FBI: Lighting the Terrorist Fuse?

The FBI has been going undercover to lure terrorists out of their lairs. This should be reassuring. But U.S. counter-terrorism policy, both at home and abroad, suffers from a carrot-and-stick problem.
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Terrorist plots are suddenly everywhere. In Baltimore last week, a 21-year-old construction worker tried to blow up a military recruitment center. In late November, federal law enforcement officials arrested a Somalia-born teenager for plotting to bomb a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon. In October, a jury found the Newburgh Four guilty of planning to bomb two synagogues in the Bronx.

In all three cases, the major accomplice was not al-Qaeda or the Taliban. It was the FBI. The Bureau has been going undercover to lure terrorists out of their lairs. This should be reassuring. But U.S. counter-terrorism policy, both at home and abroad, suffers from a carrot-and-stick problem. The carrots that the FBI offers through its undercover operations suggest entrapment. The sticks that the Pentagon has wielded against Muslim lands have done much to encourage the proliferation of plotting on the home front, and yet Washington pretends otherwise.

Law enforcement officials, as you might guess, are not thrilled at the accusation of entrapment. After the arrest of 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the would-be Portland bomber, Attorney General Eric Holder said that there were "a number of opportunities that the subject in this matter, the defendant in this matter, was given to retreat, to take a different path. He chose at every step to continue." Juries have basically agreed with the government position. To date, the entrapment defense has not led to any acquittals.

According to the Supreme Court, entrapment takes place if "the criminal design originates with the officials of the government, and they implant in the mind of an innocent person the disposition to commit the alleged offense and induce its commission in order that they may prosecute." In the Portland case, there was no plot and no accomplices before the FBI decided to intervene. The Bureau had been tracking Mohamud since 2009 when it intercepted his email exchange with a suspected terrorist recruiter. From all evidence, Mohamud was unhappy with America and possibly attracted to terrorism. Was the best option as this point for the U.S. government to play the enabler, like providing a budding alcoholic with liquor? As Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Francis Njubi Nesbitt points out in Homegrown Fear Mongering, "These so-called counter-radicalization policies focus on individuals rather than structures, symptoms rather than root causes. A more proactive domestic approach would include policies that prevent radicalization instead of focusing on arresting and prosecuting perpetrators."

Likewise, the Newburgh Four didn't come up with their plan to bomb synagogues and shoot down military planes. That was the suggestion of FBI informant Shahed Hussain, who traveled around to mosques in search of potential terrorists and then dangled large sums of money in front of them to join him in "jihad." When one of the four African-American converts to Islam -- all marginal down-and-out figures -- tried to back out of the scheme because it would kill women and children, court records indicate that Hussain pressed him to continue or else put the informant's own reputation at risk. Hussain even sought to stir up the anti-Semitism of his four putative colleagues by telling them "that Jews were responsible for the U.S. wars in the Middle East and for other acts of violence against Muslims."

Shahed Hussain is not the only questionable FBI informant. Convicted forger Craig Monteilh similarly went around to mosques to drum up terrorism. At the Islamic Center of Irvine, California, "Muslims were so alarmed by his talk of violent jihad that they obtained a restraining order against him," reports The Washington Post. Monteilh is now suing his former employers, saying that the Bureau trained him to entrap.

Both Hussain and Monteilh made a lot of money at their job of reeling in terrorists. Their work sounds eerily similar to the bounty hunters in Afghanistan who, after the invasion in 2001, delivered to occupation authorities anyone suspected of links to al-Qaeda or the Taliban. That tactic produced hundreds of suspects that had nothing to do with either organization.

Whether it ultimately qualifies as entrapment or not, this FBI tactic is poisoning relations with the Muslim community. "The FBI wants to treat the Muslim community as a partner while investigating us behind our backs,'' says a member of the Islamic Center of Irvine."They can't have it both ways." Indeed, the FBI's approach veers dangerously close to profiling the entire Muslim community as terrorism-prone.

Another danger is the application of this profiling to other communities. The Justice Department has begun to crack down on anti-war activists because of their alleged connections to terrorist organizations abroad. In September, FBI agents raided homes and offices of activists and issued subpoenas to 14 people, including those connected to the Minneapolis-based Women Against Military Madness, the Chicago-based Arab American Action Network, and Students for a Democratic Society.

Over the summer, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a law that criminalizes any provision of "material support" to a foreign terrorist group. Legal scholar David Cole points out the absurdity of this law: "It means that when The New York Times and The Washington Post published op-eds by a Hamas leader, they were engaged in the crime of providing 'material support' to a designated terrorist group, because to publish the op-ed they had to coordinate with a spokesperson from Hamas." But the FBI isn't going after the mainstream media. It's targeting peace activists and the Muslim community.

And the entity providing the most "material support" to terrorist organizations is Washington itself. U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen help generate funds, recruits, and sympathy for those who oppose occupation policies and use terrorism as a tactic to advance their goals. The "collateral damage" associated with these wars is principally Muslim. And Muslims, not surprisingly, are upset, some of them very upset. It's not a religious thing. It's all about occupation and war. If, as political scientist Robert Pape has convincingly argued, these factors produce suicide bombings - in the Middle East and, most recently, in Sweden - surely they must also play a role in encouraging terrorist activities here in the United States.

In the movie Minority Report, Tom Cruise plays a cop who has to stop crimes before they happen by relying on psychics who can see into the future. The FBI doesn't yet have access to reliable psychics. So they're doing the next best thing: forcing these future crimes to take place in the present in order to arrest the suspect. In some cases, perhaps the crime would indeed have taken place. But in other cases, the FBI is moving dangerously into the realm of science fiction.

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