A new article for the Guardian exploring an issue I have had knocking around my head for a while, the issue of the use of informants in U.S. terror cases. It is a complex question, as it is hard to know what the alternative is sometimes. Being on the Guardian’s website, this has awakened a storm of comments on their page, some of which are rational but many are pretty off-the-wall. Once I have gotten over my current large writing hump I will try to return to this subject in some sort of a more academically useful way. Any pointers for longer pieces on this topic would be warmly welcomed.
Is entrapping low-level wannabe jihadists with elaborate FBI sting operations the best way of handling domestic radicals?
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 30 November 2010 18.30 GMT
Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who has been dubbed ‘the Christmas tree bomber’, after his arrest in an FBI sting operation for attempting to carry out a terrorist attack in Portland Oregon. Photograph: AP Photo
The latest attempt by an American Muslim to wreak havoc in America is a depressing indictment of two things: of the fact that there continue to be young Americans eager to kill their fellow citizens in the name of extremist ideas, and of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s eagerness to launch counter-intelligence operations to trap such people.Attorney General Holder may be correct that “there is no entrapment here, and no entrapment claim will be found to be successful,” but what is unclear is the degree to which efforts to catch people may well be exacerbating the problem.
In the UK, counter-terrorism experts mutter sniffily about how such an approach would never stand up in a British court of law. And in some recent cases, one has to wonder. Farooque Ahmed, a Pakistani-American, appears to have been the only active plotter in a network of FBI informants who claimed to be al-Qaida. Ahmed thought he was plotting with them to launch a series of bombings on underground stations in Washington, DC, when, in fact, he was the only person whose intent was genuine among a unit of paid informants.
Now, there is the case of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year-old Somali-American who drove and attempted to detonate a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon. Having attempted to make repeated contact with what he believed were extremists in Pakistan, Mahmud was finally contacted by a FBI agent who led him to believe that he was a fellow extremist. The two met in July 2010, and Osman appears to have decided this person was acceptably radical and to share violent ideas with him.
What follows is a scenario that is increasingly familiar in the US: the agents worked with the young man essentially to help him assemble a plot that would demonstrate his intent to carry out an attack in the US. Throughout court documents published after arrest, it is clear that agents made sure the individual knew what he was getting himself into, and what the likely consequences would be (innocent people would die). And at no point does the individual decide that, actually, this is something he would rather not do.
Instead, he continues down the path until, at a certain point, police decide that they have enough evidence and he is arrested. This has happened previously with Hosam Maher Husein Smadi and James Cromitie and his cell. In those cases, individuals are currently serving long jail terms, and given the weight of evidence that doubtless includes a lot of incriminating recordings, it is likely that Farooque and Mahmud are going to be following them.
But is this really a strategy that is improving the situation in the United States? Domestic radicalisation in the US is of increasing concern to American security planners, and rightly so, but such arrests have a questionable security benefit.
First of all, it is worth taking a step back to look at whether these individuals would have necessarily attempted to carry out their actions if it was not for the support of the network of agents who tasked with monitoring them. If these individuals continued as lone radicals who were unable to find individuals of equal determination to pursue a violent path, would they necessarily have attempted to carry out an attack?
As has been shown by Marc Sageman and others, domestic Islamist terrorists tend to be more effective (that is, dangerous) if they have others to bounce their ideas off. When we add to this the fact that, often, it is the security agents in the situation who have provided (or are offering to provide) the weapons or explosives, then this phenomenon is surely further accelerated.
Second, it seems of questionable utility to be continually incarcerating the sorts of individuals caught in these FBI stings. In the case of Mahmud, at least two undercover agents and numerous others’ time was used in catching him; while in Farooque’s case, at least three agents were directly involved. In either instance, might it not have been a more productive use of agents’ time simply to scare the individual off his chosen path with a menacing warning, rather than bothering with this long and expensive investigation? In neither case did they seem to have anything beyond peripheral contact with actual extremists. Had they been warned off, they might have ceased their efforts.
Of course, it can be argued that the harsh reaction to these individuals could be a purposeful effort by American services to send a strong deterrence message. But operations like these have been going on for years, and we continue to see new domestic radicals pop up.
It is also true that the US authorities are understandably concerned about the increase in unpredictable, “sole agent” attackers at home: Hassan Malik Nidal and Abdulhakim Mujahid are merely two of a number of Americans to have been drawn to Anwar al-Awlaki’s message of personalised jihad. Alongside aspirant attackers Faisal Shazhad or Umar Faruk Abdulmutallab, who had some connections but acted alone, these men all appear to have operated in a vacuum, which the FBI had missed prior to their murderous attacks. That precedent is rightly alarming.
Still, questions must be raised about the value and utility of capturing such low-level aspirants as Farooque or Mahmud, who are both likely to receive long terms of incarceration at great expense to the taxpayer. Another way to address the threat might be to actively dissuade such individuals from getting involved in terrorist activity. This approach has not always met with success in the past: the British services made themselves known to Abu Qatada, Abu Hamza and other radicals in London, but this contact did not dissuade them from radicalising aplenty and supporting jihad internationally. But this still might be a more productive avenue in dealing with low-level aspirants (as opposed to hardened militant preachers), as an effective alternative to elaborate sting operations.
After all, both Farooque and Mahmud were gullible enough to believe that individuals they first met online were hardcore al-Qaida supporters – these are strictly amateurs. A dramatic intervention coupled with local monitoring could result in just as much security benefit, at a considerably lower cost. This strategy would have the bonus effect of helping to thin out the increasing number of Muslim “martyrs” sitting in American jails. Their growing presence suggests that lengthy incarceration has little, if any deterrent effect on America’s homegrown jihadis.