The investigation that culminated in the arrest of six Muslim men for allegedly planning to attack the Fort Dix Army Base in New Jersey was a 15-month affair in which FBI agents watched the men around the clock, trying to figure out whether their plot involved al-Qaida or any other international terrorism group.
Agents say they have not been able to establish any link between the men and outside terrorist groups. But the process they followed for more than a year is typical of the kind of criminal investigations law enforcement officials do in the post-Sept. 11 world.
FBI agents began the case by interviewing a clerk at Circuit City. He had called authorities about a videotape a customer had brought in that showed 10 young men shooting assault rifles in the woods and calling for jihad. Law enforcement officials needed to establish whether the clerk might have been part of the group or had some vendetta against the men on the tape.
Once it became clear that there was no connection, the clerk became a valuable source of information. He could answer key questions about the man who brought in the videotape. Did he use a credit card to pay for the purchase? Did he leave a name, phone number or address? The early stages of an FBI investigation begin in much the same way regular beat cops conduct a criminal investigation.
Then agents tried to ferret out clues from the videotape itself. They wanted to see faces, license plates or partial license plates. They tried to identify names from the tape's audio. They did a criminal background check and found out that several of the suspects were habitually ticketed for driving without a license. Two others had been busted on minor drug charges seven years ago. They all seemed to live in the Cherry Hill, N.J., area. These bits and pieces of information help investigators begin to connect the dots.
In this case, for example, they matched an earlier complaint about automatic weapons fire in the Poconos with the details of the videotape, and that helped investigators pinpoint where the men went to train. Then authorities put surveillance equipment there so they could get their own footage of the men's activities.
FBI sources said their preliminary investigation quickly became a more serious, full-blown investigation requiring National Security Letters and wire taps. They began looking at the men's e-mails and considering possible connections with jihadists overseas.