The late-February arrest of two young Brooklynites on federal terrorism charges (a third alleged conspirator was nabbed in Florida) fanned the national fixation with "homegrown terrorists" and "lone wolves," reinvigorated as it already was by the bloody attacks on the Parisian satirical rag Charlie Hebdo.
Abdurasul Juraboev and Akhror Saidakhmetov, two green card holders from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, respectively, seemed to be leading ordinary immigrant working-class lives. That has only heightened public fear of what we have been repeatedly assured by a succession of government and law enforcement officials is an existential threat of an evolving, unpredictable, and often invisible nature.
After all, if a lettuce-chopper at a Brooklyn Gyro King (which, incidentally, also serves cheesesteak that's every bit as royal) can suddenly decide to join the Islamic State, then what does that say about our collective security?
And, implicitly, can they—Muslims in America—ever be trusted?
Law enforcement officials of all kinds have been tripping over each other to comment on the omnipresent danger of terrorism and, in passing, to justify the sprawling and expensive security state that exists today in America.
"This is real, this is the concern about the lone wolf," New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton told reporters after the arrests, while another anonymous official waxed taxonomical, distinguishing "lone wolves" from " known wolves" like the recent arrestees, who had been in the authorities' sights for some time.
In this debate—which we should just call a soliloquy—facts seem to matter little.
Take, for instance, the reality that the crushing majority of victims of organizations who resort to violence under the banner of religion, including the Islamic State, are Muslims living in such places as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan—not citizens of France or the United States, whose governments nonetheless seem to believe the danger flows chiefly their way.
Or the less than convenient fact, documented in a recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, that since the mass murder of September 11, 2001, more people have been killed in America by non-Muslim so-called "domestic terrorists" than by Muslim-identified actors.
But for those cases that do involve Muslims in America, always touted with great fanfare as "disrupted terrorist plots," there is a simple test that anyone can apply from the safety and comfort of their own home to decide if they should take what the government is dishing with a grain of salt.
So, without further ado, I give you the three questions to ask about any terrorism prosecution in America:
1. Was there an informant or undercover agent actively involved?
In the Brooklyn case, it appears that the FBI dispatched one of its estimated 15,000 informants to pose as "an ideologically sympathetic individual" and to coax and coach the men away from mere online ranting and toward acts in the offline world. Saidakhmetov's mother, worried that her son might try to travel to Syria, had confiscated his passport. Enter the paid government informant, who apparently suggests that Saidakhmetov obtain new travel documents and holds his hand through that process, even helping him fill out the paperwork.
Indeed, a hallmark of post-9/11 terrorism stings is the central involvement of paid informants and undercovers, who are often there not just to act as the eyes and ears of the government but to actively provide ideas, plans, plots, religious justification, and the means toward execution. To do so, they tend to cultivate their targets over long periods of time—often months, sometimes even years—as they resort to various inducements, including money and drugs, to gradually push them over the legal line.
Shahed Hussain, for example, a now-notorious FBI informant who reportedly earned as much as $100,000 per "assignment," showed up in flashy cars to impress his poor and unemployed targets in Newburgh, New York, offering them a quarter of a million dollars to join him in plotting an attack.
In 2011, an NYPD informant plied a man named Jose Pimentel with marijuana to extract incriminating statements from him as they smoked together, and also supplied him with a turnkey plot involving pipe bombs. Pimentel was so inept that, even with close instruction, he was at least initially unable to drill holes into the metal tubes.
Perhaps what speaks most to the depth of informant or undercover involvement in many of these plots—and, by extension, the level of government control over them—is the disclaimer that federal agents and prosecutors often include in the self-congratulatory press releases announcing an arrest in a terrorism sting. Following a sensationalistic description of a"plot to attack the US Capitol and kill government officials," the agent in charge noted, quite anticlimactically, "that the public was not in danger during this investigation." In a separate case, the authorities added, almost in passing, that the explosives the alleged terrorist planned to use "posed no threat to the public" because they were disarmed by the law enforcement officials who had provided them and were managing the "plot" every step of the way.
By contrast, there is only one known case that bucks the trend, with government agents who identified themselves as such actively trying to warn the target and talk them out of plans to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State, instead of egging them along. The target in that case was not a person of color or an immigrant Muslim, though—it was a young white woman named Shannon Conley. Read into that what you will.
2. Does the defendant suffer from any mental health issues, dysfunctions, or deficiencies?
In our latest case out of Brooklyn, Juraboev was visited at home by the FBI in August 2014 and allegedly told the agents almost right away about his leanings towards the Islamic State, about his desire to travel to fight in Syria, and about his wish to harm the president of the United States. During an intercepted phone conversation, even his alleged co-conspirators wonder aloud whether he's "normal."
Meanwhile, Saidakhmetov toggled through an astounding array of potential plots, each one more harebrained than the last. He allegedly talked about buying "a machine gun" to "shoot all police." He mused about going to FBI headquarters to "kill the FBI people." He wondered if he might instead join the US military to spy for the Islamic State. He even fantasized about diverting a commercial aircraft "so that the Islamic State would gain a plane."
This case is only the latest manifestation of a larger pattern. Unfortunately, law enforcement has not shied away from targeting psychologically vulnerable individuals and exploiting their conditions to land splashy prosecutions, as was documented in a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute.
Take Sami Osmakac, a Tampa Bay outcast whose "lower than average intelligence" and "psychosis" made him a particularly inviting target for government agents, informants, and under covers.
Consider also Nicholas Teausant, a young man who after being arrested last year was treated for schizophrenia—a condition that would have made him especially susceptible to online encouragement by a paid FBI informant.
Even the aforementioned Pimentel was described as "unstable" by anonymous officials briefed on the case, and reportedly tried to circumcise himself.
3. Would the defendant have undertaken whatever they are accused of if not for the government's involvement?
This requires a deeper level of thinking than the first two questions. As with any counterfactual, reaching a conclusive answer is difficult. But in the Newburgh case, a federal judge remarked on the record that "only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr. Cromitie [the suspect], whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope." Then, in her written decision upholding the conviction, the judge lamented the fact that "[t]he Government indisputably 'manufactured' the crimes of which Defendants stand convicted. The Government invented all of the details of the scheme."
Assuming a similar investment of law enforcement resources and focus on any other community, would the results be any different? One suspects that the yield of "terrorists" would be comparable, as there's no shortage of marginalized and susceptible individuals in America these days.
Instead of resorting to predatory investigative tactics involving the use of aggressive and self-interested informants against often vulnerable people, the government should rely instead on the more nuanced approach it used with Shannon Conley. Detection, rather than instigation, led agents to Conley, and they then staged an intervention of sorts, attempting to reason with her and involve her family. All of it seemed driven by a desire to save, rather than crucify, her.
Of course, this recommendation ignores the cynical incentive structure that rewards investigators for the cultivation of informants and the disruption of plots at all costs. In the face of such overwhelming momentum on the part of a sprawling government apparatus to justify its own existence and expense, a paucity of legitimately threatening plots is no real obstacle.
Ramzi Kassem is a professor at the City University of New York School of Law. He directs the CLEAR project (Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility) as well as the Immigrant & Non-Citizen Rights Clinic.