The heightened concern was sparked by the bellicose declarations of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas' spiritual leader, who last month denounced the Bush Administration's threats to disarm Iraq by force as "a new crusade against the Muslim nation." Yassin's call for Muslims worldwide to "strike Western interests ... everywhere" marked a sharp departure from his movement's long-held belief that attacks on Americans would undercut Palestinian hopes of keeping U.S. pressure on Israel. With Yassin's outburst, says a U.S. official, Hamas followers "have been freed up to do more than Israelis. And they're here." FBI agents suspect that there are Hamas sympathizers among the 1,000 Islamic extremists they are monitoring in the U.S. Worried that a U.S.-Iraq war will radicalize other young Muslims living in the U.S., FBI behavioral scientists are searching for psychological cues that someone could become a suicide bomber. Additionally, federal and local law-enforcement officers are closely tracking thefts of explosives, such as those used in Hamas backpack bombs, and unusual sales of fertilizer, chemicals and fuel that could be used to make a truck bomb.
In January a delegation of senior bureau officials and big-city police chiefs traveled to Israel to swap intelligence. The talks "impressed on me the absolute necessity for the public's participation in reporting suspicious activity and events," says FBI Assistant Director Van Harp, head of the Washington field office. He and other top bureau hands have been meeting with Arab, Muslim and Sikh leaders to solicit tips about potential suspects in emigre communitiesand to promise that hate crimes against their communities will be aggressively pursued.