The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s arrest of an American teenager has raised questions over whether US investigators are morally right to use the guise of national security in order to entrap would-be enemy combatants.
Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, 18, made an appearance in federal court Tuesday after being arrested last week at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport before allegedly boarding a plane bound for Turkey. He was captured as part of a sting operation in which the FBI used a website to dupe potential jihadists into writing messages to agents posing as terrorist recruiters.
The page, titled A Call for Jihad in Syria, advertised pictures of Islamic militants holding weapons and, according to the Associated Press, the rallying cry “Come and join your lion brothers…fighting under the true banner of Islam.”
Tounisi is charged with one count of attempting to provide material support to foreign terrorists, a violation that’s punishable by a maximum 15-year prison sentence. Prosecutors said he found the webpage only weeks before his eventual arrest but a computer search provided evidence that he entered an Internet search for “providing material support what does it mean” and “Terrorism Act 2000.”
They also introduced conversations between Tounisi and who he thought was a terrorist recruiter.
“Concerning my fighting skills, to be honest, I do not have any. I’m very small…physically but I pray to Allah that he makes me successful,” he allegedly wrote, before an FBI agent responded by saying “We have trust in Allah that you will fight and do your Jihad as a true (believer).”
Undercover FBI agents instructed Tounisi to fly to Turkey, where he would then travel to Syria and join a radical Islamist organization. Prosecutors hope to convict Tounisi based on his attempted flight overseas, which they say is evidence of his deadly intentions, along with an email where he professes a “willingness to die for the cause.”
“These sites can end up creating crimes,” said Phil Turner, a former federal prosecutor who now works as a defense attorney. “Real terrorists don’t need to go to a website for contacts. They have real contacts.
“From your office computer, you can get millions of cases like this – sucking people in,” he told the AP. “But it diverts our attention from the real terrorists.”
Other legal experts cite the Boston Marathon bombings as an example of when the FBI could have saved lives had they stopped the suspects, even if they had to use a web page.
“These are valid tools,” said Mike Fagel, a security consultant in Chicago. “As an emergency planner guy, if I can prevent something from happening, I don’t have to worry about response and recover. We are seeing younger and younger assailants, and they operate on the Internet.”
The criminal complaint also claimed Tounisi was a good friend of Adel Daoud, who was arrested last year and charged with attempting to detonate a bomb outside a Chicago bar. Daoud has pled not guilty and is currently awaiting trial, as reported by the Chicago Sun Times.
Tounisi has not been implicated in Daoud’s alleged plot, although Daoud told police that Tounisi had expressed interest in blowing up a club where “all these people go in and use drugs and alcohol.”
Ahmad Tounisi, the suspect’s father, told reporters that his son had discussed travelling to the Middle East to aid the oppressed, not to train with violent terrorists.
“I don’t think he would actually do what the government is saying he was planning to do. To me, it’s all assumption on the government’s part,” said the elder Tounisi. “He never hurt anyone in his life, why would he start now? All my kids are born and raised here, they are more American than some Americans.”