10,000 Lakes — and 33 Terrorist Groups? (Probably Not.)

A reporter for the local Twin Cities Daily Planet has been devoting a not inconsiderable amount of resources – by her own count, three emails and at least five phone calls, over the course of three weeks – pursuing what I strongly suspect is a non-story: the not-actually-shocking revealation that the Sheriff’s Department in Ramsey County, Minnesota – in which the capital, Saint Paul, has the misfortune to be located – has investigated thirty-three “terrorist groups”.

Given that this is the TC Daily Planet (and that the article was linked to from Twin Cities Indymedia), I have a really, really strong suspicion that these journalistic efforts – making dubious use of the state equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act – are less about discovering just how many bad people are here, and more about trying to dig up salacious, hype-able, and misrepresentable information that perfectly innocent and harmless “social justice” groups in the Twin Cities are being monitored by The Man.

That’s a non-story, Ms. Hollish. Everybody knows this, already. Besides, you’re likely mis-interpreting the County report, anyway.

If there’s any meat to this story (there really isn’t), it’s might be that, almost a decade after 9/11, the United States Government still does not have a uniform nationwide working definition of “terrorism” which is universally adopted and adhered to. Well, they do, actually, have such a definition – something about groups which use or threaten violence as a means of political coercion. It’s just not super-clear that everyone is on the same page about this.

Ms. Hollish – and your average TCDP reader, for that matter – doesn’t want to hear about al Shabaab, the Somali group with ties to al Qaeda. Nor do they want to hear about al Qaeda itself. Or the PFLP, or Mara Salvatrucha. They might be briefly interested to learn whether the Hell’s Angels, the Mexican Mafia, the Gangster Disciples, or the Crips are counted among the “terrorist groups”, though.

That’s four bona-fide transnational terrorist organizations, and four international criminal organizations. Add in a couple of front groups, and you’re still probably not above a dozen entities, let alone anywhere near thirty-three. (Though that number is almost certainly misleading; see below.)

I’m pretty confident that one could come up with a decent-sized list of what should probably rightly be called “extremist groups”, rather than “terrorist groups”. For example, the National Socialist Movement, that charming collection of vitriolic racists, and the Minnesota Militia, if it still exists. Not many people outside of the Tea Party are going to argue too much about those, right?

But how about those eternally-innocent-yet-relentlessly-overpersecuted “social justice” groups we all know and try to ignore? Food Not Bombs? Investigated elsewhere, so possibly on the list, somewhat sadly. Students for “Democratic” Society, a/k/a SDS? Possibly on the list. The Anti-War Committee? Given that several members have been subpoena’d in an international-terrorism investigation in Chicago, not that unlikely. ALF and ELF? Given recent investigations… perhaps, and – let’s be honest, here – for pretty good reason. Throw in another half-dozen local radical groups who’ve caused trouble in recent years, or threatened to, and you’re still barely halfway to the magic number of 33 “terrorist” organizations, and unlikely to have included any groups that should come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s read a paper in the last year or three, whether they squat in a commune in southern Minneapolis or not.

So, who are the other dozen or so “terrorist” groups in Ramsey County? I don’t know; I haven’t seen the list, obviously. But I can make two cynically educated guesses, here.

First, I’m guessing that Ms. Hollish and her readers want to discover something really salacious – that the Friends of the Ramsey County Library have been labelled a “terrorist organization”, for instance. I really, really doubt this is going to be the case, even if – shock horror! – the roommate of the sister of the step-mother of the Assistant Deputy Treasurer once attended a Black Panther meeting in Chicago in 1968.

Second, I’m going to guess that the rest of the list is padded out with obscure but fairly inarguable international terrorist groups you and I have never heard of, a front organization or two, and maybe several transnational drug cartels with regional connections.

None of this should come as any real surprise, truth be told. I’m guessing there isn’t going to be anything particularly exciting on the list, if and when it ever gets released, and I’m guessing that won’t stop the more excitable people from getting their undies in a twist about one or more of the groups’ inclusion.

That being said, Ms. Hollish’s latest article seems to suggest that the RCSO are violating the MGDPA, or just generally being dickwads, by claiming not to have any information on these groups, or at least information that’s responsive to the MGDPA request. There’s no particularly great conspiracy, here – the MGDPA only applies to records or data that a (responsive) organization creates or controls. If the RCSO receives data from the FBI or the JTTF, that data is not releasable under the MGDPA. (If it was, it would basically circumvent the Freedom of Information Act, and the Fed’s own dissemination controls, as all you’d need to do to get anything was find some small, unsophisticated local agency with access, and make a back-door request through them. Alas, it doesn’t work that way.)

However that’s probably moot, and it’s probably worth noting that the “thirty-three terrorist groups” figure is almost certainly, in and of itself, misleading. Why? Two reasons.

First, they’re an estimate. Second, they’re probably not the most interesting figure in the chart, which can be seen here.

2009 estimates of performance? 22 “domestic terrorist groups investigated”, and 11 “international terrorist groups investigated”, of course. But what about the next two lines?

“Prepare and Disseminate Terrorism Information Briefs”? 24
“Number of Partners Reached via Information Briefs”? 100

The last line probably doesn’t mean much – more-or-less the number of entities who’ve been BCC’d on investagatory “work products” over the course of the year. It’s the other line that probably tells the real story: twenty-four “information briefs” prepared and disseminated.

As should be self-evident, 24 is less than 33, from which one can infer all sorts of things. My educated guess is that the best inference to make is that there are actually only a very small number of terrorist groups in Ramsey County. Not thirty-three, but perhaps five or less, and probably just two.

Note the wording really carefully – it doesn’t say there were thirty-three investigations, it says there were thirty-three groups investigated. And nowhere does it say that those groups actually exist in Ramsey County.

Law enforcement spend a ginormous amount of time looking for things that aren’t there. It’s part of the job, an aspect of being attentive and responsible, and a means of keeping the community safe. Probably 90% of law-enforcement intelligence reports are little more than lengthy variations on “we came, we looked, we found nothing of interest and/or concern”. The DOJ gets a burr up it’s butt about, say, the LTTE, and tasks all the JTTFs to check for known or reported supporters or affiliates. The JTTF turns around and asks all the local agencies “have any information on the LTTE, a/k/a the Tamil Tigers, their supporters, or advocates, allied groups, or other bodies with anti-Sri Lankan attitudes?”, and the local bodies check their files, and say “no, sorry”.

Assuming you’re not padding the stats, that’s one terrorist group investigated, and nothing disseminated.

Now, if you actually do have a local terrorist group in your jurisdiction – and Ramsey County has, at minimum, al-Shabaab – you’re going to investigate this fairly heavily, and you’re going to make quite regular reports. Note that there were an estimated 24 reports produced and disseminated in 2009. Two a month? That’s where my money is. It could be a fortnightly dissemination about a single group, but I’m going to go with “Monthly products on al-Shabaab and one other group”.

If you look at the previous year – 2008 – the total number of briefs disseminated was just eighteen. From that – and the fact that the RCSO was the lead body investigating threats to the Republican National Convention – I think it’s safe to say that, however much Indymedia or Twin Cities Daily Planet readers might furtively wish otherwise, the RCSO is not counting peaceniks and “social justice” groups among the “thirty-three terrorist organizations” they’ve investigated, simply because I’m pretty sure the “RNC8” legal defense were given more than eighteen RCSO-authored intelligence reports related to the RNC.

That’s my take, anyway. I know it won’t sway the more excitable radicals out there, who are very desperate to believe that Sheriff Bob Fletcher is an evil, freedom-hating bastard, but, hey, I just go where the numbers and common sense take me.

Published in: General, History, Security | on November 18th, 2010| 1 Comment »

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  1. On 11/18/2010 at 10:48 am Nemo Said:

    A fun little bit of back-of-the-napkin counterintelligence work: Assuming monthly reporting on al-Shabaab, it’s possibly instructive to note that they first came to local media attention in late 2008, after one-time Minnesota resident Shirwa Ahmed committed a suicide attack in Mogadishu. It’s reasonable to assume they were on (local) law enforcement’s radar prior to that – perhaps from sometime in the early summer. That would account for, perhaps, a third of the eighteen briefs disseminated by the RCSO in 2008, and allow for the unknown-but-speculated second terrorist organization with monthly reporting to have been investigated since Jan 2008 or prior. Assuming various things, it might actually be possible for a skilled researcher with too much time on their hands to dig through old newspaper stories from 2006-2008 and, perhaps, come up with an educated guess as to who my theorized Terrorist Organization Number Two is.

    That would, probably, be a much more productive avenue of inquiry than badgering the RCSO for documents they don’t control and can’t release.

    Just sayin’…

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