Keystone Kops Terror Plots
Bernard Finel, noting the recent string of highly touted terror plot arrests that have ultimately proven to be the work of crazies rather than genuine terrorists, wonders, “Where are the real terror plots?”
At some point, you’d figure we’d bust open a ring where there is actually hard evidence of wrong-doing. Where are the weapons caches? The bomb factories? The foreign trained jihadists with forged papers? Where are the guys who have actually done dry runs against targets? The guys who have deposited “martyrdom” videos with AQ central?
It almost seems as if AQ is not even trying to strike the U.S. homeland because the “plots” we are disrupting show virtually no signs of have been devised and planned with the professionalism we usually associate with AQ activities.
Perhaps. The more likely answer, I think, is the fact that U.S. counter-terrorism policy is in the hands of a 1920s-style law enforcement agency whose bureaucratic incentives stress busts and convictions as the key metric. TIME’s Amanda Ripley alludes to this in her report on the Liberty City case.
The entire situation was concocted by the government. The warehouse was paid for by the FBI, and the defendants moved their operations there at the suggestion of an undercover informant who was also paid by the FBI. The swearing-in ceremony was led by the informant — who at another point also suggested a plan to bomb FBI offices in Miami. “The case was written, produced and directed by the FBI,” defense attorney Albert Levin said in his closing arguments.
Since 9/11, the FBI has begun using legions of Muslim or Arabic informants in hopes of rooting out radicals before they strike. The main informant in this case was a Middle Eastern man named Elie Assad. He had worked for the FBI for years before he approached Batiste, posing as an al-Qaeda operative named “Brother Mohammad.” He earned about $80,000 for his services.
Defendant Batiste, a father of four who ran a struggling construction business, claimed he was conning the informant, just as the informant was conning him. He says he was desperate for money, so he went along with the informant in hopes of tricking him into giving him $50,000.
It would be better, of course, if undercover informants were trained FBI agents, instead of sometimes unsavory characters with perverse incentives. “With informants motivated by money, it’s simple,” says Dennis Fitzgerald, an expert on informants and a former police officer in Liberty City. “No case means no money — or at least less money.”
But at this point, the FBI and police departments have nowhere near enough people who could convincingly work undercover in terrorism cases. “The number of undercover agents is miniscule; the number of confidential sources is much larger,” says Art Cummings, deputy assistant director of counterterrorism at the FBI.
But the heavy reliance on informants has led to cases that sometimes appear to exist in the land of make believe. At one point during the Liberty City investigation, Batiste suggested to the informant that they could blow up the Sears Tower so that it would fall into Lake Michigan and create a tsunami. “Where did you get this idea?” Batiste’s attorney later asked him on the stand. His answer was believable: “Just from watching the movies.”
“Are we interested in finding terrorists or creating them?” says Joshua Dratel, who has defended a number of suspects in other terrorism cases. “Even in cases where people are found guilty, I’m not sure that [this strategy] is necessarily finding people who are a genuine danger. What it’s really doing is finding people who — with enough inducement and encouragement — may do something. But whether they would ever do anything on their own, we’ll never know.”
It’s not entirely clear what the alternatives are. A military solution doesn’t seem to be the answer, either. But the tactics that have been developed over the decades to combat organized crime — with only modest success — almost surely won’t get the job done against the likes of al Qaeda.