The FBI has ramped up its use of sting operations in terrorism cases, dispatching undercover agents to pose as jihadists and ensnare Americans suspected of backing the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
In many cases, agents will seek out people who have somehow demonstrated radical views, then coax them into plotting an act of terrorism — often providing weapons and money. Before the suspects can carry out their plans, they’re arrested.
But critics say that the FBI’s tactics only serve to entrap individuals who would never have committed any violence without the government’s instigation.
“They’re manufacturing terrorism cases,” Michael German, a former undercover agent with the FBI who now researches national security law at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, told the Times. ‘These people are five steps away from being a danger to the United States.”
‘They target people who are genuinely psychotic’
Increasingly, experts are worried that undercover operations of this kind infringe on the rights of Americans.
Stephen Downs, an attorney and founding member of Project Salam, told Business Insider that “the government has developed a technique of engaging targets in conversations of a somewhat provocative nature, and then trying to pick up on things the target says which might suggest illegal activity — and then trying to push them into pursuing those particular activities.”
Downs also said the FBI often targets particularly vulnerable individuals, such as those with mental disabilities.
“Very often, they [the FBI] target people who are genuinely psychotic, who are taking medication,” he said.
Last March, The Intercept profiled 25-year-old Sami Osmakac, who was “broke and struggling with mental illness” when he became the target of an FBI sting operation.
“The FBI provided all of the weapons seen in Osmakac’s martyrdom video,” The Intercept reported. “The bureau also gave Osmakac the car bomb he allegedly planned to detonate, and even money for a taxi so he could get to where the FBI needed him to go.”
A recent study cited by BuzzFeed examined undercover operations for signs of entrapment by looking at terrorism prosecutions dating back to 9/11.
The study coded each case for up to 20 signals that an individual had been a victim of this kind of entrapment, such as whether the defendant had no previous involvement in terrorism or whether they had been given some kind of monetary incentive to commit a crime.
The vast majority of the 317 cases involving undercover operations contained signs of entrapment.
Countless legal challenges have been made against these prosecutions, and facts supporting an entrapment defence are “pretty widespread,” Jesse Norris, a legal scholar at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia and the study’s leader, told Buzzfeed.
‘We’re trying to figure out where the lines are’
While no case has ever been thrown out on the basis of this kind of entrapment, judges have taken notice and raised concerns over the danger of entrapping otherwise innocent individuals in sting operations.
“I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here, except the government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition,” Judge Colleen McMahon of the United States District Court in Manhattan said in 2011.
She was referring to the “Newburgh Four” case — a yearlong operation that began with an informant infiltrating a Newburgh mosque and ended with the arrest of four men who tried to launch a missile at an air base and two synagogues.
Three years later, Human Rights Watch released a report expressing concern over law enforcement’s “discriminatory and overly aggressive investigations using informants,” noting that targets for these operations are often chosen based on specific political or religious indicators, such as if they are Muslim.
Still, others believe the entrapment method can ultimately make us safer.
Karen Greenberg, for example — author of “Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State” — believes that the “tension between security and liberty” that can result from these tactics is a good thing.
“The amount of money, time and resources that have been put into rethinking law enforcement since 9/11 has made us safer,” she told Business Insider in an interview. “And now we’re sort of trying to figure out where the lines are.”
Michael Steinbach, who leads the National Security Branch of the FBI, wasn’t immediately available for comment. But he told the Times that “we’re not just going to wait for the person to mobilize on his own time line,” adding that the FBI couldn’t “just sit and wait knowing the individual is actively plotting.”