Philly's Terrorist Watch

An exclusive look inside the squads at work in the region.

Posted: May 08, 2011

Special Agent John Kirk exemplifies the new FBI. A hybrid agent, he is one part crime-fighter, one part intelligence operative.

Posted full-time at Philadelphia International Airport, Kirk has an office just steps from a one-way mirror through which he can view travelers entering the country. His primary job is not to make arrests, but to make friends and build sources among airport, airline, and other law enforcement employees. It helps that he happens to be a former pilot.

That the FBI would post a man at a desk full-time at an airport, a most-favored terrorist target, would seem to be a no-brainer.

Except that the FBI airport job is relatively new. It was created just last year, nine years after 9/11.

The agent still doesn't have a computer on his desk. He carries a BlackBerry, but because the FBI is still working to burglar-proof his office, he must return downtown to view top-secret material.

Kirk's posting at the airport provides a window into the FBI's evolving counterterrorism strategy at the local level - an intelligence-driven structure that is expected to continue to grow.

George Venizelos - the special agent in charge of the Philadelphia office; last year he supervised the FBI manhunt that caught the failed Times Square bomber in New York - said Osama bin Laden's death has forced Americans to reflect on 9/11 and recall "how real terrorism is and how dangerous it is."

On Friday, al-Qaeda issued an ominous statement: "We will remain, God willing, a curse chasing the Americans and their agents, following them outside and inside their countries. Soon, God willing, their happiness will turn to sadness. Their blood will be mingled with their tears."

The statement didn't surprise counterterrorism agents here. "Just because we got the bogeyman doesn't mean our mission will change," one said.

In Philadelphia, counterterrorism agents have scored three high-profile successes since 9/11: the busts of the homegrown terrorist known as "Jihad Jane," the five men convicted of plotting an attack on Fort Dix, and the 26 men charged in a Hezbollah gun-running and Stinger missile case.

Local agents have also played minor roles in the attempted al-Qaeda attack on cargo planes, including two that landed at the airport here, and the case of heroin dealer and DEA informant David Headley, a former Philadelphian implicated in the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India.

But most of today's counterterrorism work in Philadelphia takes place behind the scenes, where roughly 85 men and women work largely in the shadows alongside CIA analysts, expanding a local network of informants, developing intelligence, investigating threats, passing tips to counterparts on criminal squads, listening to national security wiretaps and, on occasion, performing that oh-so-traditional FBI duty - making arrests.

"What you're seeing is a transformation of the FBI, from how it's operated for the last century," said U.S. Rep. Patrick L. Meehan, the senior federal prosecutor in Philadelphia from 2001 to 2008 and now chair of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence. "The FBI is engaged in a new challenge - identifying a potential act before it's committed and preventing it from happening."

That new approach is often the subject of national debate - last week, it was Time magazine's cover story and the ACLU sued the FBI for collecting racial and ethnic data in New Jersey.

What is less known, however, is the view of the street agents.

The shift from law enforcement to intelligence means that the FBI office here has an agent assigned to help protect the region's colleges but also to collect information from them. It means that there are more squads assigned to combat al-Qaeda in Philadelphia than public corruption - to tackle the kinds of cases that took down former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo and City Treasurer Corey Kemp.

There are four squads in the local Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), with roughly half being specialists drawn from other law enforcement agencies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, state and local police, and SEPTA. These "task force officers" have the full powers and security clearances of an FBI agent and work under FBI command.

So sensitive are some JTTF operations that the FBI can't publicly discuss much of what it considers its most important local work.

For example, according to law enforcement sources, information gathered by Philadelphia JTTF agents in 2005 helped prevent a terrorist attack on U.S. troops in Baghdad.

Many agents have embraced the new FBI - viewing it as a patriotic calling akin to military service. But other agents worry that the bureau's mission has been warped, as local counterterrorism squads "chase ghosts" at the expense of making cases against traditional targets, such as corrupt politicians, bank robbers, drug dealers, and financial scammers.

"Look, obviously terrorism is important, but it's not why I joined the FBI and you have to wonder what we're missing - people are getting away with things we would have been all over 10 years ago," said a veteran agent.

In a series of rare interviews in recent months, JTTF members described their work and what motivates them.

"The public thinks it's like Jack Bauer on 24," said FBI agent George Husk. "It ain't like on TV."

A handful of JTTF members do respond to immediate threats, such as suspicious packages, but most of the work is painstaking.

"Sometimes we don't even disclose our involvement," said Trina Washington, who formerly supervised an al-Qaeda squad here. "Whatever gets us there, legally - especially if it helps us neutralize a target, even against someone unwittingly helping a terrorist."

Tips accepted

The terror tips, a handful a day, arrive from local residents and police, and they are all filtered through the FBI's gatekeeper in Philadelphia, analyst Frank Filia.

Jihadist graffiti spray-painted on a bulldozer in South Jersey threatening Independence Hall. A suspicious person photographing the Navy Yard. A Delaware County man making veiled threats against federal employees. A Pakistani allegedly recruiting for al-Qaeda in a city neighborhood.

These are called Guardian leads.

Since 9/11, the FBI says it checks out every Guardian lead, no matter how vague or absurd. Each tip will either become an investigative case or, in FBI parlance, "wash out." Most wash out.

JTTF members know that when the phone rings and Filia's name comes up on the caller ID, it means their day is probably about to take a turn.

Tracking a lead

The minivan, complete with child's toy and car seat, cruises a Delaware County street of rowhouses, past a suspect's house.

No sign of life, except for a crude sign on the porch: "No Trespassing. This is Sovereign land."

The FBI agents in the van are running down a Guardian lead. The suspect, who has written an ominous letter to a county official, is a suspected leader of the Sovereign Citizens - a separatist, sometimes violent, white supremacist movement. Sovereign members are accused of killing two Arkansas policemen last year during a traffic stop.

The agents aren't looking to arrest anyone on this day. As far as they can tell, the suspect hasn't broken any laws - yet. But the agents want to speak with him. With suspected domestic terrorists, the new FBI strategy goes, sometimes that's all it takes - a warning, a wake-up call - to deter a future crime.

The agents pull into the local post office and find the neighborhood letter carrier. They ask if she's seen anyone in the house lately. She hasn't. The agents flash their badges at her supervisor and ask him to check if the man has filed a change of address notice. The supervisor types a few keystrokes and gives the agents what they want.

Later, the agents will check the address. But the suspect has already moved on.

Streamlined approach

The urgent report came in the early afternoon of Feb. 1, a chilly, drizzly Tuesday:

An explosion at the Girard Avenue SEPTA station. A man seen, seconds before the blast, dropping a backpack and running away.

"I'm thinking, 'This is it,' " recalled Michael Sylvester. who scrambled with colleagues from FBI cubicles on Arch Street to cars in the basement, and raced northeast, lights flashing, sirens screaming.

Sylvester is not an FBI agent, but a SEPTA detective assigned to the JTTF, one of the "task force officers."

The backpack incident, though still unsolved, is precisely the kind of scenario for which the JTTF was created. With Sylvester at the station in his dual roles for the FBI and SEPTA, the investigation moved swiftly. The federally deputized detective instinctively knew how and where to find the best video and SEPTA witness.

"Everything is streamlined," Sylvester said.

SEPTA's role on the JTTF would seem critical. Ask agents what keeps them up at night - where the next terrorist attack will occur - and the majority say the rails. And U.S. officials said Thursday that evidence seized from bin Laden's home show al-Qaeda plotted to attack American railroads to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

To that end, Sylvester has been training FBI agents on how to respond to such a disaster: Tips like how to enter a subway car in an emergency, where to walk in a tunnel and how to avoid the electrified third rail.

Sylvester, 42, said the most surprising thing about his job was the way the classified threat reports had altered his world perspective.

"I had the outsider's view, from TV and papers, and it's easy to look away when things don't seem so real," he said. "But I've become much more educated and it makes you want to do more. It makes you more passionate. It just seems so much more real on the inside."

Real cooperation

Such cooperation between the FBI and its JTTF partners, once seen as mere lip service, now appears genuine.

The best evidence of this is probably Operation Phone Flash, an undercover case that targeted a Hezbollah cell trying to obtain guns and missiles.

The case began in April 2006 as a Guardian lead: Seven Lebanese men moving mysteriously about a Philadelphia house.

Two task force officers checked it out, New Jersey State Trooper Frederick Fife and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Mark Olexa. Working surveillance, they traced a Michigan license plate near the home to a suspected Hezbollah contact.

At that point, Fife worried the FBI might take the case away and give it to "real" FBI agents. He'd heard that this had happened to others in the past - big cases reassigned to young FBI agents with less experience than often more seasoned task force investigators.

"Thankfully, that didn't happen," Fife recalled, adding that he was amazed by the level of mentoring and encouragement he received from FBI supervisors in Philadelphia and Washington.

Olexa, who had been the ICE agent on the Fort Dix case, didn't have such worries - though he added, "it was remarkable because it was the first significant case I'd had without an FBI agent as a partner."

Operation Phone Flash would take them to Jordan, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Paraguay, Turkey, and elsewhere. Ultimately, JTTF agents from the FBI, State Department, and IRS would join the case. Thus far, 14 people have pleaded guilty to crimes from material support for terrorism to illegal arms export to counterfeiting to immigration violations.

"It was a case of real-life collaboration working the way it's supposed to," Olexa said. "We're definitely better when we work together."

FBI on campus

Across the region, the FBI is laying what it calls "trip wires."

The agent at the airport hands out pamphlets to airline employees, reminders to look for suspicious activity. Other agents encourage community, industry, academic, and religious leaders to do the same.

Joe Metzinger, a gregarious FBI agent who has investigated terror cases since 1996, is assigned to one of the more sensitive tasks. He is the FBI liaison to the region's colleges and universities, meeting often with campus safety directors and other officials.

He offers training, helping schools recognize potential signs of terrorist activity and how to react to a Virginia Tech-style mass shooting. But he's also busy making contacts, collecting information.

"You have to be careful because campuses by their very nature are supposed to be open and accessible," he said, though he also added: "We thrive on information."

Civil libertarians worry about such FBI initiatives, citing federal privacy rules that protect student records and the bureau's history of circumventing privacy laws. An inspector general's report last year found that the FBI agents working with phone companies became so cozy that they obtained records without formal authorization, including numbers called by journalists.

"We'd be concerned that the relationships developed on campuses might also allow information to be passed informally," said Mike German, a former FBI agent who is now an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer. "We'd also worry that any FBI presence on campus would tend to chill free speech."

Agents say that they are mindful of civil rights, and that such "trip wire" work has already paid dividends, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Months after an FBI agent paid a routine visit to a chemical company, an executive called to report a suspicious inquiry. Someone had tried to order chloroform, a request usually made by corporations or schools, not individuals.

The FBI ran the man's name, and found that he was a convicted sex offender. Agents paid him a visit.

Getting prepared

On Wednesday, JTTF agents set off a car bomb in State College.

It was part of a weeklong training exercise. FBI bomb and weapons-of-mass-destruction agents spend a good deal of time teaching local police how to fend for themselves. The JTTF emphasizes this because the FBI has only a handful of experts in every city. If terrorists mount a multipronged attack, as they did on 9/11 and during the London train bombings, the FBI wants to be prepared.

"It's a force multiplier," said squad supervisor Sam Smemo. "We can't be everywhere."

Dissenting views

The emphasis on surveillance and training worries some veteran FBI agents.

They believe the new, intelligence-driven, proactive FBI has gone too far.

"The pendulum has swung too much - you now have the tail wagging the dog," said an agent who has worked on international cases. "You have intel directing the FBI focus, looking for predicted crimes, not the street agents who go after actual crimes."

Several agents said turf battles and bureaucracies that caused FBI supervisors to dismiss pre-9/11 warnings from field offices still exist.

A recent U.S. Senate report criticizes "an all-too cursory" FBI investigation into the Fort Hood shooting. The JTTF in San Diego warned that Nidal Hasan had been in contact with a terrorist, but the JTTF in Washington did not make this a priority.

What's more, Carlos Bledsoe, a Muslim convert who had traveled to Yemen, was under surveillance by JTTFs in two states before he shot two soldiers at a Little Rock, Ark. recruiting station in 2009. A law enforcement source said the FBI later discovered a nexus to Philadelphia - anti-American material generated at local mosque.

"How did a guy like that get lost in the system?" said a federal law enforcement official.

Some veteran agents also say the FBI is not as agile as it boasts, and instead has become more bureaucratic as the number of analysts and their intelligence reports have tripled. They complain that street agents spend too much time gathering data for analysts, who then generate reports - which often land on the desks of those very same agents.

"It's insane - we've recreated the self-licking ice cream cone," said an agent who spent years on the JTTF.

A younger agent who was assigned to the JTTF shortly after graduation from the FBI Academy described the work as unsatisfying and frustrating. "I felt like we were chasing ghosts." He loves his new, more traditional post. "Now I lock up bad guys."

Many agents worry, too, that the FBI's commitment to traditional crime-fighting duties - violent crime, public corruption, drugs, and financial fraud - has waned.

"The terrorists are still out there, and we need to do this significant work, but the feeling is there's nobody left to work serious fraud cases," said a federal prosecutor.

But other longtime agents have embraced the change.

"I feel this tremendous need to work these cases," said Smemo, who became an agent in the 1990s with an eye on fighting drugs and now supervises the domestic terrorism squad here. "Counterterrorism is the FBI's highest priority for a reason. You saw what happened to our country on 9/11. We have to stop it from happening again. What could be more important than that?"

Konrad Motyka, president of the FBI Agents Association, says the bureau needs to strike a balance. "Many changes were inevitable, but it's important that as the FBI transforms itself and pursues its primary mission to protect the homeland that it not leave its core competencies behind."

Creative prosecutions

When the FBI makes an arrest these days, things aren't always as they seem.

The FBI routinely uses tax, false statement, and immigration violations to help deport people it suspects - but cannot prove - are involved in terrorism or financing terrorists, officials said.

"The cases will show up on the public docket as simple immigration cases, but often the fact is what's going on is driven by intelligence," said Meehan, the former U.S. attorney.

Kathyrn Lambert, who supervises an al-Qaeda squad here, said, "There's almost always an immigration nexus that can be exploited."

Lambert, 48, is the most experienced terrorist-hunter in Philadelphia and one of the few women.

"I've been wanting to do this kind of work since I was 12," she said during an interview inside a SCIF, or a Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility, a bug-proof section of the building where the FBI's counterespionage squads are also located.

Lambert wrote her doctoral thesis on terrorism. As a college professor, she found few colleagues versed in the Islamic threat. She joined the FBI in 1995, and has worked in the Middle East and interviewed detainees at Guantanamo.

Lambert supervises a young squad of 16 task force officers and agents, half of whom were infants when Lambert was in college. She urges them to get out of the office to meet people and make sources.

"You'd be surprised," she said, "how many people out there are helping us, providing information, Muslims who don't support terrorism."

Talking to these people is the best way, she said, to achieve the FBI's new mission:

"At the most basic level, our job is to collect information. We work and we work and we work, and still, we know, something can slip through."

To watch a video of Special-Agent- in-Charge George Venizelos speaking about the FBI's role in counter- terrorism, go to watch_FBI

Contact staff writer John Shiffman at 301-320-6655 or


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