Joint Terrorism Task Force works to stop Metro Detroit residents radicalized by terrorists
Growing task force battles sympathizers who pose threat to community
DETROIT – The Joint Terrorism Task Force in Metro Detroit has swelled to nearly 100 agents as more residents are becoming radicalized by terror organizations.
The FBI confirmed dangerous sympathizers who pose a threat are currently being investigated, and in most cases, officials said tip calls from the public lead to foiled potential plots.
Local 4 Defenders went behind the scenes for a rare look at the Joint Terrorism Task Force's efforts to prevent attacks in Metro Detroit.
The FBI's top mission is to prevent terror attacks, and while there's news about attacks throughout the country, the vast majority of terror plots are foiled before anyone is hurt, thanks to hundreds of Joint Terrorism Task Force members.
In a rare interview, Timothy Waters, the head of Detroit's Joint Terrorism Task Force, said ISIS is everywhere for sympathizers with access to a computer or smart phone.
"It continues to change on a daily basis, and really, it is almost being driven by technology," Waters said. "The ability of jihadists, their ability to communicate and to communicate through encrypted means throughout the world.
"A few clicks and you can be looking at jihadist propaganda, and with a few more clicks you can be talking to an ISIS fighter on the ground in Syria, and that is what it is today."
Waters said someone in Southfield is as likely as someone in Somalia to become a terrorist. A plot is as likely to be planned in Ypsilanti as in Yemen. The message from ISIS is to do anything to create chaos, death and fear.
"ISIS provides all sorts of tools and ideas for them to use to carry out an attack with little or no training whatsoever," Waters said.
There are so many people sampling the message that the federal government can't keep up. At the front lines, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which at one time in Michigan contained around a dozen agents, has now swelled to nearly 100 law enforcement officials in Metro Detroit. It includes regular police from almost every Metro Detroit community.
"When they come on, we are an open book as long as you have the clearance and the need to know, which these agencies do because we are all in this together," Waters said. "They know what I know."
Waters grew up in New Jersey, and he said the 9/11 terror attacks are personal to him.
"I had friends killed in the World Trade Center," Waters said. "I had kids I played football with, went to high school with."
It has drawn him to fight terror at every turn, he said. Tips come in all the time, and every single one is taken as a life-or-death emergency.
"We are going to take it exceptionally seriously," Waters said. "We are going to run it into the ground, and we are going to do what we need to do to keep people safe."
One local tip from the public involved Sebastian Gregerson of Detroit. Someone who knew him was concerned because he was talking about moving his family to ISIS-controlled territory. While most tips turn out to be nothing, Gregerson was an exception.
An undercover agent found out he was stockpiling a serious arsenal of weapons. He was purchasing grenades and launchers.
"Hundreds and hundreds of rounds of ammunition and road spikes to disable vehicles," Waters said. "Multiple different types of knives, and this is right around the time that ISIS is putting out all those videos of beheadings. His knives are very similar in nature to those."
His social media was full of praise for terror attacks in Paris, France, and Orlando, Florida. Federal officials were worried about him launching his own attack in Metro Detroit. They had agents following him 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"When you have ISIS calling on people to conduct attacks in the United States, and you see individuals clearly believe in what that messaging is and is acting on that to procure equipment," Waters said.
It's not easy to charge someone as a terrorist. You need to differentiate between free speech and criminal terror activity, and you don't want to wait until after an attack.
"At some point along the way, risk vs. public safety, public safety risk vs. neutralizing the subject," Waters said.
Federal officials couldn't risk it another day. They took Gregerson down. A search of his home turned up weapons the Task Force said were a buildup for war, not a collection by a gun enthusiast.
Gregerson wasn't charged with any terror crime, but he was sent to prison on illegal gun charges for several months. For now, the Joint Terrorism Task Force knows exactly where he is and that he can't hurt anyone.
"It is exceptionally rewarding," Waters said. "I can't tell you how rewarding it is."
The Joint Terrorism Task Force said the public is the key to success in stopping terror plots before they're acted on. Anyone who is suspicious should call police. There will be an investigation, and if it leads to nothing, it's no big deal. But police said it could save lives.
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