How to Manufacture a Terror Plot


In Slate, Ted Conover asks a reasonable question: "Should the FBI really be baiting sad-sack homegrown terrorists?"

He's just doing it for the bottlecaps.

Last month, if you missed the news, four African-American ex-cons from Newburgh, N.Y., were convicted of plotting to bomb two synagogues here, one of them half a block from my house. The government released a photo of some of the men casing the joint that our local paper ran the day they were convicted.

One of the men in the photo is an FBI informant, Shahed Hussain. The case seems like a slam-dunk—until you learn more about him. Hussain, driving a flashy Mercedes and using the alias Maqsood, began to frequent the Masjid al-Ikhlas in down-at-the-heels Newburgh in 2008. Mosque leaders say he would meet congregants in the parking lot afterward, offering gifts and telling them they could make a lot of money—$25,000—if they helped him pursue jihad. The assistant imam said the suspicion Hussain was an informant was so great "it was almost like he had a neon sign on him." A congregant told a reporter that, in retrospect, everyone wished they'd called him out or turned him in. "Maybe the mistake we made was that we didn't report him," the man said. "But how are we going to report the government agent to the government?"

Hussain bought meals for the group of four men he assembled because none of them had jobs or money. The owner of a Newburgh restaurant where they occasionally ate considered him "the boss," because he would pick up the tab. Among his other inducements were the offer of $250,000 and a BMW to the most volubly anti-Semitic plotter, the man the government says was the ringleader, James Cromitie. To drive that car, Cromitie would have needed a driver's license—which he didn't have. Another supposed plotter, a Haitian, was a paranoid schizophrenic (according to his imam), which was the reason his deportation had been deferred (according to The Nation's TomDispatch.com), and who kept bottles of urine in his squalid apartment (according to the New York Times). The last two, both surnamed Williams, have histories of drug busts and minimum-wage jobs in Newburgh. At trial the government asserted that the plot was driven by anti-American hatred. But in papers filed in court by defense lawyers before the trial began, Cromitie is quoted in government transcripts explaining to Hussain that the men "will do it for the money….They're not even thinking about the cause."

My only complaint about Conover's article comes when he uncritically quotes the legal scholar Jon Sherman, who argues that "we are throwing way more resources at homegrown terrorism in Muslim communities than we are in poor and disaffected communities that support militia groups in places like Ohio and Tennessee and Michigan….[I]f you put the same effort into infiltrating those communities with undercover informants, you might make as many cases if not more." As it happens, they've done the entrapment thing in the militia milieu several times as well, with the same pointless results. Manipulating a bunch of dumbos who wouldn't have come up with a terror plot on their own is a bad idea, period, no matter what demographic they hail from.