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August 14, 2006
Mackinac Bridge A Terror Target?

Michigan authorities have detained three Texans of Arabic ancestry while they investigate their unusual interest in the Mackinac Bridge and disposable cell phones. A Wal-Mart employee tipped police when the three bought 80 of the phones, and when police caught up to them, they had over a thousand of the untraceable phones in their possession:

If the hundreds of prepaid cellular telephones found in the minivan seemed odd, the pictures of the Mackinac Bridge were downright troubling to Tuscola County law enforcement officials who have charged three Texas men with terrorism-related crimes.

The phones plus photographs and videos of the 5-mile-long bridge led authorities to believe that the men -- two brothers and a cousin, all of Middle Eastern heritage -- were targeting the iconic structure linking the Upper and Lower peninsulas, according to a law enforcement official familiar with details of the case.

While the bridge pictures might have been vacation images taken by any tourists, they took on potentially sinister significance because of the men's bulk purchase at a Caro Wal-Mart of 80 talk-and-toss cell phones that have been used by terrorists to detonate bombs, the official said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

But relatives of the Texas men said they're innocent entrepreneurs buying phones cheaply at discount stores, then selling them at a profit.

The men -- brothers Adham Othman, 21, and Louai Othman, 23, and their cousin Maruan Muhareb, 18 -- were charged by Tuscola County prosecutors over the weekend with providing material support for terrorist acts and terrorism surveillance of a vulnerable target, said Sgt. Curtis Chambers of the Tuscola County Sheriff's Department. They were each being held on $750,000 bond.

The phones can be used for two different purposes in the hands of terrorists. They can detonate explosives, a remote control for terrorists who do not wish to commit suicide as part of their jihad. Disposable cell phones also help evade wiretaps and data-mining efforts to detect terrorist communications. The bulk purchases of so many of the phones would indicate the necessity for a long series of communications and a fairly extensive plot.

The Mackinac Bridge, sometimes called the Mighty Mac, connects the Upper Peninsula with the Michigan mainland. It will celebrate its 50th birthday next year, an event that will almost certainly attract at least regional attention. The Mackinac is the world's third-largest suspension bridge and a bona-fide landmark -- and it also allows 10,000 cars per day to transit to and from the UP, making it attractive for those who want to attract a different kind of attention.

The excuse given by the suspects' families sounds pretty thin. If the three had a business that flipped cell phones, why buy them from a retailer? Wholesalers would have some interest in sales in the hundreds, even to smaller operators. Paying retail for these phones makes little sense, especially traveling from Texas to Michigan to do so. Paying retail, however, does give terrorists an advantage: cash transactions cannot be traced. Wholesalers keep too many records of their business to avoid leaving a trail if one uses the phones for nefarious purposes.

Combine that with the pictures of Mighty Mac, and it looks like an attempt to commit a terrorist act on a second-tier target, where security would be more loose than in New York City or Washington, DC. Ironically, Michigan has one of the largest Arab-American communities and would have been under immediate pressure if a plot like this executed successfully. Perhaps the plotters thought they could disappear into the community after the explosions took place.

If this turns out to be a terrorist plot, then we can thank the Wal-Mart employee who acted on his instincts. We need to keep our eyes and ears open. Complacency is our greatest enemy in this war.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 14, 2006 6:20 AM

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