Two individuals on a federal terrorist watch list were stopped in a vehicle by Laurel police at some point in 2011, then allowed to leave based on directives from officials at the federal Department of Homeland Security, according to Laurel police and information recently released by the city.
Laurel has been linked to al-Qaida cells in the United States before, and the city made national headlines following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when it was reported that some of the hijackers involved in the attacks had stayed in motels in the city and used computers at the Laurel library.
But public acknowledgments of the actions taken by local and federal agencies to track or interact with individuals suspected of being involved in or tied to terrorist activities or cells are relatively rare, and such actions often go unreported.
The vehicle stop in 2011 was no exception, and was never reported or acknowledged publicly until the city released its annual report for 2011 last week.
The "Highlights of 2011" report posted on the city's website noted that an officer using the police department's license plate reader, which runs about 31,000 vehicle tags against various state and federal databases each month, conducted two "terrorist watch list stops" in 2011.
The report shouldn't have included that information, according to James Collins, a Laurel Police spokesman.
"Homeland Security doesn't want us to talk about that at all," he said of the stop.
But with the stop made public, Collins provided a few details:
One vehicle with two individuals in it was stopped by a local officer using the license plate reader. When the officer matched the individuals to the terrorist watch list, he or someone in the Laurel Police Department contacted Homeland Security.
Instructions were given to allow the individuals to leave without being detained or arrested.
"They're watching them," Collins said of Homeland Security officials keeping tabs on individuals on watch lists in Laurel and other local cities across the country. "They just don't want the local jurisdictions to interfere with what they're doing."
Input was requested from Homeland Security during the stop in 2011 because of the local police department's desire to avoid interfering with the work of federal agencies, Collins said.
Collins would not provide any other information about the stop or the individuals in the vehicle.
"I can't tell you anything about them or anything else," he said. "Homeland Security is really tight-lipped about it."
According to media reports in recent years, hundreds of thousands of people are on the federal government's terrorist watch list, which reportedly maintains more than 1 million records on people who are suspected terrorists or are believed to have links to terrorism.
The American Civil Liberties Union, a leading civil rights group in the country, has questioned the effectiveness of the massive list in the past.
The secret list — known as the Terrorist Screening Database — is compiled and overseen by the FBI, through its Terrorist Screening Center.
According to a Government Accountability Office report cited on the center's website, "Use of the watch list has helped federal, state, and local screening and law enforcement officials obtain information to make better-informed decisions when they encounter an individual on the list as to the threat posed and the appropriate response or action to take, if any."
According to the same report, "Information collected from watch list encounters is shared with agents conducting counter terrorism investigations and with the intelligence community for use in analyzing threats."
The center's website also says most people on the list are not United States citizens or legal residents, and that the majority are not in the United States.