On the Frontline in the Fight Against Cyberterrorism

Tips on possible terror threats come under scrutiny at NJ’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.

Deputy director Steven Gutkin, left, and director Chris Rodriguez run the OHSP, focused on prevention and response.
Deputy director Steven Gutkin, left, and director Chris Rodriguez run the OHSP, focused on prevention and response.
Photo by David Moser

Within 24 hours of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness convened a conference call with 160 leaders of various faiths in the state to discuss potential terror threats and share information that might prove valuable in averting an attack here.

Developing lines of communication with religious leaders—including those in the Muslim community—is a key part of the OHSP strategy to combat homegrown terrorism in New Jersey. The agency works with local and federal entities like the New Jersey State Police, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, with the goal of preventing, preparing for and responding to domestic emergencies, with a focus on terrorism.

While there has not been a major terrorist attack in New Jersey, Chris Rodriguez, the agency’s director and Governor Chris Christie’s principal advisor on counterterrorism, says supporters of terrorist organizations like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are present in our community.
“There have been ISIS-related arrests in the state over the last year, and [there are] about 900 active ISIS-related cases throughout the country,” he says. “Our region [New York/New Jersey] has one of the highest concentrations of that activity in the country.”

Rodriguez, 38 and a resident of Boonton, has more than a decade of experience with the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. State Department. While the agency he runs is tight-lipped about its exact size and the details of its operations, Rodriguez says there are dozens of analysts working on counterterrorism at the state level.

This action takes place at both the OHSP headquarters—a nondescript, low-rise building in Hamilton Township—and at the Regional Operations Intelligence Center (ROIC, known as the Rock), a high-tech facility at New Jersey State Police headquarters in nearby West Trenton, where state agencies work together around the clock to gather, analyze and share threat-related information.

For all its technological and professional prowess, OHSP relies largely on suspicious activity reports (SARs), or tips from community leaders and everyday citizens to monitor homegrown terrorism.

“In this threat environment, the public is often our first line of defense,” says Rodriguez.

Among key Muslim figures on the OHSP call following the deadly Paris attacks was Mohammad Ali Chaudry, president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and part-time lecturer on Islamic studies at Rutgers New Brunswick. Chaudry is also a member of the Interfaith Advisory Council, a group of religious leaders formed by OHSP. After the conference call, Chaudry released a statement on behalf of Jersey’s Muslim community, condemning the ISIS attacks.

Chaudry says his mission is to “open up the community to law enforcement and open up law enforcement to [the community]. There is no harm; there is only benefit in working together.”

OHSP e-mails weekly intelligence briefs to council members and debriefs them whenever major events occur. The agency also offers courses on security for houses of worship and helps fund security equipment for nonprofits. Meanwhile, Chaudry has given lectures on Islamic culture to state troopers as part of their diversity training; he also encourages Muslim youth to attend law-enforcement career days.

For OHSP, the bottom line is ensuring that members of the Muslim community are not afraid to approach law enforcement if they know of or suspect suspicious activity. That’s important, because of the way terrorist organizations like ISIS, which claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks that left 130 dead, enlist new fighters.

“The way ISIS is recruiting, often it is through personal relationships that compel someone to actually make the decision to go abroad and fight or conduct a terrorist operation or attack,” Rodriguez says. “We encourage [members of the Muslim community] to be active in their communities, and if they see someone or suspect someone of going down the wrong path, and they need our assistance, they should let us know.”

According to OHSP, there were five ISIS-related arrests in New Jersey in 2015. At least three of those takedowns—to use OHSP parlance—were made possible by a tip. According to a federal indictment in one of the cases, an unidentified person tipped off authorities when it became clear that people known to the individual were ISIS sympathizers planning to feed it information and leave the United States to join the terrorist organization. The tip prompted an investigation that led to the arrests of brothers Alaa Saadeh of West New York and Nader Saadeh, formerly of Rutherford, along with their friend Samuel Rahamin Topaz of Fort Lee. Alaa Saadeh and Topaz each pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. Nader Saadeh faces similar charges.

The Paris attacks were the latest reminder of the deadly threat of homegrown terrorism. The tragedy also heightened concerns about the use of Internet communications—including encoded messages—by terror groups. This is another front for OHSP, which last May created the New Jersey Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Cell (NJCCIC, pronounced NJ Kick).

NJCCIC seeks out all kinds of cyberthreats—including identity theft, Internet fraud and hacking—but detecting Internet-fueled terror plots is an essential mission. The unit has Arabic-speaking analysts who monitor social media coming from chat rooms and Twitter accounts associated with radical groups. A relatively new challenge is detecting encrypted messages.

Rodriguez says terrorist organizations are not thought to have yet developed “advanced cyber-capabilities.” Still, the Paris attacks strongly suggest that terrorists are utilizing encrypted applications like Telegram, WhatsApp and Wickr or are conversing under the radar through gaming systems like PlayStation.

“There are so many apps out there that are encrypted, where it’s very difficult for the government to even gain access to those apps,” says Steven Gutkin, deputy director of the OHSP. “I don’t know how that’s going to get solved immediately. It’s a concern for everyone.”

Complicating matters, our privacy laws make surveillance difficult. Personal communications, such as text messages and phone calls, can be examined only under a court order. Without such an order, cybersecurity analysts can monitor only open-source communications, such as Twitter posts.

OHSP also uses digital tools to keep the public informed and involved in its activities. The agency posts cyber-threat information on its NJCCIC website and sends cyber-alerts and analyses to those who sign up for its e-mail (at cyber.nj.gov).

Citizens are encouraged to report suspicious activity via phone, e-mail or online—all of which can be done anonymously. Gutkin says suspicious activity can be anything deemed out of the ordinary—people sitting in cars outside a facility for an extended time, or someone taking pictures of military installations, for example. “We want anyone to report anything that seems suspicious,” Gutkin says.

All tips go to the Counter-Terrorism Watch (CT Watch) desk for analysis. Significant leads can be forwarded immediately to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, which is coordinated by the FBI in Newark and Philadelphia.

OHSP’s work has not gone unnoticed. The Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School recently recognized New Jersey as having one of the most innovative models for fighting cybersecurity threats. Likewise, Security Magazine ranked the OHSP number 2 in the nation for its overall security programs in counter-terrorism, emergency preparedness and cybersecurity. Several states have sent representatives to OHSP to learn from their tactics, specifically those used at the NJCCIC.

Rodriguez says OHSP is taking all steps necessary to keep the Garden State as safe as possible.

“The citizens of New Jersey,” he says, “should feel a sense of comfort knowing that the state is investing resources [and] trying to be proactive in terms of terrorism, natural disasters, cybersecurity and trying to counter the threats of the 21st century with 21st-century institutions and organizations.”

Learn about how to keep an eye out for cyber threats and report anything suspicious, here.

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