FBI undercover stings foil terrorist plots — but often plots of the agency’s own making

 

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By: Ian Cummings

Announcements of foiled terrorist plots make for lurid reading.

Schemes to carry out a Presidents Day jihadist attack on a train station in Kansas City. Bomb a Sept. 11 memorial event. Blow up a 1,000-pound bomb at Fort Riley. Detonate a weapon of mass destruction at a Wichita airport — the failed plans all show imagination.

But how much of it was real?

Often not much, according to a review of several recent terrorism cases investigated by the FBI in Kansas and Missouri. The most sensational plots invoking the name of the Islamic State or al-Qaida here were largely the invention of FBI agents carrying out elaborate sting operations on individuals identified through social media as being potentially dangerous.

In fact, in terrorism investigations in Wichita, at Fort Riley and last week in Kansas City, the alleged terrorists reportedly were unknowingly following the directions of undercover FBI agents who supplied fake bombs and came up with key elements of the plans.

“What I get concerned about is where the plot is being hatched by the FBI,” said Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and former FBI agent. “There has been a clear effort to manufacture plots.”

Law enforcement has increasingly used undercover agents and informants to develop such cases in recent years, especially against people suspected of being inspired by the Islamic State.

Of 126 Islamic State-related cases prosecuted by federal authorities across the country since 2014, nearly two-thirds involved undercover agents or informants, according to the Center on National Security at the Fordham University School of Law in New York. The FBI has stepped up its use of sting operations, which were once seen as a tactic of last resort.

FBI officials have said the sting operations are just one tool for thwarting terrorist attacks and that the suspects in such cases are given many opportunities to back out before their arrest. Federal authorities employ the stings on the theory that a person willing to engage in terrorism would eventually find real accomplices to carry out an attack.

Such cases are almost never successfully challenged in court with entrapment defenses.

But some question whether the FBI is catching real terrorists or tricking troubled individuals into volunteering for a long prison sentence.

The most recent alleged plotter, 25-year-old Robert Lorenzo Hester Jr. of Columbia, was indicted last week after federal prosecutors accused him of participating in an Islamic State plan to cause mass casualties in a bombing attack on a train station and possibly buses and trains in Kansas City on Feb. 20.

The two men leading Hester in the alleged plot were actually undercover FBI employees. They suggested the time, place and type of attack, and loaned Hester $20 to buy the 9-volt batteries, duct tape, roofing nails and copper wire that they implied would be ingredients for a bomb. Hester reportedly failed to buy the copper wire, saying he could not find it. There were no actual bombs.

The FBI employees had identified Hester as a suspect after seeing Facebook posts he made about his “conversion to Islam, his hatred for the United States and his belief that supposed U.S. mistreatment of Muslims had to be ‘put to an end,’ ” according to court documents.

But despite Hester’s denials, the FBI employees noted, he continued to test positive for marijuana even though it is frowned upon by Islamic teachings. And he allegedly found it necessary to bring his children to a meeting with the FBI workers because he had no other options for child care.

At a December meeting, one of the FBI employees threatened Hester with a knife, saying he “knew where Hester and his family lived” to make the point that Hester was not to plan any attacks of his own.

“It seems like outrageous conduct,” said German, the former FBI agent, who noted other aspects of the investigation that he thought seemed “odd.”

The FBI found Hester on Facebook in August and made contact with him through an undercover employee on Oct. 2, a day before Hester was arrested in Columbia for reportedly throwing a pocket knife through a grocery store window during an argument with his wife and menacing store employees with a 9 mm handgun he carried in a diaper bag.

Hester was released from jail on bond and remained under electronic monitoring for the next three months as he continued talking with the undercover employees and allegedly grew more deeply involved in their plans.

In January, Hester pleaded guilty in the Columbia case. He remained free on bond and was taken off electronic monitoring. The plot with the undercover FBI employees sped up, ending with his arrest in February, a month before he was to be sentenced in the Columbia grocery store incident.

German questioned why Hester was allowed to walk free.

“If the government had a legitimate reason to think this person was a danger to society, why would they let him out on bond?” he asked. “And this person was about to walk into a jail cell. It makes me think the reason is they didn’t believe he was a threat, but they could use him to make a case.”

It’s not unusual for authorities to go undercover to try to foil terrorist plots, said Daryl Johnson, a former analyst for the Department of Homeland Security. And some plots show evidence of being very real.

In 2007, Johnson noted, six Muslim men from New Jersey and Philadelphia were charged with plotting to attack Fort Dix with automatic weapons and possibly rocket-propelled grenades in what authorities said was a plan “to kill as many soldiers as possible.”

“The Fort Dix case was the most serious — they actually had a small arsenal,” Johnson said.

In Kansas last year, authorities uncovered what they said was a plot by a militia group to detonate bombs at a Garden City apartment complex where a number of Somalis live. The defendants in that case included three men who, according to court documents, had stockpiled weapons and told an FBI source of their plan.

Johnson said it’s harder to find the real threat in sting cases, such as Hester’s, where a person spouting off on social media, with no resources or ability to carry out an attack, is led by undercover FBI agents down a path to acting out a pretend terrorist plot.

“Most of these cases are trumped-up, FBI facilitated,” Johnson said. “A lot of times, these people are just engaging in free speech. If they’re American citizens, they can say they hate America, they can say, ‘I support ISIS.’ Then they become targeted.”

In these cases, he said, law enforcement has facilitated a terrorist plot with someone who held some hateful views but didn’t have the capability to do anything.

“And they were either provided the capability, or they were arrested for just the plotting aspect,” he said.

KC terrorism cases

Several of the Kansas and Missouri cases followed a similar pattern.

In 2013, FBI agents arrested a 58-year-old Kansas man as he tried to use his employee badge to bring a fake bomb onto the tarmac of a Wichita airport. The arrest of Terry L. Loewen came after a months-long sting operation in which two FBI agents posed as his co-conspirators and led him in a supposed plot they devised with phony explosives.

The FBI had found Loewen on Facebook, where he told an undercover agent of his interest in jihad. Over a period of about six months, the agents arranged for Loewen to meet in person an undercover agent posing as a terrorist, asked him to scout the airport and take photos for an attack they planned, and instructed him to gather items supposed to be used in bomb-making. According to court documents, Loewen eagerly participated and expected to die in the explosion.

In 2015, FBI agents arrested 20-year-old John T. Booker Jr. as he attempted to set off a fake car bomb at Fort Riley. Booker had been befriended by a pair of undercover FBI agents after posting inflammatory messages on Facebook. Booker told the agents he wanted to join the Islamic State and would do whatever they said. “I will follow you,” he said.

When the agents, posing as terrorists, asked what target they should attack, Booker suggested Fort Riley. At the agents’ direction, Booker rented a storage locker and went with an agent to local retailers to buy components for what was supposed to be a homemade bomb. No real explosives were involved in the operation.

In court, Booker’s attorney said Booker was being treated for bipolar disorder. He pleaded guilty to two counts related to the bomb plot and faces 30 years in prison.

The same year, an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested 20-year-old Joshua R. Goldberg at his parents’ home in Orange Park, Fla. Goldberg was accused of trying to help plan — online — an attack on a 9/11  memorial in Kansas City by providing details on how to build a pressure cooker bomb.

FBI agents had become aware of Goldberg through a social media account in which he reportedly posed as a terrorist instigator living in Australia. Online, Goldberg allegedly took credit for inspiring a May 2015 attack on a “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest” in Garland, Texas, in which police killed two armed men.

An undercover FBI agent contacted Goldberg online and expressed interest in carrying out a bomb attack in Kansas City. Goldberg allegedly suggested targeting the Sept. 11 memorial event, supplied links to online bomb-building manuals and suggested packing the bomb with nails, glass and metal dipped in rat poison.

While FBI agents kept Goldberg’s home under surveillance, they received information from Australian police that Goldberg had been identified as an “online troll” who engaged in internet hoaxes. Days later, they arrested Goldberg on one federal count of distributing information relating to explosives.

Since his arrest, Goldberg has been held in a federal detention center in Miami and repeatedly found incompetent to stand trial because of mental illness. Psychological examinations found him to be “paranoid,” “childlike” and unable to understand the legal proceedings against him.

His defense attorney, Paul Shorstein, said a federal court may make a decision in the next few weeks on whether Goldberg can be tried. Shorstein said Goldberg was not a real terrorist.

“He was sort of pretending to be somebody and playing the role,” Shorstein said. “He’s not a threat to anybody. It’s not a terrorism case — it’s a mental health case.”

Still, these investigations could help thwart terrorism, said Dru Stevenson, a law professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston who has studied how such undercover cases prevail over entrapment defenses.

By locking up people who would be willing to carry out terrorist acts, the stings can reduce the potential recruiting pool for real terrorists looking for willing followers, Stevenson said. And the knowledge that undercover FBI agents and informants are out there could make that recruitment more dangerous, difficult and slow for actual Islamic State plotters.

“If the choice is between waiting for the person to find some real terrorists to get involved with, or giving them a phony plot, I’m fine with giving them a phony plot,” Stevenson said.

Taking the Boston Marathon bombers as an example, he said, “Those are the kind of people I wish someone had caught in a sting before they hurt a lot of people.”

So far, the courts have agreed. No defendant in the Islamic State sting cases has successfully argued entrapment.

But the sheer volume of cases that depend on sting operations in which FBI agents supply the plot says something about the reality of the terrorist threat, said Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security, which authored the Islamic State prosecutions report.

Most of the potential terrorists being prosecuted have a lot in common, Greenberg said. Their average age is 26, 77 percent are U.S. citizens, a third are converts to Islam and a third live with their parents. Nearly 90 percent are active on social media. Only a handful had any link to Islamic State members overseas.

“If you take away the undercover cases to see what are the real organized terrorism cases, we’re not seeing it,” Greenberg said. “What do we have? The threat is different from what we’re being told.”

FROM: http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/crime/article135871988.html

Fake terror plots, paid informants: the tactics of FBI ‘entrapment’ questioned

April 27, 1961 speech that got John F. Kennedy Killed”
April 27, 1961 speech “that got John F. Kennedy Killed”
Critics say bureau is running a sting operation across America, targeting vulnerable people by luring them into fake terror plots

By Paul Harris

David Williams did not have an easy life. He moved to Newburgh, a gritty, impoverished town on the banks of the Hudson an hour or so north of New York, at just 10 years old. For a young, black American boy with a father in jail, trouble was everywhere.

Williams also made bad choices. He ended up going to jail for dealing drugs. When he came out in 2007 he tried to go straight, but money was tight and his brother, Lord, needed cash for a liver transplant. Life is hard in Newburgh if you are poor, have a drug rap and need cash quickly.

His aunt, Alicia McWilliams, was honest about the tough streets her nephew was dealing with. “Newburgh is a hard place,” she said. So it was perhaps no surprise that in May, 2009, David Williams was arrested again and hit with a 25-year jail sentence. But it was not for drugs offences. Or any other common crime. Instead Williams and three other struggling local men beset by drug, criminal and mental health issues were convicted of an Islamic terrorist plot to blow up Jewish synagogues and shoot down military jets with missiles.

Even more shocking was that the organisation, money, weapons and motivation for this plot did not come from real Islamic terrorists. It came from the FBI, and an informant paid to pose as a terrorist mastermind paying big bucks for help in carrying out an attack. For McWilliams, her own government had actually cajoled and paid her beloved nephew into being a terrorist, created a fake plot and then jailed him for it. “I feel like I am in the Twilight Zone,” she told the Guardian.

Lawyers for the so-called Newburgh Four have now launched an appeal that will be held early next year. Advocates hope the case offers the best chance of exposing the issue of FBI “entrapment” in terror cases. “We have as close to a legal entrapment case as I have ever seen,” said Susanne Brody, who represents another Newburgh defendant, Onta Williams.

Some experts agree. “The target, the motive, the ideology and the plot were all led by the FBI,” said Karen Greenberg, a law professor at Fordham University in New York, who specialises in studying the new FBI tactics.

But the issue is one that stretches far beyond Newburgh. Critics say the FBI is running a sting operation across America, targeting – to a large extent – the Muslim community by luring people into fake terror plots. FBI bureaux send informants to trawl through Muslim communities, hang out in mosques and community centres, and talk of radical Islam in order to identify possible targets sympathetic to such ideals. Or they will respond to the most bizarre of tip-offs, including, in one case, a man who claimed to have seen terror chief Ayman al-Zawahiri living in northern California in the late 1990s.

That tipster was quickly hired as a well-paid informant. If suitable suspects are identified, FBI agents then run a sting, often creating a fake terror plot in which it helps supply weapons and targets. Then, dramatic arrests are made, press conferences held and lengthy convictions secured.

But what is not clear is if many real, actual terrorists are involved.

Another “entrapment” case is on the radar too. The Fort Dix Five – accused of plotting to attack a New Jersey army base – have also appealed against their convictions. That case too involved dubious use of paid informants, an apparent over-reach of evidence and a plot that seemed suggested by the government.

Burim Duka, whose three brothers were jailed for life for their part in the scheme, insists they did not know they were part of a terror plot and were just buying guns for shooting holidays in a deal arranged by a friend. The “friend” was an informant who had persuaded another man of a desire to attack Fort Dix.

Duka is convinced his brothers’ appeal has a good chance. “I am hopeful,” he told the Guardian.

But things may not be that easy. At issue is the word “entrapment”, which has two definitions. There is the common usage, where a citizen might see FBI operations as deliberate traps manipulating unwary people who otherwise were unlikely to become terrorists. Then there is the legal definition of entrapment, where the prosecution merely has to show a subject was predisposed to carry out the actions they later are accused of.

Theoretically, a simple expression, like support for jihad, might suffice, and in post-9/11 America neither judges nor juries tend to be nuanced in terror trials. “Legally, you have to use the word entrapment very carefully. It is a very strict legal term,” said Greenberg.

But in its commonly understood usage, FBI entrapment is a widespread tactic. Within days of the 9/11 terror attacks, FBI director Robert Mueller issued a memo on a new policy of “forward leaning – preventative – prosecutions”.

Central to that is a growing informant network. The FBI is not choosy about the people it uses. Some have criminal records, including attempted murder or drug dealing or fraud. They are often paid six-figure sums, which critics say creates a motivation to entrap targets. Some are motivated by the promise of debts forgiven or immigration violations wiped clean. There has also been a relaxing of rules on what criteria the FBI needs to launch an investigation.

Often they just seem to be “fishing expeditions”. In the Newburgh case, the men involved met FBI informant Shahed Hussain simply because he happened to infiltrate their mosque. In southern California, FBI informant Craig Monteilh trawled mosques posing as a Muslim and tried to act as a magnet for potential radicals.

Monteilh, who bugged scores of people, is a convicted felon with serious drug charges to his name. His operation turned up nothing. But Monteilh’s professed terrorist sympathy so unnerved his Muslim targets that they got a restraining order against him and alerted the FBI, not realising Monteilh was actually working on the bureau’s behalf.

Muslim civil rights groups have warned of a feeling of being hounded and threatened by the FBI, triggering a natural fear of the authorities among people that should be a vital defence against real terror attacks. But FBI tactics could now be putting off many people from reporting tip-offs or suspicious individuals.

“They are making mosques suspicious of anybody. They are putting fear into these communities,” said Greenberg. Civil liberties groups are also concerned, seeing some FBI tactics as using terrorism to justify more power. “We are still seeing an expansion of these tools. It is a terrible prospect,” said Mike German, an expert at the American Civil Liberties Union and a former FBI agent who has worked in counter-terrorism.

German said suspects convicted of plotting terror attacks in some recent FBI cases bore little resemblance to the profile of most terrorist cells. “Most of these suspect terrorists had no access to weapons unless the government provided them. I would say that showed they were not the biggest threat to the US,” German said.

“Most terrorists have links to foreign terrorist groups and have trained in terrorism training camps. Perhaps FBI resources should be spent finding those guys.”

Also, some of the most serious terrorist attacks carried out in the US since 9/11 have revolved around “lone wolf” actions, not the sort of conspiracy plots the FBI have been striving to combat. The 2010 Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, only came to light after his car bomb failed to go off properly. The Fort Hood killer Nidal Malik Hasan, who shot dead 13 people on a Texas army base in 2009, was only discovered after he started firing. Both evaded the radar of an FBI expending resources setting up fictional crimes and then prosecuting those involved.

Yet, as advocates for those caught up in “entrapment” cases discover, there is little public or judicial sympathy for them. Even in cases where judges have admitted FBI tactics have raised serious questions, there has been no hesitation in returning guilty verdicts, handing down lengthy sentences and dismissing appeals.

The Liberty City Seven are a case in point. The 2006 case involved an informant, Elie Assaad, with a dubious past (he was once arrested, but not charged, for beating his pregnant wife). Assaad was let loose with another informant on a group of men in Liberty City, a poor, predominantly black, suburb of Miami. The targets were followers of a cult-like group called The Seas of David, led by former Guardian Angel Narseal Batiste.

The group was, perhaps, not even Muslim, as its religious practices involved Bible study and wearing the Star of David. Yet Assaad posed as an Al-Qaida operative, and got members of the group to swear allegiance. Transcripts of the “oath-taking” ceremony are almost farcical. Batiste repeatedly queries the idea and appears bullied into it. In effect, defence lawyers argued, the men were confused, impoverished members of an obscure cult.

Yet targets the group supposedly entertained attacking included the Sears Tower in Chicago, Hollywood movie studios and the Empire State Building. Even zealous prosecutors, painting a picture of dedicated Islamic terrorists, admitted any potential plots were “aspirational”, given the group had no means to carry them out.

Nonetheless, they were charged with seeking to wage war against America, plotting to destroy buildings and supporting terrorism. Five of them got long jail sentences. Assaad, who was recently arrested in Texas for attempting to run over a policeman, was paid $85,000 for his work.

This year the jailed Liberty City men launched an appeal and last week judgment was handed down. They lost, and officially remain Islamic terrorists hell-bent on destroying America. Not that their supporters see it that way.

“Our country is no safer as a result of the prosecution of these seven impoverished young men from Liberty City,” said Batiste’s lawyer, Ana Jhones.

“This prosecution came at great financial cost to our government, and at a terrible emotional cost to these defendants and their families. It is my sincere belief that our country is less safe as a result of the government’s actions in this case.”

FROM: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/nov/16/fbi-entrapment-fake-terror-plots