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Terrorist Plot, Or Homeland Security Theater?

As James Joyner noted yesterday, the FBI arrested Rezwan Ferdaus, a 26 year-old American Muslim from Massachusetts on charges that he was plotting to carry out a terrorist attack against targets in Washington D.C. The details of the plot, as alleged in Ferdaus’s charging documents, make the entire seem thing very serious:

Ferdaus allegedly gave the undercover FBI agents a detailed set of attack plans “with step-by-step instructions as to how he planned to attack the Pentagon and Capitol,” according to the Department of Justice.

The plans focused on the use of three small remote-controlled drone-like aircraft loaded with C-4 plastic explosives, which he planned to fly into the Capitol and the Pentagon using GPS equipment, according to the DOJ.

(…)

Ferdaus’s plan allegedly evolved to include a “ground assault” as well, in which six people would coordinate an automatic weapons attack with the aerial assault and massacre whomever came into their path, according to the DOJ.

As it turned out, all of the overt acts that Ferdaus took toward this goal were took place under the guise of an FBI sting operation during which he was made to believe that he was in contact with al Qaeda agents in the United States who were assisting him in carrying out the plot. Without the assistance of the FBI agents who were guiding him slowly toward further incriminating himself, there seems to be very little evidence that Ferdaus had either the means or the opportunity to carry out any kind of terrorist attack, not the least anything on the scale of what he apparently had dreamed up on his own.

This isn’t the first time that a would-be terrorist has been caught up in FBI sting masquerading as a terrorist plot. Last November, the FBI carried out a high profile arrest of 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali-American who thought he was engaging in a conspiracy to detonate a bomb during the lighting of the public Christmas Tree in Portland, Oregon. Just a month earlier, a Pakistani born American citizen was arrested for plotting to carry out terror attacks on the D.C. subway system, also as the result of an FBI sting operation. And back in 2009, Hosam Maher Husein Smadi, a 19 year old Jordanian immigrant was arrested in connection with a plot to bomb a Dallas skyscraper. In each of these cases, all of the actions that the men arrested took in furtherance of the alleged plots were done with the assistance of FBI agents posing as al Qaeda agents or sympathizers. In fact, in each of these cases there no evidence that any of the men had taken a single step in furtherance of the plot before they had come into contact with the FBI.

I agree with James Joyner that it’s probably a good thing that men like Fedraus are off the street, these types of arrests, and the FBI sting operations that bring them about, do raise the question of whether resources are being properly focused in hunting down domestic terror threats. As Benjamin Friedman notes, the logistical difficulties involved in the type of plot that Fedraus had in mind here, combined with his own limited resources without FBI assistance, suggest that the man was more likely a nominee for a Darwin Award than an imminent terrorist threat. This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout all of these sting operations, and, as Glenn Greenwald notes, it leads one to wonder if we’re using out law enforcement resources wisely:

Wouldn’t the FBI’s resources be better spent on detecting and breaking up actual Terrorist plots — if there are any — rather than manufacturing ones so that they can stop those?  Harboring hatred for the U.S. and wanting to harm it (or any country) is not actually a crime; at most, it’s a Thought Crime.  It doesn’t become a crime until steps are taken to attempt to transform that desire into reality.  There are millions and millions of people who at some point harbor a desire to impose violent harm on others who never do so: perhaps that’s true of a majority of human beings.  Many of them will never act in the absence of the type of highly sophisticated, expert push of which the FBI is uniquely capable.  Is manufacturing criminals — as opposed to finding and stopping actual criminals — really a prudent law enforcement activity?

If your effort is to stop actual attacks and uncover people living in the United States who may actually be in contact with foreign terrorist elements, it strikes me that the answer to Greenwald’s question is no. What are the odds, for example, that any of the four men I noted above would have done anything absent the prompting they received from coming into contact with FBI agents who are pretending to be al Qaeda operatives? Given the fact that none of them had any access to outside resources that didn’t come from the FBI, it’s quite likely that the answer is that those odds are pretty low.

Of course, there is another benefit to these types of operations. A high profile arrest like this reinforces the idea that we remain under imminent threat of another 9/11-style attack at any time. That reinforces the argument that the massive budget of the Department of Homeland Security, and the continued suppression of civil liberties in the name of “security.” Trotting another one of these wanna-be terrorists out every now and then is a good way for Federal anti-terror authorities to justify not just their continued existence, but their expansion, and it’s a great way to shout down those who suggest that, just maybe, it’s time to think about scaling back the authority Congress granted them when it passed the PATRIOT Act with barely enough time to discovery what was actually in it.

Fedraus committed a crime and he’ll likely spend the better part of the next two decades in a Federal Prison because of it, but perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether operations like this are really accomplishing anything.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. alkali says:

    Charlie Pierce at the Esquire Politics blog makes the salutary point that if we keep getting people riled up to commit a terrorist act with the idea of shutting them down before they commit the act, there is always the possibility that one of these guys will get out in front of his law enforcement handlers and commits some unrelated atrocity before he is brought in.

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  2. DRE says:

    It strikes me that even if this case was worth expending resources on, it probably would have been better to monitor him (perhaps by impersonating another wannabe terrorist) and see if he succeeded in contacting real terrorist enablers, in which case they might have been able to remove far greater dangers.

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  3. Wayne says:

    Re “Without the assistance of the FBI agents”

    Not necessarily true. If they had contacted a real terrorist group instead of the FBI, their plans may have succeeded. It’s about like saying that if it wasn’t for police officers posing as children on the internet that those they bust wouldn’t have done it. That simply not true for all of them. Some perhaps but there are policies and procedures to help prevent that. If someone can show there was entrapment in court, the case gets tossed. Again that is why they have the policies and procedures to prevent entrapment .

    From what I hear, this guy was actively seeking to do harm before the FBI was aware of him. Like the child predicator searching the internet for children. Their inappropriate motives and planned for unlawful conduct preceded any contact with authority.

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  4. ponce says:

    This seems like a joke, but how long before serious groups like the PKK or Hamas start using hobbyist drones to carry out real attacks against their enemies?

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  5. Ben Wolf says:

    There are two possibilities as to why the FBI thinks it necessary to manufacture Bad Enemies With Scary Foreign Names: either there are no credible domestic threats and they want us scared, or the FBI is simply too incompetent to penetrate actual threats and are putting on a show to make us feel safe. I suspect the former, but I never underestimate the stupidity of law enforcement.

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  6. samwide says:

    “As Benjamin Friedman notes, the logistical difficulties involved in the type of plot that Fedraus had in mind here, combined with his own limited resources without FBI assistance, suggest that the man was more likely a nominee for a Darwin Award than an imminent terrorist threat.”

    OK, so what we have here is a case of protective custody.

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  7. Boyd says:

    Once the FBI figures out that they have someone who is willing to act in furtherance of their anti-American sentiments, I can understand that they’d have a hard time walking away from it just because the bad guy doesn’t have immediate access to the appropriate materials without the FBI’s undercover assistance.

    As Wayne said, what if the FBI walked away from the guy thinking he wasn’t a threat because he only had the will, not the means, and then he hooks up with folks who are willing to provide him the means so they can take advantage of his will? Talk about dereliction of duty!

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  8. Ben Wolf says:

    @ponce: There are forty countries working on drone technology that we know of. The immunity we have in launching drone strikes without receiving them in return will be very brief. It’s only a matter of time.

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  9. Herb says:

    I read somewhere, can’t remember where now, that one of the side benefits of these FBI operations is that would-be terrorists must now consider whether their “Al Qaeda contacts” are genuine terrorists or feds on a sting.

    After all, up until their arrest, the suspects think they’re dealing with genuine terrorists and seem fully intent on carrying out genuine attacks. Were some of them goaded into it by the FBI? Maybe a little bit. These people do not seem very capable, even if the intent is there.

    It’s just their rotten luck that they were goaded by the FBI rather than, you know, actual terrorists.

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