Manufacturing Terrorists: Inside the FBI's Terror Sting Operations
By Michael German / reason.com
Jan 20, 2013

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.

Michael German is a former FBI agent who currently works for the American Civil Liberties Union.

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

4.0 ·
1
Trending Today
What Happens When You Rebel Against the Herd
Sofo Archon · 13,417 views today · Are You Truly Living Your Life? You live, but are you living the way you want to live, or the way others want you to live? You choose, but are your choices based on...
The Coming War on China
John Pilger · 6,058 views today · A major US military build-up – including nuclear weapons – is under way in Asia and the Pacific with the purpose of confronting China. John Pilger raises the alarm on an...
How a Lack of Touch Is Destroying Men
Mark Green · 4,558 views today · Why Men Need More Platonic Touch in their Lives
Murdoch and Trump, Sitting at the Tee, S-C-H-E-M-I-N-G
Frankie Boyle · 4,302 views today · Say what you like about Donald Trump but he's already done things people said were impossible, like made Twitter worse. Looking back, the Harambe situation is the closest...
Real Underground Kingdom That Has Existed for Millions of Years Went Unnoticed, Until Recently...
Kid Krunk · 2,855 views today · 28 Stunning Photos Of The World’s Largest Cave
Simple Social Experiment Shows We Are More Than The Boxes People Put Us In
3 min · 2,583 views today · We live in a time where we are quick to put people in boxes. Maybe we have more in common than what we think?
Thich Nhat Hanh: How We Can Learn to Love Our Enemies
5 min · 2,499 views today · This is a short excerpt from Peacemaking. I often think about this story when I think about the kind of activism I would like to bring into this world. I want to help build a...
I Am Not Your Negro (2017)
3 min · 2,086 views today · In his new film, director Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished - a radical narration about race in America, using the writer's original words. He draws...
What Would It Take to Stop the Raids?
CrimethInc. Ex-Workers Collective · 1,450 views today · Responding Effectively to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Attacks
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 1,181 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,129 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
How Wolves Change Rivers
4 min · 1,086 views today · When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States after being absent nearly 70 years, the most remarkable "trophic cascade" occurred. What is a...
A Hauntingly Beautiful Short Film About Life and Death
5 min · 975 views today · The Life of Death is a touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 933 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
The Charter For Compassion
2 min · 896 views today · The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated...
Surviving Capitalist Depression
Michael Emero · 719 views today · We live in a toxic society filled with toxic people. Even the ones with the best hearts- including ourselves- have been raised in ignorance, with disinformation. Our examples...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 547 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Hans Rosling Brilliantly Explains Complexity of Population and Resource Issues Using Simple Tools
3 min · 505 views today · Let me show you the world, says Swedish academic Han Rosling as he demonstrates the dynamics of population growth, child mortality and carbon dioxide emissions. The challenge...
"The Myth of Time" - Martin Luther King Jr.
3 min · 496 views today · Excerpt from MLK Jr.'s last sermon, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution". Delivered at The National Cathedral on March 31, 1968 (4 days prior to his...
What It Really Means to Hold Space for Someone
Heather Plett · 373 views today · How to be there for the people who need you most
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
Manufacturing Terrorists: Inside the FBI's Terror Sting Operations