Terrorist supporters of ISIS in Phoenix are attempting to recruit high school students, according to the controversial and outspoken former president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association.
Just days following the November 13 coordinated ISIS attacks in Paris, members of the FBI met with patrol officers at the Cactus Park 900 Precinct in northwest Phoenix about a potential ISIS threat, says Mark Spencer, a 25-year veteran of the Phoenix Police Department who now works with the far-right, anti-undocumented immigrant group Judicial Watch, based in Washington, D.C.
“What the FBI communicated to officers is that Phoenix is a hotbed for ISIS activity,” Spencer tells New Times. “That means, in this specific [area of the city], ISIS is recruiting high school-age residents.”
The FBI is most concerned about the area in the northwest section of Phoenix, Spencer says, near the former neighborhood of two ISIS-sympathizing gunmen who were killed attempting to ambush a Texas event featuring controversial cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed.
A mosque in the same area has been the target of several anti-Muslim protests.
Spencer did not attend the FBI briefing, but later met with officers involved. Spencer says police in the area typically are trained to spot drug or criminal activity, not terrorism, and that such a
meeting with federal officials is rare.
“[The meeting with FBI agents] was an event that clearly registered with [patrol officers] for a couple reasons. First, you had the Paris attacks, and you had a viable threat out there called ISIS,” Spencer says. “Second, it’s highly unusual that the FBI would come out and brief a squad about a particular area."
Ken Crane, current president of PLEA, also says the FBI briefing occurred. He says FBI agents warned Phoenix cops present about terrorists or their sympathizers trying to lure area young people into Islamic militant activity.
“The meeting is no different than having the FBI coming in to work on a case,” Crane says. “It is law enforcement groups sharing information, which we have been doing for eons.”
Police Department Public Information Officer Trent Crump tells New Times that officers throughout Phoenix work with the FBI and are trained in counter-terrorism methods, but he said there was no specific threat involving any particular Phoenix precinct, as Spencer claims.
“Phoenix police detectives who are assigned to the [FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force here in Phoenix] are liaisons for our employees, and they conduct any training that might be pertinent to law enforcement-related issues or provide our officers with a situational awareness,” Crump states.
Crump wouldn't be more specific about any particular briefing, much less what might have been said at it.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety runs the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center in Phoenix, where citizens can report potential threats. Officer Bart Graves, spokesman for the DPS, says state police routinely partner with other law enforcement organizations and recommend that citizens report any suspicious activity.
“We work with federal and local law enforcement partners, in this case, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI in a constant effort to be vigilant on our end,” Graves says. “We warn people to be vigilant going into the holiday season."
The briefing that Spencer says took place came at a time when others in Arizona law enforcement were calling for more anti-terrorism training for officers. Earlier this year, Levi Bolton, executive director of the Arizona Police Association, told a Phoenix television station that local police officers need to be better versed in identifying potential terrorist threats.
"We have a new dynamic. It is growing in its frequency, and it's certainly growing in its violence. It is now time that we dial ourselves into the equation," Bolton told KPHO-Channel 5. "It is important that my men and women know and realize what they're looking at."
It’s uncertain how many Americans have joined ISIS or attempted to fight on its behalf. In the past year, ISIS has ramped up its efforts to lure young people, particularly through social media, experts say. ISIS specifically targets high school-age youth for a variety of reasons, they say.
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“Teenagers tend to be easily persuaded, they have a tendency to engage in high-risk conduct, they want excitement and adventure,” Spencer says. “A young and underage minor wouldn’t have much of a criminal record on file. So you don’t have a big blip on the radar screen that this person is a problem because they are so young they don’t have the opportunity to develop into a problem yet.”
Other parts of the country also are at risk of potential terrorism recruitment by ISIS extremists, Spencer says, but Arizona particularly is targeted by the terrorist organization because it is a border state.
“Where there is a lack of deterrent, you can expect criminal activity, in this case terrorist activity,” he says. “We shouldn’t be surprised. We should be alarmed that Phoenix is a hotbed of terrorist activity.”
(This story originally was posted December 1.)