Last weekend, in a tranquil suburb 35 miles from Washington DC, a volunteer fireman's car was burgled, and his badge, helmet and radio were stolen. A couple of years ago, says Master Detective Dennis Mangan of the Prince William County, Va. Police, "we wouldn't have thought anything about it. Now we look at things differently. We have a detective assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and anything that's remotely suspicious, we send them the report." Two days earlier, a Fairfax County policeman's car, containing his badge and jacket, had been stolen in Prince William County. Were these random events or part of a sinister pattern? Within hours, the task force was circulating an account of the thefts to every police and fire department in the Washington area
"It may be a joyride," says FBI assistant director Van Harp, head of the FBI's big Washington field office, "or a ring that's dealing in this kind of equipment. Or it could be terrorist-connected. We don't know. But that's the point of putting it out, because it is suspicious, and if it's terrorist activity, the consequences could be grave."
There are many chilling scenarios. A terrorist could use a firefighter's credentials and gear to gain access to a secure facility, such as a power plant, water pumping station, or government computer center, on the pretext of making an inspection. He could plant an explosive device then and there, or gain intelligence for a future attack. During an actual terrorist incident, a bad guy could use a badge to slip through a police line and detonate a bomb, killing kill the first responders. Even if the thieves turned out to common criminals, it was possible terrorists would find them or had already found them through the black market.
The Washington task force is on the lookout for other equipment heists and is seeking the license plates and other identifying data of suspicious characters who may be stalking local departments. "If there's similar activity, then it's not just an isolated theft," says Harp.