I-Team: The Midwestern Front

September 8, 2011 5:06:04 PM PDT
In the past ten years, some of the most successful battles in the war on terror have been fought by men and women in business suits in federal courtrooms across the country, using the law to take down radical Islamists bent on fresh violence.

This is especially so here in Chicago, on the Midwestern front, where the fight started even as the smoke was rising from Ground Zero.

New York was in chaos after two hijacked planes hit the Twin Towers. But 720 miles away in Chicago's Dirksen Federal Building, there was no confusion about what was happening and what to do.

In the Chicago U.S. Attorney's Office on September 11, 2001, Patrick Fitzgerald had just arrived from New York to be the new federal prosecutor for the northern district of Illinois.

"Pat had a lot of experience as a terrorist prosecutor in New York and had done some major prosecutions...He was very, very familiar with the organization of al Qaeda," said Dean Polales.

Polales was a veteran assistant U.S. attorney on that modern day of infamy. When the newly installed Fitzgerald sent most staffers home, Polales was among those requested to stay at work.

"We were nervous Chicago might be a target, but we were so busy working there wasn't much time to be nervous about it," he said.

They were the footings of federal terror prosecutions in Chicago that continue today.

"We worked all day and all night, cutting subpoenas and having the FBI start serving subpoenas to do anything that we could," said Polales.

Federal authorities would later learn that the nation's tallest building, then the Sears Tower, was indeed an al Qaeda target, confirmed by terrorist detainees and evidence found in al Qaeda hideouts overseas.

Polales says under Fitzgerald Chicago investigations were directed by a counter-terror expert.

"He had interviewed so many of the informants, he had tried these cases, he had been the primary investigating prosecutor on the al Qaeda organization. And he indicted Osama Bin Laden and so having him in Chicago was a huge benefit," he said.

"We've put a real hurting on al Qaeda," said Garry McCarthy, Chicago Police Department.

Chicago may be beneficiary to a decade of intensive terror prosecutions, but the city's new police superintendant tells the I-Team that the fight isn't over.

"I think that sometimes people forget exactly the nature of what it is that's going on. We're not fighting a country, we're fighting a philosophy," said McCarthy.

Nabil al Marabh was among the first arrested by the FBI. He was working in a Bridgeview convenience store a week after 9/11. Al Marabh trained at an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and had personal connections to known terrorists including some 9/11 plotters. But he was charged with only sneaking into the U.S.

"You try to incapacitate people that you are convinced are engaged in dangerous activities and in that case he [al Marabh] was arrested for illegal entry into the United States, plead guilty to it and then was deported to Syria," said Polales.

According to an al Marabh relative, a Syrian prison is his last known whereabouts. He led a parade of terror suspects, many tracked down through the cooperation of muslim community leaders.

"We in Chicago wanted to reach out to them in a way that didn't threaten their security, didn't make them feel like the government was going to be overbearing simply because they came from a Middle Eastern country and yet trying to establish relationships from which significant intelligence could be gathered," said Polales.

For federal agents and police chief Garry McCarthy, the next nine months will be a challenge for counter-terrorism planning in Chicago. Next summer the city hosts both NATO and G-8 summits, which authorities know will make Chicago a very appealing target to terror groups.


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