Article — From the August 2011 issue

To Catch a Terrorist

The FBI hunts for the enemy within

( 4 of 7 )

Informants have been deployed by law enforcement for centuries, but in these recent terrorism investigations they have been given a more active role in shaping cases, often encouraging or even coercing individuals to commit violent acts toward which the individuals have otherwise shown no predisposition. Such sting operations present a disturbing kind of theater: the government provides the script, the arms, the cash, and other props, and offers logistical support.

In at least one instance, in Chicago last year, the FBI instructed informants to pay a suspect so he could quit his day job and focus on jihad. In the case of Hemant Lakhani, a British businessman who was convicted in 2005 of providing material support to terrorists for brokering the sale of a surface-to-air missile, law enforcement ended up on both sides of the arms deal, as buyer and seller, after the informant discovered that Lakhani simply didn’t have the connections to procure the missile. The informant in that case, pivotal in shepherding Lakhani through the sale, had previously worked with the DEA, but after he incriminated an innocent man in the course of a drug sting, his handler had given him the equivalent of a “burn notice.” In the desperate post-9/11 environment, the FBI hired him anyway.

Other informants have had equally dubious qualifications. The informant in a 2007 plot to blow up jet fuel tanks at JFK Airport was a former New York drug kingpin who had conspired to murder a rival dealer and been busted with $2 million in cocaine. The Miami Seven, arrested in 2006 for plotting an attack on the Sears Tower in Chicago, had their plot concocted for them entirely by a pair of FBI informants, one of whom had a history of assault; the other sneaked tokes off-camera during the surveilled meetings. In 2004 an informant was deployed against a Yemeni sheikh in Brooklyn, but after becoming disgruntled when the FBI’s promises of riches never came to fruition, he set himself on fire in front of the White House in protest.

Informants in some cases have been so heavy-handed that they were dismissed by the people they targeted. At a California mosque last year an informant talked about jihad so aggressively that the mosque’s members took out a restraining order to have him barred from the premises. (The informant, Craig Monteilh, who was paid $177,000 for fifteen months of service, was later convicted of grand larceny in an unrelated incident and subsequently sued the FBI, alleging that the agency had revealed his informant status, leading to an attack by a fellow prisoner during his incarceration.)

The informants in these sting operations were deployed to supply not just opportunities for criminal acts but also the inflammatory rhetoric that would justify terrorism charges. In a supposed plot to attack the United States Army Base in Fort Dix, New Jersey, the FBI sent two informants to infiltrate a group of suspected terrorists after a nearby Circuit City reported a suspicious video the five men had brought in to be copied. (The tape showed footage of what the men later claimed was a vacation in the Poconos, where they can be seen riding horseback, snowmobiling, and firing guns at a rifle range, while shouting “Allahu Akbar.” The government would later claim that this was a training mission.)

During the fifteen-month sting operation that followed, one of the informants urged the suspects to join their Muslim brothers overseas. “Don’t you want to go and die with them, man?” he said. The other, Mahmoud Omar, an Egyptian who had agreed to work for the FBI after facing deportation for a bank-fraud conviction, initially suggested the plot to kill American soldiers at the army base. Omar told the men that if they appointed him as their leader he would be the “brain” of the operation. It was Omar who got them talking about the use of Molotov cocktails, grenade launchers, remote-controlled detonators, and roadside nail bombs. They also discussed purchasing a house near the base as a sniper station, but when the men failed to follow through with the plans, Omar grew frustrated. “You talk, but you don’t do nothing,” he told one of the suspects. The five men were arrested before they could devise a specific plan or set a date for the attack. Four of the defendants received life sentences, and the fifth was sentenced to thirty-three years in prison.

John Pikus, the agent who ran Albany’s branch during Aref and Hossain’s trial (and has since retired), told me that given the intelligence the agency had at the time, they believed Aref was “a bad person.” When I pressed him on whether he felt his informant had ultimately flushed out a terrorist, he hedged. “Well, you’re not going to get me to say he was absolutely guilty,” he told me. Still, Pikus insisted that the FBI had to pursue the sting against Aref. Otherwise, he said, “he would have walked around with an intelligence case on him forever.”

also wrote <a href="http://harpers.org/archive/2009/11/0082719 ">"The Intelligence Factory: How America makes its enemies disappear"</a> for <em>Harper's Magazine</em>

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