Elaborate sting operations not only risk entrapment of bogus terrorist suspects, but worse, they wreck vital community trust
Retired teacher Larry Pickard, left, shakes hands with Mohsin Saeed on 30 November 2010, at the Salman Alfarisi Islamic centre in Corvallis, Oregon. Pickard was among many non-Muslims who offered help and sympathy after a fire was set at the mosque in apparent retribution for the attempt to set off a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland allegedly by Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who was arrested in an FBI sting operation. He has pleaded not guilty. Photograph: AP Photo/Jeff Barnard
The recent arrest of the potential Christmas tree bomber is reflective of the FBI’s myopic strategy of using glitzy, expensive sting operations and dubious confidential informants to further erode Muslim American relations instead of concentrating on effective partnerships to combat radicalisation. The FBI is promoting the arrest of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year-old Somali-born teenager accused of attempting to detonate a car bomb at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, as a triumph of effective law enforcement. Instead, the operation reeks of gratuitous self-adulation, requiring 6 months of time and precious expenditures to “uncover” a dummy terrorist plot wholly scripted and concocted by the FBI in the first place.
Although many argue that this was simply entrapment, evidence does indicate that Mohamud became increasingly radicalised and voluntarily continued with the FBI’s fake terror plot. Regardless, CAIR attorney Zahra Billo told me, “The FBI seek out troubled people – nobody is arguing that some of these individuals aren’t deeply troubled – and then enable and facilitate their aspirations. It is the FBI’s job to stop operational terrorists. It is not the FBI’s job to enable aspirational terrorists.”
Attorney General Eric Holder recently suggested the use of such sting operations were “part of a forward-leaning way” in which law enforcement could proactively find those individuals committed to harming Americans, and a study revealed that 62% of terror prosecutions relied on confidential informants. But recent episodes suggest these tactics are neither “forward-looking”, nor effective. Instead, they contribute towards a deepening, polarising wedge between law enforcement officials and some of their most important assets in the war against extremism: Muslim American communities.
Recently, a former FBI confidential informant, Craig Monteilh, humorously codenamed “Oracle”, revealed he was paid $177,000 tax-free by the FBI to infiltrate and entrap a southern California Muslim community. The convicted forger, who went by “Farouk al-Aziz”, was served with a restraining order by the mosque after he repeatedly pestered attendees with absurd conversations about engaging in violent jihad. Not to be deterred, the FBI heavily relied upon Oracle’s superlative evidence, consisting of taped conversations, to indict an Afghan-American language instructor for allegedly making false statements regarding his ties to terrorists. Moreover, prosecutors alleged he was the brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden’s security coordinator.
Surely, this bombshell discovery paved the way for a successful prosecution and conviction? Nearly a year and a half later, the judge agreed with the prosecutors to dismiss the case citing lack of an overseas witness and “evidentiary issues”. The result is a widening distrust of the FBI, since “the community feels betrayed,” said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic shura council of southern California, an umbrella group of more than 75 mosques.
In the deeply flawed 2005 Lodi terror case, the FBI boasted of capturing two, alleged high-level terrorists, Hamid and Umer Hyatt – Pakistani father and son immigrants, who drove ice cream trucks for a living – based on the evidence of an unreliable Pakistani-American informant, codenamed “Wildkat”. Indeed, his fact-finding lived up to his name, since he told the FBI he saw al-Qaida’s number two man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, at his Lodi, California mosque. Although the FBI [thankfully] conceded his reporting as false, they nonetheless proceeded to pay him nearly $300,000 to infiltrate the sleepy Muslim community and scour for terrorists. His taped conversations with Umer Hyatt reveal him badgering and allegedly conning Umer to make incriminating statements. Furthermore, videotapes of the Hyatts’ absurd alleged “confessions”, which former veteran FBI agent James Wedick Jr reviewed and concluded were a result of illegal questioning and coaxing, nonetheless convinced a jury to convict Hamid of providing material support to terrorists and making false statements to the FBI.
Aside from a miscarriage of justice, perhaps the most poisonous result of such belligerent law enforcement procedures, is a “chilling effect” on the Muslim American community, in which citizens legitimately feel fear and alienation from, and a deepening mistrust of, their government, as a result of such harassment. “Time and again, Muslims prove themselves to be good and smart when it comes to reporting potential crimes. The problem with this method of law enforcement is that strains the very relationships that are critical to effective community policing,” says Billo.
In a country where 60% of its citizens claim to not know a Muslim and 45% regard Islam as a religion that promotes violence, these self-aggrandising displays of “successful” prosecutions also contribute to the volatile climate of anti-Muslim bigotry and reactionary rhetoric. Recently, Glenn Beck delved into his hyperactive, paranoid imagination to produce the utterly baseless statistic that nearly 10% of Muslims are terrorists. Although many of Beck’s audience will not question the veracity of his “facts”, a comprehensive study undertaken by Duke University reveals that the number of radicalised Muslim-Americans remains very small. The study reports that “Muslim American communities have been active in preventing radicalisation… This is one reason that Muslim American terrorism has resulted in fewer than three dozen of the 136,000 murders committed in the United States since 9/11.”
Thus, a Senegalese Muslim immigrant was the first to witness and report failed jihadist Faisal Shahzad’s burning car in Times Square. A Muslim American community in Virginia went to local law enforcements and the FBI after discovering troubling videotapes left by five youths who allegedly went to Pakistan to commit jihad. A convert to Islam tipped off the FBI about the Christian militant group, the Hutarees, who were planning a terrorist attack on American soil. Even the Nigerian underwear bomber’s own father warned British authorities that his son was radicalised and could potentially harm himself and others.
Undoubtedly, radicalisation and terrorism are real threats, which afflict all US citizens, regardless of race or religion. Perhaps the FBI should now cease treating most Muslim American citizens as potential suspects, whose privacy rights and civil liberties are now curtailed in clumsy ways – such as faulty GPS tracking devices sloppily attached on their cars. Perhaps the FBI needs to spend its considerable (taxpayer-paid-for) resources to re-engage them as partners and allies – instead of contributing to the heightened climate of fear and paranoia by employing shady informants with cheesy, comic-book codenames.