An L.A. Police Bust
12/29/2006 © The Wall Street Journal
LOS ANGELES -- In September 2004, just days after Chechen rebels raided a school
in Beslan, Russia, killing 331 men, women and children, the Los Angeles Police
Department summoned senior officers to its decaying downtown headquarters. The issue
on the table: What would they do if a similar attack took place here?
Most of the talk that morning was about where to deploy SWAT teams if terrorists
ever took over a local school. Detective Mark Severino, one of the city's counterterrorist
investigators, then asked his colleagues: "Do we even have Chechen extremists in Los
Angeles?" Blank stares and silence filled the room. His boss at the time, Deputy Chief
John Miller, told him to go find out.
Within weeks, Detective Severino, working with a team of LAPD intelligence analysts,
tapped Russian underworld informants, and uncovered an international car-theft ring that
wound its way from the streets of Los Angeles to the Chechens' doorstep in the Republic
The California racket was disguised as a charity group sending aid to the region. Based
on other information, Detective Severino suspected that the operation was more than just
a fraud scheme. His theory: The proceeds from stolen cars might somehow be financing
Chechen terrorist operations around the world.
On Feb. 15, 2006, the LAPD busted eight people for fraud in connection with the
alleged scam and issued arrest warrants for 11 others. Chechen terrorist financing was
never mentioned in the indictments or in the press release that trumpeted the takedown of
There were no news conferences claiming victory in the war on terror. Yet Russian
police, U.S. intelligence and State Department officials familiar with the case today all
say that they believe the LAPD's breakup of the ring was a setback to international
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, America's entire approach to security has
changed. Intelligence agencies were revamped and a new government bureaucracy, the
Department of Homeland Security, was created.
Now local police are getting more involved too. Increasingly, the job of detecting
would-be terrorists and their support networks in the U.S. is falling to America's 800,000
state and local police.
They far outnumber federal agents, and their eyes and ears are attuned to know more
about what's suspicious in their own communities. Los Angeles has created one of the
most active counterterrorist police departments in the country, often reacting to overseas
attacks with its own contingency planning.
But it's not just big-city forces that are stepping in to counter terrorism. Police
departments in smaller cities like Charlotte, N.C., and Providence, R.I., are also following
Over the past few years, state and local police have been taking millions of dollars
from state and federal funds to open so-called fusion centers -- high-tech offices where
local cops and officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of
Homeland Security share and analyze information about crimes and terrorist groups.
Currently there are about 40 such centers around the country with many more under
The Los Angeles police's low-key strategy is to use local laws -- from parking
ordinances to antifraud statutes -- to crack down on suspected terrorists. It's akin to the
tactic the federal government used in the 1930s when going after gangster Al Capone: He
was indicted for tax evasion instead of murder.
Los Angeles police say that since 9/11 they have arrested nearly 200 people, both
American citizens and foreign nationals, with suspected ties to terrorist organizations.
These included a group of North Africans that LAPD and federal officials are convinced
were part of an al Qaeda support cell living in Los Angeles. The charges against them
have ranged from marriage fraud to identity theft to illegal weapons possession.
Each arrest was the result of a conventional criminal investigation using California
state law with no need for warrantless phone taps or secret court orders.
None of the cases ever mentioned terrorism at all. Trials are still pending in many
cases but there have been dozens of guilty pleas. In some cases, suspected foreign
terrorists arrested on fraud charges have been scooped up by federal agents and deported
on separate federal immigration charges before their criminal trials got under way.
At a time when the FBI and other Washington agencies are coming under growing
criticism for terrorism cases that often fall apart in the courts, the Los Angeles police
approach using conventional crime cases is gaining attention as an alternative.
"What the LAPD is doing with a straightforward crimes approach is upholding the
integrity of the justice system and showing that when used correctly it is powerful and
effective," says Karen Greenberg, executive director of New York University's Center on
Law and Security. The think tank has been tracking the government's prosecution record
of domestic terrorism cases since 9/11.
Some civil-rights groups and Muslim organizations are concerned about putting too
much counterterrorism responsibility in the hands of local police.
Hamid Khan, the executive director of the South Asian Network, a local civil-rights
group representing many Islamic community groups, says that many Muslims are fearful
of the LAPD's reputation for excessive force and view much of its policing efforts in
Muslim migrant areas of the city as insensitive.
Shiu-Ming Cheer, a community activist with the South Asian Network, says that she
was aware of two cases in which Muslim women called the police to report domestic
abuse only to be ridiculed by the responding officers. "The women said the police told
them: 'Isn't wife beating part of your culture? Why are you bothering us?' "
LAPD officials say they are mindful of the concerns of ethnic groups and sensitive
about collecting intelligence about people who might not be directly related to a crime
At the same time, however, the force is pushing state officials for permission to retain
information on suspected terrorist cases for longer than the 12-month limit currently
imposed by state law.
The LAPD's approach to counterterrorism has its roots in the policing model known as
"No Broken Windows."
Under this approach, police actively move against small crimes and in the process find
out information about bigger crimes. Subway turnstile jumpers in New York, for
instance, have often been found to be purse snatchers or drug runners, and their arrests
have in some cases led to information about much more aggressive street crimes.
The method was pioneered by LAPD's chief of police, William Bratton, when he
served more than a decade ago as the commissioner of the New York Police Department.
It was one of the strategies he brought with him when he took over as the Los Angeles
police chief in October 2002, inheriting a department beset by soaring crime and steeped
in scandal and racial tension.
Chief Bratton reorganized the department and took hundreds of cops out of
administrative jobs and put them on the streets. He then began strictly enforcing qualityof-life crimes, going after graffiti vandals, purse snatchers and prostitutes, figuring thatstopping small crimes creates a less criminal-friendly environment.
With more than 650 murders in 2002, Los Angeles had more homicides in that year
than any other city in the nation. A year later, the murder rate was down almost 25% and
overall crime was down by more than 4%.
Now, Chief Bratton is adapting the same model to terrorism, calling it intelligence-led
policing. "Where as once we would have caught a robber red-handed and that would have
been enough to satisfy the legal case, we now have to stop and ask ourselves, who is this
robber?" Chief Bratton explains.
"Is he stealing to feed a drug habit? OK, who is he buying his drugs from? Or is he
robbing to raise funds to buy guns for a gang? Which gang? Who are his associates? Or is
he part of organized crime or something else? The aim is to drill down into crime to get a
complete picture of the crime landscape in your community."
That's what happened in the Chechen probe. Sitting around the table on the sixth floor
of the Parker Center, the LAPD's 1950s-era headquarters, after the dust settled on the
Beslan massacre, LAPD's Counterterrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau met to
discuss what would happen if a similar attack had taken place in Los Angeles.
At first, they looked at the attack only tactically, talking about how they would move
SWAT teams around the city and put together crowd-control contingencies. But then
Detective Severino began pushing the thinking toward intelligence. Was Los Angeles
ready for Chechen terrorism in general? And were there Chechen rebel links to the city
that they didn't know about?
After being given the nod to investigate by his bosses, Mr. Severino put together a
team of 11 detectives. The first thing they did was visit informants they had developed in
Russian and Armenian organized-crime gangs from earlier investigations.
The inquiries pointed the investigators to a Chechen businessman affiliated with an
organization billing itself as a charity called Global Human Services, or GHS. The group
claimed to be sending large shipments of humanitarian aid regularly to Russia, Armenia,
Georgia and Jordan.
Several things during the investigation immediately caught Detective Severino's
attention. The first were photos prominently displayed in the businessman's home of him
standing alongside Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, known during his lifetime as the
"Butcher of Beslan."
The second was the fact that GHS's license had been revoked by the state of California
in February 2004 for failure to file a 2003 income-tax return. Moreover, it turned out that
GHS was incorporated in November 1999 as a regular business and wasn't registered as a
For Mr. Severino, those facts sent alarm bells ringing. The investigators continued to
dig. The LAPD informed the Department of Homeland Security that the group was
sending aid overseas despite having lost its license.
In June 2005, Immigration and Customs Enforcement inspectors in Houston pulled two
GHS shipping containers in for inspection. Inside they found some cartons of women's
shoes -- and two expensive, late-model sport-utility vehicles hidden behind a false wall of
each container. The cars were legally registered to Los Angeles residents. After the ships
set sail, their owners reported the vehicles stolen to collect insurance money. The
containers and their cargo were destined for the Republic of Georgia.
Mr. Severino and his team went to the FBI requesting funds and support to follow the
shipments to Georgia, saying that they suspected that the racket was part of a Chechen
rebel funding scheme. The FBI at first refused, saying that all they saw was a car-theft
ring. "Then I showed them the picture of our businessmen with Basayev," Mr. Severino
says. The FBI approved the trip. "It became clear to the FBI that the LAPD was onto
something," says Mr. Miller, now an assistant FBI director in Washington.
Once in Georgia, the LAPD worked with Georgian authorities and the FBI, seizing
another 14 stolen cars listed on customs manifests as "aid."
Back in Los Angeles, police started to investigate the cars' owners. What they pieced
together was an alleged scheme in which GHS enticed owners to give the group their
vehicles and report them as stolen. GHS would then ship the cars overseas.
According to the LAPD, once the vehicles were in transit, the owners would report the
cars stolen and collect the insurance money. In Georgia, Chechens close to the banned
rebel groups would sell the cars at several times their U.S. value. In all, the LAPD
detectives identified 200 such shipments to Georgia over the past few years, worth at
least $5 million. That figure doesn't include losses to the insurance companies due to
Russian authorities have since arrested one Chechen allegedly linked to the scheme
who now faces charges of fraud and possible support for terrorism in Russia.
The trial of the U.S. suspects is continuing in Los Angeles County Court. Lawyers for
the 17 defendants now in custody haven't indicated how they would plead and have said
their clients were unaware of any links to the Chechen extremists. No charges were filed
against the Chechen businessman.
"This case was a breakthrough in that what we found didn't look like terrorism: it
looked like regular criminal activity but when we followed it long enough it developed
what we believed [was] a nexus to terrorism. But it is important to note we never made a
terrorism case out of it," Detective Severino says.