Comparing ‘Lone Wolves’: Holmes And Ferdaus

One defendant is charged with the murder of 12 people in Colorado. Another, here in Massachusetts, is charged with attempting to blow up the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol.

One of them was never on any law enforcement radar. The other was accompanied the whole way by undercover agents. And some counter-terrorism experts say comparisons of the two cases raise troubling questions.

On Friday afternoon, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Pirozzolo stood outside the federal courthouse in Boston and seemed to precisely characterize the case of alleged Colorado killer James Holmes.

“One of the things that is becoming an increasing part of our mission is to identify, contain, and then bring to justice those lone wolves who would do harm,” he said.

But Pirozzolo was not talking about Holmes. He was talking about Rezwan Ferdaus, who’d just plead guilty to attempting to fly remote-controlled planes into federal buildings. The public had never been in danger from that plot because undercover FBI employees had funded and facilitated Ferdaus from the start.

“If Rezwan Ferdaus had tried to buy 6,000 rounds of ammunition, would he have been able to do it without law enforcement being all over him?”

“In the case of Ferdaus, what I would say is, ‘Please consider what did not happen here.’ No one was hurt,” Pirozzolo added.

Not here. But in Aurora, Colo., many were hurt or killed because someone bought an assault rifle, two automatics, a shotgun and 6,000 rounds of ammunition without ever showing up on the radar of law enforcement.

“I think the situation is absurd,” said James Bamford, an expert on the National Security Agency and worldwide eavesdropping since 9/11. His latest book is called “Shadow Factory.”

“The NSA and the FBI have enormous capabilities to eavesdrop on communications, not just targeted people, but on information such as data mining,” Bamford said. “But it doesn’t seem they focus on people who purchase large quantities of ammunition.”

Back in Massachusetts, the Joint Terrorism Task Force spent nearly a year creating the opportunity for Ferdaus to commit a crime. But sting operations create the danger that real criminals will slip by because agents are concentrating on potential criminals who may never do anything on their own, says terrorism expert Carlo Boccia.

I ask Boccia: “If Rezwan Ferdaus had tried to buy 6,000 rounds of ammunition, would he have been able to do it without law enforcement being all over him?”

“That’s a good question,” Boccia said. And he doesn’t have a quick answer. But Bamford does.

“I think if Holmes had a Muslim name he would have come into a great deal of attention with a lot less purchases,” Bamford said.

To be sure, Holmes fits the description of “a lone wolf” far better than Ferdaus, says Boccia.

“The quintessential example of the lone wolf is the suicide bomber who decides on his own to make a statement, walks into a public place, and pushes a button — that’s a lone wolf.”

By comparison, if Ferdaus was ever a lone wolf, he certainly didn’t have a full set of teeth. This was not a DIY job: Ferdaus got the model plane, the rent for his warehouse, his travel expenses, bombs and guns all from his fake al-Qaida friends from the FBI.

“I am concerned about the cases that have been brought,” of which the Ferdaus case is an example, says historian David Kaiser, of the Naval War College and a visiting professor at Williams College.

“It really isn’t clear that the defendant ever would have done anything, nor even thought about doing very much had it not been for the role of FBI informants,” Kaiser said.

Kaiser says it’s unlikely that Holmes could have been detected earlier given the absence of reporting requirements for those who sell ammunition.

But Boccia says the Colorado case underlines the need for more intelligent intelligence-gathering and priorities that extend beyond stings.

That a lone wolf could buy 6,000 rounds of ammunition over the Internet a decade after 9/11 and go unnoticed is a big exclamation mark.

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  • Nodoby

    Gavin De Becker’s the Gift of Fear argues that one of the motivations of mass murderers is the acquisition of cool nicknames  like “Lone Wolf.”  NPR, please do better.

    • Guest

      At least they haven’t yet given him a middle name.

    • Joel

      Just because he argues it does not necessarily make it true. I think someone invading a theater and killing a bunch of people might likely be motivated by something more than the mere hope of a cool nickname in the media. Still, by that argument we should not be publishing accounts of this tragedy at all since a gunman is just as likely if not more so to be motivated merely by having his name attached to an historical atrocity, nickname or not. If true, it’s the sad price we pay for open media.

  • Karl Hiramoto

     WBUR is advocating more domestic spying by the NSA.

    • Guest

      From a network who fired Juan Williams for stating the obvious, what else would you expect?

    • Joel

       So – how does monitoring large purchases of ammunition by an individual differ from monitoring large international transfers of money by an individual? These mass shootings are low-probability events (although maybe not as low as we imagine given that one of the victims of this one narrowly escaped another one last week – what’s the probability of that?), but if we are serious about making them extremely rare, this is a commonsense thing to do.

  • Jemimah

    As someone who’s not doing anything sketchy, I couldn’t care less if the NSA wasted their time spying on me–which they wouldn’t.  But as a thinking, responsible human being, I find it hard to believe that NO ONE knew Holmes was up to something–his family, classmates, someone.  And since there are most probably a few people who had an inkling that this kid was a mess, the bigger and more troubling question is why in the world was nothing done?!?  When someone buys an assault rifle–and I’m not against guns, but am for control of them and don’t think any private citizen has the need for firepower like that–why is there not a national database that notes it…and more to the point, notes that more than one has been bought by a grad student, and then sets off some alarms?

    So my point is, I don’t think that we should rely on the NSA for situations like this.  What we need is to be more aware, and less afraid to get involved, for heaven’s sake.  No, we don’t want to label every bit of eccentric behavior as dangerous, but there’s an enormous difference between odd and crazy, and honestly, it’s not that hard to tell when someone is “off.” 

    I think it’s a commendable human quality that none of us wants to think that someone we know is capable of such an unconscienable atrocity.  But when you see a friend or family member whose behavior makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, do something about it!!!  Don’t just wait and hope that you’re wrong.  Talk to someone who might be able to help them.  There absolutely had to be signs that this kid was in trouble.  Was everyone who knew him just too busy to notice?  What a crying shame. 

  • joanema1

    been puzzled by the omission of the Tucson shootings that targetted
    Cong. Giffords in the various discussions about the Aurora Colorado
    attack.  Doesn’t Jared Loughner  fit the same profile as Holmes and that of the shooter at  Virginia Tech, the shooters at Columbine and the psychiatrist shooter at Fort Hood?  

  • Sidley666

    Don’t call him lone wolf, you fools. Lone murderer, lone nut, lone psycho, lone idiot, lone jerk, lone ahole, lone justkillyourself, lone ….. You get the idea. Lone wolf sounds individualistic, admirable, respectable.

  • Lew Dabney

    What everyone seems to miss in  Colorado’s twin slaughters and around 18 yearly  since l996 killing four or more, is that only cowards need guns. The number of legal self-defense deaths you can count on on e hand, but mass murders are regular fare here.  Holmes, Loughner (sic), Harris & Klebold are the personification of helpless cowards who cannot find a way throlugh life without a gun. Second, most irresponsible:  Congress and the EWhite House for not appoining solid Homeland Security directors starting with Tom Ridge who knew nothing about law enforcement, followed by a handful of nonentities and omitting Wm. Bratton who reduced lethal crime in Boston, New York and Los Angeles and was left on the sidelines. Finally, the sinister, evil, selfish, mindless, totally irresponsible NRA which never saw a gun or a felon lugging one it didn’t–doesn’t like. It should be  disbanded.
      s/s Lew Dabney, Boston

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