If federal authorities thought Amine El Khalifi was a clear and present danger to America, they could have easily solved the problem by deporting the 29-year-old Moroccan, who had been living as an illegal immigrant in northern Virginia for years, having overstayed his visitor’s visa by a decade. Instead, he was arrested Friday in a garage outside the U.S. Capitol for allegedly planning to set off a fake suicide vest and shoot people with an inoperable automatic weapon—both provided to him by his government handlers.
As federal authorities so accurately stated after Khalifi's “capture,” he never posed a danger to the public. In other words, at no time were any Americans in any danger whatsoever from this suspect.
Yet, if convicted, Khalifi will most likely spend the majority of the rest of his life in prison, courtesy of the American taxpayer. The only question is, will we be safer? Or, more pointedly, were we ever in danger to begin with?
In early February of this year journalist Trevor Aaronson won an award from New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice for “The Informants,” an article he wrote in the September-October 2011 issue of Mother Jones. The juried contest, in which Aaronson received first prize, was held as part of the seventh annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation symposium on crime in America. (Full disclosure: I was a judge in that contest.)
In retrospect, Aaronson’s article was prescient. Down to the minutest of details, he described just how alleged “plots” like the one Khalifi is accused of launching unfold. He was able to do so because these cases by now usually follow a similar pattern: an FBI-paid Muslim informant goes to his handlers and alerts them to threats being made against America by a fellow worshiper at the mosque they attend; the feds then continue (or in some instances upgrade) the pay of the informant so they can develop a relationship with the supposed terrorist, thereby encouraging the sometimes unstable individual to think of himself as a potential martyr and avenger of all of the Western insults against Islam; then, when the “terrorist” is wound up tighter than a cheap wristwatch, he is given “weapons of mass destruction” and sent off to avenge his faith.
Of course the feds, who have orchestrated, choreographed, and paid for the entire charade, are waiting for the bomber with open arms. Afterward, some informants move on to another city where they eventually “discover” yet another plot—or, as critics say, create one if none is to be found. Hey, informants gotta eat too, you know.
Some legal scholars, like Karen Greenberg, who studies terrorism sting operations as the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, caution against entrapment in such cases. “You want to be very sure that the narrative is not substantially provided by the government. There’s a lot of gray area in these cases.” Other legal experts agree with Aaronson and say that the FBI sometimes crosses the fine line between “discovering” a plot and creating one by suborning and provoking individuals who, while perhaps willing to commit an act of violence after many months of coaching, cajoling, and encouraging by paid informants, really don’t have the means to carry out their wild jihadist fantasies absent U.S. government assistance.
Washington, D.C., lawyer and practicing Muslim Ashraf Nubani, who has defended terrorism suspects in similar cases in the past, is growing increasingly alarmed. He states that cases like the one against Khalifi are “controlled from beginning to end by FBI. But you can’t create a terrorism case and then say you stopped it. Had the FBI not been involved, through their manipulation or informants, would the same thing have happened? Would there be attempted violence? They have their sights on certain people, the ones who talk big talk.”
In “The Informants” Aaronson wrote: “Ever since 9/11, counterterrorism has been the FBI’s No. 1 priority, consuming the lion’s share of its budget—$3.3 billion, compared to $2.6 billion for organized crime—and much of the attention of field agents and a massive, nationwide network of informants. After years of emphasizing informant recruiting as a key task for its agents, the bureau now maintains a roster of 15,000 spies [some paid as much as $100,000 per case]—many of them tasked … with infiltrating Muslim communities in the United States. In addition, for every informant officially listed in the bureau's records, there are as many as three unofficial ones ... the informants could be doctors, clerks, imams. Some might not even consider themselves informants.”
The problem, according to Aaronson, is that the FBI strategy (variously described as “preemption,” “prevention,” and “disruption”), while supposedly designed to identify and neutralize potential lone-wolf threats before they can engage in action, is far too broad. It targets “not just active jihadists, but tens of thousands of law-abiding people, seeking to identify those disgruntled few who might participate in a plot given the means and the opportunity. And then, in case after case, the government provides the plot, the means, and the opportunity.”
But Muslims and foreigners are not the only focuses of FBI interest. Last week nine members of the Hutaree, a Michigan-based militia made up of white native-born Americans, went on trial in U.S. district court in Detroit. Again, an informant led the government’s effort by infiltrating and wiretapping the group, whose members are charged with five counts, including seditious conspiracy, attempts to use weapons of mass destruction, teaching or demonstrating the use of explosive materials, and carrying, using, and possessing a firearm with the intention to use for violence. The indictment states the group was planning to “levy war against the United States.”
But defense attorneys for the group say the militia’s antigovernment talk is protected under the First Amendment and amounts to little more than bragging and boasting and that their actions were not illegal. They described the group as a bunch of gun and hunting enthusiasts. “Calling this group a militia is pushing it,” attorney Todd Shanker said. Another attorney, William Swor, said his client “was exercising his God-given right to blow off steam and open his mouth.”
Dan Murray, the paid informant the FBI used to infiltrate the Hutaree, was paid $30,000 for his services. Some critics claim that in tough economic times this amount is more than enough to entice informants to add a little yeast to their stories to make them rise and stick better. Murray, who was convicted in state court last year of firing shots at his wife during a domestic disturbance, received probation in that case, with all charges dropped after he pleaded guilty. The favorable treatment for a paid snitch is due to the intervention of federal authorities, defense lawyers claim.
Part of the lore and legend of many inner-city communities is the belief that select snitches receive what amounts to a “license” from authorities to sell drugs and commit other crimes—as long as they continue to provide information on other criminals, who often turn out to be rivals. Critics say much of the gun violence in big-city neighborhoods stem from beefs between such rival gang factions, spurred in large part by informants dropping dimes on one another.
Longtime Cleveland defense lawyer Ken Lumpkin says that police often tend to tolerate and downplay such killings as a means of “thinning the herd” and maintaining control in minority communities. He concluded by saying, “Everyone wants to be safe and free from harm, but sometimes law enforcement seem bent on burning down the village to save it. In these terrorist cases there’s a sneaking suspicion the feds are using informants that are unreliable at best or highly manipulative liars at worse. Often they only introduce tapes that support their version of the facts. If a target of an investigation tries to back out of a plot and has to be convinced over and over again to stay in … that tape will never be played for the jury. We have to be careful we don’t create a country—a society—where everyone is afraid that everyone else may be, in some way, working for the government. That can destroy trust and destabilize communities, something some folks, based on history, think the FBI is not above doing. That’s one of the hallmarks of totalitarianism ... when Big Brother gets too all-powerful and uses informants to set us against each other.”