by Jim Fisher
KINGWOOD -- West Virginia is an excellent location for potential terrorist cells to hide out and train, given the rugged terrain and accessibility to the entire Eastern Seaboard, federal officials said Friday.
And the state's history with domestic terrorist and hate-crime groups, like the Mountaineer Militia, probably is another drawing point.
"We know there are still domestic terrorism groups active in West Virginia," said Ken McCabe, special agent in charge of the FBI's Pittsburgh bureau.
McCabe and other federal terrorism experts were at Camp Dawson in Preston County this week to conduct a three-day antiterrorism seminar for federal, state, county and municipal law enforcement agencies.
The seminar was cosponsored by U.S. attorneys Thomas Johnston (Northern District) and Kasey Warner III (Southern District) and the state Regional Community Policing Institute.
About 180 officers representing 62 police agencies attended the training.
The event was funded from a $100,000 discretionary fund given to Johnston by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The training was important for several reasons, Johnston said: The possibility of further international terrorist attacks, the possibility that West Virginia could be used as a staging area and the history of domestic terrorism in the state.
"For those who say it can't happen here, it already has," Johnston said, referencing a mid-1990s plan by the Mountaineer Militia to blow up the FBI fingerprint center in Clarksburg.
"Our role is informational: Gathering information from police departments and sharing information with them," Johnston said. "The FBI's role is operational." "Detection of terrorist activity is the key to prevention."
While the words "international terrorism" often bring to mind the horrific images of airliners flying into the World Trade Center towers, the roots of terrorism actually are much simpler, said Ken Holshauser, CEO of the American Institute of Homeland Defense, a private consulting firm conducting the training.
The seeds of terrorism exist at a very basic level, he said. While mass destruction is the end result, the beginning stages often will be seen by local police officers first, he said.
As an example, Holshauser noted that 14 of the 18 terrorists who took part in the 9/11 attacks had been stopped by local police for speeding. And Timothy McVeigh, the mastermind behind the 1995 destruction of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, was stopped by state police just after the explosion, he said.
Holshauser was lead instructor for the training.
"Police departments are the front-line defense for the war on terror, we know that," Holshauser said. "There is a real hunger. These guys want to know what to look for and what they can do."
Police reaction to suspicious behavior can be tricky, he said, mostly because local agencies do not have the broad powers that the Patriot Act bestowed on federal authorities. For instance, Holshauser outlined a scenario where a local officer sees men who appear to be of Middle East descent sketching and photographing a water treatment plant.
"What law are these gentlemen breaking? The answer is none," he said. "Local law enforcement officers want to know what they can do."
That's where the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force comes in. Officers with that initiative investigate reports of suspected terrorist activity, based on several criteria. But the group is only as effective as the information it receives, which comes back to the local police departments, McCabe said.
"The most successful terrorism investigations have not been in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. They've been in Buffalo, Seattle and Portland, Ore., jurisdictions similar to what we have here," he said.
Staff writer Jim Fisher can be reached at 626-1446 or by e-mail at email@example.com