After Maryland arrest, experts say more must be done to fight ISIS in U.S.
WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) —
The arrest of a Maryland man on charges that he was receiving funding from ISIS operatives overseas to plan a terrorist attack in the U.S. demonstrates the success of some measures aimed at combating domestic jihadist terrorism, but analysts say there is still more the government can be doing to keep the public safe.
Mohamed Elshinawy, a 30-year-old Egyptian-born Edgewood resident, was taken into custody Friday after a five-month investigation on charges of attempting to provide material support to terrorists, obstruction of agency proceedings, and making false statements. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 31 years in prison.
According to federal prosecutors, who revealed the arrest Monday, no evidence was found of a specific plot, but Elshinawy allegedly received at least $8,700 from ISIS operatives and used some of that money to buy communications equipment.
When confronted by authorities, prosecutors say Elshinawy claimed he was actually scamming the terrorists and suggested the FBI give him a job tracking terrorist financing.
Court documents detail alleged online conversations between Elshinawy and a childhood friend in Egypt about their support for ISIS and plans for terrorist attacks.
"This case demonstrates how terrorists exploit modern technology to inculcate sympathizers and build hidden networks, but federal agents and prosecutors are working tirelessly and using every available lawful tool to disrupt their evil schemes," said U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein in a statement.
Also on Monday, the Department of Justice announced that a former Army National Guard soldier accused of plotting an attack in Illinois has pleaded guilty to multiple ISIS-related charges. Hasan Edmonds and his cousin had planned an attack on a National Guard base in Joliet, Illinois earlier this year.
Hasan pleaded guilty to conspiring and attempting to provide material support to ISIS. His cousin pleaded guilty to related charges last week. Hasan faces a maximum of 30 years in prison at his sentencing next March.
Mohamed Elshinawy's arrest was the 58th on ISIS-related charges in the U.S. this year, according to the George Washington University Program on Extremism, and it came less than two weeks after a couple apparently inspired by the terrorist group killed 14 people in an attack in San Bernardino, California.
ISIS-related arrests have been made in 22 states, and federal officials say they have open investigations involving ISIS in all 50 states. The Program on Extremism estimates about 300 people in the U.S. are actively spreading ISIS propaganda or communicating about ISIS on social media.
The House Homeland Security Committee has created an interactive map of jihadist and ISIS plots, attacks, and arrests across the country.
Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism, said Elshinawy's case is somewhat unique in that he was allegedly receiving money from overseas, while in many other cases suspects were sending money abroad. Based on the court documents, he said it is unclear whether the people providing the money were direct ISIS operatives or just other sympathizers.
In the wake of the San Bernardino attack and the attack by ISIS operatives that left over 100 people dead in Paris last month, addressing the threat of terrorism has become the top priority for American voters. Given the frequency of ISIS-related arrests over the last year and the number of open investigations, it seems likely the subject will remain a pressing concern throughout the 2016 presidential campaign.
With homeland security and ISIS expected to be major topics of discussion at Tuesday night's Republican debate, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton laid out her own strategy for fighting domestic terror threats in a speech earlier in the day.
At the University of Minnesota, Clinton proposed a "360-degree strategy" to stop ISIS recruitment, training, planning, and execution.
"It is not enough to contain ISIS...we must defeat ISIS. Break its momentum, and then its back," Clinton said.
At the same time, she attacked the "bluster and bigotry" of her Republican rivals.
"We cannot allow terrorists to intimidate us into abandoning our values...That is not who we are as Americans. We are better than that," she said.
According to terrorism analysts, while law enforcement has been successful at identifying and tracking many ISIS sympathizers in the U.S., there are still significant gaps in intelligence, as evidenced by the fact that the San Bernardino suspects were not on any agency's radar before they launched their attack.
Morgan Wright, a cybersecurity analyst and senior fellow at the Center for Digital Government, said the approach authorities often take to combating terrorism is outdated.
"They're trying to employ 20th century thinking to 21st century technology," Wright said.
One of the biggest deficiencies he sees is in collecting human intelligence. With better intelligence, authorities can figure out where plots are being discussed and act faster to prevent them.
Although there is no clear consistent profile of U.S.-based ISIS supporters, the Program on Extremism found that most of the suspects arrested so far have been under 30. Wright suggested there may be a cultural and generational gap between millennial terrorism suspects and middle-aged intelligence analysts trying to figure out what they are doing.
Part of the challenge, said Dr. Danny Davis, director of the Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security Program at Texas A&M University, is that ISIS supporters are sometimes taking on the form of a "leaderless resistance."
"There's no membership card, there's no meetings, but what they have is a common ideology," Davis said. ISIS uses that to encourage them to launch attacks on their own.
"It's kind of terrorism on the cheap."
The FBI may be monitoring social media and locations where extremists gather, such as certain mosques or community centers, Davis said, but if people are acting on their own in support of the goal of establishing a global caliphate, there may not be the warning signs they are looking for.
Hughes observed that in at least half of the 73 ISIS-related cases his department has identified, informants were used. As in Elshinawy's case, financial records also often play a significant role.
"There's always a money trail," he said.
"Counterterror intelligence is a multi-pronged, multi-level federal, state, and local initiative, and it's done in many different ways," said Anthony Roman, investigation and counterterrorism analyst and CEO of Roman & Associates. Electronic data, human intelligence, and financial forensic work are combined to determine the threat level.
"It's changing second to second, minute to minute, hour to hour," he said.
The investigation of Mohammed Elshinawy lasted for nearly half a year before authorities took him into custody last week. Roman said the decision to act against a terror suspect is a difficult one because much can be learned from surveillance of them.
"There is a benefit to allowing individuals potentially involved in future violent militant attacks to communicate, to reach out to associates, to document their plans and their message because we simply develop more intelligence," he said.
"If they think they can get more bang for their buck out of tracking him...then they're going to ride him as long as they can like that," Davis said.
Once the threat becomes imminent or the plot becomes operational, though, authorities have to act.
One aspect of countering the ISIS threat that has proven difficult is the terrorist group's prevalence on social media. Internet providers and social media companies are private businesses and they do not want to act as instruments of the government, but Wright said they do have some responsibility to identify dangerous content.
According to Wright, investigators have been able to find patterns and indicators in online behavior to track money laundering and child pornography, so they should be able to do the same with terrorism.
"If we can put a man on the moon with less computing power than a cheap smartphone has today, we can solve this problem," Wright said.
Twitter and other social media sites often shut down accounts that are flagged for violating their terms of service, but Hughes observed that ISIS supporters have a system in place for dealing with that. In addition to the users who create and amplify propaganda, there are "shout-out" accounts that promote the newly-created accounts of suspended users.
Attitudes toward policing internet content shift as the threat level in the nation rises and the danger becomes more credible, according to Roman. Following the San Bernardino attack, people may be more willing to accept compromises of privacy and free expression.
"It's both a commercial consideration and a privacy consideration," he said.
The conflict between the right to privacy and the need to conduct intelligence operations is ongoing in western democracies, Roman said. One way this has manifested recently is in a debate over government access to encrypted communications.
"We need a constant reassessment of the balance and tug of war between preservation of democracy as it relates to privacy and preservation of democracy as it relates to active and potential future violent acts and attacks."
According to Roman, the government's powers in counterterrorism are always in flux and always lag behind the nature of the terrorist threat, and the fight against ISIS has been no exception to that.
One of the most important steps the government can take, in Davis' mind, is to step up efforts to defeat ISIS on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
"We've got to destroy the Islamic State," he said.
"As long as they're successful, as long as they're holding territory, that's a big recruiting tool."
Law enforcement may be conducting nearly 1,000 active investigations of domestic extremists, but experts say there are more threats out there.
"There's no doubt about it," Davis said. He noted that "not that many people are willing to pull the trigger or throw a bomb," but some may be willing to provide funding or offer material support.
"That's the war we're in," he said, "and it is a war...We have to look at it that way, I'm afraid."
According to Hughes, the ISIS threat is one the U.S. cannot arrest its way out of. He believes there needs to be some third option between hoping someone's radicalization is just a phase and calling in the FBI to arrest them.
"We need to set up some sort of intervention program, system, or safety net...reach those people who are reachable and bring them back in," he said.
This is an area where authorities need to rely on the public for help and the public needs to be able to trust authorities. Hughes said some, especially moderate Muslims, may be afraid of trying to stem a friend or relative's radicalization out of fear that they will end up on a terror watch list themselves by engaging with them.
He suggested the government needs to "provide some level of legal assurance" for those who are trying to pull someone back from the edge of radical activity.
Wright worries that "political correctness" is also getting in the way of stopping terrorism. He pointed to reports that neighbors of the San Bernardino terrorists saw suspicious activity but did not report it because they did not want to look racist.
"Your right to not be offended is trumped by my right not to get killed," he said.
He also cited the attack on Fort Hood by Nidal Hasan in 2009 as an example where someone displayed warning signs of radicalization before the attack but people were afraid to call it out.
"We've got to really synthesize the technology, the policy, and the human aspect of this," Wright said. There needs to be a program that combines all three, because one comment or observation about something suspicious can be enough to open an investigation. In some cases, this may be the only way to prevent an attack.
"What should concern us is what we don't know we don't know," Wright said.