Since 9/11, the FBI has stepped up its reliance on sting operations to catch potential terrorists before they strike. But in the process, says journalist Trevor Aaronson, the agency has ended up "hatching and financing more terrorist plots in the United States than any other group." Bob talks with Aaronson about his new book, The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War on Terrorism.
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BOB GARFIELD: On Thursday, in Portland, Oregon, a 21-year-old Somali American who would talk about the glories of, quote, “jihad” was convicted of federal terrorism charges. His lawyers claimed that he’d been led to act, that is, entrapped, by the FBI. That argument failed this week but it's become an increasingly common refrain. Journalist Trevor Aaronson has researched 158 cases of accused terrorists apprehended through FBI stings.
In his new book, The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War on Terrorism, he finds that since 9/11, the US government is responsible for, quote, “hatching and financing more terrorist plots in the United States than any other group.”
TREVOR AARONSON: There are 15,000 registered informants working for the FBI today, which is an unprecedented number. There are informants in every community large enough to support a mosque. Some work for the FBI for money. You can make $100,000 or more per case. In other cases, the informants are coerced into cooperating through the fear of deportation or through the FBI saying, if you work with us, we’ll make this criminal charge go away.
BOB GARFIELD: There's a piece in Mother Jones Magazine excerpting your book, The Terror Factory, that begins with a guy who wants to create mayhem, but hasn't the wherewithal.
TREVOR AARONSON: Sure, that was the case of a man named Quazi Nafis. Nafis was a Bangladeshi student here in the US. He had just arrived in January of 2012, and he meets an informant and explains to him that he's interested in committing an act of terrorism. The informant introduces him to an undercover agent, posing as an al Qaeda operative, and Nafis explains that he wants to strike at the heart of the American capitalist system and then says, well, you know, maybe we should bomb the New York Federal Reserve Building. And the FBI brings in the chemicals they need for this bomb that they will load up in a van that is also provided by the FBI. And they get Nafis to then drive the van with the undercover agent in front of the Federal Reserve Building of New York. He and the FBI agent want to a hotel room and he dials on a cell phone, expecting it to blow up and destroy the Federal Reserve Building, kill hundreds, if not thousands, of people in and around New York.
Of course, that never happens. FBI agents rush in and, and arrest him. He's an example of someone who never had the capacity for terrorism on his own. It was the FBI that provided everything he needed to go from a disgruntled student to a deadly terrorist.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, in your book, you point out that after the United States invasion of Afghanistan, al Qaeda structurally became incapable of mounting a plot such as 9/11 and changed its strategy to enabling lone wolves to pull off terror plots. These guys who the FBI have infiltrated are exactly the kind of lone wolves that Osama bin Laden meant to send out into the world. Why should we not be fearful of them?
TREVOR AARONSON: In these FBI terrorism stings, we’re really finding people on the fringes of society. You know, many are financially desperate, others are mentally ill. On their own, they never have the capability to commit an act of terrorism. There have been dangerous and deadly lone wolves.
You know, if you look at Faisal Shahzad, he delivered a car bomb to Times Square. It was smoking. A street vendor saw it and, fortunately, it didn’t go off. The FBI had no knowledge of him. The FBI has had a difficult, if not impossible, time teasing out people who are the real terrorists.
BOB GARFIELD: The implication of your book is that it's really all about the press conference. It's all about making us feel like the FBI has our back.
TREVOR AARONSON: You know, every year the FBI gets $3 billion dollars to fund its counterterrorism program. It's the largest portion of its budget. And what the FBI has done very effectively is play the media. When there’s an announcement of a sting operation, it's played on the front page as another terrorist plot foiled. But it often takes days, and sometimes longer than that, before the media realizes, well this wasn't all that was portrayed to be. In fact, the person never had connections to al Qaeda. He never was a real terrorist, were it not for the FBI providing him with the means. This has allowed the FBI to portray the threat of Islamic terrorism in the United States as much greater than it is, through a rather complicit media delivering that message.
BOB GARFIELD: You say that the media narrative itself seems to be turning against the FBI.
TREVOR AARONSON: Absolutely. Foreign Policy Magazine had a blog item a few months ago that said, “How many idiot jihadis can the FBI fool?” What also has happened is these cases have come to trial in many cities and the media are now seeing that these were people that were empowered by FBI informants and that, left to their own devices, the evidence suggested they weren't going to do anything.
BOB GARFIELD: Are we, in the end, safer because we’ve got $3 billion per year going towards counterterrorism that yields some clown defendants? Or is all a mirage?
TREVOR AARONSON: I think it's both. They’re creating an environment where perhaps a real terrorist would begin to question everyone he's collaborating with. He’d begin to think, well, is that person a government agent, is that person an informant? That is perhaps a beneficial effect of these sting operations in the counterterrorism mission.
But the mirage effect is that the people that are ultimately charged with terrorism, left to their own devices, they would continue to be a WalMart stalker. In one case, the target of the sting tells the informant who’s providing him with all the capability, if it wasn't for you, I probably would just ended up stabbing someone with a steak knife.
I can also say, and the data shows this, that as the FBI has pursued Islamic terrorism with such a singular focus, they've lost focus on other threats, such as the sovereign citizen movement and the white supremacist movement who, since 9/11, have actually killed more people than Islamic terrorists.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Trevor. Thank you very much.
TREVOR AARONSON: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Trevor Aaronson is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University and author of The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War on Terrorism.