SAN FRANCISCO – Long before Sept. 11 brought terrorism to the top of every federal prosecutor’s agenda, U.S. attorneys and FBI agents in California were going after terrorists at one of the highest rates in the country.
In the San Francisco area, FBI agents referred 80 cases of domestic terrorism to prosecutors during the past five years, far above the national average of about 11 during the same period, according to newly released Justice Department records.
Only five districts in the country had more than 40 referrals of domestic terrorism during that time, and Atlanta followed San Francisco with 51.
When it came to international terrorism, Los Angeles was one of the top six areas in the country for referrals, with 26 cases between 1997 and September, 2001. During that time, the U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia reported 67 referrals, but most districts had fewer than ten.
U.S. attorney’s spokesman Thom Mrozek in Los Angeles said his office set up a terrorism task force in the mid-80s, well ahead of most federal districts which have only recently established the groups.
“We have prosecutors who have trained in terror cases and have been dealing with this stuff for some time,” he said.
However, Mrozek said their large number of cases is, in part, simply a reflection of the size of their community.
“We are the largest office in the country. We have 250 lawyers and 17 to 18 million residents in our district. We commonly have the highest case load in any particular area,” he said.
The Justice Department data, collected and compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, showed that all of the nation’s investigative agencies together asked for the prosecution of only 463 individuals identified as being involved in either international or domestic terrorism by assistant U.S. attorneys.
Prosecutors in California said some of the terrorism cases they’ve been chasing for the past five years didn’t make headlines at the time, even though similar cases dominate the news lately.
For example, on Nov. 1, a jury in U.S. District Court in Oakland convicted Charles Redden of Livermore of threatening to contaminate a federal building with anthrax — a year and a half before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
A jury found that Redden called the clerk’s office for the U.S. District Court in Oakland in January 1999, saying anthrax had been released into the building’s air conditioning system. The threat was a hoax.
The 33-year-old faces a maximum life term when sentenced Jan. 18.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Jacobs in San Francisco said many domestic terrorism cases involved people who made threats over the Internet. The San Francisco area has a concentration of Internet service providers, so when a threat is made, a search warrant has to be served at the provider’s headquarters even if the suspect lives in another state.
In Southern California, a recent high profile international terrorism prosecution involved a San Fernando Valley man who pleaded guilty for his involvement in an immigration fraud ring that provided fake visa and asylum documents to people associated with the Iran-based Mujahedin-E-Khalq, which is on the State Department’s foreign terrorist list.
In that case, on October, 1999, Bahram Tabatabai pleaded guilty to two federal charges — conspiracy to make false statements to the State Department and Immigration and Naturalization service and to possess false identification documents, and providing material to assist a designated foreign terrorist group.
Mrozek said there is no connection between Tabatabai and the Sept. 11 attacks or Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization.