A recent internal FBI report warns federal, state and local authorities to be alert for a potential new tool in the jihadi terror arsenal – the placing of suspicious, but harmless, bags in public places to inspire fear, disrupt public transportation and tie up police and bomb squads.
The so called "battle of suspicious bags" was encouraged by an unknown poster to a known jihadi website. On May 12th, the poster suggested an "invasions suspicious bags (sic)" in "the heart of Washington and New York," as the FBI's Washington Field Office Intelligence Division noted in its May 27th "Situational Information Report." The bags would contain not bombs, but innocuous items, a tactic that has been used by other political extremists in the U.S. in the recent past.
"The stated goal of the campaign," said the report, "was to exploit desensitization of first responders caused by response fatigue to suspicious, but harmless items."
The FBI report did not include the full text of the jihadi forum post, but said "the poster suggested packing bags with innocuous items and placing them in public areas has the capability to occupy response assets and disrupt public infrastructure and transportation." The poster's credibility was not known, according to the FBI, but the site where the information was posted was listed as a "known jihadi web site."
The information had also been shared among numerous law enforcement agencies in advance of the bulletin's circulation. The jihadi posting came within two weeks after an attempted car bombing in Times Square. The man charged in the case, Faisal Shahzad, has alleged link to Islamic fundamentalists overseas.
So far, no evidence of any "suspicious bag" campaign has been found in either Washington or New York.
In New York, there was a spike in calls to police about suspicious packages in the immediate aftermath of the May 1 Times Square bombing attempt, law enforcement officials said. During the week right after the failed attack there were 140 calls a day to the New York City Police Department of suspicious packages, compared with 90 per day in the week prior to the attack.
The NYPD Bomb Squad was called out in force to investigate several items, including a cooler, a pizza box and a car with propane tanks in its back seat. Each incident, however, was unrelated to the others, and showed no signs of being part of an organized campaign, officials said.
Authorities told ABC that they were familiar with the tactic of sowing fear with suspicious bags, and there were telltale signs that could help them establish whether such a campaign was underway. Anarchists have used the tactic in the U.S. with some success, at venues such as the 2000 Philadelphia Republican Convention, where hoax bomb knapsacks including some with messages were left at or near the convention.
The threat of another such campaign was also investigated prior to the Republican Convention in New York in 2004 and authorities trained for a variety of potential responses.
The FBI's Washington Field Office included the information on the jihadi posting in what has become an annual event -- the circulation of a report reminding authorities that "Summer Tourist Season Increases the Potential for Terrorist Threats."
"Washington DC and the National Capital Region (NCR) remain primary targets for Extremists, particularly during the summer tourist season, " this year's report states. The possibility of a suspicious bag campaign was at the top of a list of "indicators to assist in detecting potential terrorist activity."
The FBI's Washington Field Office declined to discuss the issues raised in the "Situational Information Report.
The FBI in New York, meanwhile, said it provides situational awareness training specifically geared towards helping patrol officers and others to determine when an bag or other object might be suspicious.
Said Special Agent Richard Kolko, spokesman for the FBI's New York Field Office, "Our Bomb Techs recently had a training class for FBI personnel from New York and several other field offices to educate them on how to identify suspicious packages, or routine items in order to help recognize what may or may not be potentially dangerous. This helps cut down on the calls for items that just don't warrant sending out the bomb squad and provides the agents on the street additional situational awareness as they go about their daily duties."
Kolko noted that this training class was not related to the Washington Field Office report or to the jihadi posting.