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.