by Abdullah Al-Arian
The use of informants to target communities is one of the most alarming trends to have developed since 9/11.
The FBI has used informants in its counterterrorism tactics [AP]
On the surface, the scene unfolds without any hint of intrigue. A young Muslim convert named Darren Griffin meets fellow congregants at a local mosque in northwest Ohio. In addition to sharing the same faith as his new friends, they enjoy similar interests: watching sports, playing video games, working out at the local gym, and discussing international affairs. Except the scene ends tragically with a string of arrests, a national media frenzy, and self-congratulation among federal officials claiming to have foiled yet another terrorist plot.
The only problem is that Griffin was an FBI plant and the terror plot he supposedly helped thwart was entirely manufactured by the United States government. Purely on the strength of Griffin’s aggressive recruitment tactics, three young American Muslims received prison sentences ranging from eight to 20 years.
Similar scenarios have played out in many cities across the US during the past decade. “Informants“, the new documentary film from Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit, explores a phenomenon that has been far more pervasive than the media, government officials, or community leaders have acknowledged. In addition to sharing the heart-wrenching stories of the victims of these entrapment tactics, the film is unique because it shines a light on the informants themselves, highlighting the crucial role that they played in actively enlisting young men who never demonstrated any inclinations toward engaging in violence.
In order to understand how the use of paid informants became such a crucial cog in the FBI’s counterterrorism policy, one need only trace the major shift in the US national security paradigm after 9/11. Prior to the September 11 attacks, the FBI employed 10,500 agents, about 2,500 of whom were dedicated to national security investigations.
After 9/11, however, the overall number of agents expanded to 13,600, half of whom became devoted to national security. The annual budget of the FBI has risen dramatically from $3.1bn in 2001 to $8.4bn in the current fiscal year. Together, expanded budgets, the availability of advanced technological capabilities, and a permissive political climate combined to create an environment where federal law enforcement agencies enjoyed vastly expanded powers but were also expected to demonstrate immediate results.
In the course of investigating American Muslims for possible terrorist threats, the government cast a wide net. It placed tens of thousands of Muslims under constant surveillance, infiltrated community spaces, including mosques, dug through private records, interrogated many Muslims because of their political views and probed for any links to violent activities. These investigations largely turned up nothing, and that was a problem.
In order to continue to justify the robust expenditure of resources and the expansive investigative powers, officials needed results in the form of thwarted terrorist plots that demonstrated to American citizens that unless the FBI acted, the next attack was right around the corner. That climate of fear helped rationalise many of the country’s worst civil liberties violations committed under the Bush Administration and consolidated as standard practice during Obama’s presidency. To sustain the perception of the threat, one had to be created where it did not exist.
Enter the informants. As Al Jazeera’s investigative film lays out, many of the most high-profile terrorism cases of the last decade were not a product of insidious Muslim sleeper cells uncovered by skillful investigators. Rather, in the absence of actual plots, the FBI actively targeted communities, identifying particularly vulnerable individuals, and sending them informants with the expressed purpose of ensnaring them in a conspiracy.
The informants are not government agents. Rather, they are almost always criminal offenders attempting to avoid prison time through their cooperation with the government. From drug dealing to fraud, their criminal history ostensibly provides them the tools they need to maintain their deception, though a crash course on basic Islamic beliefs and rituals is a must. With codenames like “The Trainer”, “The Closer”, and “The Bodybuilder”, they play to their particular strengths while identifying the weaknesses of those they are sent to entrap.
In the case of the latter, Craig Monteilh hung out in mosques where he hoped to meet Muslim youth and invite them to work out at a local gym. There, he could ostensibly engage them in conversation about volatile political subjects and broach the topic of terrorism over an intense workout regimen. When his aggressive posture provoked suspicion on the part of community members in southern California, local leaders reported Monteilh to the FBI, apparently not realising that it was the FBI which had sent him into their community in the first place.
The community’s experience with the “Bodybuilder” is particularly egregious, given the seeming vindictive nature of the FBI’s conduct in that case. The local imam, Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, dared to question publicly the veracity of claims made by a local FBI official at a town hall meeting. “The FBI does not take that lightly,” Monteilh recalled to Al Jazeera. “So they had me get close to Mr Fazaga, to get into his inner circle.” When Monteilh failed to ensnare Fazaga or any other local Muslims into a terrorist plot the FBI attempted to pursue immigration charges against Ahmadullah Sais Niazi, an Afghan immigrant who was one of those who reported Monteilh to the FBI for his suspicious behaviour. But the Department of Justice eventually dropped those charges and so Operation Flex, it seems, ended in failure.
This case, however, was the exception. The overwhelming majority of so-called “pre-emptive prosecutions” end in convictions on terrorism charges of individuals who the government is unable to prove would have ever entered into a violent plot on their own accord. More often than not, the FBI targets young Muslims with strong political opinions, usually concerning the role of the US in the plight of Muslims in places like Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Kashmir. As a former FBI special agent told Al Jazeera about the Ohio case, “The whole purpose was to verify whether it was more than just talk.”
By treating the political opinions of American Muslims as cause for suspicion, government investigators operate on the assumption that free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution do not extend to a particular segment of the American people. Over the years, the FBI’s actions have had a dramatic chilling effect on the ability of Muslims to express their political views. Motivated by such pressures from the government, many community leaders around the country have since attempted to suppress political expression in mosques and community centres.
But absent such healthy community spaces through which to channel passions for humanitarian concerns around the globe, it actually becomes more likely that young Muslims could channel their frustrations through alternative modes of oppositional politics. This type of quietist, disaffected atmosphere sanitised of all political expression is precisely the environment in which agent provocateurs thrive.
In some cases, there is not even any “talk” to motivate the FBI into infiltrating communities. The Liberty City case with which Al Jazeera’s investigative film begins concerns a group of impoverished black men in Florida with no history of political activism or inflammatory speech. Nevertheless, the FBI sent in “The Closer” a fast-talking informant named Elie Assaad who operated as the ringleader for an alleged plot to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago. Swaying the impressionable and impoverished young men with promises of everything from shoes to wear to large sums of cash, Assaad enlists Rothschild Augustine and six others in his conspiracy.
In relaying this story to Al Jazeera’s investigators, Assaad and Augustine reveal a number of disturbing practices in the concocted plot. The FBI specifically selected its own south Florida offices as a surveillance target, attempting to position itself as the victim of the conspiracy rather than the originator of it, despite the fact that there is no indication that the men even knew where or what it was. The ceremonial oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda that Assaad administered to the seven men displayed what can only be described as a symbol of the cartoonish imagery with which many in the US government associate Islam and Muslims.
Perhaps most worrisome in the case of the Liberty City 7, and an eerily similar case in New York, is the ways in which the FBI has exploited the endemic poverty and social problems from drug use to lack of education that are prevalent within some black communities across the US in order to construct the perception of a terrorist threat. In the latter case, the Newburgh Four were promised a payment of $250,000 by a government informant who they hoped to manipulate in turn. The Newburgh Sting is an HBO documentary, also premiering soon, which chronicles the government’s excesses in carrying out this plot and the devastation it has caused to an impoverished community.
A startling report utilising the Department of Justice’s internal statistics recently stated that in the decade after 9/11, 94.2 percent of federal terrorism convictions were obtained, at least in part, on the basis of preemptive prosecutions. Given how pervasive this practice has been, it is noteworthy that American Muslim civil rights groups have not developed a coordinated response to what has plainly become a widespread use of informants nationwide. In some instances, they have even attempted to downplay the problem of preemptive prosecutions, as in one report by a prominent American Muslim organisation that states that “while the numbers clearly show informants are frequently used by federal law enforcement, a majority of these cases do not involve them at all.”
The use of informants to target communities is one of the most alarming trends to have developed since 9/11, as it threatens to undo the fabric of a free society. That these recent investigative films have laid bare this troubling phenomenon and displayed its consequences for all to see, is a critical first step in confronting its damaging effect not only on the vulnerable American Muslim community but on American society as a whole.
Abdullah Al-Arian is assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service in Qatar and author of Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt.
Follow him on Twitter: @anhistorian