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Target Washington: D.C. under 'constant threat from al-Qaida'

Monday - 7/25/2011, 3:33pm  ET

James McJunkin and Brenda Heck (WTOP Photo/J.J. Green)
FBI Washington Field Office Assistant Director in Charge James McJunkin talks with Brenda Heck Special Agent in Charge of the Counterterrorism Division. (WTOP Photo/J.J. Green)

Target Washington: Part 1

WTOP's J.J. Green reports on how Washington remains a target, despite authorities capturing or killing al-Qaida operatives.

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Target Washington: Part 2

WTOP's J.J. Green reports on how unknown threats worry the FBI's James McJunkin and how terrorists remain a "constant threat" abroad and at home.

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J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - In the haze of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier made a telling observation about D.C.

"I'll never forget when I pulled back up at my (District 4) station up on Georgia Avenue. I saw officers posted on the roof of my building with shotguns and I thought to myself, how little effect an officer with a shotgun on a roof would have."

Ironically, a policeman on a roof with a shotgun might have saved many lives in Oslo, Norway on Friday.

On the heels of a devastating explosion in Oslo, 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik, dressed as a policeman sprayed the island of Utoya for almost two hours with an automatic weapon mowing down children and teenagers as he sought to carry out a self-assigned duty to "start a revolution."

That was Norway's own 9-11.

Though nearly 10 years apart, a common thread unites the two events.

It was also Osama bin Laden's dream that the Sept. 11 attacks would initiate a revolution, although his goal was to kill Westerners. Since then bin Laden and dozens of highly skilled operatives have been captured or killed, but his ideology lives on and al-Qaida's quest to strike another crippling blow inside the U.S. has been not dampened at all.

In 2001 smoke billowed from the Pentagon during the al-Qaida attacks and emergency vehicles scurried around the nation's capital moving those wounded in the attack while law enforcement officers took up strategic positions trying to head off the anticipated second wave.

The second wave never came and may never come again in the same form. Because intelligence experts see evidence that home-grown terrorists have picked up the mantle.

Whether it's radicalized jihadists or deranged fundamentalists, the National Capital region remains a key target.

"They're very much still fixated on Washington," says Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence at Stratfor. He tracked down Ramzi Yousef, the al-Qaida operative who bombed the world trade center in 1993.

"Any kind of attack inside the beltway in Washington, D.C. will resonate instantaneously around the globe," Burton says.

That is a thorn in the side of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. James McJunkin, assistant director of the Washington Field Office, says the nebulous nature of the threat is the problem.

"What keeps me up at night is what I don't know. We in the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, we're up nights and weekends worrying about this type of activity," McJunkin says.

The "Lone Wolf" attacker is a growing concern that highlights the limitations of Homeland Security agencies and the FBI.

"We can't always predict (these threats), and we aren't always in front of violent actions of individuals that reside here in the United States," says McJunkin.

Cases like the one involving 22-year-old Marine reservist Yonathan Melakou, who was indicted on charges of firing weapons at the Pentagon and other military sites in Northern Virginia, add "another chapter to a series of events that have occurred overtime over the last several years in various parts of the United States," according to McJunkin.

That chapter includes a growing list of alleged terrorist incidents, including a 2010 plot to attack the Washington subway system. Farooq Ahmed, 34, of Ashburn, Va. is serving a 24-year prison term for the plot. Also, last year a plot to bomb a military recruiting center in Catonsville, Md. was foiled.

But the problem for McJunkin and his team is figuring out what's in the shadows.

"It's troubling enough to see the information I have in front of me every day and being able to vector my resources and my responses and my investigative activity in that direction. But what we don't know is what we can't prepare for," says McJunkin.

But what he does know is this:

"We are in constant threat from organizations like al-Qaida, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). We have concerns about a number of organizations in the Middle East and Africa."

Of all the threats those organizations present, there may be none greater than the seemingly ubiquitous hand of one man, American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is now living in Yemen.

Federal investigators believe al-Awlaki inspired a number recent U.S. plots. New information suggests al-Awlaki was likely deeply involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, while pretending to help U.S. authorities stop them.

In the next report: Returning to the scene of the crime

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