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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 7:01 AM EST

Few of the more than 150 defendants indicted and convicted this way since 9/11 had any connection to terrorists, evidence showed, and those that did have connections, however tangential, lacked the capacity to launch attacks on their own. Of the more that 150 defendants, an FBI informant not only led one of every three terrorist plots, but also provided all the necessary weapons, money, and transportation.

The informant goaded them on the whole time, encouraging the pair with lines like: “We will teach these bastards a good lesson.” For his work on the case, he received $100,000 from the FBI.

The FBI's logic to support the use of terrorism stings goes something like this: By catching a lone wolf before he strikes, federal law enforcement can take him off the streets before he meets a real terrorist who can provide him with weapons and munitions. However, to this day, no example exists of a lone wolf, by himself unable to launch an attack, becoming operational through meeting an actual terrorist in the United States. In the terrorism sting operations since 9/11, the would-be terrorists are usually uneducated, unsophisticated, and economically desperate—not the attributes for someone likely to plan and launch a sophisticated, violent attack without significant help.

This isn't to say there have not been deadly and potentially deadly terrorist attacks and threats in the United States since 9/11. Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, an Egyptian, opened fire on the El-Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport on July 4, 2002, killing two and wounding four. Afghan American Najibullah Zazi, who trained with Al Qaeda in Pakistan in 2008, came close to attacking the New York City subway system in September 2009, with a plan to place backpack bombs on crowded trains coming to and from Grand Central and Times Square stations. Faisal Shahzad, who trained with terrorists in the tribal regions of Pakistan, attempted but failed to detonate a crude car bomb in Times Square on May 1, 2010. While all three were dangerous lone wolves, none fit the profile of would-be terrorists targeted today in FBI terrorism sting operations. Unlike those caught in FBI stings, these three terrorists had international connections and the ability to carry out attacks on their own, however unsuccessful those attacks might have been for Zazi and Shahzad.

By contrast, consider another New York City terrorism conspiracy—the so-called Herald Square bomb plot. Shahawar Matin Siraj, a 22-year-old Pakistani American, struck up a friendship with a seemingly elderly and knowledgeable Islamic scholar named Dawadi at his uncle's Islamic Books and Tapes shop in Brooklyn. Dawadi was an FBI informant, Osama Eldawoody, who was put on the government payroll in September 2003 to stoke Siraj's extremist inclinations. Siraj asked if Eldawoody could help him build a nuclear weapon and volunteered that he and a friend, James Elshafay, wanted to detonate a car bomb on one of New York's bridges. "He's a terrorist. He wants to harm the country and the people of the country. That's what I thought immediately," Eldawoody said in court testimony.

Siraj introduced Dawadi to Elshafay, who had drawn schematics of police stations and bridges on napkins with the hopes of plotting a terrorist attack. Elshafay's crude drawings prompted Siraj to hatch a new plan that involved the three men, Dawadi's supposed international connections, and an attack on New York's Herald Square subway station. The two young men discussed how they'd grown to hate the United States for invading Iraq and torturing prisoners. In Eldawoody's car, the three of them talked about carrying 20- to 30-pound backpack bombs into the Herald Square subway station and leaving them on the train platform. Their conversations were recorded from a secret camera in the car's dashboard. From April to August 2004, the men considered targets, surveilled the subway, checked security, and drew diagrams of the station. The informant goaded them on the whole time, encouraging the pair with lines like: "We will teach these bastards a good lesson." For his work on the case, Eldawoody received $100,000 from the FBI.

The evidence from the sting was enough to win convictions, and Siraj was sentenced to 30 years in prison and Elshafay 5 years. But it was also clear from the trial that Siraj was a dimwitted social recluse—a mother's boy with little capacity to steal a car on his own, let alone bomb a subway station as part of a spectacular terrorist attack. In fact, Siraj was recorded during the sting operation as saying: "Everyone thinks I'm stupid."

During Obama's first term in office, the Justice Department prosecuted more than 75 targets of terrorism stings.

The question underlying the Herald Square case can be asked in dozens of other similar sting operations: Could the defendants have become terrorists had they never met the FBI informant? The answer haunts Martin Stolar, the lawyer who represented Siraj at trial and fully expected to win an acquittal through an entrapment defense. "The problem with the cases we're talking about is that defendants would not have done anything if not kicked in the ass by government agents," Stolar said. "They're creating crimes to solve crimes so they can claim a victory in the war on terror."

The practice is only growing. Though developed under the Bush administration, terrorism stings have become even more common under President Obama. While the Bush administration used terrorism stings to its greatest degree in 2006 and 2007—60 defendants were prosecuted and convicted from terrorism stings during those two years—the Justice Department began to shy away from the practice toward the end of Bush's second term in office. In 2008, Bush's last year as president, the US didn't prosecute anyone from a terrorism sting. But when Obama became president in January 2009, the use of sting operations resumed and increased in frequency. During Obama's first term in office, the Justice Department prosecuted more than 75 targets of terrorism stings.

Obama has been an aggressive president when it comes to national security, successfully disarming the long-standing perception that Democrats are weak on that front. He launched the daring raid that took out Osama bin Laden, has conducted secret wars in Yemen and Somalia, and stepped up extrajudicial killings of terrorist suspects overseas using military drones, for which he has come under sharp criticism from some on the political left. Public opinion polls during his fourth year as president showed that most Americans gave him high marks on national security.

That may help explain why the Obama administration has been so determined to pursue terrorism stings as well. Addressing a gathering of Muslim leaders near San Francisco in December 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder described how the administration believes the ends justify the means. "These types of operations have proven to be an essential law enforcement tool in uncovering and preventing potential terror attacks…And in those terrorism cases where undercover sting operations have been used, there is a lengthy record of convictions," the attorney general said, adding that "our nation's law enforcement professionals have consistently demonstrated not just their effectiveness, but also their commitment to the highest standards of professional conduct, integrity, and fairness."

Today, federal prosecutors announce arrests from terrorism stings at a rate of about one every 60 days, suggesting either that there are a lot of ineffective terrorists in the United States, or that the FBI has become effective at creating the very enemy it is hunting.

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