Is the Government Catching Terrorists or Creating Them?


The story of Jose Pimentel, the alleged New York City pipe bomber whose arrest was announced on Sunday, is starting to have a familiar ring. Like other terrorism suspects prosecuted in recent years, he seems to be a schlemiel who was egged on by a government informant. The New York Times reports that the FBI repeatedly declined to pursue the case because it was concerned that the informant had enabled Pimentel to begin implementing a plot he never would have executed on his own:

The suspect had little money to speak of, was unable to pay his cellphone bill and scrounged for money to buy the drill bits that court papers said he required to make his pipe bombs. Initially, he had trouble drilling the small holes that needed to be made in the metal tubes….

The informer provided companionship and a staging area so Mr. Pimentel, a Muslim convert, could build three pipe bombs while the Intelligence Division of the New York Police Department built its case…

There was concern that the informer might have played too active a role in helping Mr. Pimentel, said several people who were briefed on the case….

Intelligence Division detectives have had Mr. Pimentel, a native of the Dominican Republic and naturalized American citizen, under surveillance for more than two years and made more than 400 hours of secret recordings, but his efforts to make the pipe bombs did not develop until mid-October, according to the criminal complaint against him….

Investigators were concerned that the case raised some entrapment questions, two people said. They added that some investigators wondered whether Mr. Pimentel had the even small amount of money or technical know-how necessary to produce a pipe bomb on his own, had he not received help from the informer.

It is to be expected that the most incompetent terrorists are the ones who will tend to be caught before they do any damage. And those who attempt to kill people, such as would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid, would-be underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and would-be car bomber Faisal Shahzad, obviously should not get off simply because they were not smart enough to achieve their goals. But in cases like Pimentel's, the Liberty City Seven prosecution, and the JFK jet fuel plot, there is a real question as to whether the defendants would have posed any threat at all if they'd been left alone. The Times, by the way, notes "a practical advantage" to prosecuting Pimentel in state court: "state prosecutors said they were allowed to charge Mr. Pimentel with a conspiracy, even if he were acting with just the informant; federal law does not permit charging such a conspiracy."