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The Terrorists Next Door?
An FBI agent spends years investigating Middle Eastern men in Northern Virginia who want to sell guns, buy phony visas, and offer to procure a missile launcher. Are they terrorists—or just criminals talking big? By Harry Jaffe
Comments () | Published January 1, 2010

Pete Ashooh is about as old school as an FBI agent gets. From the buzz cut to the thin smile to the sensible black shoes, he’s the archetypal gumshoe—Dragnet’s Jack Webb. With one difference: Ashooh is of Lebanese descent.

He drives the streets of the capital in a silver Dodge. The trunk usually holds an MP-5 submachine gun and a few bulletproof vests. “I keep my baby Glock in my gear bag,” he says one day as we cruise across the Potomac River.

In early 2002, Ashooh was summoned to a meeting at the US Attorney’s office in Alexandria. The interview room had bare walls, no windows, a conference table. Seated there was a young man who also traces his origins to the Middle East. He was wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, serving time on an embezzlement rap.

For his protection, we’ll call him Youssef.

The inmate had asked to meet with Ashooh. A prisonmate was one of the men who had helped the 9/11 hijackers get fake driver’s licenses. Ashooh had investigated them as accessories to the hijackings and gathered evidence to jail them. His affidavits on the case became part of the 9/11 Commission report.

Now Youssef told Ashooh he remembered seeing his prisonmate at a mosque in Arlington. He had seen him again at a Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles office. He suspected that the DMV agent had helped the man get licenses. Could his tips be useful?

Ashooh and Youssef talked for an hour and a half. Both had grown up in Northern Virginia. They chatted about Middle Eastern dishes at their favorite restaurants. They talked about high schools and people they might both know.

“We hit it off,” Ashooh says.

Youssef said he was racked with guilt about the embezzlement scheme that had landed him in prison. A youthful mistake, he called it.

“When I get out, I want to work with you,” he told Ashooh. “I want to make up for what I did.”

Ashooh took notes. At the end of the interview, he placed them in a manila folder and shook hands with the inmate.

“I’ll call you,” Youssef told him.

Ashooh filed away Youssef’s name. He had heard similar offers during his 25 years with the FBI.

The FBI has always relied on informants to make cases, but they have become more important in its new mission of stopping the next terrorist attack.

For decades, the FBI has made its reputation investigating clear-cut crimes—kidnappings, espionage, bank robberies, white-collar fraud, drugs, organized crime. Agents are often able to finish a case and clearly state what the crime is, what the damage was, and prove that something bad happened. Now, more than eight years after the 9/11 attacks reoriented the agency toward national security and counterterrorism, many of its cases are murkier.

Most of the FBI’s arrests in terrorism cases now come long before the attack itself, meaning the ultimate intent of the plot or the suspect isn’t always clear—and it’s not even always clear that a crime has occurred.

“The FBI has changed its policy—it’s trying to intervene much earlier,” says Gary LaFree, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, based at the University of Maryland. “That creates a paradox. The public wants law enforcement to get involved earlier, but the farther you get up the threat chain, the less crime there may be to report and the less convincing it might be to a jury.”

This fall, in what US attorney general Eric Holder said is perhaps the most dangerous plot uncovered since 9/11, agents working in New York and Denver arrested an airport-shuttle driver, Najibullah Zazi, for conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction (explosive bombs) against persons or property in the United States. We may never know what his ultimate target was.

In many cases, the line between aggressive talk and terrorist plots constantly worries agents on the front lines of the threat.

“In terrorism cases,” LaFree adds, “the majority of suspects are convicted of other offenses, like firearms trafficking or money laundering. The charges are much less serious.”

Someone convicted of plotting a terrorist attack might get life in prison; a person who might be a terrorist but has been convicted only of selling guns could get a year or more.

Those parameters make cases hard for the FBI—and harder still to explain to the public.

LaFree asks: “What would have happened if the 9/11 hijackers had been arrested before the attacks? They had committed immigration violations and were carrying fake licenses. They hadn’t done that much, and they might not have done much time.”

The arrest of Mohamed Atta in 1999 or 2000 might not have merited much notice in the press, and certainly his name would be lost to the public consciousness by now.

Which raises a dilemma.

“When do you make the arrests?” LaFree asks. “If you make early arrests, you might have thin charges; if you wait too long, the plot can be hatched.”

This tension has played out hundreds of times across the country since September 11. How do you know if you’re investigating a full-blown terrorist or just a shady underworld character? How do you know how far to push an investigation? How do you talk about that case once it goes public with indictments, arrests, and prosecutions?

Agents across the national-security spectrum know that the ground rules have changed and that their margin of error is thin.

For Pete Ashooh, this national debate and discussion played out locally in an investigation of a group of men from Jordan, Egypt, and Palestine who were involved in criminal activities: bribery, extortion, drug use. Yet some were also selling guns, trying to get counterfeit passports, and promising to supply missiles capable of hitting the Pentagon.

Was Ashooh tracking common criminals? Terrorists next door? Operatives with connections to Hezbollah and Hamas? Did they really have access to the promised missiles? Should we have waited to find out?

Besides being a quintessential FBI agent, Ashooh is an ideal investigator of would-be terrorists from the Middle East. One of the few agents who can trace his roots to the Levant, Ashooh is second-generation American. His grandfather came to the United States in 1910 and served in World War I. Ashooh doesn’t speak much Arabic, though he has a natural kinship with Middle Easterners.

His kinship with the feds goes back to his father, Joseph, who worked for the FBI and retired as an agent in the Washington Field Office. Ashooh grew up in the Franconia area of Northern Virginia with a dad who came home from work with a revolver strapped to his leg.

Ashooh has an older brother and a younger sister. At Edison High, he played baseball, soccer, and tennis. He did well enough academically to graduate from the College of William & Mary.

With designs on going to law school, he took a job as an analyst at FBI headquarters on DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue. One of his first assignments was to help then-director William Webster gather evidence in the ABSCAM investigation of congressmen charged with taking bribes. He interviewed witnesses and wrote reports. “I got the bug to get out and do the real thing,” he says. “I wanted my own cases.”

In 1984, Ashooh became an agent. So much for law school.

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 01/01/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles