by Paul Harris
16 November 2011
Critics say bureau is running a sting
operation across America, targeting vulnerable people by luring them
into fake terror plots
The FBI has drawn
criticism over its apparent use of 'entrapment' tactics.
Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty
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
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
Even more shocking was that the organization, 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 specializes in studying the new
But the issue is one that stretches far beyond
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 bureau send informants to trawl through
Muslim communities, hang out in mosques and community centers, 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.
The homes of the Fort Dix
Five were raided by the FBI.
Photograph: Joseph Kaczmarek/AP
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
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
"Legally, you have to use the word
entrapment very carefully. It is a very strict legal term," said
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
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 realizing 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
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
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, defense 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."