By DAVID K. SHIPLER
THE United States has been narrowly saved from lethal terrorist plots in
recent years — or so it has seemed. A would-be suicide bomber was
intercepted on his way to the Capitol; a scheme to bomb synagogues and
shoot Stinger missiles at military aircraft was developed by men in
Newburgh, N.Y.; and a fanciful idea to fly explosive-laden model planes
into the Pentagon and the Capitol was hatched in Massachusetts.
But all these dramas were facilitated by the F.B.I., whose undercover
agents and informers posed as terrorists offering a dummy missile, fake
C-4 explosives, a disarmed suicide vest and rudimentary training.
Suspects naïvely played their parts until they were arrested.
When an Oregon college student, Mohamed Osman Mohamud,
thought of using a car bomb to attack a festive Christmas-tree lighting
ceremony in Portland, the F.B.I. provided a van loaded with six
55-gallon drums of “inert material,” harmless blasting caps, a detonator
cord and a gallon of diesel fuel to make the van smell flammable. An
undercover F.B.I. agent even did the driving, with Mr. Mohamud in the
To trigger the bomb the student punched a number into a
cellphone and got no boom, only a bust.
This is legal, but is it legitimate? Without the F.B.I., would the
culprits commit violence on their own? Is cultivating potential
terrorists the best use of the manpower designed to find the real ones?
Judging by their official answers, the F.B.I. and the Justice Department
are sure of themselves — too sure, perhaps.
Carefully orchestrated sting operations usually hold up in court.
Defendants invariably claim entrapment and almost always lose, because
the law requires that they show no predisposition to commit the crime,
even when induced by government agents. To underscore their
predisposition, many suspects are “warned about the seriousness of their
plots and given opportunities to back out,” said Dean Boyd, a Justice
Department spokesman. But not always, recorded conversations show.
Sometimes they are coaxed to continue.
Undercover operations, long practiced by the F.B.I., have become a
mainstay of counterterrorism, and they have changed in response to the
post-9/11 focus on prevention. “Prior to 9/11 it would be very unusual
for the F.B.I. to present a crime opportunity that wasn’t in the scope
of the activities that a person was already involved in,” said Mike
German of the American Civil Liberties Union, a lawyer and former F.B.I.
agent who infiltrated white supremacist groups. An alleged drug dealer
would be set up to sell drugs to an undercover agent, an arms trafficker
to sell weapons. That still happens routinely, but less so in
counterterrorism, and for good reason.
“There isn’t a business of terrorism in the United States, thank God,” a
former federal prosecutor, David Raskin, explained.
“You’re not going to be able to go to a street corner and find somebody
who’s already blown something up,” he said. Therefore, the usual goal is
not “to find somebody who’s already engaged in terrorism but find
somebody who would jump at the opportunity if a real terrorist showed up
And that’s the gray area. Who is susceptible? Anyone who plays along
with the agents, apparently. Once the snare is set, law enforcement sees
no choice. “Ignoring such threats is not an option,” Mr. Boyd argued,
“given the possibility that the suspect could act alone at any time or
find someone else willing to help him.”
Typically, the stings initially target suspects for pure speech —
comments to an informer outside a mosque, angry postings on Web sites,
e-mails with radicals overseas — then woo them into relationships with
informers, who are often convicted felons working in exchange for
leniency, or with F.B.I. agents posing as members of Al Qaeda or other
Some targets have previous involvement in more than idle talk: for
example, Waad Ramadan Alwan, an Iraqi in Kentucky, whose fingerprints
were found on an unexploded roadside bomb near Bayji, Iraq, and Raja Khan of Chicago, who had sent funds to an Al Qaeda leader in Pakistan.
But others seem ambivalent, incompetent and adrift, like hapless
wannabes looking for a cause that the informer or undercover agent
skillfully helps them find. Take the Stinger missile defendant James
Cromitie, a low-level drug dealer with a criminal record that included
no violence or hate crime, despite his rants against Jews. “He was
searching for answers within his Islamic faith,” said his lawyer,
Clinton W. Calhoun III, who has appealed his conviction. “And this
informant, I think, twisted that search in a really pretty awful way,
sort of misdirected Cromitie in his search and turned him towards
THE informer, Shahed Hussain, had been charged with fraud, but avoided
prison and deportation by working undercover in another investigation.
He was being paid by the F.B.I. to pose as a wealthy Pakistani with ties
to Jaish-e-Mohammed, a terrorist group that Mr. Cromitie apparently had
never heard of before they met by chance in the parking lot of a
“Brother, did you ever try to do anything for the cause of Islam?” Mr. Hussain asked at one point.
“O.K., brother,” Mr. Cromitie replied warily, “where you going with this, brother?”
Two days later, the informer told him, “Allah has more work for you to
do,” and added, “Revelation is going to come in your dreams that you
have to do this thing, O.K.?” About 15 minutes later, Mr. Hussain
proposed the idea of using missiles, saying he could get them in a
container from China. Mr. Cromitie laughed.
Reading hundreds of pages of transcripts of the recorded conversations
is like looking at the inkblots of a Rorschach test. Patterns of
willingness and hesitation overlap and merge. “I don’t want anyone to
get hurt,” Mr. Cromitie said, and then explained that he meant women and
children. “I don’t care if it’s a whole synagogue of men.” It took 11
months of meandering discussion and a promise of $250,000 to lead him,
with three co-conspirators he recruited, to plant fake bombs at two
“Only the government could have made a ‘terrorist’ out of Mr. Cromitie,
whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope,” said Judge
Colleen McMahon, sentencing him to 25 years. She branded it a “fantasy
terror operation” but called his attempt “beyond despicable” and
rejected his claim of entrapment.
The judge’s statement was unusual, but Mr. Cromitie’s characteristics
were not. His incompetence and ambivalence could be found among other
aspiring terrorists whose grandiose plans were nurtured by law
enforcement. They included men who wanted to attack fuel lines at
Kennedy International Airport; destroy the Sears Tower (now Willis
Tower) in Chicago; carry out a suicide bombing near Tampa Bay, Fla., and
bomb subways in New York and Washington. Of the 22 most frightening
plans for attacks since 9/11 on American soil, 14 were developed in
Another New York City subway plot, which recently went to trial, needed
no help from government. Nor did a bombing attempt in Times Square, the
abortive underwear bombing in a jetliner over Detroit, a planned attack
on Fort Dix, N.J., and several smaller efforts. Some threats are real,
others less so. In terrorism, it’s not easy to tell the difference.