In counterterrorism, patience can either be deadly or its own reward. In the case of Abdel Hameed Shehadeh, a 21-year old New Yorker from Staten Island, it has proven to be a virtue.
The New York Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation watched Shehadeh, born in the USA to parents of Palestinian origin, for two solid years, meeting with him on several occasions, before arresting him in Honolulu on Friday and charging him with multiple counts of lying to the FBI, punishable by up to eight years in prison.
Though he is legally innocent 'til proven otherwise, Shehadeh appears to be an archetypal wanna-be, home-grown jihadist. Though the complaint does not discuss the source of his radicalization, Shehadeh apparently grew increasingly angry after a traffic accident in 2007. Contemplating the emptiness of his young life, he quickly gravitated to extremist interpretations of his Muslim faith.
The complaint shows the extent to which law enforcement's cyber-specialists have now penetrated militant Islamist websites and recruited law-abiding, and not-so-law abiding informants in the Muslim community. At one point in the investigation, Shehadeh even volunteered to be an informant for the Bureau if federal agents would help get him off the "no fly" list.
According to the complaint, law enforcement was onto him long before he tried flying to Pakistan to link up with the Taliban or other like minded groups to wage jihad on June 13, 2008. The complaint says that federal agents and an NYPD detective on the Joint Terrorism Task Force questioned Shehadeh about his trip before he even boarded the flight that night at JFK.
During that interview and at several meetings thereafter, Shehadeh kept insisting that he was traveling to Pakistan to attend a madrassa, a religious school, or later, an Islamic university in Islamabad. But tipped off by the Feds, Pakistan turned him back. So, too, did Jordanian officials when he tried traveling to Amman in October of that year.
In the meantime, federal agents and NYPD cyber specialists were busy monitoring Shehadeh's various websites which advocated "violent jihad against the West" – among them, www.sunnah101.com, www.civiljihad.com, and www.mymakkah.com.
The sites featured sermons by leading Al Qaeda lights – among them, Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who is the Al Qaeda leader in Yemen, whom he told an informant friend, had helped inspire his determination to carry out jihad. He had sent Awlaki several e-mails, but his muse did not respond.
Unable to travel to Pakistan or another jumping off point for jihad, Shehadeh decided to get to the battlefront by trying to be all that he could be. In October, 2008, he tried enlisting in the U.S. Army at the recruiting station in Times Square. There, he told an army recruiter that he had not been outside of the U.S. except for a month-long trip to Israel that year, ostensibly to visit relatives. He also showed the recruiter an expired passport with an Israeli stamp, the complaint states. (He had already ripped the page containing his Pakistan visa out of his passport.) But the Army, too, was onto him.
Although he had started most of his websites from Staten Island under assumed names – he eventually acknowledged that they were his creation. In conversations with at least two confidential witnesses, Shehadeh said that "he wanted to die as a martyr," attempting to convince them that there were "no more excuses" for avoiding jihad. He also told Witness #1 that he had tried to be deployed to Iraq with the army so that he could commit "treason" and "fight American soldiers."
During his visit to Hawaii in October, 2009, Shehadeh "paid $115 to fire various firearms" at a gun club. According to one of the club's employees, he fired an M-16 assault rifle, a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol, a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol, a 12-gauge pump action shotgun, and a .44 caliber Magnum revolver.
Knowing that he was under surveillance and increasingly desperate to get to Yemen to learn Arabic "on the battlefield," the complaint states, Shehadeh met with the FBI and in February and again in April, offering to provide information if they could get him off the "no fly" list. The agents made no promises, but "as part of a ruse" led Shehadeh "to believe that he was an informant for the FBI."
Perhaps acting in his new role as FBI informant, unable to leave Hawaii, Shehadeh finally told the agents that he had tried to get to Pakistan in 2008 to receive training in "guerrilla warfare" and "bomb-making," the complaint states, and that "his mindset in 2008 was to do "whatever was necessary to drive the United States out of Muslim lands."
At least one of the witnesses against him has already pled guilty to having served under a senior Al Qaeda official. Information provided by CW #1 has proven "reliable and accurate in the past," the complaint states in a footnote.
Knowing when to end a surveillance operation and go with what you've got is often a tough call for law enforcement. But in this case, it was not that tough a call, one law enforcement official told me.
Federal agents might have waited for him to meet other like-minded jihadis here at home, or even helped him get to Pakistan to learn more about the training and militant networks that threaten American soldiers and civilians at home and abroad. But as U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, of the Eastern District of New York, explained in announcing the arrest and charges Monday, "we and our partners in law enforcement are committed to preventing terrorist acts before the plots can be set in motion."
In this case, two years was long enough to persuade Mr. Shahadeh to come in from the cold, or since he was in Hawaii, from the federal heat.
Law enforcement seems to have been all over his case. But the proliferation of such angry young men should remind us – yet again -- that the fight against militant Islamist terrorism is becoming an increasingly home-grown challenge.