Local police officers on FBI’s Western Massachusetts Joint Terrorism Task Force work daily to investigate, foil suspected terrorist plots

Last modified: Monday, July 27, 2015

SPRINGFIELD — The U.S. District Court grand jurors who indicted Alexander Ciccolo Thursday on charges connected to an alleged terrorist plot had help in making their decision from a western Massachusetts task force consisting partly of local police officers.

The Joint Terrorism Task Force, based out of the FBI’s Springfield office at 1441 Main St., has been working to investigate tips and other leads on possible terrorists or terrorist plots in this part of the state since 2002. Like most such task forces around the country, it was formed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks as a way to deploy local officers and specialists as “the nation’s frontline on terrorism,” according to the FBI website.

“If you look at the nature of the threat we face now, it’s absolutely impossible for the FBI to do it alone,” said Vincent Lisi, the special agent in charge of the Boston Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “When you look at the ISIL threat and their use of social media and their propaganda campaign, it’s becoming more and more difficult for us to determine who could execute an attack.”

In the Springfield office — as in field offices across the country — local police officers are lending their experience and various areas of expertise to assist the FBI in monitoring possible threats and collecting and sharing information.

Easthampton is the only police department in Hampshire County that lends one of its officers — Capt. Robert Alberti — to work on the Western Massachusetts Joint Terrorism Task Force. Other members of the task force include at least one officer from police departments in Holyoke, Springfield, West Springfield, Ludlow, and Pittsfield, as well as the Massachusetts State Police and agents from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and Homeland Security Investigations.

The Boston FBI field office has its own Joint Terrorism Task Force that monitors threats in the eastern part of the state. Alberti, the Easthampton captain on the western Massachusetts task force, said he could not discuss his involvement in the FBI group.

In response to an inquiry from the Gazette, Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone said that while his department does not have an officer on the task force, it does have an officer with security clearance to work with the group if the need arises. He said he could not name the officer, but noted the individual is an “officer of rank.”

The UMass Police Department no longer has an officer on the task force, although it did for a period of time in the 2000s. Some UMass professors objected to the FBI connection to the campus in 2002 when the UMass Police officer on the task force, Barry Flanders, questioned an Iraqi-born professor of economics about his political views based on a complaint about him.

Patrick Callahan of the UMass News Office said the department pulled the officer off the task force, but he did not know when.

Lisi said that officers on the task force work part-time or full-time for the task force but are not paid a salary by the FBI. They earn their salary through their home departments, and the FBI picks up the bill for any overtime they work on task force investigations. The FBI also provides them with cars to use for task force business.

Officers on the task force chase down leads on suspected terrorists in myriad ways, including monitoring their social media accounts, looking into their backgrounds, and interviewing friends or relatives. Officers work on investigations regardless of where in western Massachusetts the case is based — not just on investigations in their home department communities, Lisi said.

“Everyone pulls together and helps, whether it’s conducting surveillance or executing a search warrant,” Lisi said.

Adams case

In the case of Alexander Ciccolo, 23, of Adams, also known as Ali Al Amriki, the task force used all these methods and more to build a case against him that led to his arrest. The FBI received a tip in October from Ciccolo’s father, Boston Police Capt. Robert Ciccolo, who said his son had expressed interest to fight for ISIS overseas.

The FBI and members of the task force monitored Ciccolo’s Facebook page, where he posted material sympathetic to ISIS, according to an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court by Special Agent Paul Ambrogio, a member of the Western Massachusetts Joint Terrorism Task Force. The FBI then arranged for a cooperating witness to meet with Ciccolo and pose as an accomplice in Ciccolo’s professed plans to shoot up and detonate pressure-cooker bombs at an unidentified university, Ambrogio wrote.

Task Force members observed Ciccolo buying a pressure cooker, and arrested him July 4 on a charge of being a felon in possession of a gun after Ciccolo allegedly received four guns from the government witness. Agents also found partially-constructed homemade explosives at his home, officials said.

A judge ordered Ciccolo detained pending trial, and a grand jury Thursday indicted him on the firearm charge as well as one count of assault with a deadly weapon and causing bodily injury to a person assisting an officer of the United States in the performance of official duties. The latter charge stems from allegations Ciccolo stabbed a nurse in the head with a pen during his intake at the Franklin County Jail.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kevin O’Regan and Deepika Shukla of Ortiz’s Springfield Branch Office in coordination with the Department of Justice’s National Security Division.

Ciccolo, who denied the charges at his initial arraignment, is being represented by Northampton defense attorney David Hoose.

Membership, coverage growth

According to the FBI’s website, the first Joint Terrorism Task Force was formed in New York City in 1980. Before Sept. 11, 2001, there were 33 task forces operating in cities around the United States. Now, there are 104.

The task forces include approximately 4,000 members from over 500 state and local agencies and 55 federal agencies.

As for the task force based out of the Springfield office, a spokeswoman for the Boston FBI office said she could not divulge the number of members involved or their names — or much about how the task force operates. Kristen Setera said in a phone interview Thursday that she and Lisi were also not authorized to talk about specific investigations the task force has participated in, even if they are closed.

Nationally, Joint Terrorism Task Forces coordinating through the interagency National Joint Terrorism Task Force have been responsible for foiling planned terrorist attacks at airports and military targets like Fort Dix Army base in New Jersey, for breaking up cells of would-be terrorists in the United States, and for arresting people for funding terrorism overseas, according to the FBI’s website.

Lisi said the task force working out of the Springfield office was originally called the Pioneer Valley Joint Terrorism Task Force; eventually, the coverage expanded to include Berkshire County.

While the national website describes the task forces as made up of specialists like SWAT experts, linguists and analysts, Lisi said the task force will take any officer that a local department is willing to spare. It is especially hard for smaller departments to take officers off the streets to send them to assist the FBI, he said — so many don’t, or can only do so part time.

“It comes down to the resources the departments have,” he said. “The only thing it costs them to join the JTTF is the base pay for the individual.”

He said the separate task forces do not have budgets per se, but the FBI pays for whatever it takes to get the job done: “Say we have to rent an apartment for surveillance,” he said.

The officers undergo the background checks necessary for them to get secret or top secret clearance, so they can have access to the same information as the FBI agents they are working with, he said. They are trained to use the FBI’s databases and information sharing systems, such as Guardian.

Each task force has an executive board made up mostly of heads of agencies or departments, Lisi said, but board members have more of a leadership role than a decision-making role. The board members are briefed on the most important investigations, he said, but aren’t making calls about what to investigate or not investigate.

Setera declined to name members of the executive board, but Lt. Colonel Thomas Grady of the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that he is on the board. He is also the chair of the Western Region Homeland Security Advisory Council. While he directed comment on the Western Massachusetts Joint Terrorism Task Force to Agent Robert Lewis of the Springfield FBI office, he did say the two organizations have worked together on training in the past.

“Rob and his office are valued partners,” Grady said in an email to the Gazette. The FBI joined the Homeland Security Advisory Council in a “terrorism tabletop exercise series” the council conducted in each county in western Massachusetts in April and May.

Each exercise involved a simulated terrorist event at a train yard in each county, Grady said. Working together in a joint response scenario were local officials, fire, police and health departments, as well as the FBI, State Police and Railroad Police.

The task force also cooperates with local police departments that are not members, as it did with the Adams Police Department in arresting Ciccolo. Lisi said that approach is sometimes difficult if there are no ranking members in a local department who have top secret clearance.

Like all FBI agents, local officers on the task force are bound by rules and laws prohibiting them from unfairly targeting suspects or spying on civilians without proving why it is necessary. For instance, just like federal investigators, officers need permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to tap phone lines.

While cases like Ciccolo’s are very high-profile, Lisi said the task forces in the state “have successes the public never hears about.”

“I think we’re very effective,” he said.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.


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