Cover Story

Heartland security

Middle America is a target, too, but don't try telling that to New York and Washington

Issue: "Mayberry no more," July 29, 2006

CHARLOTTE-When FBI agents uncovered a well-oiled Lebanese terror cell deep in a sophisticated plot to fund top Hezbollah terrorists through a multimillion-dollar cigarette-smuggling operation, one of the biggest surprises was the bust's location: The raid didn't go down in New York City or Washington, D.C., but in Charlotte, N.C., a mid-size city known as a hotbed for NASCAR races, not terrorist activity.

Hezbollah may have a hot war with Israel on its hands, but Middle East cities aren't the only ones ensnared by its agenda. Charlotte Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Dulin says the major 2002 terrorism sting revealed that North Carolina's largest city is no Mayberry, and that some low-profile cities might prove attractive targets for high-profile terrorists. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agrees, and says that's part of the reason it increased funding for a handful of mid-size cities like Charlotte when it awarded grants in its Urban Area Security Initiative program last month.

Don't tell that to Rep. Peter King. The New York Republican, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, is still fuming over DHS' announcement that while it would increase funds for some cities, it would cut funds for New York City and Washington, D.C. "As far as I'm concerned, the Department of Homeland Security has declared war on New York City," King said.

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The DHS grant program awarded $710 million to the 46 cities it considers most at risk for terrorist attacks. The department determined grant amounts based on each city's risk factor and the effectiveness of the cities' proposals for using the funds.

New York City and Washington, D.C., have ranked at the top of the risk list since 9/11 and have gotten the lion's share of funding from DHS. This year the department said it would cut both cities' funding by 40 percent: New York will receive $124 million, down from $207 million last year. Washington will receive $46.5 million, down from last year's $77.5 million.

The announcement prompted immediate outrage: Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the department was "abandoning New York." Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), a member of a subcommittee on Homeland Security of the House Appropriations Committee, called for Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff's resignation.

DHS officials offered a measured response and promised to review some of its findings, especially an internal federal worksheet that concluded New York City has no national monuments or icons.

Chertoff emphasized that DHS still considers New York City to be the most threatened city in the country. A July 7 announcement by federal officials underscored New York's danger: Authorities said they had thwarted a terrorist plot to flood lower Manhattan by attacking train tunnels under the Hudson River used by tens of thousands of commuters.

But Chertoff also defended the grant program, saying that news reports had taken the numbers out of context. He pointed out that New York City received $150 million in 2003 and $46 million in 2004. DHS gave the city $206 million last year to make up for the difference. Chertoff said this year's $124 million grant for New York represents about 18 percent of the total funding nationwide. That's the average the city has received over the last four years.

Chertoff also emphasized the importance of recognizing that terrorism is a "national problem. . . . It's not something that is centered in one or two places." New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wasn't persuaded: "When you stop a terrorist, they have a map of New York City in their pocket. They don't have a map of any of the other 45 places."

FBI agents didn't report finding a map of New York City when they raided Mohamed Hammoud's middle-class home in Charlotte in connection with the Hezbollah terrorist cell, but they did find hours of Hezbollah-related videotape. Some of the footage included chilling propaganda of crowds chanting: "Death to America! Death to Israel!"

Agents also listened in on Hammoud's telephone conversations with several alleged leaders of Hezbollah, including Sheik Abbas Harake, the group's reputed military leader. Prosecutors produced evidence that Hammoud led the effort to funnel a portion of profits from the cigarette-smuggling racket into the pockets of the Hezbollah leaders. Hezbollah has been responsible for hundreds of American deaths over the last two decades.

A federal jury convicted Hammoud of racketeering and providing material support to a terrorist group. He is now serving a 155-year sentence. The arrests of Hammoud and 18 of his cohorts in Charlotte also led to FBI breakthroughs in clamping down on Hezbollah cells in Los Angeles and Detroit.

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