Posts Tagged ‘al-Qaeda’
Thursday, August 5th, 2010

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California Laura E. Duffy; U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota B. Todd Jones; Assistant Attorney General for National Security David Kris; Attorney General Eric Holder; Sean Joyce, the Executive Assistant Director of the FBI's National Security Branch and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama Kenyen R. Brown (photo by Lonnie Tague/DOJ).

An increasing number of individuals have been captivated by extremist ideology, Attorney General Eric Holder said at a news conference Thursday announcing charges against 14 individuals for supporting a terrorist group operating in Somalia.

But those in the American Muslim community are strong partners in fighting the threat, Holder said, and there needs to be more recognition of their efforts.

“It’s a disturbing trend that we have been intensely investigating in recent years and will continue to investigate and root out,” Holder said. “But we must also work to prevent this type of radicalization from ever taking hold.”

Attorney General Eric Holder (Lonnie Tague/DOJ).

The Justice Department announced the charges against 14 individuals in Minnesota, California and Alabama at the mid-day news conference Thursday. The defendants are charged with providing material support for the terrorist group al-Shabab, which is based in Somalia and has ties to al-Qaeda. Just two of those charged have been arrested as of Thursday.

Of the 14 individuals charged, 26-year-old Alabama native Omar Hamammi is the most well-known. He has appeared in videos for al-Shabab, including at least two which show him rapping in English, according to NBC.

Hamammi has taken on an operational role within the organization, Holder said. He declined to elaborate.

With the latest indictments, the Justice Department has charged 40 U.S. citizens with category 1 international terrorism violations — the most serious charges such as the use of weapons of mass destruction, conspiracy to murder persons overseas or providing material support for terrorism — in 2009 and 2010. That number does not include any foreign citizens, permanent U.S. residents or visa holders.

Holder was joined at the news conference by Sean Joyce, the Executive Assistant Director of the FBI’s National Security Branch; Assistant Attorney General for National Security David Kris; U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota B. Todd Jones; U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama Kenyen R. Brown; and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California Laura E. Duffy.

“Members of the American Muslim community have been – and continue to be – strong partners in fighting this emerging threat. They have regularly denounced terrorist acts and those who carry them out. And they have provided critical assistance to law enforcement in helping to disrupt terrorist plots and combat radicalization,” Holder said.

Holder said individuals in the American Muslim community have consistently expressed deep concern about the recruitment of their youth by terrorist groups. The community has taken proactive steps to stop the recruitment, Holder said, such as a video made by a group of American Muslims that repudiates the tactics used by radical terrorists to recruit young followers online.

That video was produced by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which has taken on a prominent liaison role at the Justice Department and the FBI. At a speech in June, Holder said he found it “intolerable” that Arab and Muslim Americans feel uncomfortable about their relationship with law enforcement.

“There needs to be more recognition of these efforts and of the losses suffered in the Muslim community here and around the world,” Holder said Thursday. “Many of the victims of terror attacks by al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups are innocent Muslims.”

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

Earlier Wednesday, Justice Department officials confirmed to FoxNews the list of DOJ attorneys dubbed the “al-Qaeda Seven” — a group of lawyers lambasted in a Keep America Safe advertisement who represented Guantanamo detainees prior to their government service.

Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division Tony West (Lonnie Tague/DOJ)

Surprisingly, that list includes Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division Tony West, despite the fact that his representation of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh has long been public knowledge.

In 2002, West joined a team of lawyers that represented Lindh. He discussed the case on a chat with The Washington Post back in 2002 and has appeared in numerous news articles as one of Lindh’s lawyers.

“West’s representation of Lindh is probably his best-known work, and was prominently mentioned in the ledes of several articles reporting on his nomination,” writes Media Matters.

West’s representation of Lindh was brought up during his confirmation hearing in March 2009, but few voiced any opposition to his nomination at that time. Ultimately only four Republican senators voted against West’s nomination. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who has pressed for information on the detainee lawyer issue, voted in favor of West’s confirmation.

Although West was not identified by name, on Feb. 18 Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legislative Affairs Ronald Weich publicly acknowledged West’s role in the Lindh case. In a letter to Grassley, Weich wrote that “the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division previously represented one Afghanistan detainee, and his former employer represents other detainees.”

A spokesman for Keep America Safe said that disclosing solely the position of someone who represented terrorism suspects - even if there is only one person who fit such a description - is not good enough.

“If you only give the position and not the name, it’s another barrier to disclosing information that should be readily available,” Aaron Harison of Keep America Safe told Main Justice.

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

UPDATE: Ahmad Afzali appeared in court Tuesday but did not enter a plea, NY1 reported. He is scheduled to appear in court again on Thursday.


An imam accused of alerting al-Qaeda-affiliated militant Najibullah Zazi that he was under scrutiny as he planned to detonate bombs in New York’s subway system is expected to plead guilty to lying to the FBI, a Reuters news story reported Tuesday.

Citing a court official “who spoke on condition of anonymity”, the story said that Ahmad Afzali, an imam of a mosque in Queens, would plead guilty on Tuesday, the second plea stemming from the subway bombing case; Zazi pleaded guilty to conspiracy to use explosives against U.S. citizens and other charges on Feb. 25.

Afzali, 37, was arrested in September, the result of an investigation into a terror plot that Attorney General Eric Holder deemed one of the most serious threats to the U.S. since September 11.

After Zazi, pleaded guilty last month, Holder hailed the case as a vindication of his decision to try alleged terrorists in civilian court. In a press conference after the plea was announced, Holder struck back at Republican critics of his handling of terror cases, saying civilian courts are a valuable tool in fight against terrorism.

“To take this tool out of our hands to denigrate the use of this tool flies in the face of the facts, in the face of the history of this tool, is more about politics than it is about facts,” he said.

On Feb. 25, the Justice Department announced that two more men have been indicted in connection with the case. A federal grand jury in the Eastern District of New York charged Zarein Ahmedzay and Adis Medunjanin with terrorism violations.

Zazi attended Afzali’s mosque while living in Queens as a teenager. Afzali has described himself as a pro-American imam and has cooperated with previous investigations, according to Reuters. Prosecutors in the case said that Afzali warned Zazi that the FBI was investigating him and then lied to FBI about the warning.

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Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani (FBI).

A federal judge has ruled that the government must turn over memos by high-ranking Justice Department officials on the transfers of alleged terrorist Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to move from the military commission system to civilian court, according an article in the New York Law Journal.

U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan ruled in an opinion unsealed Wednesday that prosecutors must produce the memos because they could shed light on why Ghailani was kept out of the criminal justice for almost five years.

In the opinion, Kaplan argued that the DOJ official’s memos fall under the the prosecution’s discovery obligations because the officials can be considered part of the “government” as defined by the Rules of Criminal Procedure.

“Even if those officials had no other involvement with Ghailani’s investigation or prosecution, the decisions at issue were so important to the timing and progress of this case that participation in decisionmaking renders those individuals members of the prosecution team, at least to the extent of that participation,” Kaplan wrote in the opinion.

Kaplan’s opinion was sealed after it was written in January to allow court officers time to vet the ruling to prevent disclosing national security information.

The opinion could provide ammunition for critics of Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to try Guantanamo detainees in civilian court. Republicans, and some Democrats, have argued that evidence produced in such trials could reveal information about the U.S. anti-terrorism efforts against al-Qaeda and others.

Ghaliani allegedly took part in an al-Qaeda plot to destroy U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. He was arrested in Pakistan in 2004 then transferred to a CIA “black site.” In 2006, he was sent to Guantanmo before ultimatley being charged in a New York federal court last year.

Ghailani’s lawyers sought the DOJ memos in an attempt to dismiss his indictment on speedy trial grounds. Lead prosecutor Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Farbiarz argued that because the DOJ officials were not intimately involved with the case the memos did not have to be produced in discovery.

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Department of Justice

Office of Public Affairs
Monday, February 22, 2022
Najibullah Zazi Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Use Explosives Against Persons or Property in U.S., Conspiracy to Murder Abroad and Providing Material Support to Al-Qaeda

The Justice Department announced that Najibullah Zazi pleaded guilty today in the Eastern District of New York to a three-count superseding information charging him with conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction (explosive bombs) against persons or property in the United States, conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country and providing material support to al-Qaeda. Among other things, Zazi admitted that he brought TATP [Triacetone Triperoxide] explosives to New York on Sept. 10, 2009, as part of plan to attack the New York subway system.

Zazi, 25, a resident of Aurora, Colo., and legal permanent resident of the United States from Afghanistan, entered his guilty plea today before Chief U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Dearie. Zazi faces a maximum statutory sentence of life in prison for the first two counts of the superseding information and an additional 15 years in prison for the third count of the superseding information.

FBI agents in Colorado first arrested Zazi on Sept. 19, 2009, on a criminal complaint charging him with knowingly and willfully making false statements to the FBI in a matter involving international and domestic terrorism. On Sept. 23, 2009, a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of New York returned a one-count indictment alleging that Zazi knowingly and intentionally conspired with others to use one or more weapons of mass destruction, specifically explosive bombs and other similar explosive devices, against persons or property within the United States.

As Zazi admitted during today’s guilty plea allocution and as reflected in previous government filings, he and others agreed to travel to Afghanistan to join the Taliban and fight against United States and allied forces. In furtherance of their plans, they flew from Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J., to Peshawar, Pakistan at the end of August 2008. Although Zazi and others initially intended to fight on behalf of the Taliban, they were recruited by al-Qaeda shortly after arriving in Peshawar. Al-Qaeda personnel transported Zazi and others to the Waziristan region of Pakistan and trained them on several different kinds of weapons. During the training, al-Qaeda leaders asked Zazi and others to return to the United States and conduct suicide operations. They agreed.

Zazi later received additional training from al-Qaeda on constructing the explosives for the planned attacks in the United States. Zazi had discussions with al-Qaeda leaders about target locations, including subway trains in New York City. Zazi took detailed notes during the training, and later emailed a summary of the notes to himself so that he could access them when he returned to the United States. Zazi also provided money and computers to al-Qaeda before he left Pakistan.

Zazi returned to the United States in January 2009 and moved to Denver. Beginning in June 2009, he began reviewing the bomb-making notes from his training and conducting research on where to buy the ingredients for the explosives. Zazi then traveled to New York and met with others to discuss the plan, including the timing of the attack and where to make the explosives.

Zazi returned to Denver and used the bomb-making notes to construct the explosives for the detonator components of the bombs. As set forth in the government’s detention memorandum filed earlier in the case, in July and August 2009, Zazi purchased large quantities of components necessary to produce TATP and twice checked into a hotel room near Denver, where bomb making residue was later found.

On Sept. 8, 2009, Zazi rented a car and drove from Denver to New York, taking with him the explosives and other materials necessary to build the bombs. Zazi arrived in New York City on Thursday, Sept.10, 2009. Zazi and others intended to obtain and assemble the remaining components of the bombs over the weekend and conduct the attack on Manhattan subway lines on Sept. 14, Sept. 15, or Sept. 16, 2009. However, shortly after arriving in New York, Zazi realized that law enforcement was investigating his activities. Zazi and others discarded the explosives and other bomb-making materials, and Zazi traveled back to Denver. He was arrested on Sept. 19, 2009.

“This was one of the most serious terrorist threats to our nation since September 11th, 2001, and were it not for the combined efforts of the law enforcement and intelligence communities, it could have been devastating,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “This attempted attack on our homeland was real, it was in motion, and it would have been deadly. We were able to thwart this plot because of careful analysis by our intelligence agents and prompt actions by law enforcement. They deserve our thanks and praise.”

“Today’s plea is an important development in this complex and ongoing criminal investigation and intelligence operation that in many ways illustrates the evolving nature of the terrorist threat today,” said FBI Deputy Director John S. Pistole.  “The plea is the result of the dedication and hard work by agents and officers assigned to Joint Terrorism Task Forces in both New York and Colorado working closely with federal prosecutors.”

This case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, with assistance from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado and the Counterterrorism Section of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. The investigation is being conducted by the New York and Denver FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which combined have investigators from more than fifty federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

Click here for the indictment.

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Suspected terrorist Najibullah Zazi has begun working with prosecutors and possibly will agree to a plea agreement, according to two officials familiar with the investigation, The Associated Press reports. Zazi in September 2009 was charged with planning to bomb a New York City target with homemade explosives. He reportedly has had contact with a senior al-Qaeda member.

The AP reports that Zazi’s guilty plea could come as early as today. Zazi reportedly has volunteered information during a recent meeting, known as a proffer session, with his attorney William Stampur and federal prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York. Proffer sessions often occur when a defendant has started working with prosecutor in an effort to get a plea deal, the AP reports.

Zazi has reportedly told prosecutors he was armed with bomb-making components while on his way to New York City but got rid of them en route, AP reported. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Marshall Miller.

According to the AP, while a guilty plea would be important, the information Zazi could provide to investigators regarding co-conspirators in the U.S. and Pakistan might be more valuable. In addition, according to AP, Zazi’s willingness to cooperate with prosecutors suggests they hope to bring charges against other suspects in the Zazi case and possibly other terror probes.

The cooperation between Zazi and federal prosecutors adds weight to the argument made by federal prosecutors that terrorist suspects should be tried in civilian courts, as prosecutors are able to persuade defendants to provide prosecutors with reliable information without coercion, the AP reports.

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

The Washington Post Thursday spotlighted the federal prosecutor’s office in Manhattan, which it says is “ratcheting up an aggressive strategy to pursue terrorists, drug traffickers and corrupt public officials who operate on foreign soil.”

The focus on fighting crime abroad hasn’t won universal praise, The Post reports, citing criticism that federal law enforcement resources should first be utilized domestically.

But, the Post reports, “advocates say that using the long arm of American law to apprehend international figures whose crimes involve the United States might be the only way to attack an increasingly sophisticated global criminal threat.”

According to the newspaper, “since taking office last year, Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, has launched or re-emphasized criminal cases against a young Somali pirate accused of hijacking the ship Maersk Alabama in the Indian Ocean; three African men charged with conspiracy to commit narco-terrorism in support of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; and a Guantanamo Bay detainee who had been charged in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, which killed 224 people.”

In an interview, Bharara told the Post: “The world is becoming more interdependent and more global and so is crime.” He continued, “In order to stay one step ahead of the criminals, you need to figure out a way to be as sophisticated as they are. . . . You have to go where the evidence is, where the crimes are plotted and where the money is being hidden.”

In the past three years alone, federal prosecutors from New York’s Southern District have traveled to more than 40 countries, including Afghanistan, Egypt, Poland and Venezuela, a spokeswoman said.

Just this week, Bharara’s office unsealed an indictment charging former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo with money laundering.The fugitive former president of Guatemala was charged with using U.S. bank accounts to launder millions of dollars skimmed from public funds.

Portillo, who was president from 2000 to 2004, converted the office “into his personal ATM” and “abused the trust of his people,” Bharara said.

The tactic is not new: The New York office prosecuted defendants who detonated a truck bomb in 1993 in the garage of the World Trade Center, and the office later secured a conviction in another landmark terrorism case against Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as the blind sheikh, according to The Post.

According to The Post, “within the U.S. legal community, some academics and former prosecutors ask about the wisdom of targeting international figures while traditional American law enforcement missions suffer from a lack of funding.”

The newspaper quotes Kirby Behre, a former prosecutor in the District and a partner in the Paul Hastings law firm, who argued that “taxpayers should question whether it is a wise use of U.S. resources to prosecute the former president of Guatemala, who left office six years ago, for embezzlement that has nothing to do with the United States.”

Monday, January 18th, 2010

The Obama administration is considering holding a trial in Washington, D.C., for alleged terrorist Riduan Isamuddin, the Guantánamo Bay detainee who is suspected of planning the deadly nightclub bombing in Bali, Indonesia, in 2002, The Associated Press reported Friday.

According to the AP, “U.S. officials briefed on the plan” said other terrorism trials could be held in Washington and New York City under a proposal being discussed by the administration. The officials said the Obama administration could make a decision in a matter of weeks, though the idea of trying Hambali in D.C. has been floated for months.

In August The Washington Post reported that DOJ officials were considering trying Isamuddin — better known by his nom de guerre, Hambali - in Washington, apparently as a kind of consolation prize for D.C. not being considered to host the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed trial.

At the time, the  Southern District of New York and the Eastern District of Virginia were vying to prosecute the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, after Attorney General Eric Holder decided Mohammed should be moved out of Guantanamo Bay and tried in federal court. Manhattan won out over the Alexandria, Va.-based Eastern District, helping to secure its reputation as a premier venue for prestigious national security cases.

On Sunday, The Washington Examiner reported that “security experts” said Washington wasn’t equipped to handle Hambali. The Examiner said facilities in Alexandria, Va.,  where al-Qaeda supporter Zacarias Moussaoui’s was convicted, would be a better fit.

Department of Justice spokesman Dean Boyd said Attorney General Eric Holder hasn’t even decided if the Hambali case will be tried in military or civilian court. ”The attorney general has made no decision on forum for this case, let alone on where such a case would be tried if it were sent to federal courts,” said Boyd.

Despite DOJ’s unwillingness to confirm or deny the reports, The Hill reported Friday that Republicans were slamming the potential move. ”Moving terrorist detainees to within a mile of the White House and blocks from the U.S. Capitol for show trials is a mistake,” Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the ranking Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille similarly criticized the prospect of having the trial in his city. ”The city’s opposed to having any terrorist tried in our city,” he said. “It’s not about what we’ll be known as but protecting the quality of life of our residents.”

Hambali was allegedly Osama bin Laden’s point man in Indonesia, facilitating communications between al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah, the terror group said to be responsible for the Bali nightclub attack that left 202 people dead.

Hambali denied any connection to al-Qaeda at a preliminary military tribunal in 2007. Since his capture in 2003, Hambali was held at a CIA “black site” and the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay.

President Barack Obama’s self-imposed deadline to close Guantánamo Bay is less than a week away, though the president has acknowledged it will not be met.

Closing the detention center has proved to be a difficult task as the administration has been unable to find countries that will take detainees cleared for release. Obama has also had to confront the complicated legal and political issues connected with moving detainees into the U.S. court system.

In August, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. Attorney’s offices in Alexandria and Manhattan were “embroiled in intense competition” over the opportunity to prosecute 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other terrorism suspects connected to the attacks. Holder ultimately chose New York to host the trial, a move that immediately came under fire.

“KSM’s first response when he was captured was ‘I will see New York with my lawyer,’ ” former Attorney General Michael Mukasey said on Fox News Channel. “He got instead a military commission. Now, of course, he is getting the fate of his dreams, which is a courtroom in New York City.”

The Justice Department has also faced major hurdles in its efforts to provide security for the trial. Earlier this month, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg estimated the cost of security operations for the trials at more than $200 million.

According to the AP, authorities have already started to review the security measures need to try Hambali and others in federal court in Washington.

Trying detainees like Mohammed and Hambali in civilian courts also presents a host of prosecutorial issues. Some have questioned if evidence obtained through “harsh interrogating techniques,” like water-boarding, would be admissible in court. Critics also fear that such trials would disclose sensitive information that could help terrorists.

While Holder has decided that the U.S courts can handle Mohammed’s trial, and possibly Hambali’s, this may not be the case for all of the nearly 200 detainees still at Guantánamo. Holder is currently going through detainees’ files to determine who can be tried in a U.S. court and who should remain in the military commission system, where the rules of evidence are laxer and defendants have fewer rights.

This report has been updated to reflect that The Washington Post broke the news of Hambali’s possible District of Columbia trial in August.

Monday, January 18th, 2010

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in the Southern District of New York will combine his office’s international narcotics and terrorism units, The New York Times reported yesterday.

Preet Bharara (DOJ)

Manhattan’s top federal prosecutor told The Times that he believes that members of radical Islamic organizations are venturing into drug trafficking to fund their operations. Western intelligence and law enforcement officials say al Qaeda, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Hezbollah are among the extremists groups that have a relationship with drug traffickers, according to the newspaper.

Bharara noted that last month the Drug Enforcement Administration arrested three Africans on terrorism and drug trafficking charges brought by his office, according to The Times. The three men allegedly have ties to al Qaeda, the newspaper said.

“It would be sort of law enforcement and national security malpractice not to also be going at it this way,” Bharara told The Times.

The new Terrorism and International Narcotics unit will include 21 prosecutors and three managers from the old terrorism and national security and international narcotics trafficking units, according to the newspaper. Michael Farbiarz, who served as a deputy in the terrorism unit, and Anjan Sahni, who was the chief of international narcotics, will lead the new unit, The Times said. Jocelyn Strauber, who served under Sahni, will be their deputy, according to the newspaper.

The Southern District will now have double the number of prosecutors working on terrorism cases as it heads into the trial of 9/11 “mastermind” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known in law enforcement circles as KSM, and four other suspected terrorists.

We reported last week that Southern District of New York Assistant U.S. Attorney David Raskin is expected to head the Justice Department team that will prosecute the terrorism suspects. Raskin previously led the office’s terrorism unit.

Monday, December 28th, 2009

The U.S. intelligence community is near completion of a major assessment of the national security threat posed by international organized crime, according to administration officials and experts.

The National Intelligence Estimate, which could be finished as soon as January, was conceived more than two years ago to address the dangers posed by Eurasian criminal groups’ suspected infiltration of energy and other strategic markets.

But its focus broadened over time to include a wide swath of criminal syndicates and issues, from drug-trafficking by Mexican cartels to the relationship between terrorism and organized crime, the officials and experts said.

“Globalization has done great things for organized commerce, but it’s also helped organized criminal groups to advance as well,” said one senior Justice Department official, who spoke in general terms about the threat.

The threat was underscored in recent weeks, as reports emerged of an FBI investigation into a major cyberattack on Citibank Inc., which Citibank denies. And the Justice Department announced drug charges in New York against alleged Al-Qaeda associates arrested in Ghana during a Drug Enforcement Administration sting.

NIEs are produced under a classified process and carry the full weight of the U.S. intelligence community’s judgment. The existence of the NIE on international organized crime has not been previously reported.

The assessments are compiled by the National Intelligence Council, a research arm of intelligence community that reports directly to Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair. The NIC incorporates in its estimates expertise from inside and outside of the federal government.

The estimate’s focus expanded over time as more agencies sought to reap the benefits of inclusion, including increased funding and more say in policy direction. In this case, the departments of Homeland Security, Justice, State and Treasury contributed to the NIE, the officials said. The National Intelligence Council is expected to release a public overview of the threat assessment, increasing its visibility and impact, experts say.

“I think it’s going to open this field up to some serious academic research and funding,” said Louise Shelley, director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University. “We’re going to be focusing on a whole range of issues that we haven’t thought enough about, and connecting the dots on other issues.”

A sensitive subject: Russia

One effect of broadening the NIE is that it allows the Obama administration to sidestep the diplomatically sensitive issue of Russia, where authorities have long suspected that the tentacles of organized crime reach into the government.

In 2008, then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey gave a speech that identified as the top security threat organized criminals who control significant positions in the global energy and strategic materials markets, threatening U.S. geopolitical interests.

He never mentioned Russia. But as an example, Mukasey pointed to Semion Mogilevich, who is thought to be at the pinnacle of Russian organized crime and is said to have influence over large portions of the natural gas industry in former Soviet-bloc states.  (Mogilevich is wanted in the U.S. on racketeering charges, and the FBI recently placed him on its Top Ten Most Wanted list.)

Russian control of energy supplies and transport networks is a security issue for the European Union, which relies heavily on Russian natural gas. But Russia controls the spigot for pipelines that service Central and Western Europe through the former Soviet state of Ukraine. Twice since 2006, Russia has cut off gas to Ukraine in payment disputes, affecting EU supplies.

Of further concern to intelligence analysts is the murky ownership of some middleman companies crucial to European energy supplies.

In 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Justice Department’s organized crime unit was investigating the ownership of a Ukrainian energy trading company named Rosukrenergo AG, half owned by Russian state company OAO Gazprom.

In response to U.S. concerns about who ultimately controlled Rosukrenergo, company representatives met with the DOJ in Washington to disclose the ownership stake of a Ukrainian businessmen with ties to Mogilevich – the suspected organized crime figure on the FBI Most Wanted list, the Wall Street Journal reported.

There’s also the case of  William Browder, a U.S. native and British citizen who founded Hermitage Capital Management, once the largest foreign investment fund in Russia but now accused in Russian courts of tax evasion.

Hermitage has denied evading taxes. It has countered with allegations that a government-affiliated “criminal enterprise” siphoned off $230 million in taxes paid by Hermitage units. Browder has retained the law firm of former Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate.

Hermitage has filed an application for judicial assistance in the Southern District of New York federal court, asking the U.S. to compel access to information it says it needs to defend itself in Russia.

In a recent declaration filed in the case, Neil Mickelswaithe, a British solicitor and outside counsel to Hermitage, said the fund is the victim of a “criminal enterprise” in Russia spanning senior offices of the Russian Interior Ministry, the Russian Federal Security Service (the successor to the KGB), senior Russian tax officers, and certain Russian court judges and “numerous private individuals in Russia, some of whom have previous criminal convictions.”

U.S. authorities have long suspected billionaire Oleg Deripaska, one of Russia’s most powerful tycoons, of having ties to Russian organized crime. Deripaska, who made his fortune in the post-Soviet aluminum industry, is close to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, often traveling with him abroad. He presides over a business empire that spans metals, finance and construction.

Deripaska, who has denied any ties to organized crime, had been barred entry to the U.S. for years. But recently, the FBI made secret arrangements to allow him into the country to seek his assistance in an ongoing criminal probe, the Wall Street Journal reported. In two visits to the U.S. this year, Deripaska also met with executives of Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group Co.

Putin and other Russian officials have raised the visa issue with their U.S. counterparts, and in the past Deripaska hired high-powered Washington lobbyists — including former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) — to make his case for entry into the U.S.

New approach more measured

The Obama administration, in contrast, has been careful not single out any country or group. Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, in a speech and in interviews given at the Interpol General Assembly in October, noted continuing threats posed by Mexican drug cartels, South Asian heroin-trafficking syndicates, and traditional crime families from Asia and Eastern Europe.

Ogden made no mention of strategic markets. The apparent shift in message is reflected in the intelligence estimate, officials said.

Under Mukasey, the Justice Department pushed for a finished product before President George W. Bush left office. After a draft NIE was circulated late in the Bush administration, officials in the departments of Homeland Security, State, Treasury advocated a broader sweep, officials said. The recommendations were ultimately passed on to the Obama administration.

“When the Justice Department first started working on the estimate, there was much more focus on energy issues,” said George Mason’s Shelley, who was first contacted in March by government officials involved in drafting the estimate.

“They asked me what I thought was wrong with it, and I told them they needed to broaden the scope and the geographical range. There’s a tendency to stovepipe too much. When you broaden the scope, you are able to see the diversity of the problem and the relationship among
the different aspects of transnational crime,” she said.

The Obama administration has been actively highlighting fronts in the battle against international organized crime.

In November, the State Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement co-hosted a symposium in Honolulu. The event drew attention to criminal networks that span East Asia, the Pacific and Latin America — and that engage in a broad range of criminal activity, including drug, gun and human trafficking, money laundering and corruption.

Earlier this month, officials from the departments of Commerce, Homeland Security and Justice, as well as the White House, met with entertainment industry executives to focus on intellectual property crimes. The connection between piracy and organized crime is
well-documented, particularly in Asian countries such as China.

At the event, billed as the first of its kind, Attorney General Eric Holder called on the international community to respond.

“This is a problem that the United States cannot solve by itself,” said Holder. “We want to confront these nations, quite frankly, where too much of this occurs.”

Narco-trafficking also a danger

Violent Mexican cartels, responsible for thousands of killings south of the border, have emerged as a singular threat. Their vast drug-trafficking networks reach deep into the U.S., and law enforcement officials fear a scenario in which the cartels rent their smuggling routes to terrorists.

“If you were to ask me what is the biggest organized crime threat, I would say it’s more the cartels in general and other organized crime syndicates engaged in narco-trafficking and other illicit activities,” said David Luna, director for anti-crime programs at the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. “They’re not just in our backyard, they’re actually in the U.S.”

The link between terrorism and crime is also of growing concern, officials said. The case of the three alleged Al-Qaeda associates charged in New York, who are believed to be in their 30s and originally from Mali, appears to show a direct link between the terror group and drug traffickers. Authorities long maintained that Al Qaeda and the Taliban profit from the heroin trade in Afghanistan. Michael Braun, who retired as DEA’s chief of operations last year, told The Associated Press the case was “the tip of the iceberg.”

Decade-long focus

The intelligence community’s interest in international organized crime dates back more than a decade. In the mid-1990s, intelligence officials began work on a separate estimate, with the help of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, said Jim Moody, a former FBI Deputy Assistant Director who oversaw organized crime investigations.

The estimate, he said, “helped get rid of a lot of barriers to sharing information” between the intelligence and law enforcement communities and set priorities for developing intelligence on international criminal groups.

But its impact was curtailed by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. “Given the trauma that the country faced after the 9/11 attacks, international organized crime was relegated understandably to a second-tier national security priority” as the Bush administration redistributed resources to deal with terrorist threats, the State Department’s Luna said.

Officials said they hoped the estimate would cement international organized crime as top national security priority, motivate agencies to develop stronger policies and make an argument for increased funding.

Jay Albanese, former chief of the International Center at the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department, was cautiously optimistic.

“Estimates are a mixed bag,” he said, adding that international organized crime is neither easily quantified, nor easily defined.

“This puts those of us in the crime businsess at a severe disadvantage,” said Albanese, a criminologist and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. “It’s very diffcult to say with any degree of accuracy how much we should be focusing on human-trafficking versus arms-trafficking.”

Mary Jacoby contributed to this report.