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A Terrorism Mystery: Where Was the Bureau?

September 18, 2017

If anybody harbors doubts about the FBI’s commitment to fighting terrorism, he need look no further than the arrest last month of Abdullah el-Faisal, a Muslim cleric who law enforcement officials describe as a major jihadi figure.

Click here to read what the police brass say about NYPD ConfidentialIt was the NYPD that prompted el-Faisal’s arrest in Jamaica — more than 1,500 miles from 1 Police Plaza — and not the FBI, which supposedly is the nation’s primary law enforcement agency fighting terrorism.

The unofficial FBI line, as reported in the NY Times, blames federal prosecutors for the Bureau’s non-action.

A possible reason, said the Times, was that FBI agents were concerned “about whether federal prosecutors have lost their appetite to pursue overseas terrorists because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said they should not be tried in civilian courts.”

Another “factor in the reluctance of federal prosecutors to build a case,” the Times reported, “is what former and current law enforcement officials said were Mr. Faisal’s helpful ties to a foreign government — a complicating factor in any prosecution.”  Exactly what does this mean? The Times did not explain.

Click here to read the New York Times profile of Leonard LevittBut an official familiar with Faisal’s arrest provided a different reason for the Bureau’s failure to act: internal feuding over jurisdiction among the FBI’s New York, Washington and Miami offices. Each sought “primacy” over the case, he said.

“They didn’t want to do it so they didn’t anyone else to do it,” the official said on condition of anonymity to speak freely about the case.

“There was no end run here,” the official said. “Twice the NYPD briefed the Joint [NYPD-FBI] Terrorism Task Force,” a reference to the unit that handles terrorism cases. They [the JTTF] couldn’t make a decision because of the bureaucracy.”

What the el-Faisal case indicates, he added, “is that domestic security is not the FBI’s primary interest.”

As has long been known, the FBI and the NYPD have been feuding since the beginning of law enforcement time, which is somewhere in the 1930s.

After 9/11, relations sunk to a new low, with former commissioner Ray Kelly saying he didn’t trust the FBI to protect New York City from another terrorist attack.

As part of an expanded Intelligence Division, Kelly stationed NYPD detectives overseas to rival the FBI’s “legates,” who work out of U.S. embassies in foreign capitals around the world. It was one of those overseas detectives who led to el-Faisal’s arrest.

With Kelly gone, John Miller, the NYPD’s head of counter-terrorism, has forged closer relations with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. [See NYPD Confidential July 14, 2014.] During much of Kelly’s NYPD tenure, Miller served as the FBI’s chief spokesman in Washington.

El-Faisal will be tried by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, instead of in the federal courts.

This not Vance’s first terrorism case. Under Kelly, who was seeking to boost his terrorism-fighting creds, Vance prosecuted two “lone wolf” cases brought by the NYPD — those of Ahmed Ferhani and Mohammed Mamdouh and of Jose Pimentel.

Click here to read the Washington Post article on NYPD ConfidentialThe Bureau distanced itself from both, concluding that the NYPD may have crossed the line in its pursuit. In the Pimentel case in particular, the Bureau stated that Pimentel posed “no imminent threat” because he was incapable of building the pipe bomb he was accused of constructing without the assistance of an NYPD undercover officer, who smoked marijuana with him.

Vance was criticized for both prosecutions, which resulted in guilty pleas to lesser charges.

In the case of el-Faisal, there has been no criticism. Contrary to the FBI agents’ supposed unease with Sessions, sources involved in the case say the Department of Justice signaled the all-clear to both the NYPD and to Vance.

El-Faisal was indicted in NYC on charges he helped the overseas detective, who pretended he wanted to go to Syria to join ISIS. 

Now, the NYPD has requested el-Faisal’s extradition.

And Ray Kelly is probably laughing and saying, I told you so.

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Copyright © 2017 Leonard Levitt