The following is an excerpt from The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War on Terrorism by Trevor Aaronson (Ig Publishing, 2013).
The FBI’s search for would-be terrorists is so all-consuming that agents are willing to partner with the most heinous of criminals if they appear able to deliver targets. That’s what happened in Seattle, Washington, in the summer of 2011, when agents chose to put on the government payroll a convicted rapist and child molester.
The investigation began on June 3, 2011, when a man contacted the Seattle Police Department and told them that he had a friend named Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif who was interested in attacking Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Washington. The tipster told police that Abdul-Latif had already recruited an associate, a man named Walli Mujahidh. Seattle police referred the caller to the FBI, whose agents quickly enlisted him as an informant and launched a full investigation of Abdul-Latif and Mujahidh.
Based on these initial actions, it was clear that the FBI believed it was dealing with two dangerous potential terrorists. But in reality, what it had were two financially troubled men with histories of mental problems. Abdul-Latif, whose birth name was Joseph Anthony Davis, had spent his teenage years huffing gasoline and once told a psychologist he heard voices and saw things that weren’t there. When he was twenty-three, he tried to commit suicide by overdosing on pills intended to treat seizure disorders, later telling a psychologist that he “felt lonely and had no use to live.” His partner in the supposed terrorist plot, thirty-one-year-old Mujahidh, whose name was Frederick Domingue Jr. before his conversion to Islam, had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which causes mood swings and abnormal thoughts. Dorothy Howard, who met Mujahidh through her daughter when they lived in Pomona, California, remembered him as sweet-natured but gullible, someone who was trying hard to get a handle on his mental problems but wasn’t always successful. “Sometimes he would call me and say, ‘Mrs. Howard, I really need my medications. Can you take me to the clinic?’” Howard recalled. “Sometimes they would keep him three or four days.”
The FBI’s informant, whose name was not revealed, was the only source claiming that Abdul-Latif and Mujahidh were terrorists on the make. And the informant came with an outrageous story of his own. In addition to being a convicted rapist and child molester, according to government records, he had stolen thousands of dollars from Abdul-Latif in the past and had tried, but failed, to steal Abdul-Latif ’s wife as well. The state of Washington had also classified the informant as a high-risk sex offender, and while working for the FBI, he was caught sending sexual text messages in violation of his parole—something he attempted to hide from agents by trying to delete the messages. Despite what were obvious problems with the investigation from the start, the FBI gave the informant recording equipment and instructed him to move forward with the sting.
As Abdul-Latif and the informant discussed possible targets—after growing concerned that attacking a military base would be too difficult, given the armed guards and fortification—it became clear that the Seattle man had no capacity to carry out a terrorist attack. In fact, Abdul-Latif had little capacity for anything, since he had only $800 to his name, and his only asset was a 1995 Honda Passport with 162,000 miles. In addition, his supposed accomplice, Mujahidh, was still in Southern California. But his friend, the informant, said he could provide everything they would need for the attack, including M13 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and bulletproof vests. That Abdul-Latif didn’t have much money and didn’t know anyone who could provide him with weapons strongly suggested that the plot was nothing more than talk, and would have stayed that way had the FBI not gotten involved.
After scuttling the idea to attack Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Abdul-Latif and the informant settled on a plan to attack a Seattle processing station for incoming troops, where most of the people would be unarmed. “Imagine how many young Muslims, if we’re successful, will try to hit these kinds of centers. Imagine how fearful America will be, and they’ll know they can’t push Muslims around,” Abdul-Latif said. On June 14, 2011, Abdul-Latif and the informant purchased a bus ticket for Mujahidh to travel to Seattle from Los Angeles. Needing to select a password that would allow Mujahidh to pick up the ticket at the station, Abdul-Latif initially suggested “jihad.” He and the informant laughed about the password choice before Abdul-Latif decided on “OBL,” for Osama bin Laden.
A week later, Mujahidh arrived in Seattle, and the three men drove to a parking garage to inspect the weapons the informant had procured. Inside a duffel bag were three assault rifles. Mujahidh took hold of one of the guns, aimed, and pulled the trigger. Abdul-Latif inspected one of the other rifles. “This is an automatic?” he asked. The informant then showed him how to switch on the rifle’s setting for automatic firing. At that point, FBI agents rushed into the garage and arrested Abdul-Latif and Mujahidh. The two men were charged with conspiracy to murder officers and agents of the United States, conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, and four firearms counts. The FBI paid the informant $90,000 for his work on the case.
Michele Shaw was the public defender appointed to Mujahidh. When she first met him inside a jail in Seattle, she couldn’t believe he was the man the government had portrayed as a dangerous terrorist. “He is the most compliant client I have ever worked with in my twenty-two years of practicing law and so appreciative of our weekly visits,” Shaw said. From the start, Shaw knew she had a mental health case on her hands, not a terrorist case. Mujahidh was easily susceptible to the informant, she believed, because he had a history of relying on others to help him separate fantasy from reality. But the judge in the case didn’t agree. “Walli’s mental health issues in my opinion are huge and looming large, but the court stated this week on the record that my client’s mental health issues are a very tiny part of this case,” Shaw told me in October 2011. Unable to use mental health in an entrapment defense, Shaw reluctantly recommended that Mujahidh plead guilty. He agreed, and was sentenced to twenty-seven to thirty-two years in prison. For his part, Abdul-Latif pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.[Editor’s note: In March, after Aaronson’s book was published, Abdul-Latif pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 years in prison.] Had it not been for a rapist and child molester fishing for a payday, Abdul-Latif and Mujahidh would likely be today where they were in June 2011—two Americans you’d never hear about, trapped on the margins of a society to which they posed no threat.
Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif and Walli Mujahidh became terrorists because the FBI and one of its informants had incentives for making the pair into terrorists. The informant’s incentive was monetary, while the FBI agents who supervised the sting were under intense pressure from their higher-ups to build a terrorism case. At no point during the sting operation did anyone question whether someone like Abdul-Latif was more despondent loser than scary mass murderer. That is a problem inherent in today’s terrorism sting operations: the FBI and its informants are under pressure—albeit for different reasons— to see terrorists, even where none exist.
Since informants have vested interests in seeing their targets convicted—with criminal informants often having their own personal freedom on the line—it’s the FBI’s responsibility to ensure that these interests do not influence investigations. If the Bureau is following “the book” during an investigation, agents will give an informant tasking orders before each meeting between the informant and the targets. These orders will include what the informant should discuss and how he should behave during the meeting. Ideally, the meeting with the targets should be taped, giving the FBI an indisputable record of what was said. At regular intervals, FBI agents should also subject their informant to a polygraph test to make sure he isn’t lying or withholding information. If the informant fails the polygraph, or engages in criminal behavior not authorized by the FBI, agents are supposed to cut him from the ranks.
However, the FBI doesn’t always work by the book. We know this because the Bureau has documented many occasions when it doesn’t play by its own rules. Elie Assaad, the informant in the Florida stings involving Imran Mandhai and the Liberty City Seven, lied during a polygraph examination in Chicago yet continued to work as an FBI informant. In the Michael Finton case, the FBI had credible information that its informant was dealing drugs yet continued to use him until the final day of the sting operation. The informant in the Rezwan Ferdaus case was caught on an FBI video purchasing heroin and still the Bureau continued to pay him for his work. These informants were allowed to lead terrorism stings because the pressure to find would-be terrorists is so great that it’s created a precarious situation in which FBI agents identify loudmouths on the fringes of society and through, elaborate sting operations involving informants, many with criminal backgrounds, transform these powerless braggarts into dangerous terrorists engaged in horrifying plots to bomb buildings, public squares, and subway stations.