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Did the FBI Use Occupy Cleveland Case to Equate Activism with Terrorism?

Another case exposes the FBI's decade-long entrapment trend.



Four members of Occupy Cleveland have been  sentenced over the past two weeks after pleading guilty to terrorism-related charges for their involvement in an FBI-concocted plan to bomb the city’s Brecksville-Northfield High Level Bridge on April 30 in advance of planned May Day demonstrations across the country.

At the request of federal prosecutors, U.S. District Judge David Dowd applied terrorism enhancements against the defendants, thereby increasing their prison terms. On November 20, Douglas Wright, 26, was sentenced to 11 and a half years in prison. Brandon Baxter, 20, was sentenced to nearly 10 years, and Connor Stevens, also 20, was sentenced to more than eight years. As part of their sentences, the three will be on supervised release for the rest of their lives. Then, on Friday, Anthony Hayne, 35, who originally took a  cooperating plea agreement in July, was sentenced to six years. A fifth defendant, Joshua Stafford, 23, is being assessed for his ability to stand trial.

According to the federal government, the FBI successfully foiled a terrorist plot to blow up a Cleveland bridge, and by apprehending and prosecuting the suspects, the Justice Department has supposedly made America safer.

Or has it? Like the hundreds of other terrorism cases prosecuted since Sept. 11, 2001, there’s far more to this one than meets the eye.

Notably, the Cleveland case centered around a paid FBI informant who, like many informants, had a  long criminal history before working with the federal government. The FBI used Shaquille Azir, 39, to insert itself within the Occupy Wall Street movement. For months, Azir supplied the three defendants sentenced this week -- all of whom were previously unemployed and homeless -- with jobs, places to live, and alcohol and other drugs. Azir also did other things to create dependency like promising to help one of the defendants save his father’s house from foreclosure. In addition to making the defendants reliant on him for material needs, Azir pushed them to develop a plan and was disparaging when they repeatedly refused to take the bait. This pattern of creating dependency, and goading and bullying the targets into participating in the “crime” is a common entrapment tactic used by infiltrators and an integral part of the kind of manipulation that has gone on for more than a decade in these types of “terrorism”-related cases.

But how is this legal? Can the government get away with such blatant entrapment techniques? It can, partly because the difficult legal standard needed to show entrapment may embolden the FBI and its informants to push the envelope, and partly because of a relaxation of FBI investigational standards and judicial oversight. What’s clear is that informants are allowed to use a wide range of coercive tactics. Still, it begs the question of whether the crimes levied against the Cleveland defendants, and so many others like them, would have ever occurred if not for federal instigation and coercion.

According to research conducted in 2011 by Mother Jones, nearly half of the  500 people the government has prosecuted on terrorism charges since 9/11 were taken to court based on the evidence and testimony of informants. Muslims are predominantly the targets of so-called terrorism investigations and prosecutions, but political activists like the ones sentenced last week are also targets. However, regardless of who is targeted, law enforcement tactics in these cases are as consistent as they are egregious.

One case study can be found in the investigation and prosecution of two Muslim immigrants living in Albany, New York. Neither Mohammed Hossain, who was a Bangladeshi pizzeria owner and father of six, nor Yassin Aref, who was the imam at a local mosque, had any prior criminal record. Both Hossain and Aref were convicted in 2006 of money laundering, providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and conspiracy. As you dig deeper, however, the case dubbed the Albany “missile plot” has the telltale signature tactics of entrapment.

Shahed Hussain, a government informant who had fled murder charges in Pakistan and was facing jail time in the U.S., developed an elaborate plan with the FBI to entrap Hossain and Aref. The informant befriended Hossain by posing as a wealthy Pakistani businessman, gaining his trust and eventually offering him a loan of $50,000 for his struggling pizza business. Aref was called in by Hossain only to witness the loan transaction. In order to pin charges on the two men, the FBI concocted a story that tied Hossain’s loan to proceeds from the phony sale of a shoulder-launched missile.

In reality, the FBI played on Hossain’s economic needs by dangling a $50,000 carrot in front of him, while mentioning on a couple of occasions that he was part of a Pakistani group considered by the U.S. government to be a foreign terrorist organization. Only on one occasion did Hussain show the pizzeria owner part of a missile, later making obscure references to a fake plot to assassinate a Pakistani diplomat in New York City. It’s unclear from recordings how much Hossain and Aref understood the made-up FBI story, but the weak pretext was enough to convict the two on some of the charges. In 2007, both Hossain and Aref were sentenced to 15 years in prison, despite admissions by the FBI that their crimes were “not real” and the public had never been in jeopardy. There were no terrorists and no one was killed or even injured.

Shahed Hussain’s career as an FBI informant didn’t end there, either. In 2008, he began spying on the members of a mosque in nearby Newburgh, New York. Over many months, Hussain befriended James Cromitie, a Walmart worker who had converted to Islam in prison. Still posing as a wealthy Pakistani businessman, Hussain treated Cromitie to free meals, groceries and other gifts, eventually promising him $250,000 if he and others carried out an FBI-designed plot to attack a synagogue and Jewish community center in the Bronx and attack military planes at the Stewart International Airport near Newburgh. Once again, the government devised the plan and supplied the (fake) bomb materials, brashly announcing that the operation and the 2009 arrest of the Newburgh 4 was “fully controlled at all times.” Indeed, Hussain was driving the getaway car.

The Newburgh 4 case reveals another  common thread woven through many FBI terrorism entrapment cases, including the case of the Cleveland activists sentenced last week: targeting people who are on the margins, vulnerable, out of work, or disenfranchised. While the Newburgh 4 were largely depicted in the mainstream media as “homegrown terrorists,” they appeared to be targeted simply for their faith in Islam and because they happened to live in one of the most economically devastated areas of the country. When Hussain gave Cromitie a camera to photograph potential bomb targets, he immediately sold it for $50. Cromitie’s co-defendants included one person diagnosed with schizophrenia and another whom Hussain promised he would help fund his brother’s liver transplant.

According to the Village Voice, Hussain not only made up the “terror” plot, he also: