A hot spot for terrorists

Perfect storm: Greater Bridgeport area offers shelter, connections

By Michael P. Mayko and Rob Varnon Staff Writers, CT Post, May 9, 2010

Faisal Shahzad is not the first.

When four of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers scouted for a flight school, they looked at Danbury and Stratford. When they wanted advice about fake documents, they met with Eyan M. Alrababah, a Jordanian na­tional in Bridgeport who made a living off phony paper.

When Islamic terrorists plot­ting to blow up the United Na­tions sought to test a home­made bomb in 1993, they chose the Naugatuck State Forest in Beacon Falls.

When United Freedom Front radicals Thomas W. Manning and Raymond Luc Levasseure needed to restock their cache of firearms in 1983 while on the run for murdering a New Jersey state trooper, they found gun stores in Milford and Shelton willing to sell to them.
The area’s proximity to New York City, lighter scrutiny than a larger metropolis, melting pot of different ethnicities, reputa­tion for corruption and ability to network with criminals cre­ates a perfect brew for those planning terrorist acts.

“ It does indicate that the area is a fertile ground for ter­rorists,” said Maria Haverfeld, a professor in the department of Law and Science at John Jay College in New York.

And that’s not all.

In the past five years, 1,700 phony international drivers li­censes were sold out of a Bridge­port apartment. Another 3,000 driver’s licenses and identifica­tion cards were purchased most­ly by undocumented immigrants from corrupt Department of Mo­tor Vehicle examiners in Bridge­port and Norwalk.

Gangs needing guns and bul­let proof vests often gave shop­ping lists, cash and instruction to legitimate buyers at the now­defunct D’Andrea’s Gun Case in Stratford.

The Colombian cocaine car­tel shuttled millions in drug proceeds into sleepy Greenwich willing to pay financial consul­tants a percentage to route the cash to South America.

THE CASE OF FAISAL SHAHZAD


So why should it come as a surprise that Faisal Shahzad, the man accused of the at­tempted May 1 Times Square bombing, not only lives in Bridgeport, but buys a used car here without filing the neces­sary paperwork and obtains a license plate from a Stratford junkyard whose owner admits to the New York Daily News he’s been victimized before?

In the criminal underworld southern Connecticut and par­ticularly greater Bridgeport is the place go to get things done.

Why?

Because it’s so close to New York, said Robert Paquette and Robert Marsden, both retired FBI agents who headed the agency’s Bridgeport office.

“ You’re away from New York City and there’s not as much scrutiny here,” said Paquette, who after retiring from the FBI served as Danbury’s police chief for several years.

“ Plus it’s accessible by the highway and by mass transit,” added Marsden, now a vice president of crisis management at NBC. “ Not only are you close to the city but you are close to accessible open spaces.

Get on Route 8-25 follow it to Route 8 north and within 20 minutes you can be deep in the forests of Beacon Falls. It’s there where the firing of high­powered rifles and the explo­sion of a home-made bomb by Islamic terrorists went unheard and unknown, until FBI agents developed informants.

Proximity to New York also is important because that’s the pre­ferred target of terrorists, main­tains Henry Schissler, a professor of sociology at Housatonic Com­munity College in Bridgeport and criminology at Quinnipiac University in Hamden.

“ Terror groups know New York is where they will get the most bang for their buck. They will get the best news coverage and generate the most shock around the world,” he said.

And it’s not just Islamic ter­ror groups that paint bull’s ­eyes on New York’s buildings.

The United Freedom Front ex­ploded a bomb at the old Mobil Corp. site.

DIVERSITY AND CORRUPTION


As the greater Bridgeport ar­ea becomes a bigger melting pot of ethnicity and cultures, it’s easier for people from different countries to blend in and be ac­cepted without drawing atten­tion to their actions.

“ People from different cul­tures are more easily accepted in a diverse city like Bridgeport than say being somewhere in the Midwest,” said Marsden.

Schissler agrees. “ Bridgeport is so much more diverse than say New Haven or Hartford.”

So there’s proximity to New York City, diversity in popula­tion and add in a reputation, whether deserved or not, for corruption.

“Certain people believe that if there’s been corruption, there’ll always be corruption and every­one is corrupt,” said Schissler.

“So here’s where you go to buy the phony documents, get your illegal guns ... here’s where ev­eryone and everything has a price.”

That certainly played true with more than 3,000 illegal documents flowing through the city. It repeatedly plays out in gang trials where criminals fin­ger other criminal and dealers for providing weapons. It’s seen time and time again in federal court where phony papers pro­vide legitimacy and cover.

Once someone is success­ful in getting what they want, be it phony documents, illegal guns or laundered money, word in the “criminal circuit gets around pretty quickly,” said Pa­quette, the retired FBI supervi­sor now working as vice presi­dent of security at Union Sav­ings Bank in Danbury.

That communication is called social networking, according to Haverfeld, the John Jay college professor.

But she said to study this ar­ea — the connection between knowledge shared by criminals and resulting criminal acts — is still too new. The collected data too raw to draw credible findings.

THE STREET’S CODE OF SILENCE


But on the street, no studies are needed.

“ If you’re looking for nega­tive, you’re going to find nega­tive on the streets,” said Ray, a 40-year- old who lives in the same Boston Avenue neighbor­hood as Shahzad.

Ray knows the streets and the streets know him.

He also knows why people deal drugs, steal cars, forge documents and sell ‘ Bridgeport plates’ — stolen license plates that go from car to car.

“Some people are just try­ing to survive,” he said. “ When you’re not born with a silver spoon in your mouth, it’s hard out here. It’s part of life.”

Take all this and add in pri­vacy based on the street’s code of silence when it comes to ille­gal activity. It’s that code people like Shahzad depend upon to remain unnoticed.

“ People who mind their busi­ness get further in life,” said Carlos, a 20-year- old who also would only give his first name.

“ I’ve lived everywhere, ghetto, by ghetto by ghetto.”

He’s learned not to ask ques­tions about what neighbors do because, “ Then I know too much. And knowing too much is bad.”

But how does a man like Shahzad, from a fairly privi­leged family in Pakistan know where to go to get something like a license plate?.

Michelle Brown, another Bos­ton Avenue area resident, said it’s not as hard as one would think.

“ I could go right now to somebody in the street and say I need a license plate and I could get one,” she said.

She said there are people who can’t afford to register their cars and know they will get pulled over without a license plate. So they steal a plate off a car. Then someone asks about it, offers to pay for it and an en­trepreneur is born.

AN UNDERGROUND ECONOMY


Despite Connecticut’s rela­tively small size, this under­ground economy could be quite large, since it includes all ille­gal activities, all of which are untaxed and equal to about 10 percent of the country’s gross product, according to Edward Deak, a Fairfield University pro­fessor of economics.

For the nation, that would be about $1.46 trillion of activity.

If the same rate holds for Con­necticut, that would be equal to about $21 billion in activity.

With all these odds against them, how can we expect investi­gators to uncover terrorist plots?

Often it comes down to the words of Michael Wolf, the Easton resident who until 2005 headed FBI operations in Connecticut.

“Sometimes, you just need a break,” Wolf wearily conceded after a lengthy but unsuccessful investigation into finding the person who put anthrax spores on a letter that found its way to an elderly Oxford woman’s mailbox and killing her after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

That break could be some­thing like a Pathfinder loaded with a primitive bomb that fails to detonate in Times Square.

On the Pathfinder’s engine is a vehicle identification number that is traced back to a Bridge­port car dealership. On the fender is an illegally obtained li­cense plate that leads to a Strat­ford junkyard. Inside the car is a set of keys, including a house key to the car owner’s Sheridan Street apartment and anoth­er leading to the getaway car.

Then there’s the throwaway cell phone detailing calls to the last owner of the Pathfinder and people in Pakistan. All could have melted in an explosion.

But there wasn’t one.

While there is much to learn about Shahzad and his plans, it appears clear that the front lines in America’s battle against terrorism could be neighbor­hoods where the pieces are put together. Determining how to crack a code of silence that’s clouded in socio- economic forc­es could be the key.

Until then, police might have to rely on inept attempts, like Shahzad’s, and follow the leads left behind.

“ Thank God for dumb crimi­nals,” said Paquette, who found while investigating the CBS Murders, the Sicilian mob’s in­volvement in moving heroin in­to and the proceeds out of pizza parlors and the cartel delivering duffle bags of money to phony investment counselors.

“ They have a tendency to make us look good.”