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.
Still, Collins said it should come as no surprise that there are people associated with terrorism in Laurel.
"Of the terrorist cells in the United States, Laurel's, like, number five," Collins said.
Aside from the hijackers, a Muslim cleric living in South Laurel named Moataz al-Hallak, who had been previously linked to Osama bin Laden, was questioned in 2001 by FBI officials about the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Ever since the attacks and the attention that came to Laurel as a result, the fact that terrorist cells are operating in the region has been well known, Collins said.
"We know they're here," Collins said. "It's just a matter of Homeland Security keeping track of them along with the other agencies."
Collins said terrorism suspects blend in with society, just as the hijackers did in 2001.
"There was nothing to indicate anything was wrong," he said of the hijackers' time in the city.
"Chances are you or I could pass them on the street and never know it," he said.
Sgt. James Brooks, who became the police department's official homeland security liaison last year, acknowledged that links between Laurel and terrorist activity have been talked about since the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackers were found to have stayed in the city.
He also said that the city works carefully with other federal and state agencies to ensure its officers are prepared for a variety of different possibilities, from bombs going off to a shooter roaming the city.
When asked if there is an active terrorist cell operating in Laurel, Brooks would not answer directly, but said such groups could be anywhere.
"It's hard to say. Are they just in Laurel? Are they just inWashington, D.C.? You look at the news and the news will tell you that there are groups all over the place. You pick a state, you'll probably have a group there," he said.
"It's something that we probably wouldn't go out and promote, either," Brooks said. "It's a real touchy type of subject. We wouldn't want to put information out there that could hurt an investigation down the line."
Brooks said he remembers the 2011 stop of the individuals on the federal terrorist watch list, but would not provide more details.
A request for comment to the federal Dept. of Homeland Security was not immediately answered. The following people did not immediately return requests for comment: Laurel Mayor Craig Moe; Martin Flemion, the city's deputy administrator who heads its emergency services operations; Brian Moe, director ofPrince George's County's Office of Homeland Security and the mayor's brother; and Andrew Lauland, homeland security advisor to Gov.Martin O'Malley.