An L.A. Police Bust Shows New Tactics For Fighting Terror
Officers Use Local Laws
To Arrest Small Offenders
With High-Risk Potential
Foiling a Chechen 'Charity'
By ROBERT BLOCK
December 29, 2006; Page A1
LOS ANGELES -- In September 2004, just days after Chechen rebels raided a
school in Beslan, Russia, killing 331 men, women and children, the Los Angeles
Police Department summoned senior officers to its decaying downtown
headquarters. The issue on the table: What would they do if a similar attack took
Most of the talk that morning was about where to deploy SWAT teams if
terrorists ever took over a local school. Detective Mark Severino, one of the
city's counterterrorist investigators, then asked his colleagues: "Do we even have
Chechen extremists in Los Angeles?" Blank stares and silence filled the
room. His boss at the time, Deputy Chief John Miller, told him to go find out.
Within weeks, Detective Severino, working with a team of LAPD intelligence
analysts, tapped Russian underworld informants, and uncovered an international
car-theft ring that wound its way from the streets of Los Angeles to the
Chechens' doorstep in the Republic of Georgia. The California racket was
disguised as a charity group sending aid to the region. Based on other information,
Detective Severino suspected that the operation was more than just a fraud
scheme. His theory: The proceeds from stolen cars might somehow be financing
Chechen terrorist operations around the world.
On Feb. 15, 2006, the LAPD busted eight people for fraud in connection with
the alleged scam and issued arrest warrants for 11 others. Chechen terrorist
financing was never mentioned in the indictments or in the press release that
trumpeted the takedown of the operation. There were no news conferences
claiming victory in the war on terror. Yet Russian police, U.S. intelligence and
State Department officials familiar with the case today all say that they
believe the LAPD's breakup of the ring was a setback to international
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, America's entire approach to
security has changed. Intelligence agencies were revamped and a new government
bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security, was created.<REPRINT
Now local police are getting more involved too. Increasingly, the job of
detecting would-be terrorists and their support networks in the U.S. is falling
to America's 800,000 state and local police. They far outnumber federal
agents, and their eyes and ears are attuned to know more about what's suspicious
in their own communities. Los Angeles has created one of the most active
counterterrorist police departments in the country, often reacting to overseas
attacks with its own contingency planning.
But it's not just big-city forces that are stepping in to counter terrorism.
Police departments in smaller cities like Charlotte, N.C., and Providence,
R.I., are also following suit. Over the past few years, state and local police
have been taking millions of dollars from state and federal funds to open
so-called fusion centers -- high-tech offices where local cops and officials
from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland
Security share and analyze information about crimes and terrorist groups. Currently
there are about 40 such centers around the country with many more under
The Los Angeles police's low-key strategy is to use local laws -- from
parking ordinances to antifraud statutes -- to crack down on suspected terrorists.
It's akin to the tactic the federal government used in the 1930s when going
after gangster Al Capone: He was indicted for tax evasion instead of murder.
Los Angeles police say that since 9/11 they have arrested nearly 200 people,
both American citizens and foreign nationals, with suspected ties to
terrorist organizations. These included a group of North Africans that LAPD and
federal officials are convinced were part of an al Qaeda support cell living in
Los Angeles. The charges against them have ranged from marriage fraud to
identity theft to illegal weapons possession.
Each arrest was the result of a conventional criminal investigation using
California state law with no need for warrantless phone taps or secret court
orders. None of the cases ever mentioned terrorism at all. Trials are still
pending in many cases but there have been dozens of guilty pleas. In some cases,
suspected foreign terrorists arrested on fraud charges have been scooped up
by federal agents and deported on separate federal immigration charges before
their criminal trials got under way.
At a time when the FBI and other Washington agencies are coming under
growing criticism for terrorism cases that often fall apart in the courts, the Los
Angeles police approach using conventional crime cases is gaining attention
as an alternative.
"What the LAPD is doing with a straightforward crimes approach is upholding
the integrity of the justice system and showing that when used correctly it
is powerful and effective," says Karen Greenberg, executive director of New
York University's Center on Law and Security. The think tank has been tracking
the government's prosecution record of domestic terrorism cases since 9/11.
Some civil-rights groups and Muslim organizations are concerned about
putting too much counterterrorism responsibility in the hands of local police.
Hamid Khan, the executive director of the South Asian Network, a local
civil-rights group representing many Islamic community groups, says that many
Muslims are fearful of the LAPD's reputation for excessive force and view much of
its policing efforts in Muslim migrant areas of the city as insensitive.
Shiu-Ming Cheer, a community activist with the South Asian Network, says
that she was aware of two cases in which Muslim women called the police to
report domestic abuse only to be ridiculed by the responding officers. "The women
said the police told them: 'Isn't wife beating part of your culture? Why are
you bothering us?' "
LAPD officials say they are mindful of the concerns of ethnic groups and
sensitive about collecting intelligence about people who might not be directly
related to a crime under investigation. At the same time, however, the force
is pushing state officials for permission to retain information on suspected
terrorist cases for longer than the 12-month limit currently imposed by state
law. The LAPD's approach to counterterrorism has its roots in the policing
model known as "No Broken Windows." Under this approach, police actively move
against small crimes and in the process find out information about bigger
crimes. Subway turnstile jumpers in New York, for instance, have often been found
to be purse snatchers or drug runners, and their arrests have in some cases
led to information about much more aggressive street crimes.
The method was pioneered by LAPD's chief of police, William Bratton, when he
served more than a decade ago as the commissioner of the New York Police
Department. It was one of the strategies he brought with him when he took over
as the Los Angeles police chief in October 2002, inheriting a department beset
by soaring crime and steeped in scandal and racial tension.
Chief Bratton reorganized the department and took hundreds of cops out of
administrative jobs and put them on the streets. He then began strictly
enforcing quality-of-life crimes, going after graffiti vandals, purse snatchers and
prostitutes, figuring that stopping small crimes creates a less
criminal-friendly environment. With more than 650 murders in 2002, Los Angeles had more
homicides in that year than any other city in the nation. A year later, the
murder rate was down almost 25% and overall crime was down by more than 4%.
Now, Chief Bratton is adapting the same model to terrorism, calling it
intelligence-led policing. "Where as once we would have caught a robber red-handed
and that would have been enough to satisfy the legal case, we now have to
stop and ask ourselves, who is this robber?" Chief Bratton explains. "Is he
stealing to feed a drug habit? OK, who is he buying his drugs from? Or is he
robbing to raise funds to buy guns for a gang? Which gang? Who are his
associates? Or is he part of organized crime or something else? The aim is to drill
down into crime to get a complete picture of the crime landscape in your
That's what happened in the Chechen probe. Sitting around the table on the
sixth floor of the Parker Center, the LAPD's 1950s-era headquarters, after the
dust settled on the Beslan massacre, LAPD's Counterterrorism and Criminal
Intelligence Bureau met to discuss what would happen if a similar attack had
taken place in Los Angeles.
At first, they looked at the attack only tactically, talking about how they
would move SWAT teams around the city and put together crowd-control
contingencies. But then Detective Severino began pushing the thinking toward
intelligence. Was Los Angeles ready for Chechen terrorism in general? And were there
Chechen rebel links to the city that they didn't know about?
After being given the nod to investigate by his bosses, Mr. Severino put
together a team of 11 detectives. The first thing they did was visit informants
they had developed in Russian and Armenian organized-crime gangs from earlier
The inquiries pointed the investigators to a Chechen businessman affiliated
with an organization billing itself as a charity called Global Human
Services, or GHS. The group claimed to be sending large shipments of humanitarian aid
regularly to Russia, Armenia, Georgia and Jordan.
Several things during the investigation immediately caught Detective
Severino's attention. The first were photos prominently displayed in the
businessman's home of him standing alongside Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, known
during his lifetime as the "Butcher of Beslan." The second was the fact that GHS's
license had been revoked by the state of California in February 2004 for
failure to file a 2003 income-tax return. Moreover, it turned out that GHS was
incorporated in November 1999 as a regular business and wasn't registered as a
For Mr. Severino, those facts sent alarm bells ringing. The investigators
continued to dig. The LAPD informed the Department of Homeland Security that
the group was sending aid overseas despite having lost its license.
In June 2005, Immigration and Customs Enforcement inspectors in Houston
pulled two GHS shipping containers in for inspection. Inside they found some
cartons of women's shoes -- and two expensive, late-model sport-utility vehicles
hidden behind a false wall of each container. The cars were legally
registered to Los Angeles residents. After the ships set sail, their owners reported
the vehicles stolen to collect insurance money. The containers and their cargo
were destined for the Republic of Georgia.
Mr. Severino and his team went to the FBI requesting funds and support to
follow the shipments to Georgia, saying that they suspected that the racket was
part of a Chechen rebel funding scheme. The FBI at first refused, saying
that all they saw was a car-theft ring. "Then I showed them the picture of our
businessmen with Basayev," Mr. Severino says. The FBI approved the trip. "It
became clear to the FBI that the LAPD was onto something," says Mr. Miller,
now an assistant FBI director in Washington.
Once in Georgia, the LAPD worked with Georgian authorities and the FBI,
seizing another 14 stolen cars listed on customs manifests as "aid."
Back in Los Angeles, police started to investigate the cars' owners. What
they pieced together was an alleged scheme in which GHS enticed owners to give
the group their vehicles and report them as stolen. GHS would then ship the
cars overseas. According to the LAPD, once the vehicles were in transit, the
owners would report the cars stolen and collect the insurance money. In
Georgia, Chechens close to the banned rebel groups would sell the cars at several
times their U.S. value. In all, the LAPD detectives identified 200 such
shipments to Georgia over the past few years, worth at least $5 million. That
figure doesn't include losses to the insurance companies due to fraudulent claims.
Russian authorities have since arrested one Chechen allegedly linked to the
scheme who now faces charges of fraud and possible support for terrorism in
Russia. The trial of the U.S. suspects is continuing in Los Angeles County
Court. Lawyers for the 17 defendants now in custody haven't indicated how they
would plead and have said their clients were unaware of any links to the
Chechen extremists. No charges were filed against the Chechen businessman.
"This case was a breakthrough in that what we found didn't look like
terrorism: it looked like regular criminal activity but when we followed it long
enough it developed what we believed [was] a nexus to terrorism. But it is
important to note we never made a terrorism case out of it," Detective Severino