FBI tactics to unearth ISIS recruits: effective or entrapment?

The FBI uses undercover agents and sting operations to round up ISIS recruits in US. But critics say such tactics also catch 'fake' terrorists who otherwise would not have taken action, further alienating the Muslim community.

A photo of John T. Booker from his Facebook page.

On paper, John T. Booker of Topeka, Kan., looked like a worthy recruit for the US Army. The 19-year-old had served as a master sergeant in the Junior ROTC program at Topeka West High School.

But a few weeks before he was to report for basic training, Mr. Booker, a Muslim, wrote something unusual on his Facebook page.

“I will soon be leaving you forever so goodbye! I’m going to wage jihad and hope ... that i die.”

When confronted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Booker candidly admitted that he admired Maj. Nidal Hassan, the Army psychiatrist who massacred 13 unarmed soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009 while shouting “God is Great” in Arabic.  

At his trial, Major Hassan said he decided to change sides, rejecting the US military and embracing jihad. He was convicted and given a death sentence.

Booker told the FBI that he’d reached the same conclusion, according to court documents. In essence, he was joining the US Army to ambush and kill American soldiers.

The Army withdrew its offer to Booker.

What happened next in Booker’s case illustrates what many experts say is a major shortcoming in how the US government is responding to the threat of Islamic extremism.

Rather than viewing Booker’s alarming statements as a cry for help from a young man with recognized mental health issues, federal agents sought to build a criminal case against him.

They introduced an undercover operative who told Booker he’d help him join the Islamic State group, but that Booker would first have to prove his devotion to the cause, according to federal documents.  

A second undercover operative was introduced, this one posing as a religious leader seeking to conduct terror attacks in the US. After months of discussions, Booker volunteered to carry out a suicide truck bomb attack at a Kansas military base. Federal agents helped him produce his own martyrdom video.

The FBI also built a “bomb” in a van that Booker could deliver. The device was, in fact, an inert decoy.

Booker was arrested while trying to arm the device near an entrance to the base. He is charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and faces up to life in prison if convicted.

To critics, such techniques smack of entrapment – encouraging naive or mentally challenged individuals to engage in criminal behavior they wouldn’t otherwise commit.

Supporters of these tactics stress that the primary role of the FBI is to protect the American public. Such law-enforcement operations against those who express a willingness to engage in violent extremism provide an effective way to take a potentially dangerous suspect safely off the streets before people are injured or killed.

These law-enforcement operations are taking place amid a backdrop of a sophisticated and methodical recruitment effort by the Islamic State organization that seeks to radicalize receptive individuals in any and every corner of America.

So far, the FBI has managed to identify and neutralize the growing number of would-be recruits. It is a remarkable accomplishment, experts say. But law-enforcement officials are worried about those they haven’t yet detected.

John Kehe/Staff

In October 2014, a man with a hatchet assaulted four New York City police officers in broad daylight on a busy city street. The 32-year-old recent Muslim convert struck one officer in the head and another in the arm before the two others shot him dead.

Investigators said the man had watched a video of an IS beheading and consumed other materials from the group.

“We have 71 trained soldiers in 15 different states ready at our word to attack any target we desire,” an IS official said in a statement issued in May, shortly after two gunmen were shot and killed in Garland, Texas, outside a contest to draw satiric depictions of the prophet Muhammad.

The spokesman added: “The next six months will be interesting.”

Law enforcement officials are working to determine whether such threats are genuine, and if so, how to counter them.

“Because there is a threat of a firearms attack on a train tomorrow, or on a shopping mall or a school, you don’t have the luxury of sitting back and just collecting intelligence,” says William Braniff, executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

“The law enforcement community and the professional counter-terrorism community are in this very difficult position,” he says.

“Getting a firearm is not difficult to do and, once you have that firearm, it is not difficult to attack a soft target, so there is very little tolerance for risk,” Mr. Braniff says. “There is pressure to interdict as early as possible.”

US officials have used confidential informants and undercover agents to help assess whether a particular individual poses a threat to public safety or national security. If so, a quick sting operation can neutralize the threat.

Nonetheless, there is significant criticism.

'Fake' terrorists?

The primary objection is that such tactics often place the FBI in the role of inventing fake terror plots that create and ensnare “fake” terrorists. It is a distinction frequently glossed over in sensational media coverage playing up the disrupted “plot.”

The suspects are often individuals with mental health issues or other vulnerabilities who, but for the intervention of FBI undercover operatives, might never possess the capability of carrying off such a plot.

“In many instances, these people have espoused these opinions for a long time without ever actually taking action beyond just speaking about them,” says John Robbins, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations.

Research by his organization shows that when the suspect is a Muslim, authorities tend to downplay potential contributing factors such as mental illness, he says.

“The FBI is really good at catching its own terrorists,” says Yasir Qadhi, a leading Islamic scholar in the US and a professor at Rhodes College in Memphis.

Professor Qadhi says sting operations have further alienated large segments of an American Muslim population already reeling from widespread discrimination, surveillance, and racial profiling by US authorities since the 911 attacks.

Among Muslims, Qadhi says, each new sting operation is not seen as an effort to protect people from violence. Instead, it is viewed as further evidence of government hostility toward Muslims.

“When you set up a 17-year-old kid and you go and you wire your informants and you rile him up and then you catch him in the act, you’ve lost the trust of an entire community with that one stupid act,” he says.

In one respect, what the undercover agents are doing is finishing the work of the IS recruiters who were methodically grooming and radicalizing their targets, experts say.

In essence, the FBI takes up where the radical recruiters left off, further pushing young Americans over the line toward violent extremism, not to benefit the IS group or its fledgling caliphate, but for the sake of winning a criminal conviction in federal court.

To those in the target’s family or his or her community who see this process up close, it is frightening and counterproductive, analysts say.

Family as 'early-warning system'

Friends and family members could be a natural early-warning system to identify signs of radicalization, says John Horgan, a psychologist and terrorism expert at Georgia State University.

“From the research I’ve done, we are finding that those kinds of issues don’t get reported because people are afraid of the consequences,” he says.

Years of suspicion, surveillance, and tough law-enforcement tactics in the war on terror have undercut any sense of trust between the Muslim community and the government.

“This is basic stuff,” Professor Horgan says. “It is community policing, it is outreach, it is building trust and figuring out what are the safe mechanisms through which people can report suspicions or call up an agency to say, ‘Hey, I think my child might be in danger of radicalization. What do I do?’ ”

The professor adds: “We haven’t seen that kind of thinking, we haven’t seen those kinds of resources being developed here [in the US].”

“Parents are placed in an untenable situation,” he adds. “Our strategy is devoid of early off ramps for diverting this kind of activity and that feeds a vicious cycle of mistrust, which we see in greater numbers of arrests,” he says. “It feeds the assumption that there is no real interest in stemming the tide of radicalization.”

There are a few innovative approaches under way in the US.

The US State Department runs a Twitter account called “Think AgainTurn Away” that tries to confront and dispute radical tweeters with counter tweets. There are pilot programs in Boston, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles aimed at fostering greater cooperation and trust between law enforcement and the Muslim community. But many Muslims reject those programs as a veiled attempt to improve government surveillance.

Indeed, the primary thrust of the US government’s anti-radicalization effort continues be surveillance, arrests, and imprisonment.

This is not exclusively a Muslim-American problem, but that is the one community most affected by it and it is the one community that is pushing back.

Salam Al-Marayati is president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. His organization is developing a community-based intervention program called the Safe Spaces Initiative. The group is seeking to set up pilot projects in 12 US cities.

“Safe Spaces is an alternative to heavy-handed law enforcement tactics,” Mr. Al-Marayati says. Rather than seeking to imprison them for 10 or 20 years, Safe Spaces attempts to rehabilitate young Americans – to pull them back from brink of radicalization – before they violate any criminal statutes.

“What [IS] is doing, what they are telling our kids is that America is at war with Islam and you as a Muslim will never be respected in America,” Al-Marayati says. “That’s the lure.”

US law-enforcement tactics have tended to reinforce that message.

What’s necessary, Al-Marayati says, is to take action to foster a strong American-Muslim identity, a sense of pride and dignity and purpose robust enough to withstand Islamic State propaganda.

Offering families an alternative to ISIS or prison

In addition, he says, Safe Spaces is designed to create a safe zone for intervention to help save American children not just from recruiters with the IS group, but also from the US criminal justice system.

“Instead of calling the FBI, you can call a mental health expert or a social services worker, or a religious counselor,” Al-Marayati says. “In other words, we provide resources to the father or the mother or the sister or the friend or the mentor and they would know who to turn to for help so that you can try to rehabilitate the person.”

Although there are a few isolated intervention projects operating in the US, there is no systematic and comprehensive program.

“It can’t just be a law enforcement answer,” says Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, and a former official with the US government’s National Counterterrorism Center.

“If you are a parent you are left with a very difficult choice,” Professor Hughes says. “Do you watch your kid radicalize to violence and hope it is just a phase that they grow out of, but then you risk that they jump on a plane [to Turkey and Syria]? Or do you call the FBI?”

“That is not an acceptable answer for loved ones of those who are radicalizing to violence,” Hughes says.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Hughes adds, “there are high-risk individuals who we should arrest and put away for a very long time. There is no doubt on that. But there is an existing subset of people who are still reachable where you can try a different route besides law enforcement.”

Drawing that line may prove difficult. But the alternative for the US would be further erosion in trust between the Muslim community and the government.

“It is going to take a lot of work and it is not going to happen overnight,” Hughes says. “But it is pretty much the only way you are going to stop the next 200 recruits.”

• Part 1, Monday: How doomsday Muslim cult is turning kids against parents
• Parts 2 & 3, Tuesday: One Virginia teen's journey from ISIS rock star to incarceration & Eight faces of ISIS in America
• Part 4, Wednesday: FBI tactics to unearth ISIS recruits: effective or entrapment?
• Part 5, Thursday: What draws women to ISIS
• Part 6, Friday: To turn tables on ISIS at home, start asking unsettling questions, expert says
• Part 7, Saturday: How to save kids from ISIS? Start with mom.

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