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Inside the Terror Factory

Award-winning journalist Trevor Aaronson digs deep into the FBI’s massive efforts to create fake terrorist plots.

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 6:01 AM EST

In the years since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal law enforcement profile of a terrorist has changed dramatically. The men responsible for downing the World Trade Center were disciplined and patient; they were also living and training in the United States with money from an Al Qaeda cell led by Kuwaiti-born Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. In the days and weeks following 9/11, federal officials anxiously awaited a second wave of attacks, which would be launched, they believed at the time, by several sleeper cells around the country.

Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born, high-ranking Al Qaeda official became something of the terrorist group's Dear Abby. Have a question about Islam? Ask Anwar!

But the feared second wave never crashed ashore. Instead, the United States and allied nations invaded Afghanistan, Al Qaeda's home base, and forced Osama bin Laden and his deputies into hiding. Bruised and hunted, Al Qaeda no longer had the capability to train terrorists and send them to the United States.

In response, Al Qaeda's leaders moved to what FBI officials describe as a "franchise model." If you can't run Al Qaeda as a hierarchal, centrally organized outfit, the theory went, run it as a franchise. In other words, export ideas—not terrorists. Al Qaeda and its affiliated organizations went online, setting up websites and forums dedicated to instilling their beliefs in disenfranchised Muslims already living in Western nations. A slickly designed magazine, appropriately titled Inspire, quickly followed. Article headlines included "I Am Proud to Be a Traitor to America," and "Why Did I Choose Al-Qaeda?"

Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born, high-ranking Al Qaeda official who was killed in a US drone strike in Yemen on September 30, 2011, became something of the terrorist group's Dear Abby. Have a question about Islam? Ask Anwar! Muslim men in nations throughout the Western world would email him questions, and Awlaki would reply dutifully, and in English, encouraging many of his electronic pen pals to violent action. Awlaki also kept a blog and a Facebook page, and regularly posted recruitment videos to YouTube. He said in one video:

I specifically invite the youth to either fight in the West or join their brothers in the fronts of jihad: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. I invite them to join us in our new front, Yemen, the base from which the great jihad of the Arabian Peninsula will begin, the base from which the greatest army of Islam will march forth.

Al Qaeda's move to a franchise model met with some success. US Army Major Nadal Hassan, for example, corresponded with Awlaki before he killed 13 people and wounded 29 others in the Fort Hood shootings in 2009. Antonio Martinez, a Baltimore man and recent convert to Islam who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for trying to bomb a military recruiting office, sent Awlaki messages and watched Al Qaeda propaganda videos online before getting wrapped up in an FBI sting operation.

The FBI has a term for Nafis, Martinez, and other alleged terrorists like them: lone wolf. Officials at the Bureau now believe that the next terrorist attack will likely come from a lone wolf, and this belief is at the core of a federal law enforcement policy known variously as preemption, prevention, and disruption. FBI counterterrorism agents want to catch terrorists before they act, and to accomplish this, federal law enforcement officials have in the decade since 9/11 created the largest domestic spying network ever to exist in the United States.

In fact, the FBI today has 10 times as many informants as it did in the 1960s, when former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover made the Bureau infamous for inserting spies into organizations as varied as Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's and the Ku Klux Klan. Modern FBI informants aren't burrowing into political groups, however; they are focused on identifying today the terrorist of tomorrow. US government officials acknowledge that while terrorist threats do exist from domestic organizations, such as white supremacist groups and the sovereign citizen movement, they believe the greatest threat comes from within American Muslim communities.

The FBI's vast army of spies, located today in every community in the United States with enough Muslims to support a mosque, has one primary function: identify the next lone wolf, likely to be a single male age 16 to 35, according to the Bureau. Informants and their FBI handlers are on the lookout for young Muslims who espouse radical beliefs, are vocal about their disapproval of American foreign policy, or have expressed sympathy for international terrorist groups. If they find anyone who meets the criteria, they move him to the next stage: the sting operation.

The terrorism sting operations are an evolution of an FBI tactic that has long captured the imaginations of Hollywood filmmakers: undercover drug busts.

On a cold February morning in 2011, I met with Peter Ahearn, a retired FBI special agent who directed the Western New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, in a coffee shop outside Washington, DC, to talk about how the FBI runs its sting operations. Ahearn was in the bureau's vanguard as it transformed into a counterterrorism organization in the wake of 9/11. An average-built man with a small dimple on his chin and close-cropped brown hair receding in the front, Ahearn oversaw one of the earliest post-9/11 terrorism investigations, involving the so-called Lackawanna Six—a group of six Yemeni American men living outside Buffalo, New York, who attended a training camp in Afghanistan and were convicted of providing material support to Al Qaeda. "If you're doing a sting right, you're offering the target multiple chances to back out," Ahearn told me. "Real people don't say, 'Yeah, let's go bomb that place.' Real people call the cops."

Indeed, while terrorism sting operations are a new practice for the bureau, they are an evolution of an FBI tactic that has for decades captured the imaginations of Hollywood filmmakers. In 1982, as the illegal drug trade overwhelmed local police resources nationwide and funded an increase in violent crime, President Ronald Reagan's first attorney general, William French Smith, gave the FBI jurisdiction over federal drug crimes, which previously had been the exclusive domain of the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Eager to show up their DEA rivals, FBI agents began aggressively sending undercover agents into America's cities. This was relatively new territory for the FBI, which during Hoover's 37-year stewardship had mandated that agents wear a suit and tie at all times, federal law enforcement badge easily accessible from the coat pocket. But an increasingly powerful Mafia and the bloody drug war forced the FBI to begin enforcing federal laws from the street level. In searching for drug crimes, FBI agents hunted sellers as well as buyers, and soon learned one of the best strategies was to become part of the action.

At its most cliché, the Hollywood version of this scene is set in a Miami high-rise apartment, its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the cresting waves of the Atlantic Ocean. There's a man seated at the dining table; he's longhaired, with a scruffy face, and he has a briefcase next to him. Hidden on the other side of the room is a grainy black-and-white camera recording the entire scene. The apartment's door swings open and two men saunter in, the camera recording their every move and word. The two men hand over bundles of cash, and the scruffy man then hands over the briefcase. But instead of finding pounds of cocaine inside it, the two guests are shocked to find the briefcase is empty—and then FBI agents rush in, guns drawn for the takedown.

Federal law enforcement officials call this type of sting operation a "no-dope bust," and its the direct predecessor to today's terrorism sting. Instead of empty briefcases, the FBI today uses inert bombs and disabled assault rifles (and now that counterterrorism is the bureau's top priority, the investigation of major drug crimes has largely fallen back to the DEA). While the assumptions behind both types of stings are similar, there is a fundamental flaw as applied to terrorism stings. In drug stings, federal law enforcement officials assume that any buyer caught in a sting would have been able to buy or sell drugs elsewhere had they not fallen into the FBI trap. The numbers support this assumption. In 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, the DEA seized 29,179 kilograms, or 64,328 pounds, of cocaine in the United States.

In terrorism stings, however, federal law enforcement officials assume that any would-be terrorists caught would have been able to acquire the means elsewhere to carry out their violent plans had they not been ensnared by the FBI. The problem with this assumption is that no data exists to support it—and in fact what data is available often suggests the opposite.

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