Alternatives to the FBI's Manufacturing of Terrorists

John Mueller suggests an alternative to the FBI’s practice of encouraging terrorists and then arresting them for something they would have never have planned on their own:

The experience with another case can be taken to suggest that there could be an alternative, and far less costly, approach to dealing with would-be terrorists, one that might generally (but not always) be effective at stopping them without actually having to jail them.

It involves a hothead in Virginia who ranted about jihad on Facebook, bragging about how “we dropped the twin towers.” He then told a correspondent in New Orleans that he was going to bomb the Washington, D.C. Metro the next day. Not wanting to take any chances and not having the time to insinuate an informant, the FBI arrested him. Not surprisingly, they found no bomb materials in his possession. Since irresponsible bloviating is not illegal (if it were, Washington would quickly become severely underpopulated), the police could only charge him with a minor crime—making an interstate threat. He received only a good scare, a penalty of time served and two years of supervised release.

That approach seems to have worked: the guy seems never to have been heard from again. It resembles the Secret Service’s response when they get a tip that someone has ranted about killing the president. They do not insinuate an encouraging informant into the ranter’s company to eventually offer crucial, if bogus, facilitating assistance to the assassination plot. Instead, they pay the person a Meaningful Visit and find that this works rather well as a dissuasion device. Also, in the event of a presidential trip to the ranter’s vicinity, the ranter is visited again. It seems entirely possible that this approach could productively be applied more widely in terrorism cases. Ranting about killing the president may be about as predictive of violent action as ranting about the virtues of terrorism to deal with a political grievance. The terrorism cases are populated by many such ranters­—indeed, tips about their railing have frequently led to FBI involvement. It seems likely, as apparently happened in the Metro case, that the ranter could often be productively deflected by an open visit from the police indicating that they are on to him. By contrast, sending in a paid operative to worm his way into the ranter’s confidence may have the opposite result, encouraging, even gulling, him toward violence.

Posted on April 10, 2015 at 10:33 AM37 Comments


paul April 10, 2015 11:05 AM

I wonder if it depends on your threat model. Most people who talk about wanting to kill the president are perceived as lone nutters (or small, disconnected groups of nutters). In contrast most people who talk about wanting to commit acts of “islamic”terrorism are perceived as being agents of a sophisticated, well-funded global conspiracy.

And longstanding law-enforcement practice when dealing with large criminal enterprises is to infiltrate them with informers and suborn/pressure low-level members in search of connections leading to the Big Fish. Letting the low-level members know their cover has been blown just leads to their replacement by other low-level members, and doesn’t provide investigators with any leverage.

Of course, if the people in question are simply lone nutters then you’ve wasted a large pile of time and money that could have been used to investigate real conspiracies, but at least you’ve supported “reliable informants” and gotten publicity, arrests and convictions that might have been more difficult to get if you were going after a sophisticate global operation.

(Note that there doesn’t have to be any malice aforethought here. Simple application of “objective” criteria for praise, promotion and resource allocation will lead to application of the big-conspiracy threat model on an ever wider basis.)

Peter Galbavy April 10, 2015 11:09 AM

Being seen to bring down a real terror cell and potential threat is a big win for agencies looking to maintain their own importance and funding. Keeping the wires quiet is just BAU.

Pressure for change has to come from above, not within. This applies just as much over here in the UK as it does is the US.

David Leppik April 10, 2015 11:27 AM

@paul: I suspect that in this day and age, the real threat is not coordinated plots, but Lone Nutter Training Camps, which is part of what we now call “radicalization.”

I don’t have any facts, but my guess is most of the radicalization right now is to recruit people for local conflicts (i.e. getting westerners to do dirty work in the Middle East) but in the process giving them training and motivation that would help them do crazy stuff if they return to the US.

Either way, the only difficult, expensive part of the 9/11 attacks was finding enough people who were crazy/radical enough to be willing to train for a suicide mission, but sane/normal enough to not get caught. That’s a psychological game. If the people involved thought that law enforcement was keeping a close eye on them, things probably would have happened differently.

Justin Bowler April 10, 2015 11:43 AM

I suspect that appearance is a big part of the equation.

Being able to publicly arrest people and parade them into a court room provides concrete proof that the FBI is doing something. If all of the terrorism threats were stopped in a nice quiet way, then it would be harder to argue for continued funding, irregardless of how unsustainable that funding may be. (Different topic)

Also, aside form the funding issue, there is real deterrent threat in the public arrest and shaming.

Jim April 10, 2015 12:43 PM

Here’s an alternate take from my highly cynical self:

I think this misses the point of the FBI’s tactic of insinuation & encouragement. The point is not actually to stop terrorism or thwart terrorist activities or attacks. The point is to keep the never ending funding spigot open as widely as possible. Long operations involving undercover agents require more funding than a knock at the door. Therefore, the tactic that provides the most funding to the FBI over the long term wins out. End of story.

Ahmed William Xiang-Gonzalez April 10, 2015 12:52 PM

The problem with the solution Bruce outlines here are two fold. 1.) FBI can’t justify budget increases when they don’t incarcerate, ahem, “terrorists.” 2.) The dissuasive visits just make sense.

Daniel April 10, 2015 12:58 PM

I agree with James’ first point.

“there is real deterrent threat in the public arrest and shaming.”

Oh wait, you’re serious. Let me laugh even harder. People who are deterred by appearances are not people who were genuine threats in the first place.

Me April 10, 2015 1:04 PM

“I wonder if it depends on your threat model.”

It truly does, you see, if the threat model was actually keeping people safe, they would Pay Visits.

However, the threat model is “not getting enough funding”, thus the need to be seen “preventing terrorist plots.”

Juan Pablo Nunez April 10, 2015 1:06 PM

The FBI made a meaningful visit to the dead Tsarnaev brother.

It may work to stop the FBI practice of transforming meaningless threats into meaningless terrorists, which is good, but it may not necessarily stop the actual terrorists.

At least it’d free funds to do something actually useful.

NKVD April 10, 2015 1:19 PM

Yeah, why manufacture a terrorist, wheedle and cajole him, egg him on, when you can just frame him?

Tam Tsarnaev couldn’t cut a fart without generating FBI paperwork. But domesticated CIA judge O’Tool kept the records secret. The defense had “information from our client’s family and other sources that the FBI made more than one visit to talk with Anzor, Zubeidat and Tamerlan, questioned Tamerlan about his internet searches, and asked him to be an informant, reporting on the Chechen and Muslim community…the defense has learned of the FBI’s contacts with Tamerlan through other sources (including hearsay references contained in FBI 302s from various community sources.”

As for stoner kid brother Jokar, he had his own deep-cover provocateur: “What do you want to be? Sniper? Pyro? Engineer? Knowledge to become imam? Imam Tsarnaev? Spy?”

The heartbreaking part – after all that frantic instigation of incriminating intent, What do they turn up?

The kid aspired to an Ivy League degree.

Bob T April 10, 2015 2:37 PM

I don’t have any sympathy for someone who goes along with a plot to commit a terrorist act whether it’s encourage by the FBI or a terrorist organization. I’m no friend of the federal government, but I wouldn’t be joining in a terrorist plot. Secondly, the statement that “they would never have planned on their own,” is not a known fact.

Now let’s suppose that the government became so oppressive that I reached my breaking point and joined a violet failed effort to overthrow the government. I would expect no less than to be treated very severely. So these bozos know what’s at stake when they participate in this activity.

A Nonny Bunny April 10, 2015 3:15 PM

@Bob T

Secondly, the statement that “they would never have planned on their own,” is not a known fact.

True. Nor is it a known fact that they would have.
What is a known fact, is that people are easily influenced to do things they otherwise would not have when people goad them on.

albert April 10, 2015 3:31 PM

@Bob T,
Would that be the ‘Violet Brigade’?
I jest (but it would be a cool name).
One just doesn’t do those things unless one is oblivious to the outcome (which is becoming a ‘street justice’* situation in many cases). The danger for any gov’t becomes serious when the majority of the Unwashed Masses actually believe they have nothing to lose, and really accept death/incarceration as an alternative. The Controllers fear is proportional to the ratio of military/police to the general population. I cite China and India as examples.
This is the risk Controllers take: repression leads to blowback. They are out of touch with the UMs, don’t care about them, and their collective arrogance blinds their judgement. I have no sympathy for folks who allow themselves to be sucked in to FBI plots, and I will have no sympathy for the Elite when the Revolution comes.

Bob T April 10, 2015 3:50 PM

@A Nonny Bunny

What is a known fact, is that people are easily influenced to do things they otherwise would not have when people goad them on.

Fair enough. But most people wouldn’t do it whether they were “goaded” on or not. What’s to say that they wouldn’t have been easily goaded on or recruited by real terrorists. Someone who is already at the point of joining an FBI fake plot, is probably hanging around radical sites and boards catching the eye of radicals who would just love to make him a patsy. This isn’t about the NSA doing wholesale eaves dropping on everyone. This is someone voluntarily joining a conspiracy to commit a crime.


Would that be the ‘Violet Brigade’?

Too funny! I’ll have to keep that in mind if I ever start a revolution. Although I won’t be able to personally take part in any revolutionary activities, as I have a bad back… Okay, so that’s from “The Life of Brian.” What a great line.

anonymous April 10, 2015 3:54 PM

Such “dissuasion visits” will have also been used to suppress and censor dissidents of the technocorporate fascist kleptocracy.

Clive Robinson April 10, 2015 5:24 PM

@ Bob T,

But most people wouldn’t do it whether they were”goaded” on or not.

Sorry but history shows otherwise, which is why we have the old saw of “Everybody has their price”, what people forget is the price may not be money.

The FBI and ISIS amongst others are fairly good at finding ways to put the emotional screws on people. If that fails the FBI is in a position to use other motivations especially on those that have things to lose or believe they do (like having themselves or their loved ones deported etc).

We also know from the likes of the Stockholm Syndrome that people can compleatly change their ideology and morals in life in a very short period of time.

And we currently see young teenage girls quickly become radicalised and lie to the parents and close friends to fly a quater of the way around the world to willingly become “jihadi brides”.

Thus it’s fairly clear that there is a significant percentage of people quite willingly doing the opposite of what you say…

And that’s the point the FBI like ISIS are on the lookout for such people, and there are enough who can and will be “groomed”. The main and important difference is that whilst ISIS can do little outside of the middle east, the FBI and other Government agencies can do just about anything they wish including making people disappear via Special Administrative Measures etc.

Ask yourself a question as to if you could tell if the FBI were forcing you into being an informant, or using the same process to turn you into a fall guy?

As others have noted the FBI amongst many other Government agencies need terrorists to exist in order to justify their own existance…

GNE April 10, 2015 5:41 PM

@Bob T “This is someone voluntarily joining a conspiracy”

Not always. Tam Tsarnaev had to be dragged kicking and screaming even to get him in place for the frame-up. He knew what he was in for – a friendly spook had a word with him and warned him. The Waltham murder did a lot of the coercive heavy lifting to get him all set up.

Tam did not suffer in silence. Multiple sources establish Tam’s unwillingness. FBI expelled some, vindictively prosecuted others, and murdered one. Sadly for FBI, they have failed to mop up all the evidence. This mass murder will come home to roost at a very awkward time.

Sancho_P April 10, 2015 5:45 PM

A society living up to secret actions against the(ir) people will fail.

Open. Bold. Honest.

There is no crime, no ruse, no trick, no fraud, no vice which does not live by secrecy. Bring this secrets to light, unveil and ridicule them to everybody. Sooner or later the public opinion will sweep them out.
Publication may not be enough – but it is the only means without all other attempts will fail.

(Joseph Pulitzer 1847-1911)

[Apologize my attempt to translate, didn’t find that in English]

George April 10, 2015 7:34 PM

The real problem is the reality that, regardless of how devastating it can be when it occurs, terrorism in the United States is so rare that its actual presence isn’t enough to justify a large bureaucracy fighting an endless War that achieves only the destruction of the Bill of Rights. Thus, the FBI and the rest of the security apparatus have an inherent self-serving need to regularly encourage, promote, and even manufacture terrorist plots. That way, the FBI can justify its existence and effectiveness in fighting the War, while (perhaps more importantly) renewing the public’s fear of terrorism that makes most of us willing to surrender ever more liberty and privacy.

It’s the same way to the way the federal government has become the largest purveyor of child pornography. That’s because postal inspectors and prosecutors need to run elaborate sting operations to haul in an appropriate quota of child pornography possessors. Without the sting operations and all the child pornography they need to distribute, there wouldn’t be enough pedophiles to provide full employment for all the officials who seek a career in “protecting children.”

Of course, I’m not denying the genuine threat and real harm done by terrorists and exploiters of children. I’m merely noting that the actual level of those threats would not be enough to fully serve the needs of the bureaucracies that exist to counter those threats, without those bureaucracies actively seeking to promote the threats.

That’s an argument for transparency and oversight to ensure that the bureaucracies serve the public interest rather than their inherent desire to expand their scope and budgets. And also to ensure that the efforts of those bureaucracies are actually effective and cost-effective (those costs are in liberty and privacy as well as dollars). Unfortunately, the bureaucracies charged with fighting the War on Terror are mostly exempt from transparency, oversight, and the rule of law itself. That situation surely serves the bureaucracies very well, but it probably doesn’t serve the public interest.

Thoth April 10, 2015 11:22 PM

United States of America simply sponsors and encourages “Terror” without a doubt. They encourage global conflicts and global problems.

A Nonny Bunny April 11, 2015 6:27 AM

@Bob T

What’s to say that they wouldn’t have been easily goaded on or recruited by real terrorists.

That’s a fair point, if the FBI can convince them to engage in a plot, so could a terrorist(-recruiter).

But it’s not (I should hope) the FBI’s task to create terrorists for them to stop and catch. So rather than gently (or not) push someone over the edge, they should do the opposite. And if they can’t dissuade someone, apply surveillance and wait till someone crosses the line on their own — and also go after the recruiters.

The goal, after all, should be to have the least number of terrorists and not having the greatest number of “terrorists” behind bars. Unfortunately the latter is a far easier metric to flaunt, and to justify a budget with.
(This reminds me of the story of rat-catchers that started breeding rats, because they were paid for each animal caught.)

theodore April 11, 2015 8:19 AM

Bob T: “Now let’s suppose that the government became so oppressive that I reached my breaking point and joined a violet failed effort to overthrow the government. I would expect no less than to be treated very severely.”

Bob, be more positive, when this country needs to have another revolution to survive, then I’d certainly expect those of us that join it to expect it to succeed. Anything else would just be hand-waving.

albert April 11, 2015 10:12 AM

@Bob T

“…as I have a bad back…” That sounds so Woody Allen.
As long as we understand we’re talking about PSYOPS here (see for career ideas).
Father Knows Best; eat your spinach and get ready for bed….brush your teeth and you can watch TV for a while. Do your homework, and we’ll go see “The Thing”* at the Ritz.

* “The Thing From Another World” (1951). not the crappy ’82 remake.

65535 April 11, 2015 3:59 PM

It appears that Mueller and others in the FBI who are manufacturing Terrorists should be put under psychiatric evaluation immediately. They are not thinking correctly. They have no business in their current positions of power.

Steve April 11, 2015 4:37 PM

@NKVD: Citing The Centre for Research on Globalisation (aka Global Research) for anything means that you are almost assuredly wrong. As points out, “Global Research mostly consists of polemics many of which accept (and use) conspiracy theories, pseudoscience and propaganda. The prevalent conspiracist strand relates to global power-elites (primarily governments and corporations) and their New World Order. Specific featured conspiracy theories include those addressing 9/11, vaccines, genetic modification, Zionism, HAARP, global warming, Bosnian genocide denialism chemtrails, and David Kelly.”

Securitate April 11, 2015 6:44 PM

Aha, Steve, NKVD taps your knee with the rubber hammer and BOING goes the official CIA ‘Conspiracy!!’ reflex. That article is cross-posted from, a source that runs rings around the hollowed-out glavlit outlets they abandoned., for its part, frequently prints actual documents that you’ll never find in the state-condoned press. Obtruding documented fact is why global research is so rabidly attacked by the statists.

Since your attack on the source was a swing-and-a-miss, would you care to address the documentary evidence presented? You are free to disprove that the US government ran Tam Tsarnaev as an agent before they killed him.

While you’re at it – since you bring it up – why don’t you substantiate the party line on 911? No one seems to buy it.

Snarki, child of Loki April 12, 2015 10:33 AM

Remember kids, if someone approaches you, claiming to be an AQ “operative”, you should immediately shoot them in the head, just to be safe.

…and you will have EXACTLY as much legal justification as the drone strike on al-Alawki.

Rex84 April 12, 2015 9:43 PM

“For Tesla and Nevada, success will depend on quickly deploying a skilled workforce of many more.

Tesla’s agreement to a $1.3 billion incentive package to build its factory set off a frenzy to prepare Nevadans for the jobs their taxes are now subsidizing at a rate of $190,000 per position.”–in-many-fashions/2015/04/10/50e9de40-d4c8-11e4-a62f-ee745911a4ff_story.html

Cybernetics made brains cheap like industrialism did to arms, so we have cheap genius. Beating terrorism? Give colleges $190,000 per student. Build new campuses and expand old ones. Create more robots to battle terrorists.

Pseudonym April 12, 2015 11:09 PM

You know what’s even more effective than this? Community policing.

Think of this as any other crime. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we’re not talking about Muslim Americans, but some other marginalised community which has a disproportionate number of people without a strong social support structure, poor, unemployed, and so on. People in this community are at higher risk of becoming criminals. But not “terrorism” as it’s been misdefined; let suppose it’s gang-related activity.

If you identify people within this community before they become criminals, surely the right thing to do is work with the community to divert them away from crime.

It makes for fewer sensationalist headlines, but it’s more effective in stopping crime, because you get to the criminal before they become a criminal in the first place.

Rex84 April 13, 2015 12:09 AM

Special effects and no story
Yes man, run like a thief

Workin’ it
Workin’ it

Well, you don’t know who the enemy is
You don’t know
You don’t know who the enemy is

“No one should ever work.

Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost all the evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.

That doesn’t mean we have to stop doing things. It does mean creating a new way of life based on play; in other words, a ludic revolution. By “play” I mean also festivity, creativity, conviviality, commensality, and maybe even art. There is more to play than child’s play, as worthy as that is. I call for a collective adventure in generalized joy and freely interdependent exuberance. Play isn’t passive. Doubtless we all need a lot more time for sheer sloth and slack than we ever enjoy now, regardless of income or occupation, but once recovered from employment-induced exhaustion nearly all of us [will] want [to] act. Oblomovism and Stakhanovism are two sides of same debased coin.”

We could gamify it all! It’s open season. We have work failing and the whole system designed for massive failure.

“If that occurs, we are going to find out very quickly that the corporation, and particularly tech companies, are particularly bad organizations for warfare. One reason is that they are too centralized. In particular, the institution of the CEO is a grave weakness (a systempunkt in global guerrilla lingo). The CEO’s centrality to the corporate network makes him/her a single point of failure for the entire organization.”

GreenSquirrel April 13, 2015 7:29 AM

But most people wouldn’t do it whether they were “goaded” on or not. What’s to say that they wouldn’t have been easily goaded on or recruited by real terrorists.

Fair argument but the reality is that it is better to prevent them being goaded by real terrorists rather than goad then arrest them.

As Clive has mentioned, the reality is most people can be co-opted into doing things they would have never previously believed. The security services use it to convince hardened terrorists to become informants, the intelligence agencies use it to convince loyal citizens to become spies etc.

The process is very rarely turn up, ask to do BadThing, BadThing gets done. It is normally a long period of slowly modifying the targets perceptions until the BadThing becomes a logical next step.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, is vulnerable to this.

There are a lot of books covering the studies on how tiny steps take us away from the path we thought we were on.

We knew in Northern Ireland, three decades ago, that we were creating our out terrorist actors and had to change things drastically to stop it. It seems that the FBI isn’t yet there.

And, to go back to the original point, unlike most terrorists, remember that the FBI are trained and experienced in modifying the targets perceptions to achieve a set goal. Terrorists tend to be shouty, angry, ranting people….

Dr Dan H. April 15, 2015 5:40 AM

This sort of action by a purported security agency is actually nothing at all new. The Gunpowder Plot in England seems likely to have been a very similar sort of plot, whereby a few hot-headed but generally incompetent plotters were intentionally led by the hand, encouraged, given a competent agent and generally assisted in the near-commission of a crime.

Once again, the reason was the same: the King’s Spy-catcher had a problem in that he was very, very good at his job. Most spies either gave up the spying game as a bad job, turned double agent or got caught. Catholic sympathisers were quite common, but all sensible ones were very scared and all the daft ones were either manifestly incompetent blow-hards or currently occupying dungeons.

This represented a problem for a man whose job rested upon there being a creditable threat to the life of the King and to the Kingdom at large. He badly needed a terrorist plot to justify his salary, and it would appear that he selected just about the only bunch of would-be terrorists daft enough not to smell a rat, and supplied them with a certain Guido Fawkes (just back home in England from the wars in continental Europe, so not familiar with the certainty of getting nabbed if detected plotting against the King) who was an explosives expert, and seemingly not a known face in the world of Catholic sympathisers.

The Spy-Catcher then carefully nurtured this plot, though it should be noted that the gunpowder supplied was Government-issue and so poorly made and stored that it mostly wouldn’t ignite (a supply problem quietly cured after the events of the plot), so clearly the man wasn’t taking too many chances. The plot almost succeeded, although one might say that it completely succeeded as poor old Guido got caught and a confession tortured out of him; he and his hapless co-conspiritors died the death of incautious revolutionaries, and the spy-catcher kept his sinecure.

E. April 19, 2015 11:06 AM

Haven’t we been doing this for years? I thought we just called it “psychiatric hospitalization” and “outpatient treatment” instead of “supervised parole.”

I’m not sure it actually prevents violence, but it cuts people off from their communities quite effectively. If you want to prevent an idea from spreading and/or send a message, it’s the way to go.

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