Opinion
U.S. Marshal's office / File / AP

The FBI’s counterterrorism sting operations are counterproductive

Feds sow mistrust and target the poor, desperate and mentally ill

July 21, 2014 9:45AM ET

Adel Daoud is no Ferris Bueller.

A Chicago suburban teen, he couldn’t drive himself to the Jewel Osco grocery store down the street without getting lost, let alone pull a Bueller and hoodwink his parents into letting him have the day off school. He is a D student and forgetful in the extreme. “He’s not a person with a complete mind,” his mother told me.

Yet the FBI began targeting Daoud as a terrorist mastermind shortly after his 18th birthday. At the time the FBI began its sting operation, Daoud wasn’t part of a terrorist cell, nor was any group recruiting him. He was, though, on the Internet, looking for answers about Islam and jihad. At home and at his local mosque, the Muslim teen was told that jihad was nonviolent: It meant supporting your family by being a good son. FBI undercover employees, finding Daoud online, did not affirm that message. Instead, they worked with Daoud, ultimately driving him to downtown Chicago to detonate a weapon of mass destruction outside a bar.

Chicago’s Muslim communities were stunned by the Daoud’s arrest in September 2012. 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? The second question was one of fear: Will my child be the FBI’s next target?

As a report released today by Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute documents, the FBI’s tactics in some terrorism sting cases are not only abusive but counterproductive. They instill fear of law enforcement instead of mutual trust. And they potentially divert FBI resources from actual terrorism threats.

Sting operations are nothing new, but the FBI is using significantly more aggressive tactics in American Muslim communities than it has in others. It is deploying informants and undercover FBI agents to mosques and community centers around the country in what sometimes appear to be virtual fishing expeditions. In some cases, the FBI has instructed informants to strike up conversations about jihad with anyone who will listen.

These investigations appear to pick off the lowest-hanging fruit, including the mentally ill and the poor, who are vulnerable to manipulation. In one case, the subject of “The Newburgh Sting,” an HBO documentary premiering this week, an informant promised a 45-year-old African-American man $250,000 to participate in a fake attack. After losing his job at Walmart, the man accepted the offer.

In too many cases, the government, often acting through informants, developed the fake terrorism plot, persuaded and sometimes pressured the targeted individuals to participate and provided the resources to carry it out.

For every terrorism bust the FBI claims based on such tactics, there is a cost.

Deploying informants and conducting surveillance without reasonable suspicion has sent chills through many American Muslim communities. Some parents with whom we spoke feared the FBI might recruit their teenage kids to become informants on their communities. Others said they feared that strangers in their mosques and community centers could be undercover FBI agents or infiltrators, hunting for youth to entrap in fake terrorist plots.

This kind of fear — in any context and no matter its actual merit — is a recipe for bad policing, since distrust of law enforcement can deter citizens from reporting a crime tip or fully cooperating in bona fide crime investigations.

The government has racked up hundreds of convictions based on terrorism stings. Multiple studies have found that nearly half of federal terrorism convictions since the 9/11 attacks resulted from informant-based cases. Some may be lawful and justifiable, yet almost 30 percent of these convictions were sting operations in which the informant played an active role in the underlying plot. In too many cases,  the government, often acting through informants, developed the fake terrorism plot, persuaded and sometimes pressured the targeted individuals to participate and provided the resources to carry it out. The FBI’s wisdom in pursuing these cases, rather than investigating threats and individuals who were actually operational, is questionable at best.

Similarly questionable is the government’s expansive surveillance and collection of information about all Americans, including American Muslims, which we continue to learn about through revelations from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. Rather than helping FBI analysts connect the dots, the flood of data is impairing the FBI’s ability to properly assess and respond to threat information it receives. While we can’t expect the FBI to prevent every terrorist attack, recent ones like the Boston Marathon bombing show the need for a sober re-evaluation of the agency’s methods.

Unfortunately, the Justice Department and the FBI appear unwilling or unable to critically evaluate their track record. Last week Attorney General Eric Holder urged U.S. allies to follow the FBI’s lead and adopt the same counterterrorism sting tactics. Before the U.S. exports these terrorism tactics, it should reckon with their costs.

Naureen Shah is a legislative counsel at the ACLU’s Washington legislative office and a co-author of “Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in U.S. Terrorism Prosecutions” by Human Rights Watch and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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