Police: Be the 'eyes, ears' to stop lone wolves

Jacob and Justin Meek stand outside the mobile home in the Lexington County community of Red Bank where a friend of theirs, Dylann Roof, 21, spent about two months before he was accused of fatally shooting nine people on June 17, 2015, at the Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston.

The San Bernardino and Emanuel AME Church mass killings share a similarity beyond their senselessness: Neighbors or friends knew something was amiss beforehand but did not alert authorities.

Neighbors of the two San Bernardino killers saw suspicious activity at the Muslim couple's home in the days before the shooting, but feared they'd be accused of racial profiling if they called police.

And Joey Meek, friend of accused Emanuel AME shooter Dylann Roof, pleaded guilty in April to failing to report knowing that Roof planned for months to shoot worshippers at a Charleston church Bible study.

Had the San Bernardino neighbors and Meek come forward with what they suspected or knew ahead of time, 23 innocent people might be alive today.

Unfortunately, police say, those San Bernardino neighbors and Meek are examples of what law enforcement needs most to stop “lone wolf” terrorism: the eyes and ears of the public.

And regrettably, police say, little else has come along since the attacks to help law enforcement identify such terrorists before they strike.

Lone wolves are among the hardest terrorists to identify because they act alone, even if incited by someone else or some other group, authorities say.

Even when lone wolves are brought to the attention of authorities, they are hard to stop because they generally don't let anyone know what they plan.

That seems to be the case with the gunman in Sunday's Orlando, Fla., gay nightclub shooting. Federal authorities had questioned him earlier about suspicious comments but he had done nothing authorities were aware of to give away his deadly plot.

That gunman, Omar Mateen, reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS in a 911 call during the rampage, but federal officials have said they don't believe he was directly connected to the Islamic State or any other extremist group.

State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel participated in efforts to identify and capture Roof after the Emanuel AME shooting last June.

Now, a year later, the best enforcement tool to help nab lone wolves remains a cooperative public, Keel said.

With lone wolves, police have no organized group to monitor, no personal connections to check and no co-conspirator to leak information or catch in a mistake, Keel said.

“Law enforcement depends on leads. We depend on the public to assist us. They have very many more eyes,” he said.

To gather and coordinate intelligence, SLED participates in a “Fusion Center,” one of many such operations set up across the country after the 9/11 terror attacks exposed the lack of information-sharing among state and federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Monitoring hate groups and individuals is among the functions of a Fusion Center. But when it comes to identifying lone wolves, even the pooling of such agencies can leave authorities in the dark especially now that terrorists have access to easy encryption of electronic communication.

Mark Potok is editor-in-chief of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report and an expert on extremism, especially the right-wing version.

Last year, his organization published a study called “Age of the Wolf.” It warned of lone wolf terrorism and characterized it as “the very hardest kind of terrorist to stop.”

Potok recently told The Post and Courier that the Emanuel AME shooter was “a classic lone wolf, not known, literally unknown, who really did nothing to make himself visible” to law enforcement or others.

Only Meek knew. Without him coming forward, law enforcement was helpless.

“There's no easy way to stop these people,” Potok said. “Except for following everyone who writes a few nasty things on the internet, I don't think they could have gotten this guy.”

“That's the problem with lone wolves. That's why they are so scary. That's why they are so dangerous,” he said.

The memory of the Emanuel AME Church shooting is still fresh, and Keel remains frustrated by the continued failure of law enforcement's best tools to spot lone wolves before they strike.

Part of the problem is the public's tendency to avoid getting involved and the fear they may make a false report, Keel said.

That's why he supports two law enforcement efforts to build relations with the public: community policing to improve everyday interaction, communications and trust; and Homeland Security's “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign to raise public awareness of the indicators of terrorism and the need to tell authorities.

“We truly believe that some of these cases could be avoided if people just spoke out,” Keel said.

Doug Hemminghaus, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's National Security Cyber Branch in Columbia, characterized lone wolf terrorists as “one of the most difficult challenges for today's FBI and law enforcement.”

He agrees that public education may offer the best means to meet the challenge of lone wolves.

The FBI recently created a Countering Violent Extremism unit, focused on doing just that, he said.

The unit just released an interactive cyber program called “Don't be a Puppet: Pull Back the Curtain on Violent Extremism.”

It's designed to help young people recognize violent extremist messaging and become more resistant to self-radicalization and possible recruitment.

Reach Doug Pardue at 843-937-5558.

As the anniversary approaches, we reflect on the year that has passed and explore the tragedy's impact, then and now.

Read the full series here.

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