"The problem with the cases we're talking about is that defendants would not have done anything if not kicked in the ass by government agents," says Martin Stolar, a lawyer who represented a man caught in a 2004 sting involving New York's Herald Square  subway station. "They're creating crimes to solve crimes so they can claim a victory in the war on terror." In the FBI's defense, supporters argue that the bureau will only pursue a case when the target clearly is willing to participate in violent action. "If you're doing a sting right, you're offering the target multiple chances to back out," says Peter Ahearn, a retired FBI special agent who directed the Western New York Joint Terrorism Task Force and oversaw the investigation of the Lackawanna Six , an alleged terror cell near Buffalo, New York. "Real people don't say, 'Yeah, let's go bomb that place.' Real people call the cops."
Even so, Ahearn concedes that the uptick in successful terrorism stings might not be evidence of a growing threat so much as a greater focus by the FBI. "If you concentrate more people on a problem," Ahearn says, "you'll find more problems." Today, the FBI follows up on literally every single call, email, or other terrorism-related tip it receives for fear of missing a clue.
And the emphasis is unlikely to shift anytime soon. Sting operations have "proven to be an essential law enforcement tool in uncovering and preventing potential terror attacks," said Attorney General Eric Holder in a December 2010 speech  to Muslim lawyers and civil rights activists. President Obama's Department of Justice has announced sting-related prosecutions at an even faster clip than the Bush administration, with 44 new cases since January 2009. With the war on terror an open-ended and nebulous conflict, the FBI doesn't have an exit strategy.