Articles

Jul 04, 2018

July Fourth terror plot has a back-to-the-future feel, CNN.com

July Fourth terror plot has a back-to-the-future feel
Peter Bergen
By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
Updated 5:31 PM ET, Mon July 2, 2018

Peter Bergen is a CNN national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and the author of “United States of Jihad: Who Are America’s Homegrown Terrorists and How Do We Stop Them?”

(CNN)The July Fourth terror plot in Cleveland has a back-to-the future feel because the suspect, Demetrius Pitts, “expressed interest in joining al Qaeda,” and wanted to carry out an operation on behalf of the terror organization, according to the FBI complaint about the case that was made public Monday.

Al Qaeda was founded three decades ago in Pakistan in August 1988 and, of course, carried out the 9/11 attacks nearly 17 years ago.

Pitts’ case underlines how the potential threats to the United States by individuals motivated by the ideology of al Qaeda, as well as its spinoff organization, ISIS, continue to come overwhelmingly from American citizens, rather than from the immigrants covered by the Trump travel ban that was upheld last week by the US Supreme Court.

Yet even that threat has, at least for the moment, receded from its height three years ago when ISIS incited dozens of Americans to join or attempt to join the organization or to carry out terrorist operations on its behalf.

With the recent collapse of the ISIS geographical “caliphate” that once was the size of the United Kingdom in the heart of the Middle East, the shine seems to be off the ISIS “brand.”
In 2015, when ISIS was at the height of its power, 80 individuals in the United States were charged with some kind of jihadist terrorist crime, almost all of them inspired by ISIS, according to data collected by New America, a research institution.

By contrast, so far in 2018 only five individuals have been charged with a terrorism crime. including Pitts, according to the New America data.

With ISIS largely out of business, we may see alleged terrorists such as Pitts turning back to al Qaeda as a source of inspiration. Al Qaeda has affiliates in North Africa, Syria and Yemen, all of which continue to have varying degrees of strength.

Like the vast majority of terrorism suspects since 9/11, Pitts, age 48, is a US citizen who allegedly radicalized in the United States. Of the 422 terrorism cases tracked by New America since 9/11, 85% involved US citizens or permanent residents.

The Pitts case is a reminder that the jihadist terrorist threat is almost entirely “homegrown.” While the Supreme Court, traditionally deferential to the executive power of the president when it comes to national security, has upheld the “travel ban” from a number of Muslim-majority countries, the ban is a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist, because jihadist terrorism impacting the United States is largely caused by terrorists long resident in the country.

Pitt’s case also underlines the importance to the FBI of undercover agents and informants. According to the FBI complaint, Pitts came to the attention of the agency in 2015 because of threatening comments he had made on Facebook. An undercover agent was put on the case. Pitts made a number of threats to the agent about carrying out a terrorist attack in Cleveland this July Fourth.

According to New America data, just under half of the more than 400 post-9/11 jihadist terrorism cases used informants or undercover FBI agents.

In the FBI affidavit in Pitts’ case, he comes across as a wannabe spouting off his mouth to the informant about his plans to wreak mayhem in Cleveland during the upcoming July Fourth holiday, but the FBI clearly felt it had enough to arrest Pitts before he might become a danger to others.

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