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Most Terrorist Plots in the US Aren't Invented by Al Qaeda -- They're Manufactured by the FBI

In the ten years following 9/11, the FBI and the Justice Department convicted more than 150 people following sting operations, though few had any connection to real terrorists.

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The FBI has a term for Martinez and other alleged terrorists like him: lone wolf. Officials at the Bureau now believe that the next terrorist attack will likely come from a lone wolf, and this belief is at the core of a federal law enforcement policy known variously as preemption, prevention, and disruption. FBI counterterrorism agents want to catch terrorists before they act, and to accomplish this, federal law enforcement officials have in the decade since 9/11 created the largest domestic spying network ever to exist in the United States. In fact, the FBI today has ten times as many informants as it did in the 1960s, when former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover made the Bureau infamous for inserting spies into organizations as varied as Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s and the Ku Klux Klan. Modern FBI informants aren’t burrowing into political groups, however; they are focused on terrorism, on identifying today the terrorist of tomorrow, and U.S. government officials acknowledge that while terrorist threats do exist from domestic organizations, such as white supremacist groups and the sovereign citizen movement, they believe the greatest threat comes from within U.S. Muslim communities due, in large part, to the aftereffects of the shock and awe Al Qaeda delivered on September 11, 2001.

The FBI’s vast army of spies, located in every community in the United States with enough Muslims to support a mosque, has one primary function: to identify the next lone wolf.  According to the Bureau, a lone wolf is likely to be a single male age sixteen to thirty-five. Therefore, informants and their FBI handlers are on the lookout for young Muslims who espouse radical beliefs, are vocal about their disapproval of U.S. foreign policy, or have expressed sympathy for international terrorist groups. If they find anyone who meets the criteria, they move him to the next stage: the sting, in which an FBI informant, posing as a terrorist, offers to help facilitate a terrorist attack for the target.

On a cold February morning in 2011, I met with Peter Ahearn, a retired FBI special agent who directed the Western New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, in a coffee shop outside Washington, D.C., to talk about how the FBI runs its operations. Ahearn was among the Bureau’s vanguard as it transformed into a counterterrorism organization in the wake of 9/11. An average-built man with a small dimple on his chin and close-cropped brown hair receding in the front, Ahearn oversaw one of the earliest post-9/11 terrorism investigations, involving the so-called Lackawanna Six—a group of six Yemeni-American men living outside Buffalo, New York, who attended a training camp in Afghanistan and were convicted of providing material support to Al Qaeda. “If you’re doing a sting right, you’re offering the target multiple chances to back out,” Ahearn told me. “Real people don’t say, ‘Yeah, let’s go bomb that place.’ Real people call the cops.”

Indeed, while terrorism sting operations are a new practice for the Bureau, they are an evolution of an FBI tactic that has for decades captured the imaginations of Hollywood filmmakers. In 1982, as the illegal drug trade overwhelmed local police resources nationwide and contributed to an increase in violent crime, President Ronald Reagan’s first attorney general, William French Smith, gave the FBI jurisdiction over federal drug crimes, which previously had been the exclusive domain of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Eager to show up their DEA rivals, FBI agents began aggressively sending undercover agents into America’s cities. This was relatively new territory for the FBI, which, during Hoover’s thirty-seven-year stewardship, had mandated that agents wear a suit and tie at all times, federal law enforcement badge easily accessible from the coat pocket. But an increasingly powerful Mafia and the bloody drug war compelled the FBI to begin enforcing federal laws from the street level. In searching for drug crimes, FBI agents hunted sellers as well as buyers, and soon learned one of the best strategies was to become part of the action.

 
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