In April, court documents allege, Sayed Abdul Malike tried to buy enough explosives to blow up "a mountain."
No one knows what Mr. Malike's specific plan might have been, or whether it would have succeeded, but thanks to an alert shop owner the Afghan-born legal resident will go before the federal court in Brooklyn for a bail hearing on a drug charge related to his quest to buy explosives.
While federal authorities are still piecing together the story, the details so far appear to exemplify a threat that can be just as dangerous and elusive as a hard line terror cell: The lone-wolf terrorist sympathizer.
With the nation's terrorism alert ratcheted up to orange, terrorism experts cite concern about people who are not part of organized groups like Al Qaeda, but are inclined to act in sympathy with their aims. Such worry was heightened last week when Osama bin Laden's No. 2 lieutenant called on all loyal Muslims to wreak havoc on the West.
"You don't have to be part of Al Qaeda's A-team to still contribute to the movement and further Al Qaeda's goals," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp.
With the exception of the attacks on the World Trade Center, experts say the major terrorists attacks in the United States have been perpetrated by deranged individuals who were sympathetic to a larger cause - from Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh to the Washington area sniper John Allen Muhammad
The coercion of such individuals to do the bidding of a larger cause even has its own name - leaderless resistance. And the rhetoric of terrorist groups from American right wing militias to Al Qaeda is designed to inspire it.
"The whole style of this kind of organization designed is to evade law enforcement," says Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert at Harvard University and author of "Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (Harper Collins August 2003). "That guy or someone like him, can't pull off 9/11, but he can do a lot of damage and it's very, very difficult to track."
Malike's case is illustrative of the challenges posed by lone wolves - and their vulnerabilities. The FBI was first tipped off about Malike in March when he went to a store in Queens and asked the owner for help with his computer. In the course of a conversation about the Internet, he asked the owner about how to make a bomb. The store owner told him he could help. After Malike left, the owner told the FBI about the conversation. Later that month, according to a complaint filed in federal court, Malike took a train to Florida, where he took a tourist boat around the Port of Miami. During the ride, he videotaped the bridges and quizzed the captain about their infrastructure and how close the tourist boat came to cruise ships. Alarmed, the boat captain also contacted the FBI. Malike was taken in for questioning. When he insisted that he was only a tourist and his legal status was confirmed, he was released.
On his return to New York in April, he confided to the storeowner who had become a federal informant that he wanted to buy enough explosives to blow up "a mountain." And he wanted bulletproof vests and some Valium and sleeping pills. Last week, he was arrested after he bought the Valium from an under cover agent.
That's about all the federal agents know for sure about Malike. Several terrorism experts said that since he had to ask how to build a bomb, he could very likely be a lone wolf. Law enforcement officials would only say they are "still investigating."
"The good news is that it's harder for individuals like that to be very effective," says Daniel Byman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. "It requires very different skill sets to make a bomb, to know where to place it, how to conceal your efforts to buy the bomb making materials. That's why [terrorists] usually work in teams."
The deadliest terror attack next to 9/11 was carried out by one or two Islamist extremists at the Abadan Theater in Iran in 1978, notes Mr. Byman.
Since lone wolves can be hard to detect, law enforcement is dependent on public vigilance, such as the actions of the store owner. But Prof. Stern also warns against taking suspicions too far. "We need to be careful not to violate others human rights and civil rights. There's a tension there."