US: Terrorism Prosecutions Often An Illusion Investigations, Trials of American Muslims Rife with Abuse

(Washington, DC) –The US Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have targeted American Muslims in abusive counterterrorism “sting operations” based on religious and ethnic identity, Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute said in a report released today. Many of the more than 500 terrorism-related cases prosecuted in US federal courts since September 11, 2001, have alienated the very communities that can help prevent terrorist crimes.

The 214-page report, “Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions,” examines 27 federal terrorism cases from initiation of the investigations to sentencing and post-conviction conditions of confinement. It documents the significant human cost of certain counterterrorism practices, such as overly aggressive sting operations and unnecessarily restrictive conditions of confinement.
“Americans have been told that their government is keeping them safe by preventing and prosecuting terrorism inside the US,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch and one of the authors of the report. “But take a closer look and you realize that many of these people would never have committed a crime if not for law enforcement encouraging, pressuring, and sometimes paying them to commit terrorist acts.”

Many prosecutions have properly targeted individuals engaged in planning or financing terror attacks, the groups found. But many others have targeted people who do not appear to have been involved in terrorist plotting or financing at the time the government began to investigate them. And many of the cases involve due process violations and abusive conditions of confinement that have resulted in excessively long prison sentences.

The report is based on more than 215 interviews with people charged with or convicted of terrorism-related crimes, members of their families and their communities, criminal defense attorneys, judges, current and former federal prosecutors, government officials, academics, and other experts.

In some cases the FBI may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by suggesting the idea of taking terrorist action or encouraging the target to act. Multiple studies have found that nearly 50 percent of the federal counterterrorism convictions since September 11, 2001, resulted from informant-based cases. Almost 30 percent were sting operations in which the informant played an active role in the underlying plot.

In the case of the “Newburgh Four,” for example, who were accused of planning to blow up synagogues and attack a US military base, a judge said the government “came up with the crime, provided the means, and removed all relevant obstacles,” and had, in the process, made a terrorist out of a man “whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope.”

The FBI often targeted particularly vulnerable people, including those with intellectual and mental disabilities and the indigent. The government, often acting through informants, then actively developed the plot, persuading and sometimes pressuring the targets to participate, and provided the resources to carry it out.

“The US government should stop treating American Muslims as terrorists-in-waiting,” Prasow said. “The bar on entrapment in US law is so high that it’s almost impossible for a terrorism suspect to prove. Add that to law enforcement preying on the particularly vulnerable, such as those with mental or intellectual disabilities, and the very poor, and you have a recipe for rampant human rights abuses.”

Rezwan Ferdaus, for example, pled guilty to attempting to blow up a federal building and was sentenced to 17 years in prison. Although an FBI agent even told Ferdaus’ father that his son “obviously” had mental health problems, the FBI targeted him for a sting operation, sending an informant into Ferdaus’ mosque. Together, the FBI informant and Ferdaus devised a plan to attack the Pentagon and US Capitol, with the FBI providing fake weaponry and funding Ferdaus’ travel. Yet Ferdaus was mentally and physically deteriorating as the fake plot unfolded, suffering depression and seizures so bad his father quit his job to care for him.

The US has also made overly broad use of material support charges, punishing behavior that did not demonstrate an intent to support terrorism. The courts have accepted prosecutorial tactics that may violate fair trial rights, such as introducing evidence obtained by coercion, classified evidence that cannot be fairly contested, and inflammatory evidence about terrorism in which defendants played no part – and asserting government secrecy claims to limit challenges to surveillance warrants.

Ahmed Omar Abu Ali is a US citizen who alleged that he was whipped and threatened with amputation while detained without charge in Saudi Arabia – after a roundup following the 2003 bombings of Western compounds in the Saudi capital of Riyadh – until he provided a confession to Saudi interrogators that he says was false. Later, when Ali went to trial in Virginia, the judge rejected Ali’s claims of torture and admitted his confession into evidence. He was convicted of conspiracy, providing material support to terrorists, and conspiracy to assassinate the president. He received a life sentence, which he is serving in solitary confinement at the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.

The US has in terrorism cases used harsh and at times abusive conditions of confinement, which often appear excessive in relation to the security risk posed. This includes prolonged solitary confinement and severe restrictions on communicating in pretrial detention, possibly impeding defendants’ ability to assist in their own defense and contributing to their decisions to plead guilty. Judges have imposed excessively lengthy sentences, and some prisoners suffer draconian conditions post-conviction, including prolonged solitary confinement and severe restrictions on contact with families or others, sometimes without explanation or recourse.

Nine months after his arrest on charges of material support for terrorism and while he was refusing a plea deal, Uzair Paracha was moved to a harsh regime of solitary confinement. Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) – national security restrictions on his contact with others – permitted Paracha to speak only to prison guards.

“You could spend days to weeks without uttering anything significant beyond ‘Please cut my lights,’ ‘Can I get a legal call/toilet paper/a razor,’ etc., or just thanking them for shutting our light,” he wrote to the report’s researchers. After he was convicted, the SAMs were modified to permit him to communicate with other inmates. “I faced the harshest part of the SAMs while I was innocent in the eyes of American law,” he wrote.

These abuses have had an adverse impact on American Muslim communities. The government’s tactics to seek out terrorism suspects, at times before the target has demonstrated any intention to use violence, has undercut parallel efforts to build relationships with American Muslim community leaders and groups that may be critical sources of information to prevent terrorist attacks.

In some communities, these practices have deterred interaction with law enforcement. Some Muslim community members said that fears of government surveillance and informant infiltration have meant they must watch what they say, to whom, and how often they attend services.

“Far from protecting Americans, including American Muslims, from the threat of terrorism, the policies documented in this report have diverted law enforcement from pursuing real threats,” Prasow said. “It is possible to protect people’s rights and also prosecute terrorists, which increases the chances of catching genuine criminals.”

Find this report at 21 July 2014

© Copyright 2014, Human Rights Watch

Government agents ‘directly involved’ in most high-profile US terror plots

• Human Rights Watch documents ‘sting’ operations
• Report raises questions about post-9/11 civil rights

Nearly all of the highest-profile domestic terrorism plots in the United States since 9/11 featured the “direct involvement” of government agents or informants, a new report says.

Some of the controversial “sting” operations “were proposed or led by informants”, bordering on entrapment by law enforcement. Yet the courtroom obstacles to proving entrapment are significant, one of the reasons the stings persist.

The lengthy report, released on Monday by Human Rights Watch, raises questions about the US criminal justice system’s ability to respect civil rights and due process in post-9/11 terrorism cases. It portrays a system that features not just the sting operations but secret evidence, anonymous juries, extensive pretrial detentions and convictions significantly removed from actual plots.

“In some cases the FBI may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by suggesting the idea of taking terrorist action or encouraging the target to act,” the report alleges.

Out of the 494 cases related to terrorism the US has tried since 9/11, the plurality of convictions – 18% overall – are not for thwarted plots but for “material support” charges, a broad category expanded further by the 2001 Patriot Act that permits prosecutors to pursue charges with tenuous connections to a terrorist act or group.

In one such incident, the initial basis for a material-support case alleging a man provided “military gear” to al-Qaida turned out to be waterproof socks in his luggage.

Several cases featured years-long solitary confinement for accused terrorists before their trials. Some defendants displayed signs of mental incapacity. Jurors for the 2007 plot to attack the Fort Dix army base, itself influenced by government informants, were anonymous, limiting defense counsel’s ability to screen out bias.

Human Rights Watch’s findings call into question the post-9/11 shift taken by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies toward stopping terrorist plots before they occur. While the vast majority of counterterrorism tactics involved are legally authorized, particularly after Congress and successive administrations relaxed restrictions on law enforcement and intelligence agencies for counterterrorism, they suggest that the government’s zeal to protect Americans has in some cases morphed into manufacturing threats.

The report focuses primarily on 27 cases and accordingly stops short of drawing systemic conclusions. It also finds several trials and convictions for “deliberate attempts at terrorism or terrorism financing” that it does not challenge.

The four high-profile domestic plots it found free of government involvement were the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing; Najibullah Zazi’s 2009 plot to bomb the New York subway; the attempted Times Square carbombing of 2010; and the 2002 shooting at Los Angeles International Airport’s El Al counter.

But the report is a rare attempt at a critical overview of a system often touted by the Obama administration and civil libertarian groups as a rigorous, capable and just alternative to the military tribunals and indefinite detention advocated by conservative critics. It comes as new pressure mounts on a variety of counterterrorism practices, from the courtroom use of warrantless surveillance to the no-fly list and law enforcement’s “suspicious activity reports” database.

In particular, Human Rights Watch examines the extent and impact of law enforcement’s use of terrorism informants, who can both steer people into attempted acts of violence and chill religious or civic behaviour in the communities they penetrate.

Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, a social services agency, told the Guardian she almost has a “radar for informants” sent to infiltrate her Brooklyn community.

While the FBI has long relied on confidential informants to alert them to criminal activity, for terrorism cases informants insert themselves into Muslim mosques, businesses and community gatherings and can cajole people toward a plot “who perhaps would never have participated in a terrorist act on their own initiative”, the study found.

Many trade information for cash. The FBI in 2008 estimated it had 15,000 paid informants. About 30% of post-9/11 terrorism cases are considered sting operations in which informants played an “active role” in incubating plots leading to arrest, according to studies cited in the Human Rights Watch report. Among those roles are making comments “that appeared designed to inflame the targets” on “politically sensitive” subjects, and pushing operations forward if a target’s “opinions were deemed sufficiently troubling”.

Entrapment, the subject of much FBI criticism over the years, is difficult to prove in court. The burden is on a defendant to show he or she was not “predisposed” to commit a violent act, even if induced by a government agent. Human Rights Watch observes that standard focuses attention “not on the crime, but on the nature of the subject”, often against a backdrop where “inflammatory stereotypes and highly charged characterizations of Islam and foreigners often prevail”.

Among the informants themselves there is less ambiguity. “It is all about entrapment,” Craig Monteilh, one such former FBI informant tasked with mosque infiltration, told the Guardian in 2012.

Informants, the study found, sometimes overcome their targets’ stated objections to engage in terrorism. A man convicted in 2006 of attempting to bomb the Herald Square subway station in Manhattan told an informant who concocted the plot he would have to check with his mother and was uncomfortable planting the bombs himself. One member of the “Newburgh Four” plot to attack synagogues and military planes – whose case is the subject of an HBO documentary airing on Monday – told his informant “maybe my mission hasn’t come yet”.

Once in court, terrorism cases receive evidentiary and pre-trial leeway rarely afforded to non-terrorism cases. A federal judge in Virginia permitted into evidence statements made by a defendant while in a Saudi jail in which the defendant, Amed Omar Abu Ali, alleged torture, a longstanding practice in Saudi Arabia. The evidence formed the basis for a conviction, and eventually a life sentence, for conspiracy to assassinate George W Bush. Mohammed Warsame, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, was held in solitary confinement for five years before his trial.

Another implication of the law-enforcement tactics cited the report is a deepening alienation of American Muslims from a government that publicly insists it needs their support to head off extremism but secretly deploys informants to infiltrate mosques and community centers.

“The best way to prevent violent extremism inspired by violent jihadists is to work with the Muslim American community – which has consistently rejected terrorism – to identify signs of radicalization and partner with law enforcement when an individual is drifting towards violence. And these partnerships can only work when we recognize that Muslims are a fundamental part of the American family,” Obama said in a high-profile 2013 speech.

Yet the Obama administration has needed to purge Islamophobic training materials from FBI counterterrorism, which sparked deep suspicion in US Muslim communities. It is now conducting a review of similar material in the intelligence community after a document leaked by Edward Snowden used the slur “Mohammed Raghead” as a placeholder for Muslims.

Spencer Ackerman in New York
The Guardian, Monday 21 July 2014 14.30 BST

Find this story at 21 July 2014

© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

Shahawar Matin Siraj: ‘impressionable’ young man caught in an NYPD sting

Siraj was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2007 for conspiring to plant bombs in New York City. The way he got there is similar to a spate of US ‘stings’ to capture terror suspects since 9/11

Shawahar Matin Siraj was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2007 after he pleaded guilty to conspiring to plant bombs at a Manhattan subway station near the Republican National Convention in 2004. As is frequent in post-9/11 domestic counter-terrorism investigations, a new Human Rights Watch report documents, Siraj might never have gotten there but for the involvement of someone else: an older man at a mosque in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood who posed as a nuclear engineer and cancer patient with a deep knowledge of Islam.

When they met in September 2003, Siraj was 21, working at his father’s Islamic bookstore. New York magazine would later report that he “regularly engaged in virulent anti-American tirades”, piquing the curiosity of law enforcement. The older man would later testify that he and Siraj developed a father-son relationship, perhaps since he said he had cancer and Siraj’s father was disabled. Siraj, he judged, was “impressionable”.

When word of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal broke the next year, Siraj received a barrage of images from the older man of US forces abusing Muslims. Then his friend recommended inflammatory websites for Siraj to view. He intimated to Siraj that he lamented “dying without a purpose” as Siraj became “inflamed by emotions”.

The older man worked with Siraj and Siraj’s friend James Elshafay to fashion a “purpose” worth dying for: the bomb plot. He drove Siraj to Herald Square and instructed Siraj to place explosives in the trash cans. Only Siraj exhibited doubts, saying he had to “ask my mom’s permission” and saying he preferred to be a lookout. Soon after, Siraj was arrested.

His older friend, in reality, was a New York police department informant named Osama Eldawoody, who had taped their conversations. Eldawoody had been casing mosques in Brooklyn and Staten Island for behavior he deemed suspicious. It was a lucrative business: CBS reported in 2006 that Eldawoody made $100,000 over three years of informing.

“Thanks to the extraordinary work of law enforcement, the defendants’ plot did not advance beyond the planning stage, and the public was never at risk,” Rosylnn Mauskopf, then the US attorney for eastern New York, said after Siraj’s sentencing.

Spencer Ackerman in New York
theguardian.com, Monday 21 July 2014 17.53 BST

Find this story at 21 July 2014

© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

The Line Between FBI Stings and Entrapment Has Not Blurred, It’s Gone

Rezwan Ferdaus is a 26-year-old US citizen of Bangladeshi descent. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison after pleading guilty to attempting to blow up the Pentagon and the US Capitol. This plot was devised with the direct guidance of a federal agent who infiltrated Ferdaus’ mosque and even provided the fake explosives. An FBI agent said of Ferdaus to the convict’s father that he “obviously” is mentally ill. Ferdaus, who also suffered from severe depression, seizures, and had to wear adult diapers for bladder control problems, was the victim of the sort of FBI sting that crosses the fine line into entrapment. And these operations are no rarity.

In everyday parlance, the difference between a sting and an act of entrapment seems minimal. They carry the same gist: influencing an individual to carry out an act, in which they are then caught.

By the letter of the law, however, the difference between a sting and entrapment is significant. Sting operations are legal. A cursory glance at popular culture’s imagining of FBI work would suggest that stings are in fact the bread and butter of federal policing. It makes for entertainment — the unfolding of elaborate investigative schemes; an agent with a hunch and a five o’clock shadow catches dastardly criminals doing what they invariably would do anyway. Entrapment, meanwhile, is when law enforcement induces a person or group to commit a crime that they would otherwise have been unlikely to commit.

In the fanciful world of television policing, cops are the goodies, criminals are the baddies, stings are stings and stings are legal. In reality, sting operations regularly cross the line into entrapment. The line in US law is purportedly clear: entrapment is illegal, stings are legal. How this line is actually walked by law enforcement is, however, fuzzy at best.

A report released this week from Human Rights Watch highlights how, consistently, FBI sting operations are over aggressive and premised on the racist profiling of Muslim communities — that old building block of our contemporary national security state. Based on 215 interviews and focusing on 27 post-9/11 cases of alleged terror plot thwarting, HRW’s findings call into question the very legitimacy of the FBI’s counterterror work. The authors go as far as to call a number of stings “government-created” terror plots.

Introducing the report, HRW’s Andrea Prasow noted that “Americans have been told that their government is keeping them safe by preventing and prosecuting terrorism inside the US… But take a closer look and you realize that many of these people would never have committed a crime if not for law enforcement encouraging, pressuring, and sometimes paying them to commit terrorist acts.”

It is no secret that US counterterrorism is regularly prefigurative. Under the pretext of stopping terror attacks before they happen, federal agencies like the FBI, NSA, and CIA target networks based often on nothing more valid than religious affiliation. “Sting” operations perform a pernicious part of this equation by drawing otherwise harmless individuals into situations wherein they are framed, and then punished, as terrorists.

As HRW noted, “Multiple studies have found that nearly 50 percent of the federal counterterrorism convictions since September 11, 2001, resulted from informant-based cases. Almost 30 percent were sting operations in which the informant played an active role in the underlying plot.” This means that FBI involvement has been the sine qua non of nearly a third of federal terror convictions (and therefore plots). The government is creating the very terror it claims to fight.

The premise of a sting is that the operation catches criminals or terrorists doing what they would have done anyway. There is a dangerous counterfactual here that seemingly gives the state insurmountable leverage. Who can prove what anyone would have done anyway? How can it be shown that a group would have carried out a terror attack, when the feds provide the very conditions for a terror attack to be carried out?

US justice has set the burden of proof the feds must show for the “would-have-done-it-anyway” condition troublingly low. Consider the case of the “Newburgh Four.” Using incentives including money and food, the FBI convinced four Muslim men to agree to a plot to shoot down military planes and blow up two synagogues in the Bronx. The FBI took the lead at every stage of the so-called plot. One of the so-called terrorists was a schizophrenic who kept his own urine in a bottle. While a Second Circuit judge said that the government “came up with the crime, provided the means, and removed all relevant obstacles,” and had, in the process, made a terrorist out of a man “whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope,” all of the Four were convicted and sentenced to 25 years. They maintain that the sting crossed the line into entrapment.

Since 9/11, Muslims in the US have been the focus of major counterterror stings. But other groups have been caught in the net where sting meets entrapment. A small group of self-identified anarchists in Cleveland were all convicted to around 10 years in prison for allegedly plotting to blow up a bridge in Ohio. But an FBI infiltrator provided the target and the fake C-4 explosives. Rick Perlstein wrote of the case in Rolling Stone, “the alleged terrorist masterminds end up seeming, when the full story comes out, unable to terrorize their way out of a paper bag without law enforcement tutelage.”

In the same 2012 article, Perlstein stresses an important point about FBI schemes in the still-rippling wake of 9/11. In previous decades, when defendants would claim entrapment, juries would sometimes listen. The 1972 indictment against Vietnam Vets Against the War was thrown out when a jury ruled that activists were entrapped by feds in a conspiracy to attack the RNC. However, not one terrorism indictment has been thrown out for entrapment since September 2001.

It is a sign of paranoid times, peppered with anti-Islamic sentiment. Federal agents can pick their terrorists and bring them into being. The government can provide every element of a terrorist plot, from target, to objective, to explosives. It appears to pass muster that suspects be Muslim to assert that they would have done it anyway.

By Natasha Lennard
July 22, 2014 | 11:50 pm

Find this story at 22 July 2014

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The informants: Manufacturing terror

The use of informants to target communities is one of the most alarming trends to have developed since 9/11.

The FBI has used informants in its counterterrorism tactics [AP]
On the surface, the scene unfolds without any hint of intrigue. A young Muslim convert named Darren Griffin meets fellow congregants at a local mosque in northwest Ohio. In addition to sharing the same faith as his new friends, they enjoy similar interests: watching sports, playing video games, working out at the local gym, and discussing international affairs. Except the scene ends tragically with a string of arrests, a national media frenzy, and self-congratulation among federal officials claiming to have foiled yet another terrorist plot.

The only problem is that Griffin was an FBI plant and the terror plot he supposedly helped thwart was entirely manufactured by the United States government. Purely on the strength of Griffin’s aggressive recruitment tactics, three young American Muslims received prison sentences ranging from eight to 20 years.

Similar scenarios have played out in many cities across the US during the past decade. “Informants”, the new documentary film from Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit, explores a phenomenon that has been far more pervasive than the media, government officials, or community leaders have acknowledged. In addition to sharing the heart-wrenching stories of the victims of these entrapment tactics, the film is unique because it shines a light on the informants themselves, highlighting the crucial role that they played in actively enlisting young men who never demonstrated any inclinations toward engaging in violence.

The informants

In order to understand how the use of paid informants became such a crucial cog in the FBI’s counterterrorism policy, one need only trace the major shift in the US national security paradigm after 9/11. Prior to the September 11 attacks, the FBI employed 10,500 agents, about 2,500 of whom were dedicated to national security investigations.

After 9/11, however, the overall number of agents expanded to 13,600, half of whom became devoted to national security. The annual budget of the FBI has risen dramatically from $3.1bn in 2001 to $8.4bn in the current fiscal year. Together, expanded budgets, the availability of advanced technological capabilities, and a permissive political climate combined to create an environment where federal law enforcement agencies enjoyed vastly expanded powers but were also expected to demonstrate immediate results.

In the course of investigating American Muslims for possible terrorist threats, the government cast a wide net. It placed tens of thousands of Muslims under constant surveillance, infiltrated community spaces, including mosques, dug through private records, interrogated many Muslims because of their political views and probed for any links to violent activities. These investigations largely turned up nothing, and that was a problem.

In order to continue to justify the robust expenditure of resources and the expansive investigative powers, officials needed results in the form of thwarted terrorist plots that demonstrated to American citizens that unless the FBI acted, the next attack was right around the corner. That climate of fear helped rationalise many of the country’s worst civil liberties violations committed under the Bush Administration and consolidated as standard practice during Obama’s presidency. To sustain the perception of the threat, one had to be created where it did not exist.

Meet the shady characters spying on American Muslims for the FBI.
Enter the informants. As Al Jazeera’s investigative film lays out, many of the most high-profile terrorism cases of the last decade were not a product of insidious Muslim sleeper cells uncovered by skillful investigators. Rather, in the absence of actual plots, the FBI actively targeted communities, identifying particularly vulnerable individuals, and sending them informants with the expressed purpose of ensnaring them in a conspiracy.

The informants are not government agents. Rather, they are almost always criminal offenders attempting to avoid prison time through their cooperation with the government. From drug dealing to fraud, their criminal history ostensibly provides them the tools they need to maintain their deception, though a crash course on basic Islamic beliefs and rituals is a must. With codenames like “The Trainer”, “The Closer”, and “The Bodybuilder”, they play to their particular strengths while identifying the weaknesses of those they are sent to entrap.

In the case of the latter, Craig Monteilh hung out in mosques where he hoped to meet Muslim youth and invite them to work out at a local gym. There, he could ostensibly engage them in conversation about volatile political subjects and broach the topic of terrorism over an intense workout regimen. When his aggressive posture provoked suspicion on the part of community members in southern California, local leaders reported Monteilh to the FBI, apparently not realising that it was the FBI which had sent him into their community in the first place.

The community’s experience with the “Bodybuilder” is particularly egregious, given the seeming vindictive nature of the FBI’s conduct in that case. The local imam, Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, dared to question publicly the veracity of claims made by a local FBI official at a town hall meeting. “The FBI does not take that lightly,” Monteilh recalled to Al Jazeera. “So they had me get close to Mr Fazaga, to get into his inner circle.” When Monteilh failed to ensnare Fazaga or any other local Muslims into a terrorist plot the FBI attempted to pursue immigration charges against Ahmadullah Sais Niazi, an Afghan immigrant who was one of those who reported Monteilh to the FBI for his suspicious behaviour. But the Department of Justice eventually dropped those charges and so Operation Flex, it seems, ended in failure.

This case, however, was the exception. The overwhelming majority of so-called “pre-emptive prosecutions” end in convictions on terrorism charges of individuals who the government is unable to prove would have ever entered into a violent plot on their own accord. More often than not, the FBI targets young Muslims with strong political opinions, usually concerning the role of the US in the plight of Muslims in places like Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Kashmir. As a former FBI special agent told Al Jazeera about the Ohio case, “The whole purpose was to verify whether it was more than just talk.”

By treating the political opinions of American Muslims as cause for suspicion, government investigators operate on the assumption that free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution do not extend to a particular segment of the American people. Over the years, the FBI’s actions have had a dramatic chilling effect on the ability of Muslims to express their political views. Motivated by such pressures from the government, many community leaders around the country have since attempted to suppress political expression in mosques and community centres.

But absent such healthy community spaces through which to channel passions for humanitarian concerns around the globe, it actually becomes more likely that young Muslims could channel their frustrations through alternative modes of oppositional politics. This type of quietist, disaffected atmosphere sanitised of all political expression is precisely the environment in which agent provocateurs thrive.

Exploiting poverty

In some cases, there is not even any “talk” to motivate the FBI into infiltrating communities. The Liberty City case with which Al Jazeera’s investigative film begins concerns a group of impoverished black men in Florida with no history of political activism or inflammatory speech. Nevertheless, the FBI sent in “The Closer” a fast-talking informant named Elie Assaad who operated as the ringleader for an alleged plot to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago. Swaying the impressionable and impoverished young men with promises of everything from shoes to wear to large sums of cash, Assaad enlists Rothschild Augustine and six others in his conspiracy.

The use of informants to target communities is one of the most alarming trends to have developed since 9/11, as it threatens to undo the fabric of a free society.

In relaying this story to Al Jazeera’s investigators, Assaad and Augustine reveal a number of disturbing practices in the concocted plot. The FBI specifically selected its own south Florida offices as a surveillance target, attempting to position itself as the victim of the conspiracy rather than the originator of it, despite the fact that there is no indication that the men even knew where or what it was. The ceremonial oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda that Assaad administered to the seven men displayed what can only be described as a symbol of the cartoonish imagery with which many in the US government associate Islam and Muslims.

Perhaps most worrisome in the case of the Liberty City 7, and an eerily similar case in New York, is the ways in which the FBI has exploited the endemic poverty and social problems from drug use to lack of education that are prevalent within some black communities across the US in order to construct the perception of a terrorist threat. In the latter case, the Newburgh Four were promised a payment of $250,000 by a government informant who they hoped to manipulate in turn. The Newburgh Sting is an HBO documentary, also premiering soon, which chronicles the government’s excesses in carrying out this plot and the devastation it has caused to an impoverished community.

A startling report utilising the Department of Justice’s internal statistics recently stated that in the decade after 9/11, 94.2 percent of federal terrorism convictions were obtained, at least in part, on the basis of preemptive prosecutions. Given how pervasive this practice has been, it is noteworthy that American Muslim civil rights groups have not developed a coordinated response to what has plainly become a widespread use of informants nationwide. In some instances, they have even attempted to downplay the problem of preemptive prosecutions, as in one report by a prominent American Muslim organisation that states that “while the numbers clearly show informants are frequently used by federal law enforcement, a majority of these cases do not involve them at all.”

The use of informants to target communities is one of the most alarming trends to have developed since 9/11, as it threatens to undo the fabric of a free society. That these recent investigative films have laid bare this troubling phenomenon and displayed its consequences for all to see, is a critical first step in confronting its damaging effect not only on the vulnerable American Muslim community but on American society as a whole.

Last updated: 21 Jul 2014 15:35

Find this documentary at 21 July 2014

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