A black flag with white script-like writing flashed on the screen.
“Does anyone know what this is?” asked Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Alain Sirgy.
The more than 250 people in the Tustin Community Center didn’t answer, but some whispered to their neighbor as if trying to recall where they had seen the symbol before.
The flag was familiar, but nobody could say what it represented.
“This is the group that is responsible for the most terrorism-related American deaths to date,” Sirgy said. “This is the flag of al-Qaida.”
The reveal sent a murmur through the crowd.
Oh my gosh, I don’t remember that.
“We forget these things,” Sirgy said. “We’ve seen cars that have al-Qaida flags in Orange County. Some of you have probably seen it, but didn’t know what it was and couldn’t identify it.”
Al-Qaida supporters here? In Orange County?
Most definitely, according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s OC Intelligence Assessment Center (OCIAC).
Sirgy and fellow OCSD Deputy Chad Ensil from the OCIAC addressed residents as part of the Tustin Police Department’s bi-annual Neighborhood Watch Block Captain meeting.
Tustin PD started the block captain program 10 years ago to inspire residents to be public safety stewards of their neighborhoods.
The meeting included updates for residents on Tustin crime and encouraged the community to employ the mantra: “If you see something, say something.”
Police went over how proactive residents can help police deter crime and solve cases. The deputies then followed with a presentation on how to spot and report potential terrorist activity.
In a quiz on common terrorist symbols, residents nailed the Isis flag, easily identified white supremacist tattoos and quickly named the drug lord Joaquin Guzman, more commonly known as El Chapo.
“Some people ask, ‘are the cartels terrorists?’” Sirgy said. “Yes. Terrorism is basically committing violence to change politics.”
Residents were more hazy on naming flags and symbols to identify Hammas and other Islamic extremist groups.
Sirgy and Ensil went over several local cases involving links to possible terrorist activity, both foreign and domestic.
“You hear about these things happening, but it’s scary when you see it in local cases.” said Tustin Lt. Bob Wright. “That’s why we need (the community).”
To keep tabs on this kind of activity, the OCSD runs a fusion center tasked with fielding intel on anything from leads on terrorism to regional safety threats to human trafficking.
“People just like you send in leads and we get it out to the appropriate agencies,” Sirgy said. “We don’t do any investigation, we just get the information out.”
There are 79 fusion centers across the U.S. and six in California — more than any other state. Orange County is the only county in the country to have a dedicated fusion center, Sirgy said.
“What does that tell you?” he said. “There is a lot of activity in California.”
Activity including a man who was arrested in a central county city after he was caught financing Hezbollah through a credit card scheme.
A concerned resident alerted authorities to the man, who was sleeping in his car. The resident thought something looked off and reported it, Sirgy said.
When police arrived, they discovered multiple credit cards in the suspect’s possession, which led to an investigation that uncovered his operation.
The man would steal credit cards and use them to buy gift cards. He then would purchase Wii Nintendo consoles, sell them on the Internet and wire the money to the Islamic militant group, Sirgy said.
In another case in Irvine and Anaheim, police caught several suspects running an ATM skimming scheme that stole more than $2 million from bank customers and funneled the cash to five countries, including Germany and Romania.
An eerie example that visibly shook the audience was a 2012 case involving a man caught running surveillance on a coastal bridge over Pacific Coast Highway.
The man had flown in for the day to take photographs and video of that bridge just a few days before July 4 — a day when Orange County’s beaches are inundated with hundreds of thousands of people.
“(Terrorists) actually have what you can consider a library of targets,” Sirgy said. “When the time comes, they pick one and say ‘let’s go.’ They have already done the research.
“These guys don’t think short-term, they think long-term and plan years and years in advance.”
The deputies told residents not to brush off suspicious activity they see because it could be someone researching or planning an attack.
Other signs to look out for include someone collecting a large amount of supplies or running tests of security.
In Anaheim, a man walked near a local elementary school many times over the course of several weeks carrying a few airsoft guns.
Residents called to report the man every time. Although police couldn’t make an arrest, his behavior was noted by OCIAC.
“These guys want to see how law enforcement responds,” Sirgy said. “They want to see how fast we get there so that they can plan ahead.”
Some residents said they were shocked to hear of suspected terrorism-related activity so close to home.
“I’m so glad I came,” said Tustin resident Theresa McIntyre. “I think I’m going to be more aware of strange things. You might see something and not think much of it and go about your day.
“We all need to be more mindful about what we see and do something instead of walking away.”
Tustin police said they hope the presentation encouraged residents to stay diligent and alert.
If your gut is telling you there is something wrong, Sirgy and Ensil urged residents to report it because Orange County is not exempt from being a possible target.
“A lot of the stuff you’ll see is non-criminal,” Sirgy said. “They’re just probing, testing. It may seem like low-level stuff that is no big deal, but that’s what these guys do and that’s what we’re looking for.
“We can’t do this by ourselves. We need your help.”