Sunday, March 04, 2007

Criminal Intent

In September 2004, just days after Chechen rebels raided a school in Beslan, Russia, killing 331 men, women and children, the Los Angeles Police Department summoned senior officers to its decaying downtown headquarters.

The issue on the table: What would they do if a similar attack took place here?

Most of the talk that morning was about where to deploy SWAT teams if terrorists ever took over a local school. Detective Mark Severino, one of the city's counterterrorist investigators, then asked his colleagues: "Do we even have Chechen extremists in Los Angeles?" Blank stares and silence filled the room. His boss at the time, Deputy Chief John Miller, told him to go find out.

Within weeks, Detective Severino, working with a team of LAPD intelligence analysts, tapped Russian underworld informants, and uncovered an international car-theft ring that wound its way from the streets of Los Angeles to the Chechens' doorstep in the Republic of Georgia. The California racket was disguised as a charity group sending aid to the region. Based on other information, Detective Severino suspected that the operation was more than just a fraud scheme. His theory: The proceeds from stolen cars might somehow be financing Chechen terrorist operations around the world.

On Feb. 15, 2006, the LAPD busted eight people for fraud in connection with the alleged scam and issued arrest warrants for 11 others. Chechen terrorist financing was never mentioned in the indictments or in the press release that trumpeted the takedown of the operation. There were no news conferences claiming victory in the war on terror. Yet Russian police, U.S. intelligence and State Department officials familiar with the case today all say that they believe the LAPD's breakup of the ring was a setback to international terrorists.

Los Angeles has created one of the most active counterterrorist police departments in the country, often reacting to overseas attacks with its own contingency planning. Interestingly, “24” show also has all the CTU drama in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles police's low-key strategy is to use local laws -- from parking ordinances to antifraud statutes -- to crack down on suspected terrorists. Each arrest was the result of a conventional criminal investigation using California state law with no need for warrants, phone taps or secret court orders. None of the cases ever mentioned terrorism at all. Trials are still pending in many cases but there have been dozens of guilty pleas. In some cases, suspected foreign terrorists arrested on fraud charges have been scooped up by federal agents and deported on separate federal immigration charges before their criminal trials got under way.

Some civil-rights groups and Muslim organizations are concerned about putting too much counterterrorism responsibility in the hands of local police. Well, whom else you want to be responsible for counterterrorism? We can’t give that responsibility to Talibans.

Hamid Khan, the executive director of the South Asian Network, a local civil-rights group representing many Islamic community groups, says that many Muslims are fearful of the LAPD's reputation for excessive force and view much of its policing efforts in Muslim migrant areas of the city as insensitive. LAPD’s “excessive” force is nothing compared to what local police does in Iraq, Iran or any other Middle East countries.

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