Terrorism or Arbitrage?
Three Palestinian men from Dallas were arrested over the weekend in Michigan after a Wal-Mart employee found their purchase of 80 prepaid TracFones suspicious and authorities found over 1,000 of the phones in their van, along with photos and video of the Mackinac Bridge:
If the hundreds of prepaid cellular telephones found in the minivan seemed odd, the pictures of the Mackinac Bridge were downright troubling to Tuscola County law enforcement officials who have charged three Texas men with terrorism-related crimes.
The phones plus photographs and videos of the 5-mile-long bridge led authorities to believe that the men — two brothers and a cousin, all of Middle Eastern heritage — were targeting the iconic structure linking the Upper and Lower peninsulas, according to a law enforcement official familiar with details of the case.
While the bridge pictures might have been vacation images taken by any tourists, they took on potentially sinister significance because of the men’s bulk purchase at a Caro Wal-Mart of 80 talk-and-toss cell phones that have been used by terrorists to detonate bombs, the official said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
However, the article also includes a rather plausible explanation for why the men would have so many of the phones… good old fashioned arbitrage:
The wife of one of three Texas men arraigned on terrorism-related charges in Michigan says her husband and his relatives are not terrorists, but are simply trying to make money by reselling cell phones.
”They’re locked up in jail for something that they didn’t do,” 20-year-old Lina Odeh said Saturday. …
Odeh said the men were buying the phones to sell to a man in Dallas for a profit of about $5 per phone. She said they were in Michigan because so many people in the Dallas area are doing the same thing that the phones are often sold out. Odeh said she thought her husband and relatives were targeted because of their Arab descent.
The sheer number of phones found in the van–and the apparent absence of any explosive devices–suggests that this explanation might be valid; not even the world’s least competent terrorist would need a dozen (let alone a thousand) cell phones to blow up a single bridge.
As for the possibility of racial profiling in this case, I have to say I’d find any purchase of 80 cell phones at a discount store at the same time suspicious, whether or not the buyer was of Middle Eastern descent, although I doubt their ethnicity is doing them any favors with the local law enforcement agency now.
What may be more amazing is that they amassed the other 900-odd phones without someone finding it odd that they were buying these things in bulk at retail.
Update: A similar situation in Ohio ends without charges against two Muslim men from Dearborn, Michigan.