Patrick Fitzgerald, one of the nation's leading terrorism prosecutors, who indicted Osama bin Laden in 1998 and imprisoned al Qaeda operatives before most Americans ever heard of the group, brought terrorism charges Friday against a much lower-profile suspect.
Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois, defended his two-count criminal complaint against 22-year-old Derrick Shareef, a black Muslim convert accused of plotting alone to set off hand grenades inside a Rockford, Illinois shopping mall a few days before Christmas.
"We've seen people carry out acts of violence for all sorts of reasons, and we have to take them all seriously," Fitzgerald told reporters after Shareef's first appearance in Chicago federal court, where he was denied bail. "As for the general public, they have to trust the government will do the best that it can, and they just have to go on living life, 'cause we can't live life out of fear."
Fear is potentially raised every time the government trumpets new charges of sensational plots, even though the typical "terrorist" defendant these past couple of years has been "more aspirational than operational" (in Justice Department lingo) and nabbed in a sting that defense attorneys cry smacks of entrapment.
As depicted by Fitzgerald, Shareef was predisposed to violence but devoid of cash; a dangerous man who freely chatted about bombing a county courthouse, a city hall, a federal building, and then the mall. It turns out, Shareef was talking to a government informant and then an undercover agent who recorded his lethal statements – refusing chances to back out and finally offering $50 for each fake grenade.
"He did not have the money to buy the grenades. He was gonna hock and barter two stereo speakers to the undercover to buy the grenades," Fitzgerald said, proof Shareef was not directed or financed from overseas.
So Shareef fits a pattern of indicted "wanna be" terrorists with big ideas but no apparent means or backing from our real enemies.
Seven men accused of plotting to bring down a landmark in Fitzgerald's backyard, the Sears Tower, the tallest building in North America, are awaiting trial in Miami after their reputed ringleader allegedly outlined their scheme in front of hidden cameras to a confidential informant.
In New York, a jazz musician and a doctor await trial after allegedly pledging loyalty to al Qaeda via an undercover agent posing as a recruiter. In Houston, a man pleaded guilty this September to offering to build bombs for another undercover officer posing as an al Qaeda operative.
The FBI's Special Agent in Charge of its Chicago field office, Robert Grant, standing next to Fitzgerald on Friday, explained the nation's shift from investigating al-Qaeda to al Qaeda–inspired plotters.
"We've been focused for about two years on those types of domestic cells that could develop or individuals," Grant said.
Shareef, who was under 24/7 surveillance until his arrest Wednesday, was not seen with anyone besides the informant and the undercover agent.
Grant said, "I just want to keep the potential hysteria this time of season down to a bare minimum. We believe we have neutralized this threat."
Fitzgerald earned his job in 2001 after a long stint in New York with the unit that invented the prosecution of "jihadists" who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 and our embassies in Africa 1998 and in between targeted other landmarks and airliners. He developed an encyclopedic knowledge of al Qaeda and its affiliates and forged a reputation as a relentless and respected adversary in the courtroom.
The men he helped convict for truck bombing U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, where more than 200 people died, are serving life sentences. So might Shareef, if he is convicted, for the attempt to use "weapons of mass destruction" against public facilities.
"There are obviously more serious weapons of mass destruction – not that we take grenades likely," Fitzgerald said. "An explosive is a weapon of mass destruction – a bomb."
Since September 11, 2001, a day he was moving into his new offices 800-miles from Ground Zero, other than helping with that ensuing investigation, Fitzgerald has had few opportunities to prosecute terrorism locally (while becoming better-known nationally as the special prosecutor in the CIA Leak case).
In the last two years, Fitzgerald's office has convicted Gale Nettles, a career criminal in his 60's, for scheming to blow up the Chicago federal courthouse with an ammonium nitrate fertilizer truck bomb, and a white supremacist, Matthew Hale, for soliciting the murder of a federal judge.
He has convicted a Muslim charity director for fraudulently funneling funds to fighters in Bosnia and Chechnya, and his office is currently prosecuting two men for allegedly funding the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.
Fitzgerald knows the difference between a "wanna-be" and the real deal, even if the distinction can become gray in the bold language of criminal charges.
"When they engage in a purification ritual that they shave their body hair and film a video should they die, you have to take that seriously," Fitzgerald said, speaking of Shareef. "On the other hand, we're not trying to make this more than what it is."