Terrorism at NATO summit viewed as improbable, not impossible

FBI quietly on alert: ‘Chicago has become a more high-profile target, we all know that’

By Jeff Coen, Chicago Tribune reporter
When Chicago’s FBI boss, Rob Grant, leaned toward a microphone at a NATO briefing for business leaders, the talk to that point had been about summit events and the city’s global image, the annoyance of street closings, and the possibility of protesters breaking windows in the Loop.

Not terrorism.

But it was on the FBI’s mind, Grant told the full auditorium, promising to coordinate law enforcement to head off the unthinkable.

“Weapons of mass destruction and all those things that scare people at night — that’s my world, that’s not your world, generally,” Grant said at the February briefing by the NATO host committee, prompting nervous chuckles from the audience.

Terrorism has scarcely been mentioned as event organizers make final preparations with the NATO summit now a little more than a week away, though federal agents have worked behind the scenes to confront the stark possibility that hosting dozens of world leaders could make Chicago a bigger terror target — at least for a few days.

And although experts call a coordinated attack on the summit very unlikely, signs of the care being taken to prevent a large-scale incident are there in the transportation plans released to the public in advance of the May 20-21 summit. The airspace over downtown will be closed; Burnham Harbor will be cleared of boats; and strips of the Stevenson Expressway and Lake Shore Drive that run near the summit site of McCormick Place convention center will be shut, helping to ensure vehicles don’t get too close.

The FBI has said its responsibility during the summit will be “threat assessment and incident response,” and has publicly downplayed the notion the NATO summit would make Chicago more enticing to terror organizations or individuals wanting to make a violent political statement.

But on the way into another briefing of business leaders this week, Grant acknowledged there will be subtle adjustments in the way the FBI operates. Where small tips and gathered information might usually be allowed to develop into a larger investigation in normal months, that won’t be the case during NATO.

Think of it as a kind of hair-trigger defense that will act on the front end of any perceived threat. “It’s all about disruption” said Grant, the special agent in charge of the Chicago office.

In the meeting, the FBI leader assured that he knows of no imminent threat to the city while explaining that the bureau will rely on outposts in the United States and around the world to look for useful information to thwart any possible attack. Law enforcement will share information quickly and efficiently.

“Chicago has become a more high-profile target; we all know that,” Grant said, pointing out that President Barack Obama comes and goes from his hometown. “It’s more of interest to bad guys overseas, but we’ve been acutely aware of that for many years, we’re very sensitive to that, as is the broader intelligence community of the United States government. … That remains a very vigilant post that we maintain. It doesn’t change.”

Experts agreed that although any pooling of world leaders presumably makes for a tempting target for the likes of Al-Qaeda and other networks, the city is probably not under any more serious threat than usual.

Robert A. Pape, executive director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and a political science professor at the University of Chicago, said all of the concern should be measured. Terror networks tend to thrive on complacency, Pape said.

“What that means is the leaders of (terror) organizations are aware having the element of surprise is unlikely” at the summit, Pape said. “Of course, it doesn’t mean one terrorist can’t get lucky.”

Samuel Rascoff of The Center on Law and Security at New York University agreed with that sentiment. Investigators on heightened alert are likely to give more credibility to shreds of evidence they pick up, said Rascoff, former director of intelligence analysis for the New York Police Department.

He said organizations like Al-Qaida, even in its heyday, tended to put plans in place that could be carried out whenever an operative could best accomplish it.

“They tend to choose iconic targets, but not hardened ones,” Rascoff said. The organization has never looked to make achieving its goals any harder than it has to be, he said, “and one way (to make it difficult) would be to hit the most protected people on earth who are only going to be in a location for two days.”

An overwhelming display of force — from thousands of local police in uniforms or riot gear to hundreds of National Guard troops helping transport dignitaries — will serve as a deterrent to any kind of trouble. Some less obvious precautions will be taken as well, sources said, including the use of technology that can detect radiation and airborne pathogens like anthrax.

Grant said wherever U.S. intelligence analysts are sweeping email and telephone traffic for hints of terror plots, they will be mindful that the summit is under way in Chicago.

Federal informants, community liaisons and even undercover agents in the field will certainly be used to gather intelligence, said John Diwik, who left the FBI in November and is now in the office of the inspector general for Amtrak.

“They want to get information on who’s into this or that and who’s going to be there and what they could be up to,” Diwik said. “They will check up on people who are sort of known to be up to no good.”

At the FBI, Diwik was part of an effort to use local police departments to gather information on potential threats. Patrol officers were asked to report unusual traffic stops, for example, and those responding to domestic incidents were asked to let the FBI know if they noticed something odd in an apartment.

Diwik said that network should be operating at a high level during the summit, and could be useful as some intending to do harm could drive through parts of Illinois and the suburbs to get here.

John Vincent, a former FBI agent who retired in 2002 after spending his last eight years at the bureau in anti-terrorism, said it’s not the spectacular attack that likely worries agents who are charged with protecting Chicago. A single, determined gunman could get a lot of mileage out of an attack on public transportation, for example, Vincent said.

“When you have a lone wolf or some individual sent here years ago to do something — you’re probably not going to detect it,” Vincent said. “It’s impossible.”

Analysts said there has been just enough low-level activity related to terrorism in the Chicago area and Illinois in recent years to make that possibility a concern.

In September 2010, a Lebanese immigrant was charged with placing a backpack he believed to contained an explosive device in a trash can near Wrigley Field. An FBI informant had given the man a dud. In March that year, a Chicago cabdriver who authorities said had discussed bombing a stadium was charged with trying to send money overseas to Al-Qaida.

In September 2009, a man was arrested and charged with trying to blow up the federal courthouse in Springfield. Again under the FBI’s watch, the man made a cellphone call he thought would set off a bomb in a van he had parked outside the courthouse, officials said.

And in 2006, another man was charged with plotting a grenade attack on a shopping mall. The FBI had learned of his aspirations, too, and set up a sting. He pleaded guilty.

The idea of a lone operative or sympathizer is “probably the appropriate worry,” said Rascoff. But even then, he said, the worst-case scenario for Chicago is much more likely to be NATO protesters breaking windows or fighting police than a terrorist targeting the summit.

Tribune reporter David Heinzmann contributed.

[Source: Chicago Tribune]
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