As part of the effort to prevent terrorist attacks, the FBI has a program in which agents recruit undercover informants who then “listen” for developing terror plots. Two new reports show how this preventative program has run amok, possibly entrapping vulnerable people to justify its own existence. Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that most US terrorism prosecutions are “an illusion” created by the authorities. The groundbreaking HRW report was released just after the premiere of a new Al Jazeera documentary, The Informants, which illustrates the human cost of this massive program. This follows yet another report, this one from the New York University School of Law’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ), which found that more than two hundred people have been prosecuted in these kinds of cases, and that these cases have been touted as hallmarks of a successful counterterrorism program. CHRGJ spoke with former FBI agents, lawmakers, and advocacy organizations that all worried that the authorities are creating their own “homegrown” terrorism plots, “foiling” them for the cameras, and sending Muslim Americans to prison.
The troubled individuals who have been sentenced to long prison terms on apparently fabricated terrorism charges are not the only ones harmed by the FBI program. Muslim American communities bear the brunt of the flawed program, and people who “look Muslim” face more discrimination and hate crimes because of the FBI program.
In Sacramento, California, on 16 March 2014, a Jordanian American man was shot and killed outside a Home Depot by a suspect who detectives say has a “severe hatred” of “people of Middle Eastern descent.” Outside a Wal-Mart in Florida in 2013, a student was shot in the face because a man thought he “looked Muslim”—even though he is actually a Catholic Trinidadian-American. In New York City in 2012, a man was pushed to his death in front of an oncoming subway train, apparently for no reason other than that he “looked Middle Eastern.” Like the student at Wal-Mart in Florida, this man was also not “really” Middle Eastern; he had immigrated to the United States from India. The August 2012 attack on the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, also was possibly motivated by a perpetrator intent on harming people from the so-called Middle East. The list of people attacked because they “look Muslim,” unfortunately, goes on and on.
How do we explain these kinds of hate crimes? This is a complex question for which there are, of course, no simple answers. One often-overlooked factor in explaining hate crimes is the way that police and other government authorities lend credence to the bigoted and false notion that Muslims are the most dangerous group of people in America today.
Mountains of evidence are available to show that Muslims in the United States are actually less dangerous than the “average” American. For example, in the past decade, there have been far more people killed by right-wing extremist terrorists in the United States than killed by Muslims. Nevertheless, the FBI and many American police departments have persisted in singling out Muslim Americans for surveillance and discriminatory profiling in the name of preventing terrorism. These discriminatory “counter-terrorism” programs stem from and reinforce the false image of Muslims in America as inherently dangerous.
The FBI’s informant program is perhaps the largest and most far-reaching anti-Muslim “counter-terrorism” program. The FBI employs thousands of undercover informants who constantly stalk Muslim American communities all across the United States. A powerful new documentary, The Informants, premiered on Al Jazeera English in July. In this film, journalist Trevor Aaronson dives into the dark corners where these undercover FBI operatives work. The Informants paints a devastating picture, clearly showing how the FBI has created the very enemy it hunts: “Muslim terrorists.” Over and over again for the past several years, FBI informants have “discovered” alleged terrorists who actually had neither premeditated intention nor the capability to perpetrate attacks.
Aaronson provides in-depth interviews with three former informants, several FBI agents, and a man who was convicted after being ensnared by an FBI informant. In his 2013 book, The Terror Factory, Aaronson analyzed hundreds of post-9/11 terrorism cases, and found that most of them involved an FBI informant. Given how many terrorist plots the FBI had supposedly discovered and foiled, he concluded that either most terrorists were extremely inept, or the FBI had gotten very effective at creating the plots it was supposed to be preventing. The new documentary vividly shows just how good the FBI has become at generating “counter-terrorism” success stories.
The Informants opens by introducing former FBI informant Elie Assaad, nicknamed “The Closer.” Mr. Assaad was instrumental in several FBI sting operations, including the infamous Liberty City Seven case. In 2006, Mr. Assaad pretended to be a representative for Osama bin Laden in Miami. He offered big money to seven wannabe “terrorists,” but he first insisted that they talk about blowing up the Sears Tower and take a bizarre, made-up oath to al-Qaeda. After “The Closer” got the “terrorists” to admit their violent intentions while recording them with a hidden camera, FBI agents swooped in and made arrests. The Attorney General of the United States and the Deputy Director of the FBI then held a dramatic press conference in Washington, DC, trumpeting the successful shutting down a “terrorist cell.” The court cases against the seven men, based almost entirely on the videotapes, led to a mistrial and an acquittal for two of the defendants. Eventually, five of the seven were sent to prison for providing material support for terrorism, even though their only connection to al-Qaeda was faked by the FBI. Mr. Assaad was paid $80,000 for his work on this case.
The Informants samples some of the dramatic news reports from the Liberty City Seven case, most of which focus on the horrifying prospect of a bomb at the Sears Tower. However, few reports bothered to point out that no one was ever actually in danger. Indeed, media reports on each of the hundreds of “terrorists” generated by the FBI informants program in the past several years almost never describe the details of the FBI program as described by Aaronson. This pattern has been repeated again and again: Fake “Muslim terrorists” generated by FBI informants are discussed in the media as though they were really terrorists, with little attention paid to the shadowy informants that generated the story.
Just a week before the premiere of The Informants, Attorney General Eric Holder argued publicly for maintaining and indeed expanding the informants program overseas. In Oslo, Holder urged US allies to adopt the FBI’s informant strategy, saying, “We need the benefit of investigative and prosecutorial tools that allow us to be pre-emptive in our approach to confronting this problem.” In 2010, speaking at a Muslim Advocates event, Holder similarly defended the informants program, calling it “essential.” The annual budget for the FBI’s counter-terrorism programs stand at three billion dollars, and shutting down the informants program might significantly reduce that funding allocation.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of this story is how even though the informants program clearly discriminates against Muslims, there so far has been no successful effort to stop the FBI from continuing to expand the program. In 2012, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking to stop FBI informants from entering mosques because sometimes, he wrote, it is necessary to “sacrifice individual liberties for the sake of national security.” In addition, when “terrorist” defendants caught by FBI informants have argued that the FBI entrapped them, they have always been convicted; there has yet to be a single case where the entrapment defense worked. In short, there seems to be very few avenues available to civil rights advocates for shutting down the FBI informants program.
The disparate impact of FBI informants on Muslim communities both results from and contributes to the ongoing racialization of Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian Americans as dangerous, threatening outsiders. The CHRGJ report describes the direct impact that the “sting” operation policies and practices have on the families of the alleged terrorists sent to prison. The impact of these “sting” policies is even greater when you factor in the indirect costs that come through increased hate crimes and discrimination affecting not only Muslims but those who look Muslim.