5 Examples of How the Government Pressures Poor and Mentally Ill People into Becoming Faux Terrorists

The U.S. government is creating terrorist plots out of thin air.


That’s a central takeaway from a new, comprehensive report published by Human Rights Watch on how the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation pursue and prosecute terrorism suspects.

“Americans have been told that their government is keeping them safe by preventing and prosecuting terrorism inside the US,” said Andrew Prasow, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Washington director, in a statement. “But take a closer look and you realize that many of these people would never have committed a crime if not for law enforcement encouraging, pressuring, and sometimes paying them to commit terrorist acts.”

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have poured millions of dollars into stopping the menace of terrorism. Not a year has gone by without law enforcement authorities trumpeting the capture of a would-be terrorist and then staging self-congratulatory press conferences designed to let the public know the FBI is doing a good job at securing the homeland.

What most people don’t realize is that many of the over 500 people prosecuted for terrorism-related crimes expressed no interest in terrorism before an FBI informant approached them. And when these people are arrested and convicted, they endure harsh treatment at the hands of the courts and police. The overwhelming majority of those targeted by the FBI for terrorism are Muslim, and often end up on law enforcement radar for expressing beliefs about politics or religion-—constitutionally protected activities.

Human Rights Watch’s report report is a broad look at the justice system’s treatment of alleged terrorism suspects. The group concludes that widespread reform is needed at the federal level to correct many of the abuses they outline. Here are five of the most shocking facts from the report.

1. Informants are the bread and butter of law enforcement efforts on terrorism. The FBI employs at least 15,000 informants nationwide in its fight against terrorism, a number that rivals the informant operation J. Edgar Hoover put in place at the height of the Cold War and hysteria over communism. But rather than keeping the U.S. safe from terrorism, many of the informants end up egging on plots that never would have arisen without the FBI’s prodding. The informants do the work to curry favor with law enforcement over their own legal troubles.

According to Human Rights Watch, “nearly 50 percent of the more than 500 federal counter-terrorism convictions resulted from informant based cases; almost 30 percent of those cases were sting operations in which the informant played an active role in the underlying plot.” Informants typically infiltrate mosques and other places where American Muslims congregate and try to find people who are amenable to talking about jihad. They also target the most vulnerable of society.

2. The FBI targets the mentally ill and poor. The people most susceptible to pressure are the most alienated, disenfranchised members of society. People with mental illness, or those who need money to make ends meet, are tantalizing targets for an FBI endlessly looking for people who might want to talk about jihad, even if they have no plans to carry out violence.

Take the case of the Newburgh Four, in which both mental illness and money were at play. In 2009, four Muslim men from upstate New York (Newburgh) were arrested on charges of trying to bomb two Jewish synagogues and shoot down planes. An FBI informant recruited James Cromitie, an African-American Muslim, to take part in the plot the FBI informant concocted. Cromitie was a former drug addict, and another defendant in the case, Laguerre Payan, had schizophrenia and had such severe mental illness he kept bottles of urine in his apartment. Another defendant, David Williams, had a brother who needed a liver transplant and he wanted cash for it.

Even the judge in the Newburgh Four case admitted that the government “came up with the crime, provided the means, and removed all relevant obstacles.”

3. The government uses the broad charge of “material support” to ensnare Muslims. When Americans think of terrorism, their mind turns to images of blown-up buildings and maimed bodies. But the U.S. government has labeled people terrorists for violating the “material support” statutes.

After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Congress passed a law to prohibit giving terrorist groups weapons, money, goods and training. After 9/11 the Patriot Act broadened the definition of such support to include “expert advice or assistance.”

The law has been used to prosecute people for innocuous things like the case of Fahad Hashmi, who was arrested in 2006 for storing ponchos and socks that came from alleged militants and charged with providing “material support” for terrorists.

4. Trials for terrorism suspects are deeply unfair. Suspects accused of terrorist activity have the deck stacked against them. When Americans hear the word terrorism, they’re predisposed to want to lock the accused away. And that’s just the beginning of the ways trials are unfair.

Human Rights Watch documented how prejudicial evidence is often introduced into trials, like “references to terrorism unrelated to the charges.” For instance, Tarek Mehanna was accused of providing “material support” to terrorists. During the trial, prosecutors showed the jury pictures of the World Trade Center in flames and of Osama bin Laden, even though there was no link between Mehanna and 9/11 or bin Laden.

Anonymous witnesses are sometimes used, depriving the accused of the right to confront the witness. Perhaps most troublingly is evidence obtained under coercion. Ahmed Abu Ali was arrested in Saudi Arabia in 2003. He was caught up in a wave of mass arrests the Saudi authorities engaged in after the bombing of compounds in Riyadh used by Westerners. Abu Ali was beaten, denied food and threatened with amputation. He made statements and signed a document under duress that the Saudi authorities wrote for him.

When Abu Ali returned to the U.S., he was arrested and charged with “material support” for terrorism, and eventually, conspiring to assassinate George W. Bush. The judge in the case allowed the “evidence” Saudi authorities obtained to be used during the trial. Abu Ali is serving a life sentence.

5. Those convicted of terrorism are treated harshly in prison. The nightmare for those accused of terrorism, even on the flimsiest charges, doesn’t end with conviction.

The use of solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time is common. UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez has said that its use could amount to torture in some cases. Many prisoners are also placed in Communication Management Units, where their communications with the outside world are heavily monitored. And some of those convicted of terrorism are placed under Special Administrative Measures, which “often require the imposition of extreme physical and social isolation.” These measures bar the inmate from communicating with other inmates, and in some cases from exercising outdoors.

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