Building walls and breaking rules don’t catch terrorists, said former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald ’82 during an Oct. 13 talk in Merrill Science Center. He shared anecdotes from his days of investigating the likes of Osama Bin Laden and the 1993 World Trade Center bombers.

People come into discussions about terrorism with a base of assumptions that experience doesn’t bear out, Fitzgerald said.

“The notion that we stop them at the border is not going to work,” he told the crowd. The  talk, titled “10 Myths About Terrorists and How We Fight Them,” was sponsored by the Department of Economics and the Amherst Political Union.

“We’ve seen manuals for Al Qaeda,” Fitzgerald said, that instruct members to “shave, put pornography in your bag, and talk like you are Western,” in order to deflect suspicion.

Preventing terrorism, then, becomes a matter of policing intent, something much more nebulous than appearance, he said: “You don’t know where their mindset is now, or where it will be six months from now.” Fitzgerald asked the audience to consider the example of prisons, which see a “staggering” amount of contraband flow, despite security even stricter than that in airports.

In 1988, Fitzgerald became the assistant U.S. attorney in New York City, where he prosecuted Mafia figure John Gambino, as well as Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman and 11 others charged in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Fitzgerald then served as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois from 2001 to 2012, convicting two successive corrupt governors and leading the investigation into the identity leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame. In his role as national security coordinator for the Office of the U.S. Attorney, Fitzgerald investigated 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and was chief counsel in prosecutions related to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

 He is currently a partner in the Chicago office of the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and Affiliates. He is also a member of the Amherst College Board of Trustees.

Not Organized Crime

Many think that terrorism is a kind of organized crime. It is not, Fitzgerald said in his talk at Amherst. For example, mobsters will set up businesses as fronts, but they will be almost comically lacking in the cover product or service—think of “a café that doesn’t sell coffee.”

Terrorists, by contrast, will set up actual charities, such as Help African People, which was outlawed in Kenya following the August 1998 Nairobi bombing. “It was a real charity, providing food, supplies, antimalarial medicine,” Fitzgerald said.

“The difference between a mobster and a terrorist is [that] terrorists believe in a cause. They believe in helping poor people as much as [terrorism].”

Domestic and Foreign

Another element of this “just keep them out” misconception, Fitzgerald added, is that terrorism is only foreign. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh is one example of an American-born terrorist. Others, such as white supremacist Matthew F. “Matt” Hale, have been more frightening than some of the foreign threats, he said.

After bin Laden

Bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Special Forces in 2011 dealt a serious blow to Islamist terrorism, though not a killing blow, Fitzgerald said.

“People don’t appreciate what a powerful force he was,” Fitzgerald said, contrasting bin Laden with the less popular Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman. “People just worshipped [bin Laden]. He was the only one who had the glue to put them all together.”

Bin Laden’s legacy lives on, Fitzgerald said. “It’s just changed into something else that will be harder to control.”

Breaking the Rules

Some people worry that issuing Miranda warnings to suspected terrorists upon arrest will cause them to clam up, much as it can with mobsters. According to Fitzgerald, often this isn’t so.

“It’s almost the opposite with terrorists. They want to proselytize you,” he said. He joked that there was one in particular who would probably still be talking to this day if they had let him.

Fitzgerald described the long, sometimes tedious, and necessary process of investigating suspected terrorists. Throwing out the rules for expedience’s sake would be counterproductive, he said.

He noted that, from where investigators stand, they see an American public that wavers between telling agencies to do whatever it takes to get terrorists, and criticizing them for going too far.

Ultimately, the real protection is closer to home, he said: “People always look to the federal government, [but] the real eyes and ears have to be local law enforcement and the public.”