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Entrapping American Muslims

[Image from Beyond the Curtain] [Image from Beyond the Curtain]

2010 will likely be remembered by American Muslims as the most challenging year since 2001.  While anti-Islamic rhetoric has been part of American culture for quite some time, this year brought a massive resurgence in Islamophobia.  Less than ten months before the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, civil rights for Muslims in America have perhaps never been in greater peril than they are now.  In addition to hate crimes like pipe bombs and arson at American mosques, recent revelations of FBI counter-terrorism “sting” operations that appear to discriminate against Muslim American communities is a cause for great concern.  After “stings” in Maryland and Oregon attracted a great deal of press attention, many critics began questioning whether the FBI was creating their own terrorist plots, and then disrupting them in order to make it appear like they’re doing a great job of counter-terrorism.  Meanwhile, tragically disturbed Muslim American individuals appear to be entrapped into a potential sentence of life behind bars.  Considering that a single tip can now be enough to get your name added to the rapidly growing federal Terrorist Watch List, civil rights advocates are very concerned about the use of “sting” operations in Muslim American communities.

Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking at a previously scheduled appearance in December before an annual banquet of one of the most prominent civil rights organizations working in this area, Muslim Advocates, defended the use of FBI counter-terrorism “sting” tactics against criticisms of police entrapment.  The executive director of Muslim Advocates, Farhana Khera, said that her group “has very serious concerns about FBI surveillance tactics.”  Khera’s statement that directly criticizes the FBI is somewhat rare from leading Muslim American advocates who have generally avoided making statements that suggest anything but total cooperation with the FBI’s counter-terrorism efforts.  The lack of widespread criticism probably stems from a proactive campaign by some politicians to marginalize the voices of Muslim Americans in the public sphere by insinuating that Muslim American civil rights advocates are pro-terrorism.

As organizations like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and Muslim Advocates consider how to respond to the “sting” operations, they have faced frequent accusations that their organizations are un-American or even fronts for terrorist groups.  Most recently, Peter King (R-NY) the incoming chair of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, announced plans to hold congressional hearings on the “radicalization” of American Muslim communities.  Representative King claimed that Muslim Americans weren’t providing enough cooperation to counter-terrorism efforts, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.  Even the FBI director, Robert Mueller, testified repeatedly before Congress about the “tremendously supportive” role the Muslim American community has played in his agency’s counter-terrorism work.  Muslim American civil rights advocates worried about entrapment don’t deserve to be called un-American or pro-terrorist.  Over and over again, Muslim American advocates have noted the need for a strong counter-terrorism program, to stop genuine threats like Najibullah Zazi, or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, or the Hutaree “militia.”  The problem for Muslim American advocates isn’t counter-terrorism in general – the problem comes when the FBI uses “sting” operations which appear to use informants targeted only at Muslim Americans, and which seem to use techniques that amount to entrapment.  Concern about police entrapment does not equate to promoting anti-American terrorism.  On the contrary, police entrapment, when the police create a crime and then punish people for it, has been a feature of totalitarian governments throughout history.  Regular use of police entrapment, especially when targeted at a stigmatized religious minority population, has profound implications for democracy in the United States.

The debate over the “sting” operations looks set to continue into 2011 and beyond.  Questions include whether the “stings” amount to entrapment and discriminatory profiling of the Muslim American community, and there are also important questions for democracy in the limits imposed on civil rights advocacy organizations working in this area.  Addressing these questions requires a look at some of the details of the recent “sting” cases.

Over the past few years, the Department of Justice has announced several arrests of Muslim American terrorism suspects who had allegedly been caught in the act of preparing what they thought were weapons of mass destruction that – had they exploded – would have killed scores of innocent people.  Fortunately, each of these terrorist plots was entirely fake.  The pattern goes something like this.  The alleged terrorist is first discovered through the use of an undercover informant, apparently sent to observe Muslim Americans.  After the informant uncovers (or helps to create) a potential terrorist plot, then the suspected terrorists are met by undercover FBI agents posing as fellow terrorists.  These undercover agents work with the suspect to create and eventually execute a plan, providing financing, supplies including fake explosives, and perhaps even encouragement.  At the moment of the fake attack, the undercover agents reveal themselves and arrest the alleged wannabe mass murders.  Shortly after each arrest, the Justice Department announces that a major terrorist attack has been foiled.  The news media dutifully reports the dramatic story of the arrest, complete with details about how awful the attack would have been had it come to fruition.

Stories of “sting operations” like this are likely to appear perennially.  There is clearly a wide-ranging and long-term program underway at the FBI to use these “stings,” because so many arrests of this kind have been made.  Likely, there are many more such “stings” in progress right now, and they might not produce arrests with press conferences for months or even years down the road.  The Department of Justice has been understandably but disturbingly tight-lipped about the full extent of this program, in order to prevent the details about the undercover operations from getting into the hands of potential terrorist suspects.  Critics are posting legitimate questions that must be answered about these programs, even if the answers might reveal some of the FBI’s methods.

Many critics note that the targets of these sting operations are almost always members of racialized minority groups.  Almost always the suspects are Muslim, and/or black, Latino, or Middle Eastern men.  For example, in May 2009, the FBI announced that it had used a “sting operation” to catch four men (all of whom are black – one is an immigrant from Haiti) who planned to bomb a synagogue and shoot down airplanes.  The Sunday Times noted that the plot appeared to have been created by undercover FBI agents, and the paper described the four alleged terrorist masterminds as “petty crooks,” one of whom might have been mentally challenged.  The authorities announced that they believed these men were Muslim terrorists, but when they were processed into prison, the defendants listed themselves as Catholic, Baptist, or “no religion.”  Similarly, in November 2010, a 19 year old Somali American man was arrested after the FBI alleged that he planned to blow up a car bomb at a Portland, Oregon Thanksgiving festival.  At his February 2011 trial, his lawyers will contend that this suspect was entrapped by the FBI using methods just like the 2009 case in New York.  And again in December 2010, a 21 year old Latino man (reportedly a recent convert to Islam) was arrested after the FBI said he planned to detonate a bomb at a military recruiting station in Maryland.  As in the other cases, this man was met by undercover FBI agents and arrested only after he actually planted the fake bomb supplied to him by the FBI.  The defense attorney for this man also says he will argue that his client was entrapped by the FBI.

After the arrest of the alleged synagogue bomb plotters, security expert Bruce Schneier noted that most of these kinds of cases never make it to trial.  Schneier explained to The Nation that “These are not criminal masterminds, they're idiots. There’s huge fanfares at the arrest, and then it dies off.”  Even if this is the case, it appears that the entrapment defense is rarely successful in producing an acquittal.  Studies by the New York University Center for Law and Security show that in some 156 terrorism prosecutions since 2001, despite its frequent use, the entrapment defense had never resulted in an acquittal.

Statistics like those will likely only add to the concerns of Muslim Americans.  The American Prospect reported on the increasing worry expressed by some leading Muslim American advocates: "When the FBI engages in tactics that involve fabricating fake terrorist attacks, it undermines that faith in the community," says Hussam Ayloush, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' California branch, who worries that the stings give the false impression of an American Muslim community eager to harbor terrorists. "We have a fake, FBI-manufactured terrorist incident resulting in a real terrorist attack on the Portland mosque."  Other community leaders are reluctant to use the word "entrapment" to describe the FBI's operations but insist that the cases may sometimes blur a line between radicalization and actual criminal behavior. What is needed, they say, is for the government to partner with the Muslim community in order to intervene earlier in the radicalization process. "We want to see a division of labor -- that law enforcement focuses on criminal activity, and when it comes to ideas, thoughts, and behaviors, you allow experts in the community to deal with that issue," says Haris Tarin, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. "If that exists, you won't have this conversation about entrapment."

Representative Peter King, the new chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, would rather advocates like these stop their work and allow the FBI to expand and augment its “sting” operations.  This debate will likely remain at the center of the tension between counterterrorism and civil rights in 2011.

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