Boston’s Joint Terrorism Taskforce, or JTTF, consists of federal agents, U.S. prosecutors, and local and state police. The force claims many successes we'll never know about. But there have also been some very public failures — especially when it comes to identifying lone wolf attackers like Marathon bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. By one estimate, there have been some 45 lone wolf attacks in the U.S. since 9/11.
Ask the head of New England’s JTTF what keeps him up at night and he’ll tell you it's the ones that got away.
“The unknown. Those things that we may have potentially missed or overlooked,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Harold “Hank” Shaw said.
One of his agents — a member of the JTTF — interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev in March 2011 and asked not a single question about his travel plans to radical hotspots in Russia, even after Russian intelligence tipped off the FBI. Shaw admits that the task force has made errors and learned lessons.
“Over the last year or two, the point from radicalization to mobilization has lessened significantly," Shaw says. "There is no longer, in some instances, the need for some of these individuals to actually travel overseas to get training, funding, financing. In today’s day and age, you could be radicalized by sitting at your computer.”
JTTF officials cite the nationally publicized case of Usaamah Abdullah Rahim as an example.
In June of last year task force members shot and killed Rahim, a 26-year-old Boston resident, on a Roslindale street. Video evidence left little doubt that Rahim had lunged toward JTTF members with a large knife.
"There is no longer, in some instances, the need for some of these individuals to actually travel overseas to get training, funding, financing. In today’s day and age, you could be radicalized by sitting at your computer." — Hank Shaw, Boston FBI, SAC
Like the Tsarnaevs, Raim had reportedly become radicalized via militant jihadist-inspired social media. Unlike the Tsarnaevs, he was under 24-hour surveillance by the JTTF. Rahim had first planned to attack and “behead” a well-known anti-Islamic activist in New York, according to agents. Then his timeline changed and he decided to target Boston cops instead. When he took to the streets, JTTF officers moved in. In the hours after Rahim’s death, the JTTF arrested others allegedly involved in his plot. That was a success. Then there’s the case of Ibragim Todashev.
Members of the Boston JTTF shot Todashev 7 times in his apartment in Orlando, Florida, during a 2013 interrogation. Todashev’s family accused an FBI agent of murder.
“That’s a real problem,” said Kade Crockford, with the Massachusetts ACLU, which won a federal lawsuit last August to force the JTTF to be more transparent.
“There are certainly troubling questions that remain about what happened in Orlando," Crockford said. "It’s not clear why they interviewed him in his home in the middle of the night. The supposed confession that the FBI [said] was pending was literally at the moment when he allegedly flipped out and attacked the agent, prompting the agent to shoot him seven times, killing him. Why did they feel a need to do that?"
The JTTF has killed suspects under both clear and controversial circumstances. Others it has captured. Then there are cases like Ahmad Abousamra — one of the FBI’s ten most wanted terrorist fugitives. Lowell Police Sgt. Thomas Daly, a longtime JTTF member, has spent years tracking him down.
“He tried to provide his services [during] a couple trips to Pakistan back as early as 2002, and then in February of 2004 traveling over to Yemen to seek out training at a training camp." Daly explains. "And ultimately, he traveled into Iraq for a couple weeks, is what our investigation showed."
Abousamra’s co-conspirator, Sudbury pharmacist Tarek Mehanna, was convicted in 2012 on charges that he conspired to kill Americans. He’s serving nearly 20-years in a federal prison. Daly says the JTTF continues to scour Lowell and Boston for clues to the specific whereabouts of Abousamra, a computer science major who is fluent in Arabic and English and distinguished by a high-pitched voice.
“He has family in Aleppo, Syria, and in fact married in Aleppo and has at least two children now," Daly says. "We’re not certain exactly where he is, and we continue to look for him to this day.”
Daly says he follows up on each and every credible tip about Abousamra and all the cases they’re working on.
“We are constantly interviewing people that come from that region of the world as they come here to the United States, whether it be in Boston or other areas where we send leads out to other offices to follow up." he explains.
Daly says any little clue might go a long way in finding a man whom he considers to be dangerous, according to Daly: “We interview former associates and family members periodically to determine where Ahmed Abousamra is currently and bring him to trial over here in the United States."
In fact, the JTTF increasingly relies on the public to help find potential lone wolf terrorists. They’ve learned that their most powerful tool to disrupt acts of terrorism are people like you and me. But that can lead to other problems — like racial and religious profiling.
In our final story in A Day In The Life of the JTTF: Say Something If You See Something: The Eyes And Ears Of The JTTF (And The Question Of Prejudice)âÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂÂ.