Manufacturing Terrorists

Inside the FBI's terror sting operations.

The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War on Terrorism, by Trevor Aaronson, Ig Publishing, 256 pages, $24.95.

Imagine a country in which the government pays convicted con artists and criminals to scour minority religious communities for disgruntled, financially desperate, or mentally ill patsies who can be talked into joining fake terror plots, even if only for money. Imagine that the country's government then busts its patsies with great fanfare to justify ever-increasing authority and ever-increasing funding. According to journalist Trevor Aaronson's The Terror Factory, this isn't the premise for a Kafka novel; it's reality in the post-9/11 United States.

The Terror Factory is a well-researched and fast-paced exposé of the dubious tactics the FBI has used in targeting Muslim Americans with sting operations since 2001. The book updates and expands upon Aaronson's award-winning 2011 Mother Jones cover story, "The Informants." Most readers have likely heard about several alleged conspiracies to attack skyscrapers, synagogues, or subway stations, involving either individuals that the FBI calls "lone wolves" or small cells a credulous press tagged with such sinister appellations as the "Newburgh 4" or the "Liberty City 7." Many of these frightening plots were almost entirely concocted and engineered by the FBI itself, using corrupt agents provocateurs who often posed a far more serious criminal threat than the dim-witted saps the investigations targeted.

Drawing on court records and on interviews with the defendants, their lawyers, their families, and the FBI officials and prosecutors who oversaw the investigations, Aaronson portrays an agency that has adopted an "any means necessary" approach to its terrorism prevention efforts, regardless of whether there are real terrorists being caught. To the FBI, this imperative justifies recruiting informants with extensive criminal records, including convictions for fraud, violent crimes, and even child molestation, that in an earlier era would have disqualified them except in the most extraordinary circumstances.

In addition to providing leniency, if not forgiveness, for heinous crimes, the FBI pays these informants tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, creating a perverse incentive for them to ensnare dupes into terror plots. Aaronson quotes an FBI official defending this practice: "To catch the devil you have to go to hell."

Such an analysis might make sense when police leverage one criminal to gain information about more serious criminal conspiracies—in other words, to catch a real "devil." But Aaronson's research reveals that the targets in most of these sting operations clearly pose little real threat. They may have a history of angry anti-government rhetoric, but they take no steps toward terrorist acts until they receive encouragement and resources from government agents.

Aaronson takes pains to avoid portraying those caught in the stings as completely innocent of malice. But he demonstrates that they almost universally lack violent criminal histories or connections to real terrorist groups. Most importantly, while they may have talked about committing violent acts, they rarely had weapons of their own and lacked the financial means to acquire them. Yet the government provides them with military hardware that would cost thousands of dollars and would be extremely difficult for even sophisticated criminal organizations to obtain, only to bust them in a staged finale.

This aspect of Aaronson's narrative is most troubling to me, as a former FBI agent who worked undercover in domestic terrorism investigations before 9/11. My concern is partly that the artificially inflated scope of the threat in these cases appears to be specifically designed to overwhelm judges, jurors, and the general public, who might otherwise view these methods as illegal entrapment. Indeed, the judge in a case in which an informant offered a seemingly reluctant James Cromitie $250,000 to participate in his plot, severely criticized the investigation, stating: "Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope." Yet she let the jury's conviction stand and sentenced Cromitie to 25 years in prison. Of 150 defendants charged in these schemes, Aaronson documents only two acquittals. The majority plead guilty to mitigate draconian penalties. Law enforcement has no business staging theatrical productions that intentionally exaggerate the seriousness of a defendant's criminal conduct.

More unsettling is the flawed reasoning that drives the use of these methods. FBI agents have been inundated with bigoted training materials that falsely portray Arabs and Muslims as inherently violent. The FBI has also embraced an unfounded theory of "radicalization" that alleges a direct progression from adopting certain beliefs, or expressing opposition to U.S. policies, to becoming a terrorist. With such a skewed and biased view of the American Muslim community, the FBI's strategy of "preemption, prevention, and disruption" results in abusive surveillance, targeting, and exploitation of innocent people simply for exercising their First Amendment rights.

One area where Aaronson is off the mark, however, is in failing to recognize these tactics are neither new to the FBI nor exclusively used against Muslims. The FBI's earliest documented use of agents provocateurs was revealed during congressional investigations of labor "radicals," pacifists, and socialists in 1918. And the Church Committee's investigation of the FBI's COINTELPRO investigations revealed covert operations that targeted groups for First Amendment–protected activities from the 1950s through the 1970s.

In both cases, reform of these practices was implemented by restricting FBI intelligence activities and requiring a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before initiating investigations. Conversely, the rapid increase in sting operations under the Obama administration is directly attributable to some 2008 amendments to the FBI's guidelines, which authorized the use of informants without requiring any factual predicate of wrongdoing.

The FBI has also used these dubious tactics against aged anti-government militiamen and misfit anarchists, so it there's more than Muslims in the crosshairs: Without reforming the FBI guidelines, anyone holding unorthodox views or challenging government policies could be similarly targeted.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Ugh. Do you people want to feel safe at all cost or don't you?

  • ||

    You know who else talked about safety at all costs?

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Darrell Revis?

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Ralph Nader?

  • $park¥||

    Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebaldo Ponzi?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Bruce Kevlar?

  • cavalier973||

    Chet Awesomelazer?

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    Bob Sanders?

  • ||

    Most of these busts lately appear lame on their face to me, obvious entrapment and set-ups for the purposes of PR.

    Unfortunately, most people I know see it differently and eat that shit up. Jesus.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    This just in: people are idiots.

  • fish||

    ....for the purposes of PR.

    And the vital federal appropriation cycle. Let's not forget that.

  • John C. Randolph||

    If this country had anything resembling a functioning justice system, the FBI would have been disbanded for their harassment of MLK. That way, they wouldn't have been around to provide the money to build the truck bomb that was used for the first WTC attack.

    -jcr

  • Whiterun Guard||

    FBI Terror stings are a 3.2 on the Starr scale.

    Worse than velvet ants, but not as bad as a pepsis wasp.

  • ||

    If you have been stung by both of those it really is hard to tell them apart pain-wise. I guess that goes for the FBI sting as well.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    I have only been stung by a velvet ant (I earned $20 for a 5 second sting). It wasn't that bad in all honesty, or at least not as bad as I was expecting.

    If I ever encounter a pepsis wasp or bullet ants and someone around me has some cash, I'll be able to differentiate.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    "Imagine a country in which the government pays convicted con artists and criminals to scour minority religious communities for disgruntled, financially desperate, or mentally ill patsies who can be talked into joining fake terror plots, even if only for money."

    Scotland?

  • $park¥||

    I might have believed you if you said Ireland.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Hmmm... I think you actually have it correct, consider my point so amended.

  • sarcasmic||

    "Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope." Yet she let the jury's conviction stand and sentenced Cromitie to 25 years in prison.

    The land of the free and the home of the brave.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    More unsettling is the flawed reasoning that drives the use of these methods. FBI agents have been inundated with bigoted training materials that falsely portray Arabs and Muslims as inherently violent.

    I am reminded of that famous Sesame Street jingle, "One of These Things Are Not Like The Others...". German was hoping his readers wouldn't pick up on his equivocation; however, in conflating the term "Arabs" and "Muslims" German inadvertently exposes the weakness in his criticism.

    "Arab" is an ethnicity, which by definition, is something that is an accident of birth, with no inherent psychological qualities. On the other hand, a "Muslim" is a term used to describe someone who holds a particular ideology. An ideology can be chosen, and one of the freedoms that the ACLU rightly strives to protect is the ability to free choose to profess a certain ideology.

    However, that same freedom doesn't serve to prevent others from point out some uncomfortable truths about the consequences of following a particular ideology.

  • sarcasmic||

    Basic logic lesson.

    A can imply B without B implying A.

    For example all apples are fruit, but not all fruit are apples.

    All KKK members were Christians, but not all Christians are members of the KKK.

    I think you understand where I'm going with this.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I gotta jet to work, but I'll respond to you in a bit.

  • Zeb||

    I'm not sure how that applies here. Not all Arabs are Muslim, not all Muslims are Arabs, and not all Muslims are prone to violence or support violence.

  • sarcasmic||

    The Muslim religion does not cause people to commit acts of terrorism anymore than Christianity causes people to burn crosses.

  • Zeb||

    Gotcha. I thought that was where you were going, and I do agree.

  • PapayaSF||

    Islam has long had a deserved reputation as a violent religion, and repeated polls have indicated that support for religious violence is far higher among Muslims than among Christians. It's not "bigoted" to note that the main terror threats in the world today are from Muslims.

    Of course there have been abuses, but I'm not too concerned about the FBI luring "disgruntled, financially desperate, or mentally ill patsies" and "dim-witted saps" into terror plots. *Lots* of "real" terrorists fit those categories, and better that the FBI lures them than their imam. This is not like some undercover cop passing a joint at a party and then busting everyone who takes a toke. People not predisposed to acts of terror will decline to participate and ideally report the agents provocateurs to the police.

  • sarcasmic||

    People not predisposed to acts of terror will decline to participate and ideally report the agents provocateurs to the police.

    And then be promptly jailed for interfering in an investigation.

  • PapayaSF||

    Oh come on, has that ever actually happened?

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    Yes. And when some leaders of a mosque reported a recent provocateur to the FBI, the responding agent, the one running the provocateur, questioned those reporting the sting, discovered where his operation was going wrong, made his corrections, and continued on to bust the young man. (They put him on the no-fly list with no justification because at first he wouldn't play ball, used his despondency at not being able to go to Alaska and earn a living to make him desperate for money.)

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Here's a logic lesson for you.

    The only way you can claim that I'm commiting the fallacy of affirming the consequent is through a very tortured interpretation of my argument. In fact, your criticism of my argument is so far removed from what I'm actually saying that it is a non sequitur.

    As per your argument @9:08, I'm not arguing for pre-crime. To claim that I am is intellectually dishonest. What I'm actually saying is that in order to combat terrorism you have to have an understanding of the underlying ideological motivations of the terrorist movement. For religiously-motivated violence, you are not going to have that understanding by relying on whitewashing certain topics with politically correct nostrums.

    The fact remains, despite your and German's obstiancy, that a certain school of Islamic exegesis makes strong and popular arguments for justifying religiously-motivated violence. Such exegesis is considered to be orthodox is many Islamic societies (Saudi Arabia being suspect number one). One need not pick up an AK-47, tacit approval of such exegesis is enough to be a problem. Indeed, avoiding criticism of such exegesis because it makes some uncomfortable only serves to harm those within the Muslim community who attempt to counter these orthodox interpretations with exegesis of their own.

  • sarcasmic||

    One need not pick up an AK-47, tacit approval of such exegesis is enough to be a problem.

    Thoughtcrime is death.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    For a good understanding of the underlying ideological motivations of the terrorist movement, read up on Operation Gladio.

  • GroundTruth||

    What "equivocation"? Americans in general don't seem to be able to differential between Arabs and Muslims, and lets throw in Sikhs too, since they are darker than many Europeans and wear distinctive head-gear too!

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    The FBI has also embraced an unfounded theory of "radicalization" that alleges a direct progression from adopting certain beliefs, or expressing opposition to U.S. policies, to becoming a terrorist.

    Again, German and his ilk wishes to insulate a certain group from criticism, despite all evidence to the contrary. Are we to believe that an individual doesn't become a terrorist due to adopting certain beliefs, particularly concerning the justification of violence? As an example of the so-called "bigotry" of counter-terrorism experts German supplies the following list:


    o Increased isolation from former life
    o Wearing traditional Muslim attire
    o Growing facial hair
    o Frequent attendance at a mosque or a prayer group
    o Travel to a Muslim country
    o Increased activity in a pro-Muslim social group or political cause
    o Proselytizing.

    Taken individually, they are innocuous, and yet, when examine the backgrounds of individuals such as John Lindh or Nidal Hasan, we see the same patterns over and over again. Are we to ignore these patterns merely because they make their coreligionists uncomfortable?

  • sarcasmic||

    I am sure that there are thousands of people who fit that pattern. Maybe tens of thousands.

    Are you suggesting that they all be locked up for crimes that they may commit in the future?

  • Zeb||

    Good question. Unless we know that most people who follow that pattern become terrorists, it's about as useful as preventing everyone who has ever been a little depressed from legally buying a gun would be in stopping mass murders.

  • johnl||

    John Lindh never hurt anyone.

  • waaminn||

    Wow, so how cime I never thought about that? I really liek the sound of this. Wow.

    www.okAnon.tk

  • AlmightyJB||

    The last paragraph is exactly right. These tactics have been used by the feds for a long time and were used against "anti-government types" during the full scale paramilitarization of domestic law enforcement under Clinton/Reno.

  • daveInAustin||

    There's a The American Life episode about the same tactics applied in Orange County, CA.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Yeah, I think anytime you hear the word "Sting" it's probably the result of a setup.

  • Loki||

    The FBI has also embraced an unfounded theory of "radicalization" that alleges a direct progression from adopting certain beliefs, or expressing opposition to U.S. policies, to becoming a terrorist.

    I think we're all on a watch list at this point.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    According to a certification quiz from the DoD, (lawful) protests are an example of "low level terrorism". I guess that the military-industrial complex could be somewhat frightened by a protest.

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