By Cindy Chang and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
In 2005, Torrance, Calif., police officers searched the apartment of two men suspected of robbing a gas station.
There, the officers found a lengthy manifesto and a list of potential targets, including synagogues and military sites. They had stumbled on an Islamist terrorist cell in the advanced stages of an attack plan.
The San Bernardino massacre, which killed 14 people, has focused new attention on “lone wolf” terrorists who plan attacks away from traditional high-profile targets without directly coordinating with others.
While the FBI typically takes the lead in major terrorism investigations, local police officers and sheriff’s deputies are the initial line of defense — especially in the case of home-grown plotters.
With their local intelligence and connections to the communities they serve, police are often the first to pick up on clues that something is wrong — or to fortuitously come across a dangerous situation. Large agencies like the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have sizable counter-terrorism units that comb the Internet for suspicious postings, follow up on tips and cultivate contacts in the community.
Neighbors or friends might notice strange behavior, an uptick in bulky package deliveries or changes to a person’s routine. Human intelligence is the key, and local authorities are more likely than their federal counterparts to be plugged into those sources, said Deputy Chief Michael Downing, who oversees the LAPD’s counter-terrorism bureau.
But the challenges are daunting. Sometimes, as with the San Bernardino assailants Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, even family members said they did not notice any warning signs. Federal authorities say Malik wrote a Facebook post pledging her allegiance to an Islamic State group, but there is no evidence so far that they were connected to a larger terror cell.
“Self-radicalization poses a tremendous problem, as it is hardest to detect,” Downing said. “For us, it has always been easier to detect a network group adversary, because someone is going to slip up or hit a trip wire, versus a lone wolf.”
At the LAPD, the Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau’s 900 officers include some Muslims and several who speak who speak Arabic or Urdu. The bureau maintains relationships with local mosques and works closely with other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI.
The LAPD’s version of the “If you see something, say something” program, which encourages residents to report suspected terrorist activity, has won praise but also raised concerns in recent years.
In 2007, the LAPD scrapped a plan to map the city’s Muslim population amid an outcry from Muslim groups and civil libertarians.
But law enforcement officials say it is precisely those kinds of grass-roots leads that could stop the next terror plot. Officers are constantly checking out reports of suspicious activity, searching for the smallest of clues, Downing said.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State, San Bernardino, said terror networks have become more sophisticated at delivering their messages through social networks, making it easier to lure followers.
The San Bernardino massacre illustrates the difficulties of stopping terrorists who may have been radicalized mainly behind closed doors while surfing the Internet, said Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who previously oversaw the counter-terrorism unit in L.A. County.
“Sleepy little Orange County is pretty active” in producing terrorists, Hutchens said. She noted that several aspiring foreign fighters arrested and charged by federal authorities in recent years came from the county and were heading to Syria to join ISIS.
In the U.S., homegrown terrorists come from a range of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, making it hard to generate a criminal profile, said Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif., think tank.
It is the terrorist among us — someone like Farook, seemingly leading a normal life — who poses the biggest challenge for law enforcement and who stokes the biggest fear in the public.
“The fact that this was such an ordinary guy, who was likable, who got along with other people at work … It was a Christmas party. It was the Inland Regional Center, which is not at the top of anybody’s perceived target list,” Jenkins said. “That underscores the point that this could happen anywhere. This person I’ve known for years is maybe, as we speak, planning to kill me.”
©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan (C) speaks at a news conferenece, informing the media, that the couple Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27, were responsible for the shooting rampage at the Inland Regional Center, in San Bernardino, California December 2, 2015. REUTERS/Alex Gallardo