Rezwan Ferdaus is a 26-year-old US citizen of Bangladeshi descent. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison after pleading guilty to attempting to blow up the Pentagon and the US Capitol. This plot was devised with the direct guidance of a federal agent who infiltrated Ferdaus' mosque and even provided the fake explosives. An FBI agent said of Ferdaus to the convict's father that he "obviously" is mentally ill. Ferdaus, who also suffered from severe depression, seizures, and had to wear adult diapers for bladder control problems, was the victim of the sort of FBI sting that crosses the fine line into entrapment. And these operations are no rarity.
In everyday parlance, the difference between a sting and an act of entrapment seems minimal. They carry the same gist: influencing an individual to carry out an act, in which they are then caught.
By the letter of the law, however, the difference between a sting and entrapment is significant. Sting operations are legal. A cursory glance at popular culture's imagining of FBI work would suggest that stings are in fact the bread and butter of federal policing. It makes for entertainment — the unfolding of elaborate investigative schemes; an agent with a hunch and a five o'clock shadow catches dastardly criminals doing what they invariably would do anyway. Entrapment, meanwhile, is when law enforcement induces a person or group to commit a crime that they would otherwise have been unlikely to commit.
In the fanciful world of television policing, cops are the goodies, criminals are the baddies, stings are stings and stings are legal. In reality, sting operations regularly cross the line into entrapment. The line in US law is purportedly clear: entrapment is illegal, stings are legal. How this line is actually walked by law enforcement is, however, fuzzy at best.
A report released this week from Human Rights Watch highlights how, consistently, FBI sting operations are over aggressive and premised on the racist profiling of Muslim communities — that old building block of our contemporary national security state. Based on 215 interviews and focusing on 27 post-9/11 cases of alleged terror plot thwarting, HRW's findings call into question the very legitimacy of the FBI's counterterror work. The authors go as far as to call a number of stings "government-created" terror plots.
Introducing the report, HRW's Andrea Prasow noted that “Americans have been told that their government is keeping them safe by preventing and prosecuting terrorism inside the US… 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.”
It is no secret that US counterterrorism is regularly prefigurative. Under the pretext of stopping terror attacks before they happen, federal agencies like the FBI, NSA, and CIA target networks based often on nothing more valid than religious affiliation. "Sting" operations perform a pernicious part of this equation by drawing otherwise harmless individuals into situations wherein they are framed, and then punished, as terrorists.
As HRW noted, “Multiple studies have found that nearly 50 percent of the federal counterterrorism convictions since September 11, 2001, resulted from informant-based cases. Almost 30 percent were sting operations in which the informant played an active role in the underlying plot." This means that FBI involvement has been the sine qua non of nearly a third of federal terror convictions (and therefore plots). The government is creating the very terror it claims to fight.
The premise of a sting is that the operation catches criminals or terrorists doing what they would have done anyway. There is a dangerous counterfactual here that seemingly gives the state insurmountable leverage. Who can prove what anyone would have done anyway? How can it be shown that a group would have carried out a terror attack, when the feds provide the very conditions for a terror attack to be carried out?
US justice has set the burden of proof the feds must show for the "would-have-done-it-anyway" condition troublingly low. Consider the case of the "Newburgh Four." Using incentives including money and food, the FBI convinced four Muslim men to agree to a plot to shoot down military planes and blow up two synagogues in the Bronx. The FBI took the lead at every stage of the so-called plot. One of the so-called terrorists was a schizophrenic who kept his own urine in a bottle. While a Second Circuit judge said that the government “came up with the crime, provided the means, and removed all relevant obstacles,” and had, in the process, made a terrorist out of a man “whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope," all of the Four were convicted and sentenced to 25 years. They maintain that the sting crossed the line into entrapment.
Since 9/11, Muslims in the US have been the focus of major counterterror stings. But other groups have been caught in the net where sting meets entrapment. A small group of self-identified anarchists in Cleveland were all convicted to around 10 years in prison for allegedly plotting to blow up a bridge in Ohio. But an FBI infiltrator provided the target and the fake C-4 explosives. Rick Perlstein wrote of the case in Rolling Stone, "the alleged terrorist masterminds end up seeming, when the full story comes out, unable to terrorize their way out of a paper bag without law enforcement tutelage.”
In the same 2012 article, Perlstein stresses an important point about FBI schemes in the still-rippling wake of 9/11. In previous decades, when defendants would claim entrapment, juries would sometimes listen. The 1972 indictment against Vietnam Vets Against the War was thrown out when a jury ruled that activists were entrapped by feds in a conspiracy to attack the RNC. However, not one terrorism indictment has been thrown out for entrapment since September 2001.
It is a sign of paranoid times, peppered with anti-Islamic sentiment. Federal agents can pick their terrorists and bring them into being. The government can provide every element of a terrorist plot, from target, to objective, to explosives. It appears to pass muster that suspects be Muslim to assert that they would have done it anyway.
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