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December 07, 2010

Tripping Over the Trip Wire
Posted by Eric Martin

There is a fairly pervasive consensus amongst counterterrorism scholars that intelligence and law enforcement remain the most effective and efficient tools available to disrupt terror networks (with limited application of military force serving an ancillary role in an optimally balanced approach). 

Operating within the framework of that preferred counterterrorism approach, support and cooperation from local communities is an invaluable asset.  In this respect, the United States law enforcement/intelligence community has enjoyed something of an advantage over its European counterparts in terms of engendering the support of their respective Muslims populations - with some attributing the difference to the welcoming culture of assimilation in the United States, while others point to the composition of the different immigrant communities and economic prospects available to each.  

These numbers from the Muslim Public Affairs Council tell of the important role the Muslim-American community has played in undermining terror plots since 9/11:     

Muslim communities have stepped forward to help law enforcement foil almost 4 out of every 10 Al Qaeda-related terror plots threatening America since 9/11/01. Muslim communities have help law enforcement prevent the last 7 out of 10 Al Qaeda related plots. This represents an important counter trend [to] the recent spike of arrests. It also highlights the importance of law enforcement partnering with citizens through community-oriented policing. 

Regardless of the predominant reasons for the disparity between the United States and Europe, it is generally understood that the levels of cooperation can wax or wane depending on the treatment of the subject population by law enforcement personnel. An overly adversarial, guilt-by-association approach can foster fear, alienation and anger - all of which serve to diminish the likelihood that concerned citizens will come forward with information (and could also increase radicalization and homegrown terrorists to boot).

That is what makes the Washington Post's story on the FBI's indiscriminate use of informants to infiltrate mosques and other broad-net surveillance of Muslim Americans so troubling.  As a couple of key paragraphs highlight:

Some Muslims in Southern California and nationally say the cascading revelations have seriously damaged their relationship with the FBI, a partnership that both sides agree is critical to preventing attacks and homegrown terrorism.

Citing Monteilh's actions and what they call a pattern of FBI surveillance, many leading national Muslim organizations have virtually suspended contact with the bureau.

The back-story is as astounding as it is worrisome:

In May 2007, [FBI informant] Monteilh said he recorded a conversation about jihad during a car ride with Niazi and another man. Monteilh said he suggested an operation to blow up buildings and Niazi agreed. An FBI agent later cited that and other taped conversations between the two in court as evidence that Niazi was a threat.

A few days later, [Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations] got an anguished phone call from Niazi and the other man in the car.

"They said Farouk [Monteilh] had told them he had access to weapons and that they should blow up a mall,'' Ayloush recalled. "They were convinced this man was a terrorist."

Ayloush reported the FBI's own informant to the FBI. He said agents interviewed Niazi, who gave them the same account, but the agency took no action against Monteilh.

Despite Niazi's laudable actions, he was arrested and indicted (with recordings of his conversation with Monteilh used as evidence against him), before charges were eventually dropped - then, after Monteilh approached Niazi's defense team and disclosed his role in "entrapping" Niazi.

Given the risks of alienating a heretofore cooperative Muslim-American population, as well as the dubious value of such aggressive attempts to infiltrate and entrap potential terrorists, the FBI should cease such programs (if they haven't already) and re-evaluate its approach in such instances with an eye toward maintaining open lines of communication and a sense of trust and partnership.

(links via the indispensable Adam Serwer)


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What about the government's instinct to, as in the case of the Portland "bomber" conduct a sting rather than an intervention? I'm no lawyer so I won't even get into the complexities of what is and isn't "entrapment" but it seems to me that we're seeing cases where people from a Muslim community call Homeland Security for help because an individual or group are sliding into some sort of psychotic extremism and rather than provide help the government eggs them on and even goes so far as to make the impossible wishes of the suspect (a van sized bomb that can blow up two city blocks) possible. Seems like the government is trying to make arrests when it could be trying to prevent things from going that far.

Gerry Spence, the famous trial lawyer:
“I found that the minions of the law–the special agents of the FBI–to be men who proved themselves not only fully capable, but also utterly willing to manufacture evidence, to conceal crucial evidence and even to change the rules that governed life and death if, in the prosecution of the accused, it seemed expedient to do so.”
–From Freedom to Slavery, p. 27

The Office of the Inspector-General recently released a report on the FBI's unconstitutional and unlawful infiltration of all sorts of groups over the last decade or so as part of domestic terrorism investigations ( If the FBI sees peaceful anti-war organisations and Greenpeace as potential terror threats, the use of informants and pervasive surveillance against American Muslims isn't surprising. The Bureau's interpretation of its own guidelines is disturbingly elastic...

What about the government's instinct to, as in the case of the Portland "bomber" conduct a sting rather than an intervention? I'm no lawyer so I won't even get into the complexities of what is and isn't "entrapment" but it seems to me that we're seeing cases where people from a Muslim community call Homeland Security for help because an individual or group are sliding into some sort of psychotic extremism and rather than provide help the government eggs them on and even goes so far as to make the impossible wishes of the suspect (a van sized bomb that can blow up two city blocks) possible. Seems like the government is trying to make arrests when it could be trying to prevent things from going that far.

You're right on, Eric. The surest way to incite more domestic Muslim terrorists is to pre-emptively target their communities for surveillance and infiltration.

This is one more display of the general stupidity of American law enforcement strategy. For another stunning example, see the U.S. drug war, a strategy that both the Associated Press and even the current drug czar have decried as a trillion-dollar failure.

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