Creating and Entrapping Terrorists

When I wrote this essay—“Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot”—I thought a lot about the government inventing terrorist plotters and entrapping them, to make the world seem scarier. Since then, it’s been on my list of topics to write about someday.

Rolling Stone has this excellent article on the topic, about the Joint Terrorism Task Forces in the U.S.:

But a closer inspection of the cases brought by JTTFs reveals that most of the prosecutions had one thing in common: The defendants posed little if any demonstrable threat to anyone or anything. According to a study by the Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law, only ten percent of the 619 “terrorist” cases brought by the federal government have resulted in convictions on “terrorism-related” charges—a category so broad as to be meaningless. In the past year, none of the convictions involved jihadist terror plots targeting America. “The government releases selective figures,” says Karen Greenberg, director of the center. “They have never even defined ‘terrorism.’ They keep us in the dark over statistics.”

Indeed, Shareef is only one of many cases where the JTTFs have employed dubious means to reach even more dubious ends. In Buffalo, the FBI spent eighteen months tracking the “Lackawanna Six”—a half-dozen men from the city’s large Muslim population who had been recruited by an Al Qaeda operative in early 2001 to undergo training in Afghanistan. Only two lasted the six-week course; the rest pretended to be hurt or left early. Despite extensive surveillance, the FBI found no evidence that the men ever discussed, let alone planned, an attack—but that didn’t stop federal agents from arresting the suspects with great fanfare and accusing them of operating an “Al Qaeda-trained terrorist cell on American soil.” Fearing they would be designated as “enemy combatants” and disappeared into the legal void created by the Patriot Act, all six pleaded guilty to aiding Al Qaeda and were sentenced to at least seven years in prison.

In other cases, the use of informants has led the government to flirt with outright entrapment. In Brooklyn, a Guyanese immigrant and former cargo handler named Russell Defreitas was arrested last spring for plotting to blow up fuel tanks at JFK International Airport. In fact, before he encountered the might of the JTTF, Defreitas was a vagrant who sold incense on the streets of Queens and spent his spare time checking pay phones for quarters. He had no hope of instigating a terrorist plot of the magnitude of the alleged attack on JFK—until he received the help of a federal informant known only as “Source,” a convicted drug dealer who was cooperating with federal agents to get his sentence reduced. Backed by the JTTF, Defreitas suddenly obtained the means to travel to the Caribbean, conduct Google Earth searches of JFK’s grounds and build a complex, multifaceted, international terror conspiracy—albeit one that was impossible to actually pull off. After Defreitas was arrested, U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf called it “one of the most chilling plots imaginable.”

Using informants to gin up terrorist conspiracies is a radical departure from the way the FBI has traditionally used cooperating sources against organized crime or drug dealers, where a pattern of crime is well established before the investigation begins. Now, in new-age terror cases, the JTTFs simply want to establish that suspects are predisposed to be terrorists—even if they are completely unable or ill-equipped to act on that predisposition. High-tech video and audio evidence, coupled with anti-terror hysteria, has made it effectively impossible for suspects to use the legal defense of entrapment. The result in many cases has been guilty pleas—and no scrutiny of government conduct.

In most cases, because no trial is ever held, few details emerge beyond the spare and slanted descriptions in the indictments. When facts do come to light during a trial, they cast doubt on the seriousness of the underlying case. The “Albany Pizza” case provides a stark example. Known as a “sting case,” the investigation began in June 2003 when U.S. soldiers raided an “enemy camp” in Iraq and seized a notebook containing the name of an imam in Albany—one Yassin Aref. To snare Aref, the JTTF dispatched a Pakistani immigrant named Shahed “Malik” Hussain, who was facing years in prison for a driver’s-license scam. Instead of approaching Aref directly, federal agents sent Malik to befriend Mohammed Hossain, a Bangladeshi immigrant who went to the same mosque as Aref. Hossain, an American citizen who ran a place called Little Italy Pizzeria in Albany, had no connections whatsoever to terrorism or any form of radical Islam. After the attacks on 9/11, he had been quoted in the local paper saying, “I am proud to be an American.” But enticed by Malik, Hossain soon found himself caught up in a government-concocted terror plot. Posing as an arms dealer, Malik told Hossain that a surface-to-air missile was needed for an attack on a Pakistani diplomat in New York. He offered Hossain $5,000 in cash to help him launder $50,000—a deal Hossain claims he never properly grasped. According to Muslim tradition, a witness is needed for significant financial transactions. Thus, the JTTF reached out for Hossain’s imam and the true target of the sting—Aref.

Posted on March 5, 2008 at 6:25 AM30 Comments


Anonymous March 5, 2008 7:04 AM

Bruce must be in the UK these days: I’m getting first comment, again! (Read my upcoming paper: ‘The Blog as Security Hole, An Analysis.)

There HAS to be an advantage to living on this edge of the ocean… Yeah, I know: there’s easy access to lobster, the lack of rush-hour traffic, fewer mosquitos, etc. But in this case, ‘m talking time zones…)

I read ‘The Fear Factory’ a few weeks ago – I don’t usually read RS, but it had been mentionned here at the time. I found the article a little thin on stats and history, but I suppose that narrative-driven reporting is more Rolling Stone’s editorial style and probably gets through to RS’s readership more than dry, academic prose would. It almost reads like an episode of Law and Order.

(I wonder what the ‘closing line’ for that episode would be? McCoy saying: “They should put up a sign at the border: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”?) (Yeah, I know, it’s already been used for one of the episodes..)

The one hopeful part of the article is “There are signs, however, that judges and jurors are getting fed up with such concocted ‘threats.'” Man, what took them so long?

bob March 5, 2008 7:17 AM

While I am no fan of the expensive, nebulous and almost certainly unconstitutional government infrastructure which has popped up to “protect me” from terrorist threats real and imagined; this guy either has an ax to grind or is clairvoyant and should be hired to pick out terrorists by what they are thinking, based on the fact that he is able to read their thoughts in why they plea bargained, yet he is unable to choose words in his writing which do not put a negative slant on the government actions or cast the ‘perps’ as victims rather than conspirators.

Not saying the government isnt screwing up (in fact have a hard time conceiving that as a concept) but if he wants to get a point across he should report facts and leave bigotry up to the readers to inject.

Nicholas Jordan March 5, 2008 7:30 AM

This is where I intende to go with my commenting. Years ago, an interview of Bill Clinton by Rolling Stone resulted in a standard left-wing propoganda recital. Mr. Clinton in fact walked away after giving reasonable effort. This work is the diametric opposite. Citing the work is effective for your stated purpose.

So how do we create a (security theatre ?) in a social setting where User Izatwit being the icon and ideal lives and breathes media feed that puts “Criminal Minds” on routinely – mabye ( I am speculating here ) the work of Yehuda + Lindell [ISBN-978-1-58488-551-1 / p20-21] provides a framework for modelling. In that report, the authors provide the observation that a room full of crypto students when asked how secure encryption should be defined demonstrate a five step evolution.

For my 2 cents, I observe that the useful Neanderthal Security Model ( defend yourself ) was thwarted by the current security model. ( elucidated above ) It appears to me the above demonstrates raw, undiluted ignorance. Ignorance is the subject of contemporary studies in artificial intelligence. AI is powerful or potentially powerful but the application of ai to thwarting ignorance is a potentially rich-field of discovery. One of the things I will do today is consider how the tools of ai could be used to ‘sense’ ( in a machine definition of sense ) ignorance in the system and differentiate operators on the basis of how and when they choose to ignore as a opposed to mistakes such as trying to do a major-rewrite while still asleep then getting excited about a “New Discovery”.

I know from my own observations that this takes five years to attain realization. It is striking that this parallel’s the students observed group behaviour.

Anonymous March 5, 2008 7:44 AM

The same antics are being perpetrated in Canada:

Complex sting, multiple arrests, utterly preposterous, virtually unimplementable plan, and the detention of many involved for almost two years now. In 2007 September the government, probably sensing a looming disaster of having many charges dismissed before trial, halted the preliminary hearings and moved straight to trial — which is still to occur, and now the defense is without the traditional benefit of discovery.

TheDoctor March 5, 2008 9:45 AM

Those two articles were real fun to read (I’m a cynic, I know…)

But in fact I’m quite confident the US will come back to their minds. Hopefully the collateral damage will not be too fatal.

Andrew March 5, 2008 10:03 AM

With all this counter-terrorism, there’s got to be some real terrorism somewhere, right?

I harbor a modest hope that there are really some deeply laid plots that have been taken down, that we’ll all read about ten to twenty years from now when they are declassified.

Even then, I can’t say I’m thrilled by the effort to manufacture such weak CT cases, just to explain to the public why all this counter-terrorism is necessary.

I am reminded that when in doubt, one should follow the money. 🙁

TheDoctor March 5, 2008 10:31 AM

It’s just the question WHO follows the money.
Example: the former german Secretary of the Interior, Otto Schily worked as a chairman for a company for biometric security gadgets. He also, completly unrelated, forced biometric enhanced passports onto the german people. (simplified)

For your personal exercise, follow the money for the US security theater

Scott March 5, 2008 10:33 AM

While I have no doubt the US law enforcement occasionally goes to far in pursuing terror, what of this question, which rarely gets posed.

If it’s easy for law enforcement officials to find someone who can be easily convinced to become part of a terror plot, even if that person would never have the means or wherewithal to do so otherwise – what’s to stop a terror cell from doing the same thing, and actually providing the money and training, but no longer suffering a loss of members as an actual plot is carried out, since they only lost a stool pigeon?

Why martyr myself when some disillusioned, impoverished person will do it for me?

Anonymous March 5, 2008 10:53 AM

At least one of these FBI agents sounds like he’s running a confidence game.

From page 4 of the article:

” ‘The public is never going to see the evidence we have,’ [Assistant Special Agent in Charge Gregory] Fowler says. ‘We don’t want to reveal our hand or tip our sources. You cannot judge the nature of the terrorist threat to the United States based on the public record.’

” ‘But with such strictures,’ I ask, ‘how does a citizen become informed about the threat?’

” ‘I have access to the information,’ Fowler says. ‘I have a lot of faith in the judgment of the common citizen. A lot of people understand the nature of the threat.’ ”

When Agent Fowler says that he has “faith” in the common citizen, it sounds like he expects the common citizen to reciprocate by having “faith” in him and his FBI mob.

Faith in the marks–that’s what every con man schemes for.

greg March 5, 2008 11:06 AM


Who do you think does the dieing? The educated? The smart?

Pulling off a attack if you are prepared to die and are smart still is and will always be easy.

Fortunately being smart usually means not dieing for the cause is seen as a better idea.

SteveJ March 5, 2008 11:18 AM

“what’s to stop a terror cell from doing the same thing”

And yet no terror cell actually has carried out an attack in the US for several years, and there is no history of Americans being recruited as suicide bombers. So clearly something is not as it appears.

I think it unlikely that the authorities have identified every single susceptible potential recruit, caught them in a sting operation, locked them up and thrown away the key.

More likely is that the number of people who can be persuaded to actually make an attack is much smaller than the number willing to materially aid people they believe to be terrorists (mistakenly in the case of sting operations, correctly for those who have helped finance foreign attacks).

Since it’s not easy to distinguish the two for sure (you can’t easily prove that someone would actually make an attack without letting the attack get unduly close to actually happening), legislators have made aiding terrorism both easy to prove and harshly punished, as a proxy for having to prove direct terrorist actions.

It’s easy to portray “aiders and abettors” as though they pose the same imminent danger as a chap in fatigues and a bandanna carrying an AK-47 and a block of semtex, especially before the facts are in. And indeed, the media and government spokesmen usually do exactly this at the time when the arrest is made, because (respectively) it makes a more entertaining story and makes the authorities look good.

For the biggest example of this exaggeration in the UK, look up the “ricin plot”: it’s certainly not just the Americans at it. One of the plotters stabbed and killed a policeman while trying to resist arrest. He was convicted of murder and conspiracy to poison. The other alleged plotters’ cases were abandoned, basically because there was no evidence of any ricin, or the means to produce it, or intended wrong-doing by any of them. The media were initially permitted/encouraged to report that thousands of people “could have” been killed, and then were gagged (to avoid prejudicing the trial) once the facts came out and it became clear there was never any danger. How convenient.

Roy March 5, 2008 11:26 AM

During the Vietnam War, the FBI used the same technique to silence dissent. They would take known vocal discontents from their files and have their stooge befriend these people and organize them into a ‘cell’. What distinguished this organization from a bitch session was an ‘agent provocateur’, their stooge, and money — always from a mysterious source, not much money, but always there. (Free meals go a long way in plotting cafe revolutions.) Their stooge would talk up schemes, getting the marks to agree, bragging what they would do (if only, if only, but never really). When the stooge took them as far as he could, even if it was only vague ideas about rebellion or sabotage, and the feds had it all secretly recorded, then the feds would ‘roll up the entire cell’.

Given the choice between a no-jury trial and execution for treason versus a public confession and apology, a guilty plea, and a limited prison sentence, anyone would make the right choice.

The FBI is not the only agency to have done this, nor is it a US invention. This goes back at least to Cheka, and they may have got the idea from the Czar’s secret police.

Tent Revivalist March 5, 2008 11:54 AM

Friends, I am here to tell you… Friends, I am here to today to testify. Yea. TESTIFY.

Friends, I believe in the ghost of Mr. P. T. Barnum. Yea. I firmly believe in the one true, great American HERO. The man who came amongst the unbelievers and gave us our true NATIONAL MOTTO:

“There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Yea. Amen.

Friends, I have more to tell you… Friends, I have more to testify. Yea. TESTIFY.

Friends, I believe in the ghost of our national SALVATION.

Our saviour’s name is COINTELPRO.

And, friends…

(Here, hold on just a minute–have a toke off this–it’ll make you feel real good.)

Friends, I believe. Yea. I do BELIEVE.

Thank you, my friends. Remember that name: COINTELPRO.

Thank you, again.


Petréa Mitchell March 5, 2008 12:06 PM

The most interesting bit of new information for me was that undergoing chemotherapy turns you into a, um, dirty bomber. Imagine how many many thousands of false alarms are waiting to happen, just from that?

Nicholas Jordan March 5, 2008 12:50 PM

@Steve J

For what it is worth, the only reliable way for those ‘cells’ to distinguish inifiltration is that the law cannot violate the law. The only way for the law to distinguish those cells is that innocents suddenly start asking for 50 cals and half a kilo of C4


Me too: intende should be intended

Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey March 5, 2008 1:21 PM

Ana, thanks for the tip about the Metropolitan Police in London. Here’s the text of their three posters:

Thousands of people take photos every day.

What if one of them seems odd ?

Terrorists use surveillance to help plan attacks, taking photos and making notes about security measures like the location of CCTV cameras. If you see someone doing that we need to know.Let experienced officers decide what action to take.

Thousands of people have mobiles.

What if someone with several seems suspicious ?

Terrorists need communication.They often collect and use many anonymous pay-as-you-go phones, as well as swapping SIM cards and handsets. If you’re suspicious of the number of phones someone has, we need to know. Let experienced officers decide what action to take.

You see hundreds of houses every day.

What if one has unusual activity and seems suspicious?

Terrorists live in our communities, planning attacks and storing chemicals. If you’re suspicious of a property where there’s unusual activity that doesn’t fit normal day-to-day life, we need to know. Let experienced officers decide what action to take.


All three posters carry the slogan “Terrorism. If you suspect it, report it.”
at the bottom.

Sensible advice from police to citizens? Or escalation of the War on the Unexpected? Some of each, I suspect.

For Real March 5, 2008 3:26 PM

“Using informants to gin up terrorist conspiracies is a radical departure from the way the FBI has traditionally used cooperating sources against organized crime or drug dealers, where a pattern of crime is well established before the investigation begins.” B.S.: political entrapment has been the the FBI’s modus operandi since day 1.

Skorj March 5, 2008 3:29 PM


Wow, do they come with a comforting picture of Big Brother? That’s just amazing.

It’s just a bad sign when people are scared to photograph national landmarks.

Clive Robinson March 5, 2008 4:40 PM

@Bill Higgins,

The three Met Police adds you quote have had some comment in the media,

The second add caused the most coment with a new sound bite,

Johnny Muslim 2 Phones must be a terrorist”

(The johnny 2 Phones tag harks back to John Prescot Labours Deputy Priminister who was known at one point as “Johnny 2 jags”).

The last add has also had comment that,

it appears to be a way for the Met to get intel on canabis growers and crack houses.

The first add has had little comment but is possibly the most self serving of the Mets adds.

For some time now the people have been using mobile phones to take photos / film clips / audio recordings of various “doggy wheel clampers, parking attendants and police officers”. And in a very real way has started to level the playing field.

This is very very unpopular with the authorities as it has ended up with increasing claims for compensation getting significant awards. So much so that in the Mets case the sums involved are not just embarising but a significant amount of their anual budget.

The Met have significant “previous” in this respect and where quite badly wrong footed on one occasion. A freelance journalist had on a number of occasions had his films removed by the police “ID less crowd control thugs” because his photos “breached their human rights”. The journo put a covert tv camera in his backpack strap and filmed one of the Mets thugs trotting out the line. This went out on national television and surprise surprise it stoped quit quickly after that.

The Met have since used other legislation to the same effect, i.e. Anti-terror legislation.

The Met Comissioner Sir Ian Blair is a past master at “new initiatives” and “media manipulation”, after all he is not the UKs top policeman without cause.

All in all it looks like the Met have (illicitly?) used additional funds given to them to fight the “faux terror war” for other reasons.

Google for the BitTorrent March 5, 2008 5:55 PM

First, go find, download and watch “The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear”. It’s a 3 part BBC Documentary and it explains it all!

Next, (especially if your America) be very sure what/who is actually behind the ideas prompted by your politicians when you next vote (don’t believe the media and especially Fox/Sky)!

mjc March 5, 2008 6:13 PM

Remember that Bush has issued an executive order giving himself the power to declare martial law if something bad happens (like a Democrat being elected president).

Watch for a “terrorist” attack near election time, giving him an excuse to declare martial law and cancel the new Congress and President.

Halliburton and Blackwater are getting ready to send you to camp.

“Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they are not out to get you.”

Nicholas Jordan March 6, 2008 6:27 AM

@I harbor a modest hope that there are really some deeply laid plots that have been taken down, that we’ll all read about ten to twenty years from now when they are declassified.

There have been, else it would not be that “no terror cell actually has carried out an attack in the US for several years” Some things go quietly, for example if an operation had taken out a risk to public safety, you would not have agency internship in the legal department vying for a junior partnership at Cuttham, Burnham & Runn by feeding commercial media juicy tidbits an dicey details.

Andrew March 6, 2008 10:34 AM

Left wing propaganda.

Anyone can make this allegation. The article is carefully researched. Prove your allegation or go back to talk radio.

Nomen Publicus March 6, 2008 2:16 PM

Nobody should be surprised at events.

What we are seeing is no different to the “Reds under the bed” scare (result, maybe a couple of spys were discovered but definitely no widespread communist infiltration) or the Witch Trials (result, no witches discovered because they don’t exist, but a small number of people were killed and a community next to destroyed.)

For the billions spent since 9/11, what do we have as a result? Everybody gets to hang about in airports in their socks. Catching Bin Laden has been forgotten. And the TSA is out of control.

I Blame Bush! March 6, 2008 8:23 PM

On July 1, a dozen citizens of Phoenix were arrested and charged with being members of the “Viper Militia.” The next day, President Clinton stood on the White House lawn. saying. “I’d like to begin today by saluting the enforcement officers who made arrests in Arizona yesterday to avert a terrible terrorist attack.” But as the indictments are made available to the public and more evidence about the Vipers’ activities emerges, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Viper case is merely the government’s latest assault on citizens exercising their Second Amendment rights. No “terrorist attack,” terrible or otherwise, was planned or even mentioned in the charges. In fact, as the indictments show, the Vipers’ supposedly criminal acts consist merely of (a) the day’s work of a “well-regulated militia,” (b) petty tax violations, and (c) ownership of books, magazines, and insignia (shoulder patches) which are, of course, constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. Furthermore, whenever the indictment refers to a plan for a genuinely criminal act, it appears to have been instigated by ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) infiltrators and rejected by the membership.

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