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.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Terrorism, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. yetanotherjohn says:

    What is the difference between a ‘keystone cop’ terrorist and one who carries out a major terrorist strike? Generally it is going to be discipline, training, and a better plan based on what has and hasn’t worked before. What is not missing between the two is the motivation or desire to be a terrorist.

    Or to put it another way, what keeps James Joyner from being a successful terrorist? He is smart enough, has some interesting training in his back ground, and could probably come up with a good plan. But what he doesn’t have is the motivation or desire to be a terrorist.

    Flushing out those who want to be a terrorist, no matter how inept now, is a good thing. The training, discipline, and good plan can be gained over time and experience. The desire is either there or not.

    Further, consider the impact of these sorts of prosecutions on the “real” terrorists. Every new recruit has to be viewed as a likely FBI informant. Thus the number of suspected FBI informants is much larger than the actual numbers. Bottom line, it becomes harder to recruit and those most likely to be recruited are being rounded up in the ‘keystone kops’ terrorist cells.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    What is the difference between a ‘keystone cop’ terrorist and one who carries out a major terrorist strike? Generally it is going to be discipline, training, and a better plan based on what has and hasn’t worked before. What is not missing between the two is the motivation or desire to be a terrorist.

    The short answer is that a real terrorist isn’t a free-lancer looking for financing. But that’s what our law enforcement organizations are most likely to find.

  3. Anderson says:

    I don’t think that the post is necessarily on-target. If the TIME report is true, then this was such a staggeringly incompetent job by FBI that it can’t really be used to assess anything except whether the Feebs need another director.

    Given real terror cells, it would be possible (not easy) to infiltrate them and catch them when they’d taken material steps towards a crime, without the infiltrator’s becoming the instigator.

    What I infer from the desperate attempts to trump up some terrorism trials is that either (1) there aren’t any actual terror cells in the U.S. or (2) the cells exist but are doing their job right and evading detection.

  4. Hal says:

    There’s an excellent anonymous post to the Politech list on “terror attacks and protecting infrastructure” which I’ll post in full because it speaks directly to this point and I know that no one seems to actually follow links to read what’s in them

    This discussion prompts me to offer a thought I’ve had for some time.

    I belong to an Australian ad hoc group of ‘urban infiltration’ enthusiasts. We explore civil infrastructure of all kinds – whatever we can find and get into, regardless of its supposedly ‘off limits’ status. There are branches of our group in most major cities in Australia. Naturally, we keep records of what we find, to share with other people with like interests. We also communicate with similar groups overseas. It is quite a common passtime, both in the USA, and Europe, and doing a google for ‘infiltration’ ‘draining’, ‘souterains’, ‘urban exploration’, etc will turn up many web sites of such groups world wide.

    Anyway, getting back to the point. Over the years, it becomes glaringly obvious to explorers such as ourselves, that almost all of the critical infrastructure of large cities is _totally_ vulnerable. Electricity, water, gas, communications, sewage, drainage, rail – all of them could be shut down over wide areas for days or weeks by simple acts of vandalism, at remote and unguarded locations. If several different services were taken out at once, in ways requiring significant effort to repair (not difficult to arrange), it might be very hard to organise the restoration of services within a timescale compatible with maintenance of social order within a large city.

    We joke among ourselves that its lucky we just like looking and taking pictures, because if we wanted to it would be child’s play to totally shut down virtually any city. There are just _too_many_ critical services exposed in too many places, almost all of them with little or zero security (and virtually impossible to provide security.) In the present ‘crisis’, there have been some ostentatious (but not very effective) upgrades to security at prominent landmarks and key facilities. For instance, the Sydney Harbour Bridge now has a few security guards on foot patrol, and a few more video cameras. But even that national icon would still be vulnerable to a determined and creative attack. Elsewhere, at less visible but still critical locations, there have been precisely zero changes in security arrangements.

    And yet, so far there do not seem to have been any serious incidents of infrastructure sabotage, in any of the ‘coalition of the willing’ countries. Or anywhere else not actually in the middle of a war, for that matter.

    To those of us with some interest in politics, this is an interesting contradiction to official assertions of frequent impending terrorist attacks. If I were one of these hypothetical terrorists, with a grudge against western nations, I suspect the idea of causing great economic havoc would be just as attractive as committing acts of mass murder. Possibly more so, actually, since it would make a point without at the same time creating violent nationalistic hatred of whatever cause was motivating me.

    So we have two observations:

    1. It would be easy for anyone wishing to massively disrupt society, to successfully attack the crucial infrastructure (and escape free.)

    2. Suck attacks do not seem to occur. Instead we have (in the USA) one instance of spectactular, suicidal, localised destruction (WTC), and one instance of a generally disruptive (but politically targeted) biological attack. (The anthrax mailings.)

    The only possible conclusion, is that there is simply no one seriously interested in committing major infrastructure attacks. And that implies there are actually no true (or even wannabe) ‘terrorists’ among us.

    And never have been.

    Which in turn implies that all the actual and threatened attacks were not initiated by ‘terrorists’ (as advertised on TV), but by people with quite different motivations.

    As for who they are, and their motivations, I notice the rest of the internet has a few things to say about that. Hovever, it is curious to note that our governments, while doing their best to scare the citizenry with tales of impending attacks, and making a great show of upgrading security around high visibility ‘targets’, tend to be doing virtually nothing of substance to protect the _real_ soft and vulnerable spots of our society – the critical service infrastructure of the cities.

    Its as if our governments are certain these targets will not be attacked. Which is quite fortunate, since the effort required to harden all that infrastructure, including things like the fiber optic lines, and create a truly ‘secure society’, would be astronomical. I suggest that the ideal of a ‘secure society’ would be completely beyond the realm of the possible. Physically, it would require the laws of thermodynamics to be suspended. (More energy needed to run the security apparatus than the rest of society.) Economically, nothing could be profitable under the burden of massive security system cost overheads.

    Politically, it would require the elimination of almost all freedoms.

    If there were any real terrorists, our entire western way of life would be untenable. The combination of technology and centralization makes us just too vulnerable to survive determined and creative attacks on our infrastructure.


    I’d appreciate if you would remove my name, etc, if you publish this.

  5. Anderson says:

    The only possible conclusion, is that there is simply no one seriously interested in committing major infrastructure attacks. And that implies there are actually no true (or even wannabe) ‘terrorists’ among us.

    That seems right, tho it won’t stay that way.