In 2011, FBI agents arrested Rezwan Ferdaus, a Northeastern University graduate with a degree in physics, at his storage unit in Framingham, MA. What they found inside was alarming: 25 pounds of C-4 explosives, three grenades and six AK-47 assault rifles.
Ferdaus had plotted to blow up the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol with remote-controlled airplanes packed with explosives.
The would-be terrorist had leased the storage unit under a false name and paid the rent in cash, telling a manager that he was homeless and sleeping at a friend’s house so he could avoid providing an address, according to court documents. Ferdaus, now in his late 20s, is serving a 17-year sentence in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2012 to terrorism charges.
The Ferdaus case underscores the ever-present threat that terrorism-related activities pose to self-storage facilities across the country.
‘This Is a Real Risk’
Back in 2009, the Self Storage Association alerted members and state storage associations about that threat. So, what makes self-storage units so attractive to terrorists?
“Storage lockers get an awful lot of privacy for just a few dollars,” said Tim Zehring, a crime expert who specializes in self-storage facilities. “The Department of Homeland Security has recognized that storage facilities are vulnerable to terrorist activities. This is a real risk.”
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance publishes a list of potential indicators of terrorist activities related to storage facilities. They include:
- Failing to provide complete personal information.
- Using cash to pay rental fees in advance.
- Using a credit card in someone else’s name.
- Placing unusual items in storage units or Dumpsters, such as fertilizer, agricultural products, chemicals and chemical containers, fuel or fuel containers, weapons, ammunition and explosives.
- Entering or leaving the facility at unusual times.
- Storing items that emit unusual odors, leak liquids, or leave burn marks or discoloration on storage unit walls or doors.
Here are seven ways to prevent a terrorist from wreaking havoc at your facility.
1. Watch for a Pattern.
If a customer pays cash and leaves a few blanks on rental paperwork, don’t automatically assume he’s a terrorist. Instead, look for a “pattern of suspicious behavior,” Zehring said. For example, a tenant with a questionable driver’s license who visits his unit at midnight and lists a P.O. box address warrants closer observation.
2. Know Your IDs.
“People can buy all kinds of fake documents,” Zehring said.
Go online, and save a photo of each state’s driver’s license so that you can easily compare a new tenant’s out-of-state license with the sample of what you’ve got on file, he said.
3. Collaborate With Local Law Enforcement.
Most police departments and sheriff’s offices undergo terrorism training.
“We partner with the FBI to give our deputies training,” said 1st Sgt. Mark Meil of the Queen Anne’s County Sheriff’s Office in Centreville, MD.
Deputies give presentations on how to detect terrorist-related activities to local businesses, including storage facilities, Meil said. “Our program is 100 percent effective. We have not had terrorism-related incidents at our storage units,” he said.
4. Notice Tenants Who Avoid Being Seen.
Criminals might hide their faces with hats, sunglasses and even surgical masks (under the guise of dust protection). “Some of these could be innocuous, such as allergies or whatever,” Zehring said.
Mostly, watch for people who get nervous when approached by employees. Legitimate renters want a good relationship with facility personnel.
5. Employ Off-Site Security Monitoring.
The best way to see who comes and goes—and at what hours—is to contract with a third-party provider of surveillance, Zehring said. If someone disables your system, off-site monitors immediately detect the shutoff and contact police. “Security cameras are not nearly as good as third-party surveillance,” he said.
6. Inspect Dumpsters Frequently.
Watch for discarded chemical containers or unusual materials inside facility Dumpsters. “You could notice brand-new shoes or clothes that got contaminated,” Zehring said.
7. Consider the Context.
If you find lots of fuel, industrial chemicals or pesticides stored in units or tossed in Dumpsters, you might have a problem on your hands. Then again, further investigation may reveal that the tenant owns a pest control business or uses pesticides for farming. Rely on your storage experience to determine what seems out of place or “doesn’t fit,” Zehring said.
What If You Suspect Terrorist Activity?
“Observe it, record it and report it,” Zehring said.
Write down license plate numbers, colors of vehicles, times—all the details that might be forgotten later. Call the authorities, who can visit in plain clothes to investigate so that suspicion isn’t aroused.
Whatever you do, don’t confront a tenant who you suspect is a terrorist.
“Do not put all your cards on the table,” Zehring said. “Management should never jeopardize themselves or other people.”