Salon: Real threat or fake terror?

Salon: Real threat or fake terror?

"...On Aug. 10, British authorities announced that they had made 24 arrests in a plot to use liquid explosives to down airliners en route to the United States from London. Stepping off Air Force One in Wisconsin that morning, the news from Britain still fresh, President Bush called the arrests "a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists." He warned Americans to be on the alert. "We're still not completely safe, because there are people that still plot and people who want to harm us for what we believe in."

Less than 24 hours later, police in Caro, population 4,000, stopped the three men outside a local Wal-Mart with roughly 1,000 cheap cellphones in their van. It was 2 a.m., and they had just purchased 80 cellphones from the store, raising the suspicion of an employee. Less than a year before, federal law enforcement officials had warned their state and local counterparts to be on the lookout for people buying large numbers of prepaid cellphones, since the phones could be used as detonators. The Caro police arrested the Othmans and Muhareb.

The media pounced on the story once local authorities, led by Tuscola County prosecutor Mark Reene, announced that they suspected the three men of planning to blow up the immense and picturesque Mackinac Bridge, the 5-mile span that separates Lake Michigan and Lake Huron and connects Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas. Breathlessly, newspapers and TV reported that the men were trafficking in cheap, virtually untraceable TracFones, an alleged favorite of terrorists, and that they had conducted surveillance of their alleged target. Michigan's WNEM TV-5 reported that the men were Texans, but were of "Palestinian descent" and that the phones, "can be used to remotely detonate explosive devices or even to make methamphetamine." Two days after the arrests, the Coast Guard announced that it had increased patrols near the bridge to ward off any possible attack.

Then the story began to deflate. On Aug. 14, the FBI and the Michigan State Police announced publicly that their investigation showed no evidence of a plot. "There is no information to indicate that the individuals arrested have any direct nexus to terrorism," Daniel D. Roberts, the FBI's special agent in charge, announced in a written statement. "There is no imminent threat to the Mackinaw[sic] Bridge." ..."