Journalist Trevor Aaronson
It turns out that the FBI has hatched and financed almost every terrorist plot on American soil since 9/11. Seriously. Since George W. Bush threw more counter-terrorism money at the FBI than you could shake a Qur'an at (but wouldn’t, because it's disrespectful), they've been performing long, drawn-out sting operations that goad young Muslims toying with the idea of extremism enact their violent fantasies, offering weapons and inspiration along the way. They then lock them up for half their lives and tell the public what a great job they're doing spending taxes to save their lives.
If this sounds familiar, it's probably because you've read any dystopian novel ever. Thankfully, we now know that all those books were actually science-fact rather than science-fiction because a Florida-based investigative journalist named Trevor Aaronson just wrote his own book, called The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War On Terrorism. Trevor read through 500 terrorism cases to conclude that – yes – Islamic terrorism is actually the big ruse you imagined it was that time you stayed up all night smoking weed and melting into your sofa.
I got in touch with Trevor to hear his ideas out.
VICE: Congratulations on your first book. You say that in the decade after 9/11 there have been over 150 “terrorists” convicted in sting operations. How many of these are real terrorists with international connections?
Trevor Aaronson: Thanks. That number has gone up to about 175 to date. These are all cases where if the accused had connections to international terrorism, it was tangential at best, and they never had the capacity to launch attacks on their own. While there have been real terrorists, we’ve manufactured so many more through sting operations.
How far do the sting operations go? Does the FBI encourage their extremism?
A good example of how it usually works is the story of Derrick Shareef, a videogame clerk and recent convert to Islam. It’s unclear why the government targeted him, but they sent an informant into his videogame store. He didn’t have a place to live and his car had broken down, so the informant invited him to live with him and use his car for a few months.
During that time, Derrick got angry and wanted to do something violent, mentioning that he wanted to “kill a judge”, though he couldn’t name a specific judge. It was just him talking big. The informant told him he knew an arms dealer who could provide them with grenades and suggested attacking a shopping mall. Derrick didn’t have any money to buy the grenades so the informant said: “I think if you take these stereo speakers to the arms dealer he’ll give us the grenades.” That’s pretty ridiculous – I don’t think any arms dealer would accept stereo speakers for grenades – but Derrick wasn’t the brightest guy so he went to the shopping mall, gave the guys the speakers, got the grenades and was immediately arrested. He’s now serving 25 years in jail.
Does the FBI usually target guys like Derrick who are perhaps more angry than they are clever?
It’s usually guys like this – people who are on the fringes of society, economically desperate, in some cases mentally ill, and through these elaborate sting operations the FBI gives them the idea and the means to commit a terrorist act. Derrick Shareef
Aren’t most modern terrorists homegrown, though? How else can the FBI apprehend them?
The FBI response to what I write would probably be that there are a lot of terrorists who are idiots. But the truth is that we’ve yet to see an example in the US of a “lone wolf” terrorist who doesn’t have the means to commit an act and then meets an al-Qaeda operative who says: “Hey, I can give you a bomb if you need one.” It’s only ever been the FBI who has facilitated these people.
The real terrorists, like Faisal Shahzad who almost bombed Times Square in 2010, aren’t foiled by these sting operations. The stings are pulling people from the fringes who have no training or access to weapons.
I can understand why the FBI wants to track these people, but why then entrap them like this?
I don’t believe that the use of informants or tracking people who are potentially dangerous is a bad thing. What’s happening in the FBI isn’t some evil anti-Muslim agenda: it’s a bureaucratic evil. Every year they get $3 billion to fund anti-terrorism, and they can’t really spend that and come back to the public to say: “We didn’t find any terrorists.” The sting operations allow them to say: “Look, we’ve foiled a terrorist plot and we’re keeping you safe.”
The problem is that there’s far too much budget on counter-terrorism. You could argue that we would have been able to identify financial fraud and mortgage fraud earlier had there been less focus on terrorism. The money should go to identifying real threats and gathering intelligence rather than finding potential threats and trying to make them real.
How many informants does the FBI have? To what extent does an American Muslim have to dabble with extremism before you can be sure someone’s watching him?
The FBI has 15,000 informants. There’s a joke among American Muslims: “When I pray on Friday I assume the guy next to me is an FBI informant.” This mentality creates a blowback effect in the sense that Muslim communities are unwilling to cooperate with law enforcement. And these informants aren’t good guys doing it for their country; they’re usually doing it to work off crimes they’ve been convicted of or for money. The FBI often employs people accused of murder – in Seattle they once employed a child molester. You can make $100,000 as an informant. One guy in California made $400,000.
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The truth is, we'll never really know what Derrick Shareef might have done had he not been apprehended by the FBI, and critics of Aaronson's book will be quick to point out that you can't put a price on potentially saving hundreds of American lives. But no matter which way you look at it, it doesn't seem feasible that since 9/11 there would have been 150 acts of large-scale terrorism in the US had the FBI done nothing.
A more likely scenario is that Trevor is at least partly right in his assertions, and that an over-funded counter-terrorism organisation encouraged people who were on their radar and who were deemed to be dangerous to take their pent-up rage to its limits in order to get the convictions they needed to keep the money rolling in.
If that is the case, I guess you've got to hope that the FBI have chosen to operate in this way because they sincerely believe that one day the money will be used to counter a genuine large-scale terrorist threat to the US. Paradoxically, you probably don't want that day to arrive if you've got any interest in innocent people not dying horribly.
Follow Matt on Twitter: @Matt_A_Shea
Trevor's book, The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War On Terrorism, is out now through Ig Publishing.
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