A string of robberies in southern California in 2005 by two people with an interest in violent jihad has taken on mythic importance in the drive to develop fusion centers; it has become a creation story with ideological force. Counterterrorism professionals retell the tale of the Torrance gas station terrorism investigation, and media outlets uncritically report it as “the most celebrated example” of the success of a fusion center.
Bart Johnson, who now heads the DHS Intelligence & Analysis division, FBI Deputy Director John Pistole, and Michael Downing, the Deputy Chief and Commanding Officer of the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) Counter-terrorism Department, all invoke Torrance as the reason why fusion centers are vital in helping agencies gain a more comprehensive picture of the threats they face.1 Journalist Judith Miller breathlessly wrote about Torrance in the Manhattan Institute’sCity Journal,2 and a National Journalarticle on L.A.’s Joint Regional Intelligence Center repeated the story of how virtually every agency in the area jumped on the investigation after investigators found jihadist literature in the home of a robbery suspect.3
According to the myth created by the Torrance incident, fusion center experts analyze data from many sources to reveal links to terror plots, and the discovery of this plot proves that this strategy works. But reference to Torrance in this context is overreaching and disingenuous at best.
Torrance does demonstrate three truths: 1) potential terrorists may commit crime to finance an operation, 2) alert, well-trained police officers can help detect links to terrorism, and 3) deploying law enforcement resources from many jurisdictions can help solve crime and foil terrorism plots.
However, if the Norwalk, California-based Joint Regional Intelligence Center (JRIC) played any role in strategically analyzing these robberies and uncovering a nexus to terrorism, officials have been mum on the details. Most likely, the Torrance case had nothing to do with a fusion center.
On the surface, eleven gas station robberies in Los Angeles and Orange counties between May 30, 2005 and July 5, 2005 appeared to be typical local crime sprees. During one escape, a thief dropped his cell phone, giving police a rare lead. City police traced the phone to Gregory Vernon Patterson, a 21-year-old local man with no criminal record, and placed him under surveillance. According to a criminal complaint, on the evening of July 5, Patterson and Levar Haney Washington, who, later investigations showed, was an L.A. gang member, drove to a gas station in Fullerton, east of Torrance in Orange County. Washington, dressed in a dark hooded sweatshirt and carrying a shotgun, robbed the clerk, according to the complaint. Police arrested the two men and then searched Washington’s apartment in South Los Angeles.
During that search, Torrance police officers found documents outlining an imminent attack, lists of potential targets, knives, bulletproof vests, and “jihadist” propaganda material that wasn’t available from the usual sources on the Internet, investigators said.
Almost immediately, one of the officers involved in the search, who had been trained to spot terrorist warning signs, called local counterterrorism officials. The L.A. anti-terrorist apparatus swung into high gear with more than 200 federal and local investigators working the case. According to an FBI affidavit, Washington told investigators that he led an “Islamic council,” which was planning violent jihad in the United States “to respond to the oppression of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan by the U.S. government.”4
Investigators tied Washington to Kevin James, a former Hoover Street Crip gang member who, while in prison, founded a group called Jam’yyat Al-Islam Al-Saheeh (JIS). While serving a ten-year sentence, James converted Washington and recruited him to join JIS. Upon his release in 2004, Washington then formed a cell with two recruits. The group actively started researching targets such as military installations, the Israeli Consulate, and synagogues, and it funded its operations through the robbery of gas stations.
The four men were indicted in October 2006. Washington was the first to be sentenced, receiving a 22-year federal prison term in June 2008. During his sentencing hearing, he told the judge that the members of JIS waged war against their own country because they opposed U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and stated that “calamities affecting the Muslim world” had influenced his outlook. He explained that the cell had robbed gas stations because oil is a political symbol. Shortly after the robberies, the FBI and DHS launched initiatives to assess and address the risk posed by radicalized prisoners.
For the domestic security bureaucracy, Torrance functions as a political symbol, used to buttress support for fusion centers’ vast surveillance powers. The value of the story is not that traditional police work solved the case, but rather the unrealized possibility that data-crunching can uncover nefarious plots. The political and economic support for fusion centers relies on myths like Torrance. Without such “examples,” the public might be less willing to sacrifice freedom and privacy in the name of prevention.
- Bart Johnson, “A Look at Fusion Centers, Working Together to Protect America,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, December 2007; Michael P. Downing, “Policing Terrorism in the United States: The Los Angeles Police Department’s Convergence Strategy,”Police Chief, July 2009.
- Manhattan Institute, “State Fusion Center Processes and Procedures: Best Practices and Recommendations,” Policing Terrorism Report, September 2007.
- Shane Harris, “LA’s anti-terrorism hub serves as model,” National Journal, May 2, 2007 See also Todd Masse, Siobhan O’Neill, and John Rollins, Information and Intelligence Fusion Centers (Nova Science Publishers, 2008), p. 6.