Phone Cases Imploding Without Charges
Two separate cases (one of which I noted Monday) of young Muslim men buying pre-paid telephones in bulk in the Midwest are ending without charges against the men involved:
Two alleged terrorism cases involving men of Middle Eastern descent and bulk purchases of cell phones were in tatters Monday, and Arab-American leaders said the arrested men were victims of racial profiling.
The FBI and Michigan State Police said Monday there is no evidence linking three Texas men arrested in Caro, Mich., to terrorism or a plot to blow up the Mackinac Bridge.
And in Ohio, federal authorities said they were dropping felony terrorism charges against two Arab-American men from Dearborn.
Both cases were prompted by suspicions the men aroused after buying large quantities of cellular telephones. Arab-American leaders and others said discounted cell phones are frequently bought and resold to make money.
While vigilence in this day and age is necessary, in this case, I have to agree with my SLU colleague’s assessment of the cases against the men:
Though it makes sense to be cautious, “it sounds more likely that it is a commercial venture,” said Jean-Robert Leguey-Feilleux, a political science professor and expert on Mideast terrorism at St. Louis University.
It’s true cellular telephones can be used to detonate bombs, but why would terrorists need to purchase so many at one time in a manner that would be likely to arouse suspicion, Leguey-Feilleux asked.
“I doubt very much that many bombs would be on an assembly line,” he said.
Instead, the purchases are likely part of a scheme whereby the GSM phones (which are “locked” electronically to be used with TracFone or other prepaid providers and sold at a discount) are “unlocked” by a middleman to be useful with other companies’ cell services; these unlocked phones can then be sold at a premium, either domestically or in overseas markets.
These two incidents are not the first time bulk purchases have been scrutinized by authorities:
Tony Margis, deputy chief of police in Hemet, Calif., said a Target clerk became suspicious after Middle Eastern men tried to buy about 60 cell phones on New Year’s Eve. The FBI investigation “found it was not nefarious,” Margis said.
More details on the Ohio case are contained in this AP story on the dismissal of charges in that case:
The FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sent bulletins early this year warning police departments nationwide to be alert for bulk purchase of prepaid TracFones, which could be used to finance terrorism. [emphasis added]
Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks said Tuesday that officers had been watching for cars with Michigan, Virginia and Florida license plates after receiving numerous calls from store merchants in recent weeks about men of Middle Eastern descent buying large numbers of prepaid cell phones.
Ali Houssaiky acknowledged smoking marijuana in the car after a police dog detected drug use, according to an affidavit filed to support the arrest.
Abulhassan said he believes the men were targeted because they are Arab-Americans. He referred to a comment by Mincks, who said last week the department did not profile based on ethnicity but said the suspects’ background “caused a bit of a stir.”
“If that’s not profiling, I don’t know what is,” Abulhassan said.
Mincks said Tuesday his department profiles people based on behavior, not background.
Given the DHS/FBI alert given above, it seems we are in for many more of these cases over the coming months–at least until the false positive rate leads authorities to lose interest in these “suspicious” situations.
Update (Steve Verdon): The buying of multiple pre-paid cell phones isn’t just bad tradecraft it is amazingly stupid tradecraft. Buying 80 pre-paid cell phones is like saying, “Please, come arrest me and investigate my background.” Now having 2 or 3 operatives going into a store and buying 1 maybe 2 phones at a time can give you 29 detonators for IEDs. Doing this again in a couple of weeks would ramp that up to 59, and with the added benefit of not arousing an suspicions at all.
Buying 80 pre-paid cell phones at a time is consistent with re-selling the phones for a profit. Of course, now that DHS has enlisted Wal-Mart clerks as their front line informants we will likely see far more phone re-sellers being arrested and investigated for possible terrorist connections. And while, there is indeed the possibility that some of these might be money making schemes for terrorist organizations I think most organizations will be looking into other money making ventures. After all, DHS/FBI have just advertised their intent to investigate any and all such bulk purchases that they are made aware of.