Last week, with the rest of the world transfixed by the worldly exit of John Paul II, FOX News hit its viewers with ticker shock. Would-be suicide bombers, two teenage girls, had been arrested in New York... Suicide bombers...Suicide bombers.....New York, New York...
The topic continued in heavy rotation on FOX as the network repeatedly mined a short, cryptic story in The New York Times for the scant facts of the case. FOX then turned to its tried-and-true newsburger helper, calling in former government officials to "analyze" events. One former CIA chap found a priori that the case showed just how lucky we were to have the PATRIOT Act on the books.
Actually, the fortunate part was that FOX overkill helped keep a telling story from disappearing down the memory hole. The case illustrates both the continuing gulf between America's counter-terror operations and what should be a great asset for them—America's immigrant communities—and the tendency for every investigation in the U.S. to grow a terror angle.
There are two possibilities at play in the New York case. One is that a Bangladeshi 16-year-old and a Guinean girl she barely knew were, in fact, on the road to some horrific terror attack, recruited to kill themselves and others exactly because of the their seeming innocence. It has certainly happened elsewhere in the world.
But even in that instance, U.S. counter-terror efforts pretty much whiffed. It was the Bangladeshi girl's father, desperate to stop his daughter from eloping with some strange Michigan boy, who called in local police for help. Of course, that very bad idea loosed the awful wheels of both social service and immigration investigations on the Muslim family. At some indeterminate point investigators came upon an essay concerning suicide on the girl's computer or in a notebook. Cue the FBI, which if the girl's mother can be believed, represented itself as some sort of domestic counseling outfit when several agents visited the girl's home in Queens to question her about her politics. A couple weeks later immigration officials took the girl into custody.
The girl's mother also told the Times in a followup story that after she was in custody FBI agents interrogated the girl by telling her that unless she confessed her terrorist ties, her youngest American-born siblings, one 11 years old and the other 4 months, would wind up in foster care after her parents were sent back to Bangladesh.
Then there is the possibility that the girls are not, in fact, suicide bombers in-waiting. That instead the Bangladeshi girl is like millions of American teens who talk, think, and even write about suicide without actually planning to off themselves. Add the Muslim angle and current events and it would be a wonder if she didn't at least reflect on what it all means. The girl from Guinea seems to have merely said hello to the Bangladeshi girl while both were being held by immigration authorities. Bomber + hello = plotter.
Of course, government officials may have developed all kinds of other evidence that the public has not and will never see—recorded conversations, email trails, and the like. Homeland Security is already on the case, asserting that any disclosure of the details surrounding what is still an immigration case "places investigative strategies and methods at substantial risk."
With facts locked up, that's leaves rank speculation, so let's roll with that. It is a fact that there is now great worry among U.S. intelligence services that their operations have been penetrated by counter-agents, possibly some sympathetic to, or outright members of, terrorist groups. One of the few ways to counter such efforts is to recruit your own agents from within the same immigrant communities. You would want to get them young and get leverage over them. Immigration violations give you leverage.
Absent the release of some real, tangible evidence of terrorist ties in this case, the atmospherics indicate the FBI's counterterrorism unit in New York is monitoring immigration cases for vulnerable Muslim immigrants to flip into agents, or at least squeeze, for intelligence gathering purposes. We can disagree about the need to flip vulnerable Muslim immigrants into agents, and about the long-term effects of such tactics, but at least it would be a coherent policy with some rational goal.
The nagging fear, however, is that the domestic War on Terror has metastasized into a full-on witch hunt, rationality be damned. Literally any human endeavor which arouses any governmental interest can now be tossed into the terror bin without a second thought. Thus government officials may have no secret evidence on the girls and yet still think they have nabbed two terrorists.
A Baltimore man recently found out that the mental state of government agents matters a great deal when he paid for a car stereo at Best Buy with $2 bills. The Secret Service was called into investigate possible counterfeiting—counterfeiting in the service of a terror plot.
"It's a sign that we're all a little nervous in the post-9/11 world," a police spokesman later explained. Not to mention crazy.