed a tweet at Ms. Waters, the California Democrat, with a photo of what appeared to be her house. The message read: “see you soon.” He sent another to Eric H. Holder Jr., an attorney general under Mr. Obama, that read, “See u soon Tick Tock.” And he told Zephyr Teachout, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in New York, that he had a surprise waiting for her. “We Unconquered Seminole Tribe have a special Air boat tour lined up for you here in our Swamp Everglades,” he wrote. “See u real soon. Hug your loved ones.”

     Complaints to Twitter went unheeded. (It has since apologized.) After Sayoc’s arrest family members and their lawyer came forward. Among other things, they bemoaned the absence of a “safety net” that might have kept their kin from plunging into the abyss.

     Compared with Bowers and Sayoc, Scott Beierle, the deranged middle-aged Florida man who killed two and wounded five in a Tallahassee yoga studio on November 2, was really, really different. We say “was” because Beierle ended things by committing suicide. We emphasize “really” because he was not your archetypal terrorist. Beierle’s complaint wasn’t about politics or religion: it was that women refused to pay him attention, at least of the erotic kind. So he fought back with a series of YouTube videos that championed the “Incel” (involuntary celibacy) movement and praised its late spiritual master, the murderous Elliot Rodger, who in 2014 killed six and injured more than a dozen before committing suicide.

     Beierle didn’t simply convey beliefs – he personalized his messages, disparaging and threatening women by name (e.g., “could have ripped her head off.”). Neither was his deviant behavior just online. University and local police had twice arrested Beierle for grabbing women from behind, but charges were eventually dismissed. His odd behavior was noticed by others. A former college roomate said that Beierle seemed mentally unstable but not to the point of involving the authorities:

    He was very weird and made everyone uncomfortable. It worried me at the time. There was concern for sure. But there wasn’t enough evidence, and I would have been wasting the police’s time if I had made any kind of report. I had nothing.

     What could have been done?

  • As current law goes, not much. Felons and persons who have been adjudicated as mentally defective are barred from having guns. By these standards, neither Bowers nor Beierle was prohibited. Sayoc, who had a substantial criminal record, didn’t use guns.
  • Our pages (see, for example, “Massacre Control”) have discussed various approaches to keeping America safe. One of our favorites is limiting gun lethality. Most recently in “Ban the Damned Things!” we pointed out the unparalleled killing power of assault-type rifles, whose fearsome ballistics have increasingly forced police to deploy armored cars. Even so, making highly lethal firearms available to the public seems coded into America’s DNA. No matter how many massacres take place, that’s unlikely to change.
  • President Trump suggested posting armed guards at religious services. Of course, the most likely outcome of a shootout between a stunned guard and a determined, AR-15 toting assailant is still (you guessed it) a massacre. Perhaps fewer might have been shot at the synagogue, or the yoga studio, had one or more of those present been packing guns. On the other hand, crossfire by agitated gunslingers might have likely caused even more casualties.

Click here for the complete collection of terrorism essays

     So, case closed? Not so fast. “A Stitch in Time” argued for identifying those whose “documented behavior indicates they are at great risk of harming themselves or others” and applying measures such as home visits, counseling and mental “holds” preemptively, before they strike. To be sure, that essay’s human examples – Eric Garner, Deborah Danner, Manuel Rosales – were long-term chronic disrupters, well known to local cops. Beierle might fit that mold. But picking out villains inspired by ideology such as Bowers and Sayoc may, as we suggested in “Flying Under the Radar,” prove a challenging task:

    Cast too wide a net and you’ll be overwhelmed, swamping the system, irritating honest citizens and possibly infringing on their rights as well.  Select too few and should a bomb go off you’ll be criticized for overlooking what critics will quickly point out should have been obvious from the start.

     On the “positive” side, Beierle, Bowers and Sayoc each used social media. Their posts brimmed with violence and hate. To be sure, parsing through the countless online messages generated each day might seem an overwhelming task. That’s where artificial intelligence (AI) might help. A recent NIJ report, “Using Artificial Intelligence to Address Criminal Justice Needs” discusses the use algorithms to analyze large, crime-related datasets. For example, video images can be scanned to “match faces, identify weapons and other objects, and detect complex events such as accidents and crimes in progress or after the fact.”

     AI also holds out the promise of “predicting” crime: “With AI, volumes of information on law and legal precedence, social information, and media can be used to suggest rulings, identify criminal enterprises, and predict and reveal people at risk from criminal enterprises.” To that end, a recent award (“Combating Human Trafficking Using Structural Information in Online Review Sites”) funds the development algorithms that could identify victims and traffickers, in part by analyzing user posts in sex “review” websites:

    Machine learning models will be trained using a ground truth dataset based on online reviews recovered and processed using these keywords. The resulting models will then be trained and optimized to detect and classify online reviews, according to criteria such as trafficking, adult, and child.

     Along these lines, it seems likely that algorithms could be devised to analyze social media posts and law enforcement, criminal and gun registration records and compare their contents to established “truths” derived from actual episodes of terrorism. Leads could of course be used to kick off or inform investigations, and we expect that in one form or another some of this is already being done. But our emphasis here is preventive, to use leads generated by AI or other means to expose ne’er-do-wells who have been flying under the radar so that interventions such as those mentioned in “A Stitch in Time” can be applied.

     Sounds good. But we live in a democracy. What about liberty interests? A recent article in Smithsonian warns that AI’s application to crime mapping has led critics to complain that using past patterns to devise algorithms creates the risk of “bias being baked into the software”:

    The American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU], the Brennan Center for Justice and various civil rights organizations have all raised questions about the risk of Historical data from police practices, critics contend, can create a feedback loop through which algorithms make decisions that both reflect and reinforce attitudes about which neighborhoods are “bad” and which are “good.”

     Still, no one is forced to reside – or post – in the “neighborhoods” of Gab, Facebook and Twitter. Reacting to the handiwork of Bowers, Sayoc and their many forebears (we can now add Beierle to the mix) New York Times columnist Frank Bruni complained that the web has become a “delivery system” for grotesque notions that encourage twisted minds to do the unthinkable:

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    It [the web] creates terrorists…I don’t know exactly how we square free speech and free expression — which are paramount — with a better policing of the internet, but I’m certain that we need to approach that challenge with more urgency than we have mustered so far. Democracy is at stake. So are lives. (“The Internet Will Be the Death of Us,” 10/30/18)

     What’s to be done? If we’re certain that ordinary citizens will have invariably steady minds and hands, we can encourage gun-carry. Well, good luck with that. Yet with serious gun control out of favor little else of promise remains. That’s where early intervention comes in. Here’s hoping that the lamentable deficit in “urgency” identified by Mr. Bruni gets fixed real soon so that acting before the fact gets a chance to work before the next madman strikes.

UPDATES (scroll)

12/13/23  Anthony Polito, the 67-year old professor from the South who opened fire at UNLV and killed three persons after the school turned him down for a job, was obsessed with conspiracy theories. His personal website was replete with references to groups that seek world domination. Polito took credit for being the first to pierce the Zodiac killer’s cryptography. He also blasted the Government for allegedly purposely misinforming the public about the 2014 disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines flight.

11/28/23  Jason J. Eaton, a 48-year old man who recently relocated from Syracuse, was arrested for the November 26 shooting of three Palestinian-American college students in Burlington. Eaton, who legally purchased the gun he reportedly used in the attack, pled not guilty and is being held without bail. He does not have a criminal record and was never suspected of committing a crime. But he is named in 37 Syracuse police reports dating back to 2007, including 21 as a victim or complainant. (See below update)

11/27/23  An as-yet unidentified assailant ostensibly motivated by racial hatred shot three Palestinian-American college students as they walked through downtown Burlington, Vermont Saturday evening, November 26. They were wearing traditional Arab scarves and conversing in Arabic when a “White male” armed with a handgun approached on foot and wordlessly opened fire. All three were hospitalized, one with apparent critical injuries. Two of the students are U.S. citizens; one is a legal resident. (See above update)

11/23/23  Racial animosity and, particularly, “suicidal ideation” are blamed for motivating 20-year old Benjamin Charles Jones to storm a Dayton-area Walmart and open fire on November 20, wounding four persons, one critically. Jones then shot himself dead. Jones used a .45 cal. carbine-style rifle he purchased at retail a few days earlier. That drew concern, as Fairborn police twice took him to a hospital last year because he was expressing suicidal thoughts. Whether that should have barred his gun purchase (or could have) is at question.

9/25/23  Complaints that facial recognition technology is less accurate for Black persons continue to generate lawsuits. Most recently, a Black resident of Georgia is suing after his arrest on a Louisiana warrant for using a stolen credit card to make a purchase in the New Orleans area. An image captured by a surveillance camera was matched to his Georgia driver license. Randal Quran Reid was held in a Georgia jail for several days until his lawyer convinced Louisiana authorities they had the wrong man.

8/4/23  Robert Bowers was sentenced to death for murdering eleven Jewish congregants and wounding two at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018. Bowers, who had posted vicious antisemitic diatribes on-line, burst into the synagogue with an AR-15 rifle and three handguns. He then exchanged gunfire with police, wounding five officers. Bowers was also wounded.

6/16/23  Jurors begin deliberating today, and there’s no doubt they will find Robert Bowers guilty. After all, his own lawyers concede that Bowers gunned down eleven worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018. Still, he’s been charged with sixty-three counts, and it’s possible that a few which require a “conscious intent” to obstruct worship may not hold if jurors believe, as his attorneys insist, that Bowers was acting irrationally. What’s really up in the air is whether, during the second, penalty phase of deliberations, the jury will impose the death sentence.

5/9/23  Russian social media site “Odnoklassniki” was where Mauricio Gracia, who murdered eight shoppers outside an Allen, Texas mall with an AR-15 type rifle, posted comments predicting “race wars and the collapse of [American] society.” According to the Army, Garcia joined the U.S. Army in June 2008 but only lasted three months before he was kicked out for mental health reasons. During the assault Garcia wore a “RWDS” (Right Wing Death Squad) patch that’s in vogue with right-wing extremists.

2/9/23  In exchange for “90 consecutive life sentences”, Patrick Crusius, who gunned down 23 persons and wounded 22 others at an El Paso Walmart in August 2019, pled guilty to hate crimes charges and using a firearm in a Federal crime of violence. Crusius, a 23-year old White nationalist, had targeted Hispanic immigrants, and nearly all who died had Hispanic surnames. Crusius, who “spent countless hours on the Internet” following White supremacy, used an assault rifle.

8/30/22  Ethan Blair Miller, the 20-year old who opened fire in a Bend, Oregon Safeway two nights ago with an AR-15 style rifle, killing two, described himself as “a blood-thirsty, evil f****** psychopath” who longed to do another Columbine on social media site Wattpad. One day before the attack he wrote that he was “done waiting” (click here for his journal.) Miller also posted YouTube videos of him firing a rifle. A local high-school grad, he was remembered as an oddball who always seemed out of sorts. He and his mother had reportedly worked at the store where he staged the attack. Miller committed suicide.

8/4/22  A citizen alerted Richmond, Va. police that two men were planning to stage a massacre on July 4th. Following surveillance, officers seized “two assault rifles, a handgun and hundreds of rounds of ammunition” at the residence of Julio Alvarado-Dubon and Rolman Alberto Balacarcel. Both came to the U.S. illegally from Guatemala, and were arrested on Federal charges of gun possession by an illegal alien.

7/16/22  In 2019 UC Irvine police discovered that student Sebastian Dumbrava was posting threats on social media to shoot up the campus. He wound up on a three-day psychiatric hold. But the threats then resumed, and Dumbrava acquired guns and ammunition, which his mental condition barred. That earned him seven months in prison. But on release he didn’t comply with probation, kept posting threats, and demanded $50,000 from the State. So “for now” he’s back in custody. And, yes, the campus worries.

6/18/22  An NIJ-funded study by START, a university-based terrorism study center, concluded that deradicalization was an uncertain process, hampered by the persistence of the same factors that led persons to join extremist groups: poor education and work histories, criminal involvement, drug abuse, mental illness, and radicalized family members. Persons with prison records had the worst prospects. And even for those who disengaged, the risk of recidivism remained high.

6/14/22  Drawing renewed attention, “Policy Solutions to Address Mass Shootings,” an August 2021 study by the State University of New York’s Rockefeller Institute of Government, concludes that gun permits and bans of large-capacity magazines have helped reduce the frequency and toll of mass shootings. But “most gun laws,” including assault weapons bans, have not.

6/6/22  Gun-oriented Internet forums redolent with extremist, anti-Government chatter and online sites that sell firearms kits and components offer moral and technical support for those with potentially lethal inclinations. Tactical training videos cover everything from staging an assault to the use of protective gear. While some of the more prominent platforms try to vet content, given the vast online space such efforts have little impact.

6/1/22  A 49-year old victim of Frank James’ April 12 attack in the Brooklyn subway is suing the manufacturer of his pistol, Glock firearms, for configuring and promoting its products so as to attract their purchase by criminals. New York State passed a law last year enabling these lawsuits by declaring such practices to be a criminal “nuisance.” That workaround, which is yet to be tested in Federal court, is intended to circumvent the Federal “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act,” a 2005 law that  prohibits lawsuits against members of the gun industry for the misuse of their products.

5/27/22  In two recent mass killings - one at a Buffalo market, the other in a Texas elementary school - the shooters used “Gen Z” apps, including Snapchat, Instagram, Discord, Yubo and Twitch to communicate and share their intentions. These platforms are designed from the ground up for privacy, and messages and images exchanged within their boundaries can prove impossible for outsiders to monitor.

5/24/22  Illinois man Jeffrey Reinking was convicted in State court of returning guns to his son, Travis Reinking, 29, after the latter’s firearms I.D. card was revoked because of his hospitalization for mental illness. Travis Reinking used one of these guns, an AR-15 assault rifle, to storm a Waffle House restaurant in Peoria four years ago, killing four. He was disarmed by a customer after the weapon jammed. Travis Reinking was convicted of murder and drew life without parole.

4/15/22  Screening towers manufactured by Evolv that use sensors and AI to detect guns, knives and other weapons on pedestrians who pass through the devices are in use at many venues, including New York City’s Lincoln Center. They’re now being considered for the subways. But cost is a factor. As, apparently, are privacy concerns.

4/14/22  NYPD officers arrested reputed subway shooter Frank James after he called and tipped them of his whereabouts. According to the New York Times, his recent YouTube videos described a planned journey by van to “the danger zone.” One day before the attack, James said he wanted to kill and “watch people die,” but had been dissuaded by thoughts of being imprisoned. New Jersey once charged him with “making terroristic threats”; he was convicted of a lesser charge, harassment and given probation. James received extensive mental health counseling over the years but claimed it made him worse.

4/13/22  Frank James, 62, is the man whom authorities believe threw smoke bombs and opened fire in a Brooklyn subway car during the April 12 morning commute, wounding ten. A Glock pistol and a credit card in his name that he used to rent the U-Haul he drove and later abandoned were found at the scene. James, who has lived in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, remains at large. Billing himself as “prophetoftruth88” he has posted many YouTube rants about race and violence. One of his recent videos criticizes the Mayor for suggesting that removing the homeless would improve subway safety.

4/11/22  Journalist Mark Follman’s new book, “Trigger Points,” argues that “behavioral threat assessment,” an emerging preventive approach that has been adopted by schools in more than a dozen States, can reduce the incidence of mass shootings. Trained employees watch for “warning behaviors” including threats, aggressive behaviors and an unusual interest in shootings. They listen closely for concerns from family and friends. Specialized “threat teams” that include behavioral specialists visit homes, determine the access to firearms, and provide personalized counseling to troubled individuals.

3/16/22  “Hot Yoga Tallahassee,” a Secret Service case study of Scott Beierle, who opened fire in a Florida yoga studio in 2018, killing two and wounding five, concludes that he was driven by an “inability to develop or maintain relationships with women, along with his perception of women’s societal power over men.” According to the National Threat Assessment Center, Beirle’s behavior reflected  “misogynistic extremism,” and specifically an ideology known as “Incel,” meaning involuntary celibacy.

1/12/22  In recent years, persons driven by “a mix of ideologies and personal grievances” have been involved in a series of domestic terrorism incidents, including mass shootings at a shopping center in El Paso and a house of worship in Pittsburgh, and in the Capitol attack. This elevated threat has led DOJ to create a “Domestic Terrorism Unit” staffed with lawyers who will specialize in such cases.

11/3/21 After getting kicked out of the Army for misbehaving, Mark Steven Domingo, 26, converted to Islam. His online appeals for revenge over massacres in overseas mosques led the FBI to contact him online through an informant. Domingo was arrested in 2019 after accepting an (inert) bomb from an agent at the park where he said he would detonate it during a forthcoming far-right rally. Jurors convicted Domingo at an August 2021 trial and he was sentenced yesterday to twenty-five years.

9/30/21  DHS has released $20 million in grant funds to programs that can help local communities prevent and deal with “domestic violent extremism.” Among the awards are $298,488 to the University of Southern California Keck medical center for creating a threat assessment and active shooter prevention program tailored to healthcare, and $85,000 to the Howell Township Police Athletic League for developing a program to prevent violent radicalization of middle-school and high school students.

7/11/21  A San Diego Superior Court judge ruled that the victims of John Earnest, who stormed into a Poway synagogue in 2019 and opened fire with an AR-15 type rifle that he bought in a local gun shop, killing one and wounding three, can sue Smith & Wesson for marketing a gun that was easily modified into a state-prohibited assault weapon. Victims can also sue the seller, who didn’t confirm that Earnest, who was nineteen, had the hunting license California requires for persons under 21 to buy long guns. (See 4/29/19 and 8/4/19 updates.)

6/22/21  An L.A. Times op-ed opposes a proposal that Homeland Security underwrite efforts by community groups, universities and law enforcement to identify potentially dangerous individuals and refer them to treatment before they strike. According to Harsha Panduranga, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, “mental health issues, having trouble at home or in relationships, having a political or personal ‘grievance’ - are shared by millions.” Using these to identify potentially violent persons, Panduranga argues, will increase bias against Muslims and persons of color and lead to more abuses.

12/12/19 On December 10 self-styled “Black Hebrew Israelites” David Anderson and Francine Graham gunned down Jersey City police detective Joseph Seals, then stormed a Jewish market and engaged in a protracted firefight, killing three citizens and wounding two officers before police shot them dead. Anderson and Graham took an AR-15-style rifle, a shotgun and two 9mm. pistols into the store. A silencer-equipped weapon and a pipe bomb were found in their van. Anderson, an ex-con with prior arrests for weapons offenses, had apparently posted hateful messages on social media and mentioned past massacres.

12/7/19 CNN has tallied more than twenty shootings on U.S. military bases since 1993. Four have taken place since November 5, 2009, when troubled Fort Hood psychiatrist Nidal Hasan killed thirteen and wounded twenty-eight. Two occurred only this week. On December 4 Gabriel Romero, a U.S. Navy sailor standing guard at Pearl Harbor, opened fire with his issued weapons, killing two and himself. Two days later, Saudi military student Mohammed Alshamrania used a pistol to kill three and wound eight at a Florida base. He was shot and killed by police. Romero was in trouble with the Navy and getting counseling. Alshamrania had reportedly posted hateful tweets and recently gathered friends to watch mass shooting videos.

10/24/19 At the urging of Attorney General William Barr, in December 2019 the FBI will host a national training session to prevent mass shootings. Local and state agencies will be exposed to “proven models” drawn from the war against terror; for example, identifying dangerous, “extremely challenging individuals” and compelling to undergo mental health treatment before they strike.

9/30/19 Participants at an NAS symposium on human rights sounded a cautionary note about artificial intelligence, whose misuse can worsen inequality and bias. For example, San Francisco  banned the use of facial recognition technology because it is “demonstrably biased against minorities.”

8/4/19 Known for its raw, unmoderated content, online board “8chan” has become a favored place for extremists to post violent rants. Among those who recently used it to announce their intentions were San-Diego area (Poway) synagogue shooter John Earnest, New Zealand mosque gunman Mark Domingo, and only yesterday, Patrick Crusius in El Paso.

8/3/19 Forty-six persons were shot in an El Paso (TX) shopping center by a twenty-one year old man wielding an assault-type rifle. Twenty have died. Police arrested the shooter, Patrick Crusius. He was dressed in a black t-shirt and was wearing earmuffs and dark glasses. Crusius’ online posts depicted him with a rifle, praised the New Zealand massacre and criticized America’s “invasion” by Latinos.

4/29/19 Several hours before storming into a Poway (San Diego-area) synagogue with an AR-15 type rifle and opening fire, killing one and wounding three, John Earnest, 19, posted a threatening racist manifesto online, in which he admitted having set fire to a mosque: “I am a testament to the fact that literally anyone can do this.” A college student, he had no known criminal record.

3/16/19 Before live-streaming his murderous rampage, which took the lives of 49 parishioners at two New Zealand mosques, the heavily armed, internet-obsessed killer used Twitter, Facebook and an online hate site to promote a white uprising. Brendon Tarrant, 28, held a firearms license that allowed him to legally buy the two semi-auto rifles and two shotguns he used in the attack.

3/12/19 Comparing aspects such as method of entry, what was stolen, and when, NYPD analysts developed “Patternizr,” software that lets detectives quickly scour the agency’s massive crime database for possible matches. That process recently led to the discovery that a syringe-wielding bandit, who was arrested, had committed similar crimes in the past.

1/25/19 Zephen Xaver, 21, entered a Florida bank, ordered four employees and a customer to lie on the floor, and shot them in the head. All died. As a youth, Xaver’s dreams of taking students hostage led to his referral for treatment. That incident, as well as his recent message about taking hostages and committing “suicide by cop” had come to the attention of police. Xaver recently told a friend that he had bought a handgun.

11/8/18 On 11/7/18 ex-Marine gunner Ian David Long, 28, walked into an L.A.-area bar and opened fire with a legally-bought .45 caliber Glock pistol with an extended magazine. Twelve were killed, including Ventura Co. Sheriff’s Sergeant Ron Elus, who had responded to the scene. Long was though by neighbors to be mentally disturbed. Last April mental health workers called by deputies to the home that Long shares with his mother decided he did not meet the standards to be held.

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START - National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism

NIJ-funded study on deradicalization and desistance from terrorism (released June 2022)

NIJ-funded reports on the promises and perils of artificial intelligence in criminal justice (released March 2021): Introduction     Law Enforcement     Criminal Courts     Corrections


Another Day, Another Massacre     When a Dope Can’t be Roped     Was a Dope Roped?

Technology’s Great - Until It’s Not     Red Flag (I) (II)    Ban the Damned Things!     Massacre Control

A Stitch in Time     After the Fact     Sometimes There is no Second Chance

Coming Clean in Santa Barbara     Flying Under the Radar

Posted 10/21/18


A self-professed “sleeper agent” is (legally) flimflammed by the FBI

Kourani LARGE

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Ten years ago, in “Damned if They Do,” we reported on the “Sears Tower Plot” and the “Fort Dix Six” (aka, the “Fort Dix Five”), two FBI anti-terrorism cases that used informers and undercover agents to dupe would-be Jihadists into joining fictitious, Government-constructed plots.

     As America’s premier law enforcement organization, the FBI takes pride in making criminal cases, and the bigger the better. That’s how the agency and its agents have always measured their worth. But while there are lots of fraudsters, robbers and gangsters for agents to corral, terrorists are much less plentiful, and developing actionable, case-producing leads against them is far more difficult. In written testimony delivered to a Senate committee one year after the 9-11 attacks, Stephen Push, co-founder of “Families of September 11” expressed concern that the FBI had devalued intelligence work and urged that America “establish a new domestic intelligence agency similar to Britain's MI-5”:

Click here for the complete collection of terrorism essays

    This agency would have no law enforcement powers, and would work with the FBI when criminal investigations and arrests were necessary. The FBI would retain a small intelligence unit to serve as a liaison with the Intelligence Community. Domestic intelligence professionals can not flourish in a culture that rewards people for the number of cases solved or the number of arrests made.

Senator Rockefeller’s remarks echoed that view:

    …the FBI is an outstanding law enforcement agency. But I have serious questions about whether it is the right place to do intelligence work necessary in our country. Law enforcement is not necessarily compatible with intelligence gathering; in fact, it is not. It's not the same skills, not the same mission. Going forward, we must not undermine the FBI's ability to carry out its fundamental responsibilities, because they're very important, and they do it very well.

     Faced with the possibility that his agency could lose its intelligence portfolio, Director Robert Mueller conceded that “we need a different FBI, one that does not just think in terms of cases and prosecutions.” Still, changing a proud law enforcement agency’s DNA proved no easy task. To demonstrate tangible results, just like their peers working conventional crimes, counter-terrorism agents turned to luring in wannabees – what cops cynically call “roping in dopes.” Here are a few examples from past posts:

  • In 2009 the FBI made arrests in three cases where agents and informers supplied self-styled terrorists with (fake) bomb-laden cars. Their intended targets included a Jewish synagogue, an office tower and a Federal courthouse.
  • In 2010 the FBI filed charges against Mohamed Osman Mohamud, whom an informer enticed to bomb a Christmas-tree lighting in Portland, and Antonio Martinez, who accepted a fake bomb to blow up a Maryland military recruitment office.
  • In 2012 agents arrested an illegal alien from Morocco after the unsuspecting dupe donned an inert FBI-supplied explosive vest he intended to set off at the Capitol. Amine El Khalifi had already practiced detonating explosives with an informer and an undercover agent. As we then noted, “the only thing he didn’t rehearse was his own arrest.”

     As one might expect, objections to the FBI’s facilitative approach soon arose. In its 2014 report, “Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions,” Human Rights Watch complained that “in some cases the Federal Bureau of Investigation may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by conducting sting operations that facilitated or invented the target’s willingness to act”:

    According to multiple studies, nearly 50 percent of the more than 500 federal counterterrorism convictions resulted from informant-based cases; almost 30 percent of those cases were sting operations in which the informant played an active role in the underlying plot. In the case of the “Newburgh Four,” for example, a judge said the government “came up with the crime, provided the means, and removed all relevant obstacles,” and had, in the process, made a terrorist out of a man “whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope.”

     Even so, make-believe “bombs” continued to be offered to self-professed soldiers of the Islamic state. Dupes arrested in 2017 include Jerry Varnell, a 23-year old schizophrenic who said he wished to murder Government officials and Robert Hester Jr., a Kansas man who sought to target public transportation facilities. (For the DOJ news release on Varnell click here. For the one about Hester click here.)

     Legally, the FBI ops seem to be on firm ground. As a somewhat skeptical Ninth Circuit ruled in the Mohamud case, it’s not entrapment to lend a hand to the predisposed. That rule is well known to your blogger, who participated in stolen property stings in the seventies. Yet as one pores through news accounts, many terrorists “stung” by the FBI bear no resemblance to the tried-and-true, profit-seeking targets of traditional police undercover work. Indeed, they seem much more like candidates for a mental ward.

     So when we came across the case of Ali Kourani, we thought that the FBI had finally nailed a “real” terrorist. According to the detailed DOJ press release Kourani, who emigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon in 2003 while in his late teens, admitted that he had been a secret member of Islamic Jihad (IJO) all along. Years later, while earning degrees in biomedical engineering and business, Kourani said he met with his “handler” and participated in military training during a visit to Lebanon. On returning to the U.S. the now full-fledged American citizen admitted he began collecting information for the IJO about “weapons suppliers in the U.S. who could provide firearms to support IJO operations, identifying individuals affiliated with the Israeli Defense Force, gathering information regarding operations and security at airports in the U.S. and elsewhere, and surveilling U.S. military and law enforcement facilities in Manhattan and Brooklyn.”

     Yet not all may be as it seems. According to a recent piece in the New York Times, Kourani originally rebuffed the FBI when, for reasons as yet undisclosed, they approached him in 2016 and asked that he become an informant. So they supposedly hounded family and friends, frightening his wife and leading her to leave for Canada with their two children. Desperate to get his kids back, and under decidedly questionable counsel from a law professor, Kourani eventually agreed to help the FBI. In a highly detailed account, which later served as the template for his prosecution, he admitted working for the IJO and specifically identified his recruiter and handler.

     While Kourani spilled the beans he had, he lacked prosecutable associates in the U.S. In May 2017, after apparently finding him of little further use, the Feebs turned on their man, filing a detailed criminal complaint that accuses Kourani of providing material support to a terrorist organization, alone and in concert with the foreign contacts whose identities he had so helpfully provided.

     Kourani’s law professor friend conceded that he didn’t think belonging or training with the IJO was a crime, so he never counseled Kourani to obtain immunity in writing. Oops. “I never thought of it,” the lawyer told a judge. “I did no research. I believed that to be the case. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong.” A legal scholar who reviewed what happened said the FBI took advantage of his counterpart’s naïveté: “They just let him dig a hole for his client. And that’s their job — to help convict the guilty, not to educate the lawyers.”

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     Thanks to his own very many words, Kourani confirmed his technical “guilt.” Yet in a way he also seems as much a dupe as those who accepted bombs from strangers. Kourani was hardly clueless, but whether hammering him really makes us safer is equally questionable. Still, it let an FBI counter-terrorism squad notch a tangible “win.” And isn’t that what it’s all about?

UPDATES (scroll)

1/22/24  In 2011 four New York men drew 25-year prison terms on Federal terrorism charges after being recruited by an FBI informant to bomb a military base and Jewish sites. But in 2023 a judge resentenced three to time served, and he just did that for the fourth. In the jurist’s view, the “Newburgh Four” were led by the nose. “The F.B.I. invented the conspiracy; identified the targets; manufactured the ordnance....Nothing about the crimes of conviction [were of the]  defendants’ own making.”

1/21/21  On January 19 the FBI arrested US Army PFC Cole James Bridges, 20, on a Federal complaint charging him with attempting to provide material support to ISIS. Bridges, who had posted videos and other materials supporting Jihad, was contacted online by undercover FBI agents in late 2020. He agreed to help and provided informal instruction and training materials to facilitate terrorist attacks in the U.S. and kill American troops stationed overseas. He declined to participate personally.

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Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions


Taking Missiles From Strangers     Written Produced and Directed     Taking Bombs From Strangers

They Didn’t Read Police Issues     Rope a Dope     Damned if They Do     Making Terrorists (I) (II)

Posted 8/18/18


Surprise! A well-known terrorist winds up in the U.S. as a refugee


     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Eight years ago, in “Doing Nothing, Redux” we wrote about Umar Abdulmutallab, a rich kid from Nigeria who tried to set off the bomb he was wearing as his flight from Amsterdam approached Detroit. It’s not that Umar’s connection with Al Qaeda was any big secret. After all, his father, a former Nigerian government minister, had personally warned the State Department and CIA about his son. Well, the CIA never told the FBI. Neither did the NSA pass on advance information they had about the plot. And so on. Umar got a visa, his plastic explosives cleared screening, and he took his seat.

     And now we’re writing about Omar Ameen, a middle-aged Iraqi fellow who immigrated to the U.S. in November 2014. His terrorist connections were also no secret at home. Ameen was in fact raised in a prominent Al Qaeda-linked family and reportedly participated in many terrorist acts over the years. But Americans didn’t know that. Instead, in his application Ameen “inverted the narrative, claiming to be a victim of violence.” He reported that his brother had been kidnapped by terrorists, and that he feared being next. In fact he and his brothers were the terrorists and had warrants out for their arrest since December 2010. Check out a brand-new DOJ filing that seeks Ameen’s extradition to Iraq for killing a cop shortly before coming to America:

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    Evidence from both the Iraq National Security Service…as well as the FBI… indicates since at least 2004, Ameen has been a member of first AQI, then ISIS in Iraq…Ameen has reportedly undertaken numerous acts of violence on behalf of these terrorist organizations, ranging from planting improvised explosive devices (“IEDs”) to the murder that is the subject of this extradition…According to witnesses, it is common knowledge in Rawah, Iraq, that Ameen was a main local figure of AQI and ISIS. The Ameen family is alleged to be one of five native Rawah families that founded AQI in the region.

     Once Ameen had lived in the U.S. for two years the FBI apparently discovered that something was amiss. It took another two years for the Feds to make their move. DOJ’s filing doesn’t explain the delay. Maybe the FBI tried to mount a counterintelligence op. In any event, Ameen’s detention was just formally announced. As one might expect, there’s been blowback. Here’s an extract from an otherwise bland piece in the New York Times:

    Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of the George Washington University Program on Extremism, said the case was likely to put a further spotlight on the already red-hot issue of refugees. “This is not the first case of a failure in the refugee screening process, but one of the most serious I have seen.”

     Without doubt, the Ameen imbroglio will feed the raucous debate about whom to admit, and why. President Trump ramped things up in January 2017 with Executive Order 13769, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” His move capped yearly refugees at 50,000, suspended the admission of applicants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, and barred the entry of those from Syria. As one might expect, these actions were praised by the “Reds” and roundly condemned by the “Blues.” For example, the New York Times’ august Editorial Board entitled its critique “Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban Is Cowardly and Dangerous.”

     President Trump issued a new version of the order in September 2017. Proclamation 9645 states that properly vetting refugees requires accurate information about two things: their identity, and any involvement in crime and terrorism. Getting there inevitably requires assistance from their country of origin. Seven nations were now deemed not up to the task: Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen. Accordingly, refugee applications from their residents were suspended or severely restricted.

     Legal challenges and the like kept things mostly in limbo until this June. That’s when the Supremes (meaning the judges, not the vocalists) ruled 5-4 in Trump v. Hawaii that the Proclamation, which the Blues had condemned for anti-Muslim bias, was in fact a lawful exercise of his powers. Here’s an extract from the decision:

    The Proclamation is expressly premised on legitimate purposes: preventing entry of nationals who cannot be adequately vetted and inducing other nations to improve their practices…Plaintiffs and the dissent nonetheless emphasize that five of the seven nations currently included in the Proclamation have Muslim-majority populations. Yet that fact alone does not support an inference of religious hostility, given that the policy covers just 8% of the world’s Muslim population and is limited to countries that were previously designated by Congress or prior administrations as posing national security risks.

     Note that Ameen’s country of origin, Iraq, was not on this exclusion list. It was actually taken off the first list within two months, in March 2017. By then Ameen’s goose was already well cooked:

    Since 2016, the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force has investigated Ameen for suspected violations of 18 U.S.C. § 1546 (Fraud and misuse of visas, permits, and other documents), among other suspected violations. As part of this investigation, the FBI has interviewed at least eight witnesses, and received documents from Iraq, which corroborate Ameen’s involvement with AQI and ISIS, including the murder that is alleged in the extradition request.

     Why did Iraq get a break? According to administration officials, its willingness to tighten up refugee vetting and key role in the fight against terrorism made all the difference. Reading between the lines, it’s obvious that Iraq balked at being on the list in the first place. Badly needing a friend in the region, we quickly restored its privilege.

     It’s simple to check out someone’s bonafides in America. Get a fingerprint, run it through the FBI, and wait for information to pour in. As we said in “Flying Under the Radar,” vetting immigrants is an altogether different beast. And when it comes to refugees, the sheer numbers are overwhelming. During 2014-2016 the U.S. admitted 224,884 refugees. Nearly one in five (42,325, 18.8%) came from...Iraq. It was narrowly beaten out for first place by Burma (45,331), a land besieged by vicious religious and ethnic struggles. Third through fifth place were occupied by Congo (28,786), Somalia (26,878) and Bhutan (20,026). And despite its pariah status, its many admissions in 2016 earned Syria a solid sixth (14,374).

     Now let’s talk the practicalities of vetting. U.S. consular offices are few and thinly staffed. Usually all they can do is to conduct a perfunctory record check and make a couple of phone calls. Even when the will exists, safety concerns often preclude sending employees across country on missions to get the “real scoop.” Lapses in recordkeeping and endemic corruption are also constant problems.

     Given legal and political constraints, imposing substantial caps on refugee admissions is out of reach. Thoroughly investigating applicants is also impossible, if for their numbers alone. About the only option left is to bar refugees from countries that don’t help with the vetting process. While this may be unfair to individuals, eliminating inherently high-risk pools seems reasonable. That’s what the President did, and what the Court endorsed.

     Using Wikipedia and other online sources we gathered basic information about the perpetrators of forty-four alleged terrorist events in the U.S. between 2010 and the present. There were forty-six named suspects. Fourteen were foreign-born: four in Pakistan, two in Chechnya, two in Iraq, and one each in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Kuwait, Somalia and Uzbekistan. Three were from countries on the original exclusion list (Iraq and Somalia). None were from lands on the current list.

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     So, is the President’s approach effective? Or does it seem, as our title suggests, like a bit of snake oil? Well, your blogger once had a Top Secret, and he’d be sad for it to be publicly stripped. So you be the judge.

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Flying Under the Radar     Doing Nothing, Redux

Posted 3/27/18


Safeguard sources and methods. Or wish that you had.

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. “Where the first one was very clean relative to sources and methods, my initial cut is this one is a lot less clean.” By “the first one” White House Chief of Staff John Kelly meant a  memo authored by the Republican majority of the House intelligence committee accusing the FBI of purposely misusing FISA, a legal tool for investigating terrorist plots hatched from abroad, so as to gather dirt on then-candidate Trump. While confirming that his Party’s missive safeguarded vital secrets, Kelly worried that “this one,” meaning the response by the committee’s Democratic members (it essentially called the Republicans liars) contained sensitive intelligence information.

     Well, after a few redactions to protect “sources and methods” the Democrats released their Opus as well. We’ll leave it to the reader to analyze the dueling memoranda and decide whether FISA was really abused. But here we’re more interested in the “sources and methods” whose protection Kelly supposedly sought. Just what are those things?

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     “Sources” are where information exists. That includes people, places and things. “Methods” – what spies call “tradecraft” – signifies the techniques, such as physical and electronic surveillance, that investigators use to develop leads. Criminals are naturally eager to devise countermeasures. In the good old days that meant watching for a tail or shooting out a nasty old bank camera. But those have been miniaturized and are now ubiquitous, so avoiding them is difficult. On the other hand, improvements in encryption technology, which interferes with the Government’s ability to access electronic communications, has led to its epic, ongoing struggle with service providers who are reluctant for commercial reasons to provide “keys” that can, say, unlock cellphones.

     Kelly, the immediate past head of Homeland Security, would undoubtedly agree that, if nothing else, it’s important to keep potential terrorists ignorant, or as ignorant as possible, of how police go about their business. So he would probably be miffed that a fellow Government kingpin recently spilled the beans during the Austin bombings. And it wasn’t just any kingpin.

     To begin, let’s summarize what’s known. Between March 2 and March 20 Austin resident Mark Conditt shipped five package bombs through commercial carriers and left another behind on the street. Five devices ultimately detonated, killing two persons and injuring four. Days later, as cops closed in, Conditt set off a last bomb in his car, killing himself and injuring an officer who approached.

     Remarkably, no one knows what drove an apparently “normal” 23-year old to commit these barbarous acts. A confession left behind on a cellphone offered an apology but no explanation other than his admission to being a “psychopath.” Conditt had been fired from his last job for poor performance. However, his boss called the young man “smart” and said that he had shown “a lot of promise.”

     Authorities have yet to agree on whether Conditt was a “terrorist.” Austin’s police chief implied no. His conclusion was vigorously disputed by the editors of the local paper, the Austin Statesman, who pointed to “the fear these attacks inflicted on an entire city.” Fatuous distinctions aside (you can read about attempts to define terrorism here), cloaking bombs as everyday objects seems no less frightening for the lack of an articulated ideological agenda. In our brave new Amazonian economy, where goods of all kinds wind up on one’s doorstep, the threat of having a package blow up in your face could bring things to a screeching halt. Whatever Conditt’s motives, we would definitely call him a “terrorist.”

     As one would expect, authorities responded vigorously. Good investigative work kept casualties down and brought the deplorable episode to a relatively swift conclusion. Unfortunately, the specific sources and methods the good guys (and girls) used to chase Conditt down were leaked to journalists and made public through a series of highly detailed, compelling articles in national and local media. Copycats and plotters, at least those who can read, will undoubtedly find them useful for maximizing casualties and avoiding detection the next time around.

     These unfortunate disclosures came in two installments: before Conditt blew himself up, and after. One day preceding his capture the New York Times whined that officials were being “tight-lipped about the details of the case.” So for that piece reporters turned elsewhere. Their stool pigeons included a “federal agent and explosives expert who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media” as well as two well-known pundits, former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis and retired FBI profiler Clinton Van Zandt. While these sources said little about the current investigation they provided compelling detail about how device reconstruction, shrapnel analysis and bomber behavior can help police identify suspects and track them down.

     To this former ATF agent, that was bad enough, though not unforgivably so. After all, he once taught a course on criminal investigation at Cal State Fullerton. But immediately after Conditt’s death the media fully shed its gloves, publishing extensive, highly detailed accounts of precisely how the Feds and cops identified and pursued Conditt. We won’t publish extracts here, but if you’re hankering to be disgusted check out these pieces in the New York Times and Austin Statesman.

     Of course, these “how-to” guides for terrorism didn’t originate with on-the-record releases by agency PIO’s. According to the Times its sources included anonymous “investigators,” an unnamed member of “federal law enforcement” and “political leaders” whose positions entitled them to official briefings. Surprisingly, one of these lawmakers was identified. Astoundingly, he turned out to be the Hon. Michael McCaul, Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, most recently John Kelly’s political overseer. By virtue of his position Congressman McCaul should have known far, far better than to carelessly blab about sources and methods. But he did. We’re loath to repeat what he said, but curious readers can refer to the above-linked article in the Times and to a second story in the Statesman.

     What’s to be done? As your blogger discovered early during his Federal career, good reporters are every bit as bright, inquisitive and, yes, pushy as the best criminal investigator. After all, neither they nor their employers can prosper in the unforgiving, highly competitive media market without producing tangible results. So forget about changing them. First, focus within. Counsel and train all who are privy to criminal casework to keep sources and methods close to the chest. Then counsel and train them again. Require that media inquiries about sensitive matters and breaking events be referred to PIO’s. Most importantly, be sure that your outreach includes members of the political class, who benefit from favorable press coverage and may give little thought to the ill effects of sharing a juicy morsel (or two, or three) with a friendly reporter. And by all means look on pundits for the plague they are.

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     To be sure, people have a right to be informed. They also have the right not to be blown up. By all means let’s find a happy medium before the next psychopath strikes.

UPDATE (12/12/19): A years-long investigation by the Justice Department I.G. revealed that FBI agents knowingly submitted deeply flawed information to gain court approval for a F.I.S.A. wiretap of Carter Page, a former C.I.A. source who was suspected of passing anti-Clinton materials from Russian intelligence to the Trump campaign.

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A Dead Man’s Tales     Flying Under the Radar

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