Robed men with long beards and women in burqas have often prompted thoughts of Islamist terrorism, leading to the police being alerted and the suspects turn out to be perfectly clean. Indeed, just such a recent case took place at a New York Giants football game. Islamist organizations lose no time to jump on these cases as signs of prejudice, sometimes exploiting them for their own gain.
But suspicions of neighbors do turn out on many occasions to be warranted and are an extremely valuable tool of counterterrorism, as I shall note here on an occasional basis and in reverse chronological order.
Martin Rouleau's neighbours worried about him but said nothing: Graeme Hamilton of Canada's National Post reports how the neighbors of Islamist killer Martin "Ahmad" Rouleau (his victim: Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent) had bad feelings about him but sat on their suspicions, figuring law enforcement already was on his case (which it was).
One neighbor: "It's a shock in the sense that it was someone across the street, but on the other hand, we thought that one day there could be a dramatic incident, considering his activities." Another neighbour, Lyse Laroche: "We knew right away it was him. There was no doubt." A next-door neighbor: About a year and a half ago, "we saw a big change." He "entered a bubble": He stopped talking to neighbors and changed his name. (October 22, 2014)
"Apprentice jihadis" train in a French city park: Residents in the French city of Strasbourg noted at least six "bearded men dressed in djellabas" engaged in combat training in a park, using fake weapons, and called the police this week to watch what they called "apprentice jihadists." On arrival, the police were called "infidels." The group's leader told police they were in training to "avenge the deaths of their Muslim brothers" and threatening that the police "would burn in hell." Subsequently, the men insisted they were taking part in a self-defence class. The DGSI, the anti-terrorist police, has taken over the investigation. While it's not clear what this group is, neighborly vigilance can only have helped. (October 15, 2014)
Times Square bomber: A counter-positive example, where neighbors were suspicious but did nothing and the suspect went on to try to commit an act of terrorism.
For most of his dozen or so years living in the United States, Faisal Shahzad, 30, appeared to be, as one acquaintance put it, "just a normal dude." But then, the New York Daily News reports,
some of Shahzad's neighbors in Bridgeport started growing suspicious. He kept odd hours and seemed nervous, they said. By that time, he had run into financial woes: banks were foreclosing on his house and he was being sued by an energy company. "He would be carrying in boxes in the middle of the night," said Dashawn Labelle, who added that he sometimes wore traditional Islamic robes. "He always looked on edge. We knew something weird was going on. I thought he might be connected to terrorism - a lot of us did, because he acted strangely. But we didn't call police. We should have called," Labelle said. … "You could sort of tell he was hiding something," said Lorenzo Patel, 32. "He had family, but it's like he was going places alone and keeping odd hours, not like a father should. That house gave me a bad feeling."
(May 4, 2010)
Orange County, California: Pat Rose, head of the FBI's Al-Qaeda squad in Orange County, approves of nosey neighbors: "I think we need to be concerned with everybody, including our next-door neighbor," adding that the FBI gets frequent calls from people who want to tell them about situations like a Muslim neighbor who is changing his license plates or the guy who has nothing in his apartment but a mattress and five computers. "I can't tell you how many" tips like that paid off, she said. (May 25, 2006)
Maaseik, Belgium: "Maaseik is located in the Belgian province of Limburg, a few miles from the Dutch and German borders. Until recently, its chief claim to fame was as the home town of Hubert and Jan van Eyck, the 15th-century Flemish painters." More recently, its claim to fame concerns this town of 24,000 serving (in the words of the Washington Post) as the "center of a terrorist network stretching across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa." And how did the authorities figure this out? Again, the Post: "Rumors that radicals were living in Maaseik spread to the offices of the Belgian State Security agency in Brussels, which opened a surveillance operation in the summer of 2002."
Zeeshan Siddique: A young man from Hounslow, west London, was arrested in May 2005 in a house outside Peshawar, Pakistan because (as the New York Times puts it) of "reports that he was acting suspiciously." He has been held on suspicion of links to both Al-Qaeda and later the July 7 suicide bombers.
Maher Hawash: The one time high-flying Intel engineer with a circle of friends and volunteer activities changed; his neighbors in Oregon reported to the FBI that (as I put it in a 2003 article) "he became noticeably more devout. He grew a beard, wore Arab clothing, prayed five times a day and regularly attended mosque. He also became noticeably less friendly." An inquiry followed that ended up with Hawash arrested in March 2003, pleading guilty in August, and sentenced to a seven-year jail term in February 2004.
Waleed M. Alshehri: One of the 9/11 suicide hijackers, Waleed M. Alshehri, had lived in a large rental house in Vienna, Virginia. His and his friends' comings and goings (loud parties, pistol shooting, fancy cars with out-of-state license plates, people "always walking around out front with cellphones," a van permanently parked outside the home with a Middle-Eastern man in it monitoring a scanner or radio) aroused suspicions. The neighbor across the street, John E. Albritton, called federal authorities and another neighbor says residents complained to the FBI.
Wolverhampton, England: A report on the arrest of ten Al-Qaeda-related terrorist suspects in October 2005: "Neighbours in the Moseley Village area of Wolverhampton described how up to 20 young men at a time would stay in the two-bedroom, semi-detached house in Lewis Avenue that was raided by armed police and MI5 officers."
The Portland Seven: A ranch in Bly, Oregon, that was intended to serve as a jihad-training camp for Abu Hamza al-Masri and others, drew scrutiny in 1999 from law-enforcement officials because, as the Klamath County sheriff, Tim Evinger, later explained, "There were reports of gunfire and of a large group of suspicious, or unusual, people there." (November 24, 2005)