Several of Osama bin Laden’s associates have been identified and located in New Jersey, yes that is right, the same state that some of the 9/11 terrorists lived in, yes the same state where they got drivers licenses from forged paper work, yes the state where several were plotting to attack Fort Dix, yes the same state where you saw Muslim Extremists in the streets dancing and celebrating 9/11, yes the same state that there was an unknown radiological device discovered in an vehicle headed to NYC the days following the threat to NYC and yes the same state where a man whose name was on the “watch” list, was determined not to me that man, by a single state trooper on Route 80.
Osama bin Laden may be hiding in the impenetrable mountains near the Afghanistan border, but FBI counterterror officials say they have identified several of his associates in a far more accessible spot — northern New Jersey.
The FBI’s elite Joint Terrorism Task Force in Newark says it is not only monitoring a number of North Jersey residents with ties to al-Qaida, but that agents have quietly “disrupted” their activities and even deported a few.
These glimpses into North Jersey’s war on terrorism, from a series of interviews with task force leaders, come on the heels of revelations last summer that Bin Laden’s terror network had regained strength. But that rebuilding was thought to have taken place overseas.
This is the first time since the 9/11 attacks that FBI counterterror officials have revealed an al-Qaida presence in North Jersey.
“There are definitely facilitators in this state,” said Kevin Cruise, the veteran FBI counterterror agent who directs Newark’s 100-member terrorism task force of FBI and CIA agents as well as state police and even local beat cops.
One of Cruise’s deputies was even more specific.
“There are people in your county who are affiliated with known al-Qaida members overseas,” said Jack Jupin, the FBI agent who heads the counterterror squad for Bergen County.
Cruise, who supervised FBI investigations of terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa and the USS Cole before taking over the Newark task force, cautioned that his agents have no information about an imminent attack here. But he said several al-Qaida sympathizers would try if given the chance.
“There are many people who are like-minded who want to commit acts of terrorism and have just not taken that extra step,” said Cruise, who keeps a “wanted” poster of Bin Laden on his office wall.
Sometimes, he said, counterterror agents “disrupt” these North Jersey residents with al-Qaida ties.
Cruise declined to describe any case in detail. But in general, such disruption methods ranged from outright deportations to quiet visits by FBI agents in which suspected terrorists are told their activities are being monitored.
“There are many disruptions that occur that the public does not know about,” Cruise said.
Taliban aren’t here
For the past six years, FBI officials have routinely declined to discuss counterterror measures in northern New Jersey. But last week, the FBI granted The Record limited access to the offices of its Joint Terrorism Task Force, in a gleaming glass building in Newark overlooking the Passaic River.
This unusual glimpse into the inner workings of North Jersey’s primary counterterrorism force revealed the following:
Task force investigators have discovered that every major terrorist group in the world, including Hamas and Hezbollah, has at least one North Jersey contact. The lone exception is Afghanistan’s ultra-fundamentalist sect, the Taliban. The task force is currently conducting more than 400 counterterror investigations. These range from probes into Bin Laden’s network to neo-Nazis to environmental terrorists. Each month, a task force “response” squad receives as many as a dozen new tips about possible nuclear, biological or chemical terrorism in New Jersey. These range from citizen concerns about a mysterious powder to the report that three ships were sailing to New Jersey with radiological material on board. Squad members were even dispatched to Emerson last month after school administrators received a threat to blow up schools. Undercover agents attend all professional football games at Giants Stadium. Agents also plan to monitor the upcoming Breeders’ Cup at Monmouth Park Racetrack. Task force agents routinely travel overseas. One is currently in Iraq; another is in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, helping to question suspected al-Qaida captives at the U.S. naval base there. Newark-based agents also played a role in the investigation of the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and provided information to assist the interrogation of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed.Task force agents say they are united by one common fear — that they may overlook information that could stop a potential terrorist attack. Indeed, almost every office seems to contain some reminder of the 9/11 attacks.‘Daily reminder’In weighing his own fear of an attack, Cruise noted that northern New Jersey has a wide range of tempting and vulnerable targets, from tunnels and bridges to sports venues, shopping malls and chemical plants.
“My greatest fear in New Jersey is that somebody or some group will slip through our grasp,” he said.
Scott Nawrocki, the FBI agent who directs the task force’s special response squad, keeps a photograph of the World Trade Center on the wall by his desk. On the opposite wall is a poster with a mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb. “The first things I see are a daily reminder of why I’m here,” Nawrocki said.
But he added that it’s dangerous for his counterterror agents to fall into the trap of assuming that future terrorists will try to duplicate the 9/11 attacks.
“We use our imagination when we conduct assessments,” Nawrocki said.
William Sweeney Jr., whose squad monitors potential terrorists in Hudson County, said some tips for local investigations can originate in the unlikeliest places.
In one case, Sweeney described how U.S. soldiers confiscated a laptop computer when they captured a suspected al-Qaida operative in Iraq. When the laptop’s files were examined, investigators discovered several New Jersey phone numbers.
“Why was a person in New Jersey in the address book of a bad guy picked up in Iraq?” Sweeney asked. “We have to check it out.”
He declined to describe the result. But the process, described by Sweeney, is not uncommon for the task force.
As a result, task force agents are in daily contact with officials at the CIA and other American intelligence agencies who monitor phone and Internet traffic from North Jersey to known operatives for al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
“I talk to them 10 times a day,” Jupin said of the CIA.
Cruise holds several top-secret intelligence briefings each week with fellow agents as well as police from such small towns as Old Tappan and Ho-Ho-Kus.
Amid the wash of tips and ongoing cases, though, Cruise said the task force has to make difficult calculations — especially when monitoring phone or Internet contacts.
“If it’s somebody who is simply communicating with somebody who is known to be an al-Qaida operative, that in itself is not illegal,” Cruise said. “It’s what they intend to do.”
To better understand some of his enemies, Cruise even listens to Arabic language CDs during his commute. But he tries to keep himself and his agents from becoming too confident.
“We have better security measures in place and we have better intelligence,” he said. “But we are still vulnerable.”