Skip to comments.Peoria part of terrorist 'circuit'
Posted on 12/30/2003 10:07:33 PM PST by BCrago66
Former West Peorian Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri has been locked up as an enemy combatant, but his terrorist comrades continue to work in central Illinois.
Peoria and Champaign are part of a seven-city "circuit" that moves and disperses terrorists to specific sites across the nation, says Peoria County Sheriff Mike McCoy.
McCoy got that information at a recent FBI conference in Springfield. He shares that snippet of intelligence not to panic central Illinois, but to stress what the FBI told police at the conference: America, including much of its law-enforcement community, has not taken seriously enough the threat of al-Qaida in this country.
"Police and Americans don't understand," McCoy says. "...
They hate you. ... They are so focused on what they're doing, time is no object. They're patient."
The speaker at the police seminar was an FBI interrogator who served in the Lebanese military and speaks several dialects of Arabic. Those qualifications helped him to question 150 terrorism-related detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
During his seminar, the FBI agent mentioned Peoria a handful of times in reference to al-Marri, the Bradley University graduate student arrested by the FBI in late 2001 at the West Peoria apartment he shared with his family.
Federal authorities allege the Qatari national had direct ties to Osama bin Laden, Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and alleged Sept. 11 money man Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawawi. Al-Marri was charged in federal court with running a credit-card scam to fund al-Qaida. But last June, President Bush named al-Marri an enemy combatant, one of just three nationwide, a designation that pulled him out of the civilian court system, put him under military control and stripped him of most Constitutional rights.
After the FBI seminar, Sheriff McCoy introduced himself to the speaker/agent who then told McCoy about a "circuit" that runs from the West to East coasts.
The terrorists enter the United States in San Francisco and Los Angeles, then move to Phoenix, then Denver. From there, some head to Peoria and Champaign. Some terrorists remain in those communities, while others head on to New York City.
McCoy says he and the agent did not get a chance to talk much more about the circuit. The agent did not specify the numbers of terrorists who may be working in central Illinois, nor did he say how the FBI is monitoring them.
"One of the hard things is, you can't infiltrate these groups," McCoy says. "They know all these guys. It's not like you can go and say, 'I want to join your group.' "
McCoy says Peoria and Champaign serve as ideal hosts for terrorists. Each city is home to a university with numerous Middle Easterners among the student body, thus enabling al-Qaida operatives to blend into each community.
McCoy says al-Qaida ops in central Illinois have been performing work similar to al-Marri: raising money and working computers. That information dovetails with a June report in Newsweek magazine, which cited FBI sources in pegging the Midwest (specifically Peoria) as the brains of terrorist activity in America.
McCoy says, "I'm not saying Peoria is condemned to die by terrorists. But we need to be vigilant."
The FBI agent who talked with McCoy declined to speak to the Journal Star. Also refusing comment were Champaign County Sheriff Daniel Walsh, the Peoria FBI office and the Springfield-based U.S. Attorney's Office, whose 46 counties include Peoria and Champaign.
Peoria Police Chief John Stenson said he was unaware of any specific terrorism circuit that moves through Peoria. But as for the need for police to increase their awareness for possible terrorists, he said, "McCoy is 100 percent correct on this. ... Local procedures have changed."
A Peoria officer works full-time on a regional FBI task force, and other officers help out when needed. Stenson declined to talk in specifics about the work his department does with the FBI. But he did say, "It's ... intelligence, to run down leads."
For instance, he says, his department has worked on cases involving the seizing of computers. During the two highest levels of national security alerts - orange and red; currently, it's set at orange - the task force becomes more fastidious. For example, if a car is left unattended in front of government building for what police feel is an inordinate time, they will tow away the auto as a precaution.
Asked how much work the regional task force does in Peoria, Stenson would only say, "They're busy."
City police also work with the Illinois State Terrorism Task Force, comprised of agencies like law enforcement, fire departments, public works departments and emergency services. As part of a federal nationwide initiative after Sept. 11, the task force was created to prepare for the event of a terrorist attack. But this year, the task force also began working on terrorism prevention, says Peoria Police Capt. Steve Eakle, the local liaison to the task force.
In essence, police are keeping a keener eye out for anomalies, especially at water plants, bridges, airports and other potential terrorism targets. For instance, police recently stopped a group of people taking up-close photos of a Peoria bridge; after contacting the state task force and questioning the photographers, police deemed them no risk and let them go.
Also as part of the effort, police simply pay closer attention to peculiarities during routine stops, Eakle says. He points to patrol officer Greg Metz, who pulled over al-Marri for a traffic violation in early 2001. During the stop, al-Marri offered to post cash bond for the violation, in the process pulling from his trunk a briefcase stuffed with cash. Officer Metz later reported the oddity to his supervisors, and information helped start the FBI's probe of al-Marri.
Though Sheriff McCoy doubts the Peoria area will be attacked by terrorists, he has deputies taking a closer look at bridges, petroleum tanks and large manufacturers.
But he mostly stresses to deputies the need to be alert during traffic stops. He likes to remind them that Timothy McVeigh was initially arrested not for the Oklahoma City bombing but by a trooper who pulled him over for a lack of a license plate. In questioning McVeigh, the trooper spotted a bulge in his waistband that turned out to be a loaded gun. Two days later, still in custody on the gun violation, McVeigh was tied to the bombing from evidence culled from the remains of the truck he'd rented for the attack.
That's how McCoy thinks America will fight terrorism on the home front. Not with bombastic, high-profile arrests, but thorough police work on a daily basis, looking for a deadly enemy hiding somewhere in central Illinois.
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