When Khalid Aldawsari purchased a large quantity of the chemical phenol from Carolina Biological Supply of Burlington, North Carolina, he had made a mistake that would doom his terrorism plot. It was January 30, 2011, and Aldawsari was a 20-year-old Saudi national in the United States on a student visa and living in Lubbock County, Texas. What he didn’t know was that the company only received such orders for delivery to businesses. Aldawsari was requesting delivery to a shipping service from which he would retrieve it. That led the company to report the purchase as suspicious to the FBI office in Charlotte.
As a result of the company’s tip, the FBI began surveillance on Aldawsari, which included searching his apartment when he was not at home. The agency discovered that Aldawsari had everything needed to make an improvised explosive device, including precursor chemicals, lab equipment, wiring, detonation materials, and a hazmat suit. In searching his computer, agents also found that his potential targets included hydroelectric dams, nuclear power plants, and the Dallas residence of former President George W. Bush.
Carolina Biological Supply had known it should alert the FBI thanks to an FBI program known as Operation Tripwire, designed to enlist business in the government’s effort to detect terror plots. Tripwire is an example of public-private cooperation that appears to be yielding results.
Established in 2003, Operation Tripwire tasks FBI agents with communicating, preferably face-to-face, with critical infrastructure stakeholders and select businesses to help raise their awareness and teach them what to do if they see something suspicious. In many ways, it’s a more focused forerunner to the Department of Homeland Security’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign to generate suspicious activity reports from the American public.
“Tripwire is intelligence,” says Section Chief Michael Clancy of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division. “It’s going out and talking to people...and gathering intelligence and understanding our domain, knowing what the threats are, and using that to inform how we move resources.”
Currently about 30 different industries—like beauty supply stores, gun stores, and chemical companies—are actively involved with the program. These are the industries the FBI believes are important to disrupting terrorism plots before they go operational, Clancy explains.