Friday, May 22, 2009

Provocation Masquerading as Anti-Terror Policy?

A word of advice to activists and people praying at mosques.  If a guy offers you a free stinger missile, he's probably an informer.  If he offers you free IEDs, he's probably an informer. If he asks you to pledge an oath to his foreign terrorist organization, he's also probably a government spy.

On May 20, 2009, the FBI arrested four Newburgh, NY ex-cons in a plot to attack U.S. military aircraft and plant bombs at synagogues in Riverdale, NY. The arrest follows a "long line of homegrown, headline-making terror plots since Sept. 11 that never came close to reality because the FBI inserted itself in the earliest stages," according to AP writers Michael Hill and Jim Fitzgerald. The FBI has been extraordinarily effective, lucky, or played a significant role in developing would-be homegrown threats using undercover informers.

The FBI arrested alleged plotters James Cromitie, David Williams, Laguerre Payen, and Onta Williams. According to the criminal complaint, an FBI informant met Cromitie about a year ago. Cromitie allegedly expressed anger over the deaths of Afghani and Pakistani Muslims as a result of American military actions and wanted to "do something" about it.

Over the next ten months, the FBI's informant apparently facilitated those desires. What do we know so far?
1. In response to Cromitie's inflammatory language, the FBI dispatched a paid FBI informant. It is not known if the informant attended the Masjid Al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh before June 2008, although it seems likely. Payen and Cromitie occasionally attended Friday prayers at the mosque.

2. The informant traveled with Cromitie, Williams, and Payen to Stamford to secure what they believed to be a guided missile system and three improvised explosive devices. The informant said he secured these free Stinger missiles through his Pakistan-based terror group, but of course they were dummies.

3. The informant held several meetings with the alleged plotters at his home, which the FBI wired for audio and video surveillance.

4. The informant traveled to the Stewart Air National Guard base with Cromitie and David Williams.

5. Cromitie discussed his interest in joining a Pakistan-based terrorist group, though that's only part of the story. In fact, the unidentified informant originally claimed to be a member of a Pakistan jihadist group, Jaish-e-Mohammed ("Army of Mohammed"), or JEM, according to the Times Herald-Record. Later, the co-conspirators allegedly pledged allegiance to JEM.

6. The head imam of the mosque reports that over the past several months, and maybe for more than a year, a man had been coming to the mosque and mingling with members, and offering them $25,000 to become involved in some unspecified activity. Concerned members reported it back to the head imam, Salahuddin Mustafa Muhammed, but they did not tell police because they assumed the man was an informant to some government agency trying to bait others, according to Hema Easley of

7. 21-year-old Payen served a 15-month prison term for attempted assault, suffered from paranoia, and was on medication. He came to the mosque in March, apparently homeless. The other alleged plotters also served time in prison for drug, assault, or weapons possession charges. According to several sources, these men were "amateurs every step of the way." For instance, Senator Charles Schumer said that "the group was relatively unsophisticated, penetrated early and not connected to any outside group."

Aside from using an informant to aid this plot, it is not clear that the FBI tried to intervene or otherwise prevent these individuals from plotting a violent attack. Rather, the informant's role suggests facilitation and possible provocation. Prevention might be a more prudent and humane policy, but it certainly would not garner the same headlines if the FBI had merely called Cromitie in for an encounter.

In the long run, the four plotters will likely be convicted of terrorism-related acts. The defendants were permitted to plant inert C-4 plastic explosives in a car at the Riverdale, NY synagogue. In the recent Fort Dix case, all of the defendants were acquitted of attempted murder charges -- perhaps because their plot had not gone far enough (click here for a NY Times article on the FBI informants' role in the Fort Dix case). But criminal convictions should not be sole measure of domestic counter-terrorism policy.

If the FBI's strategy is to develop nascent plots to their logical violent conclusion (or otherwise stoke the flames of potential violent extremists), how does that advance the goal of security?

It would appear that FBI Director Mueller's strategy -- a holdover from the Ashcroft Dept. of Justice -- is to use these headlines to stoke fears of Muslims, justify intensive domestic surveillance, and reinforce the notion that domestic terrorism by lone wolves is a real threat to national security. In response to this week's arrests, comments to news blogs call Muslims animals, savages, and worse. This strategy only serves the interests of American conservatism, which is at root, a politics of fear and negation that cannot function without an enemy.

As for the alleged terrorists, I can only acknowledge disappointment that these men distorted the tenets of Islam, threatened Jewish people and American service-people with violence, and allowed themselves to be duped by another government agent. Muslim groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Muslim Public Affairs Committee have vehemently denounced the plotters' actions and hate. CAIR and MPAC know all too well that their constituents will be the targets of any backlash from the American public (either from private individuals or official government policy).