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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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Most people have no doubt seen drug sting operations as portrayed in countless movies and television shows. At its most cliché, the scene is set in a Miami high-rise apartment, its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the cresting waves of the Atlantic Ocean. There’s a man seated at the dining table; he’s longhaired, with a scruffy face, and he has a briefcase next to him. But that’s not all. Hidden on the other side of the room is a camera making a grainy black-and-white recording of the entire scene. The apartment’s door swings open and two men saunter in, the camera recording their every move and word. Everyone sits down at the table. The two men hand over bundles of cash. The scruffy man then hands over the briefcase. The two guests of course expect to find cocaine inside. Instead, the briefcase is empty, and as soon as they open it to find the drugs missing, FBI agents rush in, guns drawn for the takedown. Federal law enforcement officials call this type of sting operation a “no-dope bust,” and it has been an effective tool for decades. It’s also the direct predecessor to today’s terrorism sting. Instead of empty briefcases, the FBI today uses inert bombs and disabled assault rifles, and now that counter-terrorism is the Bureau’s top priority, the investigation of major drug crimes has largely fallen back to the DEA. Just as no-dope busts resulted in the arrest and prosecution of those in the drug trade in the twentieth century, terrorism sting operations are resulting in the arrest and prosecution of would-be terrorists in this century.

While the assumptions behind drug stings and terrorism stings are similar, there is a fundamental flaw in the assumption underpinning the latter. In drug stings, federal law enforcement officials assume that any buyer caught in a sting would have been able to buy or sell drugs elsewhere had that buyer not fallen into the FBI trap. The numbers support this assumption. In 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, the DEA seized 29,179 kilograms, or 64,328 pounds, of cocaine in the United States. Likewise, in terrorism stings, federal law enforcement officials assume that any would-be terrorists caught in a sting would have been able to acquire the means elsewhere to carry out their violent plans had they not been ensnared by the FBI. The problem with this assumption is that no data exists to support it, and what data is available suggests would-be Islamic terrorists caught in FBI terrorism stings never could have obtained the capability to carry out their planned violent acts were it not for the FBI’s assistance.

In the ten years following 9/11, the FBI and the Justice Department indicted and convicted more than 150 people following sting operations involving alleged connections to international terrorism. Few of these defendants had any connection to terrorists, evidence showed, and those who did have connections, however tangential, never had the capacity to launch attacks on their own. In fact, of the more than 150 terrorism sting operation defendants, an FBI informant not only led one of every three terrorist plots, but also provided all the necessary weapons, money, and transportation.

The FBI’s logic to support the use of terrorism stings goes something like this: By catching a lone wolf before he strikes, federal law enforcement can take him off the streets before he meets a real terrorist who can provide him with weapons and munitions. However, to this day, no example exists of a lone wolf, by himself unable to launch an attack, becoming operational through meeting an actual terrorist in the United States. In addition, in the dozens of terrorism sting operations since 9/11, the would-be terrorists are usually uneducated, unsophisticated, and economically desperate—not the attributes of someone likely to plan and launch a sophisticated, violent attack without significant help.

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