After years of undercover work, the U.S. is starting to pull back the veil on what appear to be loose-knit, perhaps deeply rooted networks of would-be terrorists who support each other even as many prepare to act alone.
Heightening the concern, these complex webs of connections and support seem to span several years and often cut across the ideological lines that delineate one terror group from another.
“Increasingly, the FBI’s had a lot of these,” according to a law enforcement official familiar with one of the more recent cases. “I think it is going on nationally.”
The official, speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity, also said it was clear that "a lot of this predated ISIL," using an acronym for the Islamic State terror group.
Concern has reached all the way to the White House. After a meeting with national security officials late Thursday at the Pentagon, President Barack Obama said, “It’s conceivable that there are some networks here [in the U.S.] that could be activated.”
"We have to do a better job of disrupting networks," he added.
Yet former counterterror officials warn that doing so promises to be difficult, because what holds these networks together cannot be undone simply by trying to dismantle a single terror group.
"The differences between al-Nusra and ISIS [Islamic State] and al-Qaida and al-Shabab – for the regular people, it’s a distinction without a difference," said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the George Washington University's Program on Extremism. “What’s really underlying it is the ideological underpinnings that drive these people.”
In many cases, researchers say, for the members of these groups, it comes down to a willingness to embrace violence to fill holes or gaps in their lives.
"If ISIS is eliminated tomorrow and moves on, there are going to be other groups that pop up, and these individuals are already primed," said Hughes, who previously worked at the National Counterterrorism Center. "They’ll latch onto the next foreign terrorist organization."
Perhaps no case illustrates the dangers as much as that of Nicholas Young, 36, a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit police officer from Fairfax, Virginia, arrested this past week for trying to help the Islamic State acquire mobile messaging accounts for use in recruiting new members.
The arrest appeared to be the culmination of years of undercover work that most likely began in late 2010, when FBI agents interviewed Young about an acquaintance.
"Six years is a very long time for an active FBI investigation," Hughes said. "They were clearly concerned."
According to an FBI affidavit, the acquaintance in question was Zachary Chesser, who had been arrested earlier in 2010 after trying to travel to Somalia to join the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab terror group.
Young told investigators that he was shocked by the charges and that it would be his religious and personal duty to have told someone if he suspected Chesser of any terror-related activity.
But something got the FBI’s attention, and investigators kept him in their sights.
"From the law enforcement perspective, the hope is that if you follow this individual, he lights up the system and you get to see if there are any networks you need to be worried about," Hughes said.
It would seem Young lit up the system.
By January 2012, Young was in regular contact with an undercover law enforcement officer.
That March, the undercover officer reported on a meeting with Young and two other men to discuss "the fundamentals of marksmanship."
One of the two other men then joined the undercover officer and Young at a restaurant for the first of several shared meals over the following months. They talked about jihad, martyrdom and evading authorities.
Both men at the March meeting would later be arrested on the same day, February 17, 2012.
One of them, who was not named in court documents, was arrested on charges of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
The other man, Amine El-Khalifi of Alexandria, Virginia, was arrested in a sting operation as he attempted to carry out a shooting and suicide bombing at the U.S. Capitol in the name of al-Qaida.
Even after those arrests, investigators continued to watch Young, who confided he had twice traveled to Libya a year earlier to fight with the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, an al-Qaida-linked group trying to overthrow then-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
By 2014, Young was expressing growing admiration for the Islamic State, advising an FBI informant on how to reach the terror group. Thinking the informant had successfully joined the ranks of IS, Young tried to send him the mobile messaging gift cards just last month. That act led to his arrest.
More cases likely
Law enforcement officials refuse to say whether the six-year investigation of the former Metro Transit officer will yield more arrests, but a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Washington field office said it is likely that more cases are on the way.
“Because of the national significance of Washington, D.C., and the vast number of potential geographic and human targets, northern Virginia and the surrounding area are likely to continue to experience arrests of individuals who have provided material support to designated terrorist organizations,” said the FBI’s Lindsay Ram.
Ten people have been arrested in Virginia on terror-related charges since March 2014, according to Hughes of the George Washington University extremism program. Only New York (18) and Minnesota (13) have seen more terror-related arrests in that period of time.
“A lot of these cases have to do with in-person ... recruitment or radicalization, where they reinforce each other,” Hughes said.
Still, law enforcement officials warn against underestimating the power of social media, as evidenced in Thursday’s arrest of Erick Jamal Hendricks, 35, of Charlotte, North Carolina, charged with trying to recruit members for an IS sleeper cell — a group of willing terrorists who remain inactive and out of sight until they are called upon to join a plot.
Court documents show the FBI was able to link Hendricks through social media to several other U.S.-based IS followers.
One of them, Amir Said Rahman Al-Ghazi, 38, was arrested in June 2015 after trying to buy an AK-47 assault rifle from an undercover agent.
Another, Elton Simpson, was killed in May 2015 along with Nadir Hamid Soofi, when the two tried to attack an event in Garland, Texas, where amateur cartoonists were drawing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
The FBI says Hendricks had been in touch with Simpson via social media about a week prior to the Texas attack, and even connected Simpson with an undercover FBI agent who was in Garland at the time.
Social media link
For Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, evidence that Hendricks and Simpson knew each on social media is especially worrisome.
"One thing that we know is that Junaid Hussain, who was functioning as an external operations connector/official for the Islamic State, was in touch with Elton Simpson," Gartenstein-Ross said. Rather than contact between Simpson and Hendricks "being informal, there may have been a formal ISIL hand in helping to connect these disparate individuals together."
Some of Hendrick’s claims may lend additional credence to those concerns.
During a conversation on social media in April 2015, Hendricks told an undercover FBI agent he was in contact with "senior people."
"Does the head give orders?" the agent then asked.
"Only advice," Hendricks replied.
"And connect ppl [people] to form 'gro ups,'" Hendricks added, breaking up the word "groups" as he did with other words he feared would draw the attention of law enforcement.
"The networks are definitely broader, they’re definitely thicker and they’re definitely more interconnected than we’ve ever seen before," Gartenstein-Ross said.
Endurance and adaptability
Another concern stemming from the arrests of Nicholas Young and Erick Jamal Henderson is that despite arrests, disruptions and the watchful eye of law enforcement, the loose-knit terror networks seem to be able to sustain themselves — and, in some cases, even outlive the terror groups that helped spark their creation.
“The adaptability of the threat moves faster than the state can keep up with it,” cautioned Mubin Shaikh, an expert who has worked with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.