The Federal Bureau of Investigation has busted an impressive number of homegrown terror plots over the past decade, but many people don’t realise how these plots materialise. In some cases, they are hatched not from a cave-dwelling fanatic, but actually from the Bureau itself.
Ever since 9/11, the task of thwarting terrorist plots has consumed the majority of the FBI’s budget — $3.3 billion compared to $2.6 billion for organised crime, according to a report written for Mother Jones by Trevor Aaronson, author of The Terror Factory.
The once exclusively investigative bureau has morphed into a counterterrorism agency, with field agents tapping into a nationwide network of informants that infiltrate mainly-Muslim communities.
The FBI targets the “disgruntled few” who would participate in a terrorist plot if given the opportunity, according to Aaronson. In many cases, the FBI recruits potential terrorists and provides them with plans, equipment, and weapons — before finally shutting them down and getting credit for thwarting another attack.
One example surfaced in December 2005, when the FBI arrested Michael Curtis Reynolds after he tried to meet an FBI informant whom he believed to be an al Qaeda contact. Authorities said he expected to receive $40,000 to finance an alleged plot to blow up pipelines and refineries, according to Fox News.
The charges and his later conviction stemmed mostly from online conversations he was having with a Montana judge (and FBI informant) he believed was a terrorist leader.
But would Reynolds have gone that far on his own? An FBI official speaking to Fox News on condition of anonymity said “that the agency has since concluded that Reynolds might be mentally ill and not as serious a threat as originally believed.”
Another case in May 2007 involved men who certainly weren’t fans of the United States, but had scarce means of carrying out an attack.
Five foreign-born men, described by federal authorities as “radical Islamists,” along with a sixth man who helped get them weapons, were charged in May 2007 in a plot to attack a U.S. Army base in Fort Dix, N.J.
Officials later admitted the men had no apparent connection to any terrorist organisation. The Washington Post writes:
At the same time, a 26-page indictment unsealed Tuesday indicates that the group had no rigorous military training and did not appear close to being able to pull off an attack. The arrests in the case began Monday night after two defendants arrived at a local home to buy assault weapons, which had been supplied and disabled by the FBI, officials said.
“Obviously, these guys had some radical beliefs and the stuff they downloaded from the Web was very serious,” said a law enforcement source close to the case, speaking to The Washington Post. “But it’s not like they were going to be able to get rocket-propelled grenades and blow things up.”
What’s more, the case relied on the controversial use of paid informants, one of whom had a notable criminal past, and the other who undermined the case (to no avail) by admitting in court that at least two of the suspects later jailed for life had no knowledge of the supposed plot.
A federal jury found five of the six alleged plotters guilty of conspiracy to commit murder but cleared them of attempted murder.
Perhaps the most extreme case of the FBI setting up potential terrorists involved the “Newburgh Four.”
On May 20, 2009, law enforcement arrested four black Muslim men in connection with a bombing plot in the Bronx, and an attack on military aircraft in Newburgh, N.Y.
The men had set explosives in cars outside of local synagogues, and obtained a missile launcher to take down planes, but their plan was disrupted before it happened.
Although all the weapons the men used were fakes obtained from FBI agents, it certainly seemed like a slam-dunk case.
But The Guardian reports a stark difference between this group and other terrorists:
… far from being active militants, the four men [the FBI informant] attracted were impoverished individuals struggling with Newburgh’s grim epidemic of crack, drug crime and poverty. One had mental issues so severe his apartment contained bottles of his own urine. He also believed Florida was a foreign country.
At one point during the sting, James Cromitie, the leader of the four-man group, reportedly tried to thwart the plan himself.
For weeks, he pretended to leave Newburgh to avoid his terrorist contact Hussain (a paid FBI informant). He stopped going to the mosque, and ignored Hussain’s phone calls and voice mails. He even went so far as to pretend not to be in when he showed up at his house.
The Guardian reports:
Only when Cromitie lost his job, and became desperate for money, did he contact Hussain again. “I told you, I can make you $250,000, but you don’t want it, brother,” Hussain told him.
Now Cromitie agreed and set about finding lookouts. “Ok, f— it. I don’t care. Ah, man. Maqsood, you got me,” he said, using Hussain’s fake name.
A quick $250,000 seemed rather enticing to the four men living in poverty. After their arrest and trial, they were given a minimum 25-year sentence, but even the judge lambasted the government’s handling of the case, according to the New York Daily News:
“The essence of what occurred here is that a government understandably zealous to protect its citizens from terrorism came upon a man both bigoted and suggestible, one who was incapable of committing an act of terrorism on his own,” McMahon said, referring to Cromitie.
And although Judge Colleen McMahan would reject Cromitie’s claims of entrapment, she still called the FBI’s handling of the case a “fantasy terror operation,” as The New York Times reported:
“Only the government could have made a ‘terrorist’ out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope.”
The arrests and convictions of men who didn’t have the means to conduct an attack without FBI help certainly raises ethical questions. While they have been able to stop actual threats — it seems that in some other cases, the line between real and contrived has often blurred.
Some defence attorneys agree, as CBS News later reported:
“When the government supplies a fake bomb and then thwarts the plot, this is insanity. This is grandstanding,” said Susanne Brody, one of the defence attorneys for another terror case in Portland, Ore.
“The people they repeatedly come up with continue to be people who have no ability to do something on their own,” said Samuel Braverman, a defence attorney in the Newburgh case.
In spending all of this time concocting terrorist plots, the FBI may be wasting resources and ignoring the real threats. As one terrorism analyst at Stanford University writes, the priority for Islamic fighters now is actually to expel Westerners from their lands, not attack them in their own:
Many assume that jihadists all want to attack the West, and that those who leave do so for training. I argue the opposite, namely, that most Western jihadists prefer foreign ﬁghting, but a minority attacks at home after being radicalized, most often through foreign ﬁghting or contact with a veteran.
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