Monday, April 13, 2009

Thought Police Patrol Virginia

If the Virginia Fusion Center (VFC) isn't careful, people might think its intelligence analysts are America's thought police. Take a look at its 2009 Threat Assessment, which talks about "subversive thought" as a marker for violent terrorism and identifies "university based student groups as a radicalization node for almost every type of extremist group." (pp. 9, 17). From anarchists to white supremacists, the fusion center analysts are either bored without actual threats to deal with or determined to prove that a web of homegrown stealth jihadists and green anarchists endanger Virginians' safety.

The 215-page threat assessment popped up on the website, this month. Labeled "Law Enforcement Sensitive," it was only meant to be viewed by law enforcement, Department of Defense, and intelligence analysts. According to the fusion center, the terrorism trends of greatest concern for 2009 include terrorism tradecraft, recruitment and radicalization, terrorist use of technology, and terrorism financing. (p. 4)

The emphasis of the report is the "Homegrown" threat. My favorite morsel references how Muslim Brotherhood members cross-populate into different Islamic organizations and attempt to obtain leadership roles:

Subject with ties to Muslim Brotherhood and the Muslim Student Association, appointed to a state immigration committee, subsequently resigned after public accusation of terrorism ties (TIPS C070773); The Muslim American Society, a group linked to the MB, used Boy and Girl Scout troops in 2006 as part of a massive get-out-the-vote campaign targeting Muslim voters in Virginia and elsewhere (Investigative Project on Terrorism). (p. 41, fn. p)

There you have it. A voter participation program and a government appointee dropping out after allegations of terrorism. Whether anyone ever proved that the appointee was a member of Muslim Brotherhood who had ties to terrorism, the report does not say. And self-proclaimed counter-terror expert, Steve Emerson, was the government's source for claims that the get-out-the-vote campaign had terrorist ties. Emerson, of course,is "repeatedly criticized for producing faulty analyses and having an anti-Islamic agenda."

The assessment hones in on domestic groups as a more significant threat than foreign ones on the grounds that there numbers are growing as are the number of incidents. (p. 43) Indeed, the fusion center examined many groups, including a wide swath of white supremacist organizations, including: Creativity Movement, American Resistance, National Socialist Movement, Aryan Nations, Vinlanders Social Club, and the American National Socialist Workers Party. In spite of the vast information in the report about the danger presented by militia and anti-abortion extremists, the Executive Summary emphasizes the Islamic threat (and seemingly endorses ethnic profiling). Ethnic diversity in itself becomes the problem:
All three of these regions [northern Virginia, central Virginia, and Hampton roads] feature ethnically diverse populations with cultural ties to the Middle East, the horn of Africa, Southeast Asia, and other areas heavily impacted by terrorist activities. While the vast majority of these individuals are law-abiding, this ethnic diversity also affords terrorist operatives the opportunity to assimilate easily into society, without arousing suspicion. Virginia's network of colleges and universities also represent a potential avenue of entry for terrorist operatives and a possible forum for recruitment of sympathizers. (pp. 5-6).
The fusion center also puts avowed hate groups on the same level as environmental activists and anarchists. Consider the following statement:
2008 was an active year for the environmental extremists protesting against energy companies in Virginia. The presidential campaign also generated increased chatter among militia and right wing extremists and resulted in a National Socialist Magazine cover mock-up suggesting the assassination of then Senator Obama. (p. 43)
Seriously? Promoting the idea of assassinating the president is on par with an active year for environmental protests?

Equally troubling is the emphasis on radical thought, rather than criminal activity. Even Harry Truman had the grace to say, "In a free country, we punish men for the crimes they commit but never for the opinions they have." But consider this analysis of the As-Sabiqun Islamic Movement. As-Sabiqun (AS) is a Washington, DC-based group that stresses unity among Islamic organizations with the ultimate goal of establishing a modern Islamic state that has publicly voiced support for Shia movements and organizations including Hizballah and the 1979 Iranian Revolution (which overthrew a dictator). Its recent activities include anti-war rallies, prison outreach, and fundraising (p. 53).

Although the group has shied away from criminal activities, AS has promoted radical movements, expressed anti-Semitic views, and may be a conduit for Islamic extremists to pass through on their way to more militant groups. (p. 53)
The Virginia Fusion Center is not saying that As-Sabiqun itself is a terror threat because its activities are legal and legitimate -- anti-war rallies, prison outreach, and such. Political Research Associates and Liberty Beat have no tolerance for anti-Semitic views of any group, but it is troubling that AS comes under scrutiny because members may later go on to more militant groups. What other organizations does law enforcement suspect of being "conduits"?

In many cases, the fusion center reports on the legal, protected activities of radical groups. Literature distribution, student recruitment, internet usage, rallies, demonstrations, dumpster diving, train hopping, and activist training camps are mentioned. We read of "Anarchist Extremists'" public disturbances, conferences, and protests, including conferences in November 2007 and January 2008. The activists' "public disturbance" did not target the government, however. They confronted suspected white supremacists in Harrisonburg. (p.44, fn. r, s) Oh, the horror.

According to the fusion center, the New African Black Panther Party’s newsletter “Fed-Up” “catalogues a broad spectrum of alleged prisoner abuses and allegations of prison system corruption and features inflammatory rhetoric to rally prisoners and their associates on the outside to unite against law enforcement and the correctional system.” (p. 50). God forbid. Fusion Center analysts found reference to Virginia locales in an edition of Fed-Up found at the website of the Thomas Merton Center, a pacifist organization. (p.50, n. cc)

When it comes to current threats of terrorist activity, the 2009 Virginia Fusion Center threat assessment is weak on details. "Information of criminal and suspicious incidents is infrequent and inconsistent" in the Commonwealth. (p. 77) Most of the suspicious activity reported by citizens in the context of technology appears to be "spam related text messages or Nigerian style email scams." (p. 84) Of five reported hacking incidents, two email threats to university networks were sent by the hate group Army of God. (p. 84)

The fusion center's threat assessment is problematic because it conflates violent and criminal action with a wide range of ill-defined anti-government and political thought (no matter how racist some of it may be). After dealing with the threat of international terrorism for a mere 16 pages, it goes on and on to paint a picture of an ubiquitous, radical Islamic threat. "Clusters of radicalized local Muslims" are invoked as the boogeymen behind "unresolved suspicious incidents" like surveying, photographing, or videotaping critical infrastructure to include bridges, tunnels, military and government facilities and airports, although none "have currently been linked to terrorist activity." (p. 52, fn. ee)

This assessment also defines "Anarchist extremists" as an anti-government movement which rejects governmental rule and police authority, and advocates violent means to overthrow social, political and economic hierarchies. The inclusion of such a group in an official terror threat assessment -- undoubtedly by analysts from Homeland Security and the FBI, including state employees who all come together at the fusion center's suburban Richmond compound -- shows that the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act (HR1955) is alive in the minds of domestic intelligence. The thought police are on patrol. Everyone interested in knowing how your Homeland Security dollars are being spent should read this report. And they might ask whether Fusion Centers set their sights on "subversion" to find real threats or to justify the Fusion Center's continued existence.

"Constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press
do not permit a State to forbid or regulate advocacy of the use
of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is
directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action
and is likely to incite or produce such action."

- Brandenburg v. Ohio (U.S. Supreme Court, 1969)