We’re not sure whether we should be relieved or terrified as we read details of Michael Finton’s alleged plan to blow up the Paul Findley Federal Building in downtown Springfield. There is relief, obviously, in knowing the FBI took charge of Finton when his dreams of jihad were just taking shape. But with that relief comes a shudder.
We’re not sure whether we should be relieved or terrified as we read details of Michael Finton’s alleged plan to blow up the Paul Findley Federal Building in downtown Springfield.
There is relief, obviously, in knowing the FBI took charge of Finton when his dreams of jihad were just taking shape. We’ll never know whether Finton would have reached the bomb-building phase without the help of the agent posing as his al-Qaida handler, but we are glad we won’t have to find out.
But with that relief comes a shudder.
If the criminal complaint is to be believed, Finton had every intention of laying waste to the heart of downtown Springfield. Believing there was a ton of explosives in the van he had parked at Sixth and Monroe streets, Finton twice dialed the cell phone number he believed would detonate the bomb, the complaint says.
The complaint does not say as much, but our assumption is Finton was profoundly disappointed when the explosion didn’t follow.
Vigilance became a national byword after the Sept. 11 attacks. We launched a war on terror in the wake of 9/11 and made homeland security the national priority.
In the years since, however, we’ve come to view terrorism in the 9/11 model. That is, plotted or perpetrated by foreign nationals working with a larger terrorism network with roots in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia or another overseas hotbed of Muslim fundamentalism.
The case against Finton, despite its Muslim thread and Finton’s apparent belief that he was working with al-Qaida, appears to more closely parallel the 1995 domestic terrorism of Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City.
For anyone tempted to write off Finton as simply a crackpot or jihadist wannabe, we encourage a quick review of the McVeigh case.
Working with a single primary accomplice in Terry Nichols — and at a time before the Internet was the convenient worldwide communication medium it is today — McVeigh used diesel fuel, fertilizer, sundry explosive components and a rented truck to kill 168 people in an explosion that destroyed its target and damaged buildings in a 16-block radius. The two people who knew of McVeigh and Nichols’ plot — Michael and Lori Fortier — kept it secret.
Finton came to the FBI’s attention because parole officers found suspicious materials in his car, including a fan letter to so-called “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh. The FBI was aided by an informant who knew of Finton’s aspirations and agreed to work with investigators (the informant hoping for money from the FBI).
Documents in Finton’s case indicate he had managed to obtain money from a source in Saudi Arabia to travel to that country for a month in April and May 2008. By then, he already was on the FBI’s radar screen, and had been interviewed by FBI agents the previous January about the Lindh letter.
This is how homeland security is supposed to work, and everyone involved in this investigation deserves praise (assuming, of course, that the case laid out in the criminal complaint is accurate).
Yet it also underscores the need for vigilance. The 9/11 terrorists notwithstanding, terrorism can take root anywhere a person of Michael Finton’s alleged mindset exists. Suppose Finton had been more careful with his possessions and his parole agents hadn’t found the Lindh letter and other materials in his car. Suppose his Saudi contact had continued wiring him money. Suppose the “Confidential Human Source” hadn’t worked with investigators.
We’d prefer to not think of the consequences of those scenarios. We’re grateful for the vigilance of those involved in all phases of this case for keeping them hypothetical.