How do you track a "lone wolf" terrorist?

I confess that I am fascinated with several journalistic mysteries related to the case of the would-be Manhattan bomber, Jose Pimentel, a.k.a. Muhammad Yusuf, a.k.a. Osama Hussein. Let me state right up front that I think the following New York Times story is really solid and I have no major complaints or concerns about it. However, you know that the reporters and the editors behind it have to be asking questions about some of the statements made by the police.

Once again, the goal here is journalistic coverage of a terrorism suspect that is based on facts, not labels. In this case, the most interesting aspect of this story is the "lone wolf" label used by police -- while the story contains some loose ends that journalists are sure to be trying to straighten out.

In effect, the police are arguing that Pimentel was a mass-media Muslim, someone who related to the faith only through the Internet and the news. The story opens with this theme, indirectly:

A Manhattan man who became fascinated by the American-born Muslim militant Anwar al-Awlaki was arrested on charges of plotting to build and detonate bombs in New York, city officials announced on Sunday night.

At a hastily called City Hall news conference, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, who appeared alongside Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said the man, Jose Pimentel, 27, had begun in August to plot a bomb attack. But it was the death of Mr. Awlaki, who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in September, that refocused his efforts, Mr. Kelly said.

Mr. Kelly said that Mr. Pimentel, a convert to Islam who was also known as Muhammad Yusuf, had been under police surveillance for more than two years and was arrested on Saturday after he had come close to completing at least three bombs.

It will be interesting to see if, once again, there was contact between this American believer and anyone (Awlaki did not answer his emails, readers are told) -- via Internet or perhaps telephone. In other words, was the lone wolf actually working alone, other than in cyberspace? More on that later.

At the same time, readers are told that he was a convert to Islam. Here I have a sincere question: Is it possible to convert to Islam all by yourself? Is there a set procedure for conversion or is this something at varies from mosque to mosque, from culture to culture? I totally understand that he may have joined a mosque, converted and then vanished. It's possible that, as his beliefs radicalized, he was driven out of a mosque (sort of like that famous anti-abortion bomber who was driven out of pro-life groups because he advocated violence).

Note that Pimentel had been under observance for two years. Where? How do authorities find and observe a lone wolf? Thus, this passage interested me:

“Pimentel talked about killing U.S. military personnel returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly Marines and Army personnel,” Mr. Kelly said. “He talked about bombing post offices in and around Washington Heights and police cars in New York City, as well as a police station in Bayonne, N.J.

“Once his bombing campaign began, Mr. Pimentel said the public would know that there were mujahideen in the city to fight jihad here.”

Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Kelly said, however, that Mr. Pimentel was not part of a conspiracy, had no known contacts abroad and, in the mayor’s words, “appears to be a total lone wolf.”

The single most interesting paradox in the story is that police leaders insisted that they learned about this plot through ordinary police contacts. If you do the math, they insist that they were observing him before he set up his website, with its materials drawn from Inspire, the online Al Qaeda website.

The story also says that Pimentel made numerous incriminating comments to a police informant. There's that question again. The informant is targeting a lone wolf who police, somehow, know to follow. The would-be bomber is later under surveillance as he gathers materials for his device. Interesting.

Before some of you click "comment" and suggest that I am somehow suggesting that Pimentel had secret ties to a local mosque or some other mainstream Muslim organization, please know that I am actually suggesting the opposite. I wonder if this radicalized convert came to the attention of authorities as he was being pushed outside the circle of fellowship among local Muslim believers. SOMEONE thought he was becoming dangerous. It seems that SOMEONE thought he was voicing views that were dangerous and, well, heretical.

Clearly, the police believe that they cannot -- at this point -- say how this Muslim convert came to their attention. But stay tuned. Journalists working this case may, in fact, be on the trail of an American Muslim hero.

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