A war is being waged in the US against homegrown terrorism, but critics say some of the FBI’s tactics amount to entrapment, with agents helping to organize plots simply for a PR coup when the agency foils them.
A Pakistani-born American was arrested on Wednesday for carrying out surveillance on the Washington DC subway as part of a suspected terror plot. Farook Ahmed is accused of working with people he believed were members of Al-Qaeda – they were actually US agents. A US counterterrorism official said there is no indication Ahmed was ever in touch with real militants.
The case has echoes of a high-profile trial in which four African-American Muslims were found guilty just over a week ago, of a plot to bomb two Bronx synagogues and shoot down military aircraft in New York.
Dubbed the Newburgh four, the men were arrested in May 2009 and paraded in front of New York news cameras, as the faces of homegrown terrorism. According to the FBI, the four intended to carry out their terror plan on the day of the arrest.
"Four individuals had sought to bomb Jewish facilities here in the Bronx and also take down military aircraft in Newburgh. A terrifying plot the FBI claims to have thwarted," said Joseph Demarest from the FBI.
The men were poor, illiterate ex-convicts, with neither passports nor licenses. According to Demarest there was no direction by a foreign entity or terrorist group. Instead, direction came from Shahid Hussain, a Pakistani immigrant on the FBI payroll reportedly paid nearly US$100,000 for his services. Apparently the FBI operative provided the fake C-4 and actually showed them the fake stinger missile.
According to court testimony, Hussain recruited the cash strapped defendants by offering cars and money to carry out the orchestrated operation, involving fake weapons and a manufactured terror plot. Later the agent provocateur testified in court as the government's key witness.
Relatives of the Newburgh four, also believe the FBI was at fault. "I do not think this is entrapment. I know it is. This is entrapment," said Alicia McWilliams-McCollum, aunt of 29 year old David Williams.
She believes her nephew is languishing behind bars for a fake terror attack grown in the home of the US government. "They are creating scenarios they are manufacturing crimes. That would not have occurred if you had not planted an un-constructive seed into a community."
Attorney Steve Dowds who tracks cases like the Newburgh Four, argues the US government is systematically employing preemptive prosecution targeting those whom officials deem predisposed to commit crimes, before an actual crime is committed.
"They are taking some down and out vulnerable individuals and not only planting the ideology of jihad on them, giving them all the things they need, all of the material. They are setting up the plan, giving them all the research and then grabbing them and claiming these were homegrown terrorists. It is just a fiction," Dowds said.
Dowds set up a large board, listing the names of individuals he believes were entrapped by the FBI.
"If the government decides for some reason your ideology causes them concern because they can come after you and manufacture crimes against you. And they can make up a whole case and put you through the whole thing. Eventually, if they can persuade a jury that this manufactured case is valid you can go away to jail for a very long time," he said.
The Newbugh four now face life behind bars.
"I don't have slave owners. I've got government owners. Government that will sell a family off for political gain. This is a god damn shame. I'm sad to be a god damn American today," says Alicia McWilliams-McCollum.
In post 9/11 America, the FBI has upped its ante against terrorism, allegedly foiling plots around the country. The question is, would there be any plots to foil without government informants in place to create them?
"Bin Laden is still out there. There are real terrorists out there we should be concerned about. And they should use those resources to find those individuals and not sit back and rely on informants to make up crimes," said James Wedick, a retired FBI Agent.
Although surprisingly little criticism has come from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch others have expressed alarm at what they term entrapment, a practice considered unacceptable in most of Europe and beyond.
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