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How the FBI's Network of Informants Actually Created Most of the Terrorist Plots "Foiled" in the US Since 9/11

The FBI has built a massive network of spies to prevent another domestic attack. But are they busting terrorist plots—or leading them?

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Maqsood was an undercover operative; that much was true. But not for Jaish-e-Mohammad. His real name was  Shahed Hussain [13], and he was a paid informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Ever since 9/11, counterterrorism has been the FBI's No. 1 priority, consuming the lion's share of its budget—$3.3 billion, compared to $2.6 billion for organized crime—and much of the attention of field agents and a massive, nationwide network of informants. After years of emphasizing informant recruiting as a key task for its agents, the bureau now maintains a roster of 15,000 spies—many of them tasked, as Hussain was, with infiltrating Muslim communities in the United States. In addition, for every informant officially listed in the bureau's records, there are as many as three unofficial ones, according to one former high-level FBI official, known in bureau parlance as "hip pockets."

The informants could be doctors, clerks, imams. Some might not even consider themselves informants. But the FBI regularly taps all of them as part of a domestic intelligence apparatus whose only historical peer might be  COINTELPRO [14], the program the bureau ran from the '50s to the '70s to discredit and marginalize organizations ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to civil-rights and protest groups.

Throughout the FBI’s history, informant numbers have been closely guarded secrets. Periodically, however, the bureau has released those figures. A Senate oversight committee in 1975 found the FBI had  1,500 informant [15]s [15]. In 1980, officials disclosed there were  2,800 [16]. Six years later, following the FBI’s push into drugs and organized crime, the number of bureau informants ballooned to 6,000, the  Los Angeles Times  reported [16] in 1986.  And according to the FBI, the number grew significantly  after 9/11. In its fiscal year  2008 budget authorization request [17], the FBI disclosed that it it had been been working under a November 2004 presidential directive  demanding an increase [18] in "human source development and management," and that it needed  $12.7 million [19] for a program to keep tabs on its spy network and create software to track and manage informants.

The bureau's strategy has changed significantly from the days when officials feared another coordinated, internationally financed attack from an Al Qaeda sleeper cell. Today, counterterrorism experts believe groups like Al Qaeda, battered by the war in Afghanistan and the efforts of the global intelligence community, have shifted to a franchise model, using the internet to encourage sympathizers to carry out attacks in their name. The main domestic threat, as the FBI sees it, is a lone wolf.

The bureau's answer has been a strategy known variously as "preemption," "prevention," and "disruption"—identifying and neutralizing potential lone wolves before they move toward action. To that end, FBI agents and informants target not just active jihadists, but tens of thousands of law-abiding people, seeking to identify those disgruntled few who might participate in a plot given the means and the opportunity. And then, in case after case, the government provides the plot, the means, and the opportunity.

Here's how it works: Informants report to their handlers on people who have, say, made statements sympathizing with terrorists. Those names are then cross-referenced with existing intelligence data, such as immigration and criminal records. FBI agents may then assign an undercover operative to approach the target by posing as a radical. Sometimes the operative will propose a plot, provide explosives, even lead the target in a fake oath to Al Qaeda. Once enough incriminating information has been gathered, there's an arrest—and a  press conference [20] announcing another foiled plot.

 
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