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.