Article — From the August 2011 issue

To Catch a Terrorist

The FBI hunts for the enemy within

To fear and dehumanize alien Others, to ruthlessly hunt them down, is truly American.—Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, This Violent Empire

In June 2008, I attended a meeting in Albany organized by the FBI and designed to quell the growing fury over the arrest and prosecution of two local Muslim immigrants, Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain. The previous year Aref and Hossain, both leaders at a local mosque, had been sentenced to fifteen years in federal prison in connection with their role in a terrorism scheme that the press had dubbed the Albany “missile plot.” According to the FBI complaint, the pair had agreed to “make money through jihad” by laundering the proceeds from the sale of a shoulder-launched missile that a Pakistani militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, intended to use to assassinate a Pakistani diplomat in New York City. Yet in announcing the arrest of Aref and Hossain, the FBI allowed that their crimes were “not real” and that the public had never actually been in jeopardy. The plot had been a sting operation wherein the FBI concocted the assassination plan and furnished the weapon. Though much of the evidence against the two men remained classified, it was unclear that either man even knew he was involved in a terrorist plot.

When these details emerged, both Muslims and non-Muslims in Albany were outraged. The investigation had targeted two well-known members of the community, men with no prior criminal record and no history of violence. To allay the community’s concerns, the FBI embarked on a kind of public-relations initiative by organizing a series of meetings with local leaders. At the meeting I went to with half a dozen activists, we were told we could take notes but not record the proceedings, though one of the attendees, in what she considered an act of civil disobedience, surreptitiously taped them anyway. After some opening statements from FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, who told us that the point of the meeting was to prove that the FBI “did the right thing,” we watched a Power­Point presentation that began with ominous chanting, which I found out later was an Islamic prayer song. The first image identified the sting operation by its code name, Green Grail, and showed a photograph of the defendants with glowering expressions as guards led them in shackles from Albany’s federal courthouse.

Following the presentation, the agent in charge of the case, Tim Coll, explained how the FBI had built its investigation, which began shortly after the 9/11 attacks when one of the founders of Aref and Hossain’s mosque, a man named Ali Yaghi, was “observed celebrating the 9/11 attacks on the streets.” Yaghi, though never charged with any terrorism-related crime, was arrested and deported soon after, but the mosque remained under surveillance. The FBI subsequently learned Aref had called a “hot” telephone that investigators believed was a possible Al Qaeda contact number in Syria, where Aref had once lived. Coll also recounted how in a “dumpster dive” conducted by agents in a separate case in Syracuse, Aref’s name had turned up in a letter that described him as a “loyal representative” of a group believed to have offshoots connected to Al Qaeda.

Over the course of the eight-month sting operation, beginning in July 2003, the government’s informant, posing as a wealthy Pakistani businessman, befriended Hossain, a pizzeria owner and father of six. The informant visited Hossain regularly, eventually offering to loan him $50,000 to bolster his struggling business. FBI agents would later acknowledge that Hossain was nothing more than “a way to get in,” a means to catch Aref, who, in keeping with Islamic tradition, was brought in to witness the handover.

What made the deal illegal, according to prosecutors, occurred four months into the operation during a meeting in the informant’s office. Pulling back a tarp in his stockroom to reveal a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile, the informant told Hossain, “I also do this business for my Muslim brothers.” Prosecutors claimed that Hossain should have been able to deduce that the loan he was receiving might be drawn from proceeds of an illegal weapons sale, and that by accepting the loan he had opened himself to charges of money laundering. Aref himself never saw the weapon. During one of the exchanges of cash—all of which were documented on grainy black-and-white surveillance footage—the missile’s trigger system, which looked not unlike a staple gun, was visible on a table. Prosecutors alleged Aref had seen the trigger and thereby had entered the conspiracy to “assist in money-laundering.”

It’s difficult not to make the FBI’s case sound contrived in this recounting, but the agents I spoke with seemed to genuinely believe that Aref was a potential terrorist. Whatever the peculiarities of the plot they used to ensnare him, Aref was an extremist at heart. Their belief was supported by materials they’d found at his apartment after his arrest, including poetry he’d written with phrases like “raise the jihad sword,” in a diary he’d kept before coming to the United States, in which he also chronicled meetings with individuals who were known to have discussed attacking the United States.

At the time of Aref and Hossain’s arrest, U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Comey admitted it was “not the case of the century.” Nevertheless, the Albany missile plot became one of the government’s more lauded victories in the fight against domestic terrorism—even though, by the government’s own acknowledgment, it involved no terrorists, no terrorism plot, and a missile provided by the FBI. When asked at a press conference following the sentencing whether there was anything connecting the defendants, particularly Aref, to terrorism, the prosecuting attorney answered, “Well, we didn’t have the evidence of that, but he had the ideology.”

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also wrote <a href=" ">"The Intelligence Factory: How America makes its enemies disappear"</a> for <em>Harper's Magazine</em>

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October 2019