Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has claimed many victories in the war on terror.
Each time a domestic terror suspect is arrested, the public is told that another horrific plot has been averted.
But after combing through thousands of pages of court documents, investigative journalist Trevor Aaronson came to a different conclusion -- that most of the men arrested could never have done what they were accused of if the FBI hadn’t given them the tools to do so.
In his new book, "The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism," Aaronson argues that the U.S. government is responsible for "hatching and financing more terrorist plots in the United States than any other group." He spoke to RFE/RL’s Heather Maher.
RFE/RL: You began your research by asking whether the FBI is “busting terrorist plots -- or leading them?” What did you find out?
The FBI is looking for what they term "a lone wolf terrorist," which is someone holed up in an apartment somewhere who sympathizes with Al-Qaeda but may lack the specific means to do that. And so the FBI uses sting operations to [find] these people -- these people who may want to commit an act of terrorism, are right on that line from moving from sympathizer to operator -- and then through these sting operations, lure them out and get them involved in a terrorism plot that they’re ultimately prosecuted for.
But what I found is that of these cases, we can point to a handful of real, dangerous terrorists, like Faisal Shahzad, who came close to bombing [New York's] Times Square, or Najibullah Zazi, who came close to bombing the New York City subway system. But so many more of them, more than 150 people, were these men who were caught in sting operations who never had the means and, in some cases, never had the idea for the terrorism plot, and it was the FBI that provided them with everything -- the bomb, the transportation, everything they needed to move forward in a terrorism plot that on their own, they never would have been able to do.
And certainly evidence suggests that in most of these cases, they never had any specific connections to terrorism. So it’s really hard to believe that they ever would have had or acquired the means to commit some sort of act of terrorism.
RFE/RL: How do these FBI sting operations go down?
In a terrorism sting operation, the FBI informant or undercover agent poses as an Al-Qaeda operative or an operative of another terrorist group and says to the target, "You know, I have what you need if you want to move forward on a terrorist plot. I can provide the bomb, I can provide the transportation, everything you need I can give you."
And when they move forward in that plot, when they get the bomb together, and they put it in a car, and they drive it to a location and the target of the sting operation dials the cell phone that he believes is going to detonate the bomb and kill dozens of people, he’s then arrested. And so in sting operations, essentially the government becomes part of the plot and then ultimately prosecutes the target of the sting operation based on his involvement in that plot, the actions that he took as part of that plot.
RFE/RL: You write that key to these sting operations are informants who find terror sympathizers and bring them to the FBI’s attention. Who are these informants and what’s in it for them?
The FBI has an unprecedented number of informants -- there’s a total of 15,000 informants. And they are paid -- in some cases handsomely; $100,000 in some cases, $400,000 in a case in California – they are paid to find people who are interested in committing an act of terrorism, people who are espousing some sort of violence, who say they want to commit some sort of violent act but may not have the means to do that, and it’s their job to target them and to get them involved in these sting operations.
But the problem I found in a lot of these cases is that there’s a real question of whether the informant is actually a worse criminal than the target of the sting operation could ever be. In these sting operations, the FBI has used drug dealers frequently as informants; they’ve used an accused murderer, in a Seattle case; they’ve used a child molester -- people who are just odious in every way. And they also have a direct incentive to find terrorists and see them prosecuted because they can make so much money as informants.
So when they enter mosques and they look for people who are interested in committing acts of terrorism, they know there’s a lot of money riding on it for them to find that person. And as a result of that, what they’re ultimately finding in most of these cases are people on the fringes of society who are economically desperate, in some cases mentally ill, and these are people who are easily susceptible to a strong-willed informant.
RFE/RL: Is the FBI’s informant program at all related to the New York City Police Department operation that paid informants to infiltrate mosques and spy on Muslims?
While they’re not connected, there are a lot of similarities. The New York Police Department used taxi shields as leverage to recruit informants from within New York City Muslim communities. The FBI does a similar thing, but instead of using taxi shields, they use immigration. So, many of the informants who have been recruited from Muslim communities since 9/11 have been recruited under duress; that is, the FBI comes to them and says, "Unless you work with us, you may face deportation." Or, "‘We know your family wants to come over from Syria, or Lebanon, and unless you work with us, that’s not going to happen."
(Editor's note: The Associated Press, which broke the story
of the NYPD program, reported the following:
“Early in the intelligence division's transformation, police asked the taxi commission to run a report on all the city's Pakistani cab drivers, looking for those who got licenses fraudulently and might be susceptible to pressure to cooperate, according to former officials who were involved in or briefed on the effort.”)
RFE/RL: How does the "entrapment" argument play in court? And are you the only journalist scrutinizing the FBI’s approach to terrorism?
In all of these cases, the issue of entrapment is front and center. And so far the courts have been unwilling to agree that these are entrapment cases. We’ve had 11 defendants go to trial so far and formally argue entrapment, and none has been successful. At the same time, I think you’re beginning to see a growing skepticism, criticism of these cases by the press.
For example, when the U.S. government announces these cases, they often announce how horrific and awful the plot would have been had it moved forward and really downplay the fact that the people accused of the crime never could have committed it on their own. And it’s taken a long time, but now we’re beginning to see a real criticism of these cases by the media.
RFE/RL: Your book has been out a few weeks now. Has the FBI reacted, either directly or indirectly?
The only official response of sorts was a [book] review by a former [FBI] agent, Ali Soufan, who wrote a review of my book in “The Wall Street Journal” that was very critical. And Ali Soufan’s response to my book is typical of the FBI’s response, which is to say that there are real dangerous terrorists out there and these sting operations get them off the street.
But the problem with that is that Ali Soufan, in his review, and other agents I’ve talked to, consistently cite Faisal Shahzad, for example -- he’s the man who came close to bombing Times Square -- or Najibullah Zazi, who came close to bombing the subway system. They cite these men as examples of real terrorists and why sting operations are so necessary.
But the problem with their argument, I think, is that neither of those men was actually caught in a terrorism sting operation. To date, we have yet to find the real would-be terrorist: Someone who was about to strike, who had the weapon, who had the means, who is thwarted by a sting operation.
(Editor’s note: RFE/RL requested comment from the U.S. Justice Department. Dean Boyd, a spokesman for its national security division, said he has not read Aaronson’s book, but he sent the following statement:
First, it is important to note that undercover sting operations have been used by law enforcement for decades to combat all types of crimes, including child pornography, public corruption, financial fraud, murder-for-hire, drug trafficking, and others.
Second, it should be noted that sting operations are just one of many different tools that law enforcement may use to neutralize a violent plot. Many counter-terrorism cases do not involve undercover operations. The use of this technique depends entirely on the facts and circumstances of each case and is determined during the course of the investigation. Undercover sting operations have been used, where appropriate, to thwart certain violent plots and protect the public.
Third, there are strict guidelines governing the use of undercover sting operations, which involve extensive legal reviews and senior-level approvals. Furthermore, U.S. laws provide a robust defense against entrapment. Legally, a person is entrapped when he or she is induced or persuaded by law enforcement to commit a crime that he or she had no previous intent to commit. Whenever an undercover operation is used in the counter-terrorism arena, the government works diligently to ensure that entrapment does not occur.
Fourth, there is a lengthy public record of guilty pleas and convictions in such cases. Federal courts and juries have overwhelmingly upheld the use of undercover operations in terrorism sting cases. While entrapment may routinely be cited as a defense in these cases, to date, no terrorism defendant since 9/11 has won acquittal using such a defense.
Finally, whenever an individual concocts a plan to commit violence – and is determined to follow through – law enforcement has an obligation to take action to protect the public. Allowing individuals intent on committing violence to proceed without a response is not an option, given that they may take action on their own or find others willing to assist them.)