Manufacturing Terrorists

How FBI sting operations make jihadists out of hapless malcontents

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 terrorist 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 likely have heard about several alleged conspiracies to attack skyscrapers, synagogues, or subway stations, involving either individuals whom the FBI calls “lone wolves” or small cells that a credulous press has tagged with such sinister appellations as the Newburgh 4 or the Liberty City 7. But they may be astonished to learn that 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 dimwitted saps the investigations ultimately netted.

Drawing on court records and 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 real terrorists are 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 offering lenience, 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 terrorist 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 posed little real threat. They may have had a history of angry anti-government rhetoric, but they took no steps toward terrorist acts until they received encouragement and resources from government agents.

Aaronson describes the case of an unemployed and practically homeless 22-year-old named Derrick Shareef, befriended by an FBI informant with an armed robbery conviction who gave him a place to live. When Shareef couldn’t (or wouldn’t) raise the money to buy weapons needed for a plot suggested by the informant, he was introduced to a faux weapons dealer who was willing to trade four hand grenades and a pistol for Shareef’s used stereo speakers. The fact that Shareef believed a real weapons dealer would accept such a barter provides a clue as to his criminal experience. 

Aaronson correctly 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 important, while they may have talked about committing violent acts, they rarely had weapons of their own and, like Shareef, usually lacked the financial means to acquire them. Yet the government provided them with military hardware worth thousands of dollars that 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. Prior to September 11, 2001, if an agent had suggested opening a terrorism case against someone who was not a member of a terrorist group, who had not attempted to acquire weapons, and who didn’t have the means to obtain them, he would have been gently encouraged to look for a more serious threat. An agent who suggested giving such a person a stinger missile or a car full of military-grade plastic explosives would have been sent to counseling. Yet in Aaronson’s telling, such techniques are now becoming commonplace. 

My concern is partly that the artificially inflated scale of the threat in these cases seems designed to overwhelm judges, jurors, and the general public, who might otherwise view such methods as illegal entrapment. The FBI often announces these arrests with great fanfare, highlighting the scope of the damage that could have been caused by weapons provided entirely by the government. Such pretrial publicity creates a climate of fear that is likely to influence judges and jurors. 

Indeed, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon severely criticized the investigation that led to the 2009 arrest of James Cromitie, a small-time ex-con from Newburgh, New York, whose apparent reluctance to join a fake missile plot was overcome when an informant offered him $250,000 to participate. At his sentencing, Judge McMahon observed that “only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope.” Yet McMahon 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 exaggerated significance of these manufactured terrorist plots also raises the possible penalties for those charged, due to “terrorism enhancement” sentencing provisions. The majority of defendants plead guilty to mitigate draconian penalties, raising an additional question of whether the purpose of this government tactic is to avoid judicial and public scrutiny altogether. Law enforcement has no business staging theatrical productions that intentionally exaggerate the seriousness of a defendant’s criminal conduct.

Even 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 also has 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 based simply on their exercise of their First Amendment rights.

Aaronson fails, however, to recognize that these tactics are neither new to the FBI nor exclusively used against Muslims. The FBI’s earliest documented use of agents provocateurs with criminal backgrounds was revealed during congressional investigations of labor “radicals,” pacifists, and socialists in 1918. The bureau’s investigations of radicals led to nationwide warrantless raids, resulting in thousands of arrests and hundreds of deportations, yet solved no terrorist bombings and discovered less than a handful of firearms. Although reforms were implemented, decades later the Church Committee’s inquiries revealed that covert operations conducted as part of the FBI’s COINTELPRO investigations had targeted civil rights and anti-war groups because of their First Amendment–protected activities from the 1950s through the 1970s.

Recalling this history is important because in both cases, reform of these improper practices was implemented by restricting FBI intelligence activities and requiring a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before initiating investigations. These restrictions have once again been relaxed, and the rapid increase in sting operations under the Obama administration that Aaronson documents is directly attributable to amendments made to the FBI’s guidelines in 2008, authorizing the use of informants without requiring any factual predicate of wrongdoing. The FBI also has used these dubious tactics against aged anti-government militiamen and misfit anarchists, so Muslims are not the only targets in its crosshairs.

Without reforms to FBI guidelines, anyone holding unorthodox views or challenging government policies could find himself targeted by overzealous federal agents using unscrupulous informants. The FBI should be investigating violent crime, not inventing it.  

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • John||

    If I had to bet, I would bet that Oklahoma City was one of these idiotic plots gone bad. McVeigh and Nichols were loser wannabes around the militia movement and some white separatist compound in SE Oklahoma. Those organizations were all under pretty heavy FBI surveillance. There is no way the FBI didn't know who McVeigh and Nichols were. And for months they couldn't build a bomb that worked. Then amazingly the figured it out and their bombs started to work. It would not be surprised at all if their bombs started to work because some dipshit FBI informant told them how in hopes of catching them in the act with a real bomb.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    I sure to god hope your scenario is wrong. Unfortunately, it is plausible.

  • WTF||

    It's pretty damn sad that it wouldn't really shock me if that turned out to be the case.

  • John||

    The other thing about OKC that never made any sense was how perfect McVeigh's capture was. The getaway car mysteriously didn't have a license plate. Who goes to all of the trouble to build a bomb and then not check the getaway care to make sure it has proper tags? Then there was a gun in the back seat. Why have a gun there if you are going to surrender peacefully like McVeigh did? It makes no sense. If you don't plan to shoot your way out of any trouble, the last thing you want is a gun and an excuse for a cop to arrest you. It is really like whoever did it set McVeigh up as the sacrificial lamb. I have no doubt McVeigh and Nichols are guilty. But I have a hard time believing there were not other people involved.

  • sarcasmic||

    I dunno. Being pre 9/11 and all, I think there's a chance that they acted alone.

  • John||

    There certainly is. But I would say it is 50/50.

  • sarcasmic||

    McVeigh seemed to be pretty proud of himself. Proud enough to lead me to believe he did it on his own.

  • John||

    He did it. And he was proud of himself. But he also had a family, a sister and parents and whose safety gave him every reason to take sole credit. The fact that Mcveigh was a egotistical wannabe made him the perfect candidate to be the fall guy. Think about it. You are not going to blow up a building and get away with it. Someone is going to take the fall. Also, if you are doing it for political reasons, you want someone to get the blame so they can make your political case. So who in the group takes the blame? McVeigh, a guy with a big ego, something to lose, and who is an absolute believer in the cause is a pretty good candidate.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    The blast effects on the Murrah building could not have been produced by an ammonia nitrate - fuel oil (ANFO) bomb. So says Gen. Benton Partin, USAF Ret., who knows more about bombs and their effects than all of humanity. There are numerous books on OKC, the most thorough of which is probably "The Oklahoma City Bombing and the Politics of Terror" by David Hoffman, but I recently finished "Deadly Secrets: Timothy McVeigh and the OKC Bombing" by a fellow inmate at Terre Haute death row, David Paul Hammer. Hammer claims that McVeigh confessed that the operation was a false flag event and provided many details that lend credibility to that narrative. Add that to the physical evidence, and I'd say we've got pretty much a slam dunk.

  • susan256||

    If you think Philip`s story is unbelievable..., 3 weeks ago my aunt also made the small fortune of $5476 working fourty hours a month at home and they're friend's sister-in-law`s neighbour has done this for 9-months and brought home over $5476 part time On there laptop. apply the guide at this site... jump15.com

  • Invisible Finger||

    Now you know why a lot of Muslims - who have lived with similar CIA bullshit for decades - think 9/11 was an inside job.

  • John||

    I don't think OKC was an inside job. I think McVeigh and Nichols are guilty scumbags. But I would not be surprised if the FBI didn't help them a bit thinking they would get the big high profile capture and then fucked up and didn't arrest them before they set the bomb off.

  • Loki||

    Combine your hypothesis with the fact that the Justice Department was getting their panties in bunches over "militia" and "survivalist" groups in the mid 90s and it starts to make even more sense.

    The FBI would have been aching to bust some of these types to show the public just how dangerous these "militias" really are/ were. Prior to OKC I think most people regarded militia and survivalist types as goofy and paranoid nutters, but mostly harmless. After, not so much.

  • Ron||

    You mean like in "Fast and Furious" where the ATF f-up and their guns ending up being used to kill people.

  • ant1sthenes||

    They could say the same for 9/11, though, given bin Laden's past dealings with the CIA.

  • John||

    Except that the CIA doesn't make its living by producing big busts like the FBI does. It makes its living by producing intelligence. Now what is believable about 9-11 is that the CIA knew it was coming but didn't tell anyone for fear of compromising means and methods.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    I'm sorry, just how do you know just what the fuck the CIA makes its living at?

  • Tonio||

    And for months they couldn't build a bomb that worked. Then amazingly the figured it out and their bombs started to work.

    That's not a convincing argument John. Trial and error does tend to produce results.

    And I'm not saying you're wrong about McVeigh and Nichols, but rather that you've brought nothing convincing to the table.

  • Chris Mallory||

    That white separatist compound was filled with Feebs. The Feebs had even imported a German to spy for them.

  • DenverJay||

    I thought that it had been shown that they received training from middle-east terrorists, although I don't remember if it was Al Quida or not

  • Tim||

    [ a shabby basement room with furtive men, suddenly one turns on the others and pulls open his coat revealing a gun and badge]

    "NYPD Intelligence unit! This is a bust!"

    "You can't bust me, I'm FBI!"

    " I'm Homeland Security "

    "CIA"

    "DEA"

    " Army CID"

    [ Ends with men standing around staring at each other's ID's. Outside sounds of colliding SWAT teams opening fire on each other]

  • SugarFree||

    [ Ends with orgy men standing around staring at each other's ID's. Outside sounds of colliding SWAT teams opening "fire" on each other]

  • Tim||

    Your low opinion of our brave fighting men only lowers the level of discourse on this great Libertarian site.

  • Capt Ace Rimmer||

    SugarFree is national treasure

  • SusanM||

    No one is safe from slashfic these days, huh?

  • ||

    Or G.K. Chesterton...

  • John||

    They actually have LEO databases of ongoing investigations to keep this kind of stuff from happening.

  • Invisible Finger||

    They don't have time to check if warrants have the correct address, they certainly aren't going to consult multiple LEO databases.

    They are public employees. Self-righteous with fits of laziness.

  • John||

    They are a lot more conscientious about not stepping on each other's toes than they are about the public's toes. Fuck up a warrant some non cop has a problem. Fuck up an ongoing investigation, you get cross with another cop, and no one wants that.

  • phandaal||

    They also usually know each other if they're operating in the same area.

  • Tonio||

    "Point Break"

  • WTF||

    ...they took no steps toward terrorist acts until they received encouragement and resources from government agents.

    And, none of this counts as entrapment, because (all together now):

    Fuck you, that's why.

  • some guy||

    At trial:

    "I knew they were FBI all along, your honor. That's the only reason I went along with it. I figured they must have the public's best interest in mind and they must know what they are doing."

  • thom||

    Wouldn't this be the best defense to go with?

    "Why am I on trial for cooperating with the FBI?"

    You'd have to find sympathy with a juror or two.

  • sarcasmic||

    If someone offers to make you a bomb, you can fairly certain that they work for law enforcement.

  • Bardas Phocas||

    I can get you a toe by three o'clock.

  • phandaal||

    There are ways, Dude. You don't want to know about it. Believe me.

  • some guy||

    ... with nail polish.

  • BlogimiDei||

    dude.

  • ||

    WITH nail polish

  • T||

    In general, someone you don't know offering you illegal acts or substances is a setup.

  • some guy||

    Unless it's drugs. Then you have to use your context clues.

  • sarcasmic||

    Like when some clean cut dude with military posture offered me his Jeep if I could find him an eight ball of cocaine. Even if I could have found the stuff, which I couldn't, the guy had cop written all over him. I just laughed.

  • Loki||

    When Shareef couldn’t (or wouldn’t) raise the money to buy weapons needed for a plot suggested by the informant, he was introduced to a faux weapons dealer who was willing to trade four hand grenades and a pistol for Shareef’s used stereo speakers.

    As in all things, if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is. That probably goes double for black market weapons.

  • John||

    Next you are going to tell me the explosives recipes in the anarchist cookbook didn't really work. You trampling my childhood Loki.

  • Tonio||

    Depends on the speakers. But based soley on the description of Shareef above, I'm guessing 6" paper cone speakers, so no.

  • GILMORE||

    he was introduced to a faux weapons dealer who was willing to trade four hand grenades and a pistol for Shareef’s used stereo speakers

    hey, that reminds me of a dude i knew who always had a line on how to get sweet speakers for cheap!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yykbK-GjEKE

  • Ron||

    Heck I would have taken the money and left. Of course they probably bust you the second they give you the money.

  • Tonio||

    IANAL, but I believe once you've accepted the money you become a conspirator. Then the game becomes to flip you into an informant so you can recruit more idiots.

  • rickl7069||

    "The majority of defendants plead guilty to mitigate draconian penalties, raising an additional question of whether the purpose of this government tactic is to avoid judicial and public scrutiny altogether."
    Good article, but the logic in this statement simply does not hold up. Plea bargaining has become standard practice from ALL prosecutors, who just want a conviction - they prefer that NO case goes to trial and have managed, through coercion, to almost achieve that
    goal.

  • Tonio||

    There is still a trial, Ricky, but it's a bench trial instead of a jury trial. The whole point is to avoid having to put something dirty and flimsy in front of a jury.

  • BlogimiDei||

    False Flags gotta false...

  • ||

    I've been wondering for some time whether any of the FBI's pet jihadists get away from them. The guy in Aurora, Colorado was very well-equipped, after all. Was he one of the FBI's pets, who slipped the leash?

    Would we find out if it did happen, or would the FBI investigators "accidentally" lose evidence that wasn't necessary to convict the shooter, but did implicate the FBI in the plot?

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    Most of the FBI instigated plots are meant to be fizzlers (their signature events), but nobody's perfect......

  • ||

    what Joan explained I didnt know that any body can profit $6664 in one month on the computer. did you read this website http://www.fly38.com

  • Floyd64||

    til I saw the receipt four $6575, I be certain that...my... friends brother was like they say realey bringing home money in their spare time on their apple labtop.. there sisters roommate started doing this less than fifteen months and a short time ago paid for the morgage on there home and bought a top of the range Citroën DS. I went here, http://www.wow92.com

  • nannasin28||

    they may be astonished to learn that many of these frightening plots were almost entirely concocted . VIPER12A

  • ygsrf||

    Which is the best blog for us.we are enjoy it and will show them to everyone.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement