Fort Riley suicide bombing plot: Was an FBI sting operation necessary?

John T. Booker was arrested for attempting a suicide attack on Fort Riley military base. The actions were part of an extensive FBI sting operation, raising an ethical question of whether sting operations are helpful or counterproductive.

April Blackmon/Fort Riley Public Affairs/File
Soldiers shoot at the rifle range at Fort Riley.

Kansas resident John T. Booker, 20, was charged Friday for planning a suicide attack on the Fort Riley military base on Friday.

Authorities arrested Mr. Booker, who also goes by the name Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, outside of the Army post as he attempted to arm a 1,000-pound bomb, according to prosecutors. He was not aware the bomb was inert, as the situation was part of an extensive FBI sting operation that resulted in Booker’s arrest.

"The perimeter of Fort Riley was never penetrated, there was never any concern on our part that he would get onto the fort and, unbeknownst to him, the materials that were used to make up this bomb were inert," U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said, reported NPR.

Is this an example of the FBI getting better at identifying radicalized American youth? Perhaps. But it also appears to be the case of a troubled individual, so open about his terrorist ambitions, that he becomes fodder for a sting operation, one the FBI describes as an effort to keep him "off the streets."

Booker is charged with three federal crimes, including attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, attempting to damage property by means of an explosive and providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Another Topeka man, Alexander E. Blair, 28, was also charged for failure to report a felony. He was known to have similar radical views, and also allegedly provided funds to Booker to help cover the cost of the storage locker where the bomb was built, reported The New York Times.

“Over a period of months, he began doing and taking actions that were more than just mere talking,” Mr. Grissom said, reported The New York Times. He added that the arrest “reminds us that we in law enforcement have to remain vigilant.”

Booker’s susceptibility to radical views first came to light in early 2014, when he was recruited to join the U.S. Army in Kansas City, Mo. He was scheduled to report to basic training in April. In March, he publicly posted to Facebook two entries, which stated: “I will soon be leaving you forever so goodbye! I’m going to wage jihad and hopes that i die” and “Getting ready to be killed in jihad is a HUGE adrenaline rush!! I am so nervous. NOT because I’m scared to die but I am eager to meet my lord.”

After the second post, the FBI interviewed him after receiving a complaint. According to the complaint, Booker allegedly heard and waived his Miranda rights and said “he enlisted in the United States Army with the intent to commit an insider attack against American soldiers like Major Nidal Hassan had done at Fort Hood, Texas.” After detailing other possible jihad attacks, he was subsequently denied US military employment.

Seven months later, the FBI continued to keep tabs on the young man. Since October 2014, Booker engaged in conversation with a confidential FBI informant. According to the complaint, he repeatedly told the informant of his desire to go to the Middle East and join the self-declared Islamic State, “but he didn't know anyone who could help him do so.”

Mid-November, the FBI informant told Booker he had a “cousin” who could get people overseas, referring to another FBI informant who later identified himself as “a high ranking sheikh planning terrorist attacks in the United States.” When asked what he would like to do, Booker responded: “Anything. Anything you think is good. I will follow you.”

Booker repeatedly discussed his intentions to perform jihad with the two FBI informants in the following months, leading up to Friday’s end when Booker attempted to detonate the inert bomb. Booker filmed a video of himself to be played after his death, during which he swears bay’ah, or allegiance, to IS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

According to the complaint, the FBI informants provided a list of explosive materials to Booker, and also assembled the explosives at his request. Booker made it clear that he wished to detonate the explosion himself, so the FBI informants demonstrated how to arm the device.

Last summer, the Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute released a report detailing 27 federal terrorism cases from initiation to post-conviction. In some cases, individuals had no history of terrorist acts, and were considered to be "law-abiding citizens" before the initiation of sting operations. Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch and one of the authors of the report, said in a release:

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.

A case similar to Booker's arose in 2012 when a Chicago suburban teen, Adel Daoud, was driven by FBI informants to a downtown location to detonate a bomb. At the time, he was not part of a terrorist organization, nor did was any group attempting to recruit him. Al Jazeera reported that Chicago's Muslim communities were shocked by the arrest, and questioned the FBI's tactics. 

"For many, the first question was why. Why target as a terrorist-in-waiting a teen who was plainly incapable of planning and conducting a terrorist attack?" Al Jazeera reported. "The second question was one of fear: Will my child be the FBI’s next target?"

Imam Omar Hazim of the Islamic Center of Topeka said he began counseling Booker after two FBI agents brought him to his attention last year. The FBI told Hazim that Booker suffered bipolar disorder, and that they hoped counseling would help change his radical beliefs.

Hazim said that recently, Booker had gone off his medication because “he didn't like the way it made him feel and it was expensive” and that he acted strangely in the days leading up to the arrest. Hazim later he learned of the sting operation in an effort to get Booker “off the streets.” He said:

“I think the two FBI agents set him up, because they felt at that point someone else might have done the same thing and put a real bomb in his hands.”

This article contains reporting from The Associated Press.

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