Editor's note: This story is adapted from The Terror Factory, Trevor Aaronson's new book documenting how the Federal Bureau of Investigation has built a vast network of informants to infiltrate Muslim communities and, in some cases, cultivate phony terrorist plots. The book grew from Aaronson's award-winning Mother Jones cover story "The Informants" and his research in the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley.
Quazi Mohammad Nafis was a 21-year-old student living in Queens, New York, when the US government helped turn him into a terrorist.
His transformation began on July 5, when Nafis, a Bangladeshi citizen who'd come to the United States on a student visa that January, shared aspirations with a man he believed he could trust. Nafis told this man in a phone call that he wanted to wage jihad in the United States, that he enjoyed reading Al Qaeda propaganda, and that he admired "Sheikh O," or Osama bin Laden. Who this confidant was and how Nafis came to meet him remain unclear; what we know from public documents is that the man told Nafis he could introduce him to an Al Qaeda operative.
It was a hot, sunny day in Central Park on July 24 when Nafis met with Kareem, who said he was with Al Qaeda. Nafis, who had a slight build, mop of black hair, and a feebly grown beard, told Kareem that he was "ready for action."
"What I really mean is that I don’t want something that's, like, small," Nafis said. "I just want something big. Something very big. Very, very, very, very big, that will shake the whole country."
Nafis said he wanted to bomb the New York Stock Exchange, and with help from his new Al Qaeda contact, he surveilled the iconic building at 11 Wall Street. "We are going to need a lot of TNT or dynamite," Nafis told Kareem. But Nafis didn't have any explosives, and, as court records indicate, he didn’t know anyone who could sell him explosives, let alone have the money to purchase such materials. His father, a banker in Bangladesh, had spent his entire life savings to send Nafis to the United States after his son, who was described to journalists as dim by people who knew him in his native country, had flunked out of North South University in Bangladesh.
Kareem suggested they rent a storage facility to stash the material they'd need for a car bomb. He said he'd put up the money for it, and get the materials. Nafis dutifully agreed, and suggested a new target: the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Nafis later met Kareem at a storage facility, where Nafis poured the materials Kareem had brought into trash bins, believing he was creating a 1,000-pound car bomb that could level a city block.
In truth, the stuff was inert. And Kareem was an undercover FBI agent, tipped off by the man who Nafis had believed was a confidant—an FBI informant. The FBI had secretly provided everything Nafis needed for his attack: not only the storage facility and supposed explosives, but also the detonator and the van that Nafis believed would deliver the bomb.
On the morning of October 17, Nafis and Kareem drove the van to Lower Manhattan and parked it in front of the Federal Reserve Bank on Liberty Street. Then they walked to a nearby hotel room, where Nafis dialed on his cellphone the number he believed would trigger the bomb, but nothing happened. He dialed again, and again. The only result was Nafis' apprehension by federal agents.
"The defendant thought he was striking a blow to the American economy," US Attorney Loretta E. Lynch said in a statement after the arrest. "At every turn, he was wrong, and his extensive efforts to strike at the heart of the nation's financial system were foiled by effective law enforcement. We will use all of the tools at our disposal to stop any such attack before it can occur."
How many of these would-be terrorists would have acted were it not for an FBI agent provocateur helping them? Is it possible that the FBI is creating the very enemy we fear?
Federal officials say they are protecting Americans with these operations—but from whom? Real terrorists, or dupes like Nafis, who appear unlikely to have the capacity for terrorism were it not for FBI agents providing the opportunity and means?
Nafis is one of more than 150 men since 9/11 who have been caught in FBI terrorism stings, some of whom have received 25 years or more in prison. In these cases, the FBI uses one of its more than 15,000 registered informants—many of them criminals, others trying to stay in the country following immigration violations—to identify potential terrorists. It then provides the means necessary for these would-be terrorists to move forward with a plot—in some cases even planting specific ideas for attacks. The FBI now spends $3 billion on counterterrorism annually, the largest portion of its budget. Our nation's top law enforcement agency, traditionally focused on investigating crimes after they occur, now operates more as an intelligence organization that tries to preempt crimes before they occur. But how many of these would-be terrorists would have acted were it not for an FBI agent provocateur helping them? Is it possible that the FBI is creating the very enemy we fear?
Those are the questions I set out to explore beginning in 2010. With the help of a research assistant, I built a database of more than 500 terrorism prosecutions since 9/11, looking closely and critically at every terrorism case brought into federal courts during the past decade. We pored through thousands of pages of court records, and found that nearly half of all terrorism cases since 9/11 involved informants, many of them paid as much as $100,000 per assignment by the FBI. At the time of the story's publication in Mother Jones in August 2011, 49 defendants had participated in plots led by an FBI agent provocateur, and that number has continued to rise since.
Historically, media coverage of these operations—begun under George W. Bush and continuing apace under Barack Obama—was mostly uncritical. With their aggressive tactics essentially unknown to the public, the FBI and Justice Department controlled the narrative: another dangerous terrorist apprehended by vigilant federal agents!
But in late 2011, the conversation began to shift. A couple of months after my story in Mother Jones and following the announcement of a far-fetched sting in which a Massachusetts man believed he'd been poised to destroy the US Capitol building using grenade-laden, remote-controlled airplanes, TPM Muckraker published a story headlined: "The Five Most Bizarre Terror Plots Hatched Under the FBI's Watch." Author David K. Shipler, in an April 2012 New York Times editorial, questioned the legitimacy of terrorism stings involving people who appeared to have no wherewithal to commit acts of terror: "Some threats are real, others less so. In terrorism, it's not easy to tell the difference." Stories in other major news outlets followed suit, and by October 2012, a post in Foreign Policy was asking: “How many idiot jihadis can the FBI fool?”
Which brings us back to Nafis. "The case appears to be the latest to fit a model in which, in the process of flushing out people they believe present a risk of terrorism, federal law enforcement officials have played the role of enabler," reported the New York Times, after the Justice Department announced Nafis' arrest. "Though these operations have almost always held up in court, they have come under increasing criticism from those who believe that many of the subjects, even some who openly espoused violence, would have been unable to execute such plots without substantial assistance from the government."