Terrorism a go go

As you may have heard, Mohamed Osman Mohamud was arrested on Friday night for attempting to detonate a dummy bomb, which he believed to be real, around Pioneer Courthouse Square here in Portland during the annual Holiday Tree Lighting. We very nearly went on Friday, only changing our minds because we didn't want to do the drive (or, rather, the drive home in the traffic).

The story, based on information released so far from the FBI affidavit, is that last August Mohamud contacted a person unknown in Pakistan discussing going there to fight. Person1 gave him contact for Person2. Person2 was apparently the person to get him overseas. He was unsuccessful in contacting Person2, though he tried for some time to do so. In June of this year, the FBI went to him pretending to be associates of Person1. Over the next few months they met regularly with him, offered him help and money, provided the bomb itself after telling him to mail them supplies, and they also offered the chance to refuse or back out--which he did not take. The Oregonian has a time line:
August: Mohamed Osman Mohamud e-mails unindicted associate one (UA1) in Pakistan.

December: In code UA1 and Mohamud discuss "traveling to Pakistan to prepare for violent jihad."

Early months: Mohamud makes multiple attempts to contact a second unnamed associate (UA2) but uses the wrong e-mail.

June: Undercover FBI employee contacts Mohamud, posing as an affiliate of UA1.

July 30: The undercover FBI employee meets Mohamud in Portland; Mohamud says he thought of putting an explosion together but needed help doing so.

Aug. 19: Two undercover FBI operatives meet Mohamud in a Portland hotel. Mohamud says he has identified a potential bomb target: the annual Christmas-tree lighting ceremony in Pioneer Courthouse Square.

Sept. 7: The two operatives meet Mohamud again at a downtown Portland hotel. One agent tells Mohamud to do "what's in your heart." The agents ask Mohamud to buy bomb parts and find a "place to put the bomb."

Sept. 27 and 30: An undercover FBI operative receives bomb parts in the mail from Mohamud.

Oct. 3: Two FBI operatives and Mohamud meet at a Corvallis hotel and discuss logistics and the need for Mohamud to leave the country after the explosion.

Nov. 4: The three meet in Corvallis, travel to remote Lincoln County and detonate a test bomb. Mohamud gives the agents a thumb drive with maps and instructions for the attack. "I want whoever is attending that event to leave, to leave either dead or injured," Mohamud says.

Nov. 18: The operatives and Mohamud drive from Corvallis to Portland to scout the area and identify a spot Mohamud thought would inflict the most casualties.

Nov. 26: The FBI operatives show Mohamud an inert bomb in the back of a van. Mohamud says it is "beautiful." At 4:45 p.m. they leave a Portland hotel and drive the van to a parking spot designated by Mohamud. From a different location, Mohamud twice tries to detonate the inert device by dialing a cell phone. Agents arrest him.

Source: Criminal complaint filed Friday by FBI Special Agent Ryan Dwyer
Something that's always stood out to me--and it turns out, several others--is that they went to him in June. Why? Why wasn't surveillance enough when, essentially, nothing else was happening? Why couldn't they wait for him to attempt to do something criminal on his own without their help? They did have him under surveillance after all, it's not like he would have gotten very far.

I said in Saturday's Open Thread comments:

Someone asked Sam Adams (PDX mayor) on Twitter why they didn't just stop and arrest him beforehand. The answer that Adams got from the FBI was that he had to try and detonate the bomb to be charged.

According to NPR: "Authorities allowed the plot to proceed in order to build up enough evidence to charge the suspect with attempt."

All of this sort of bothers me in that, per the FBI, he was unsuccessful in his attempts to move forward with his plans until the FBI stepped in and offered him help to get his plans going.

Obviously he was some sort of problem (hence the surveillance--which is not yet detailed when or why he initially came under it) but he didn't appear to be going anywhere with it until he had FBI help. No, I don't think he was "set up" but it still seems...I dunno...odd. Would he have even done anything except stew in his thoughts and try and send himself overseas if the FBI hadn't intervened and now we have a terrorist setting off dummy bombs?
My skepticism, which has grown since, was written out much better by Glenn Greenwald yesterday (emphasis his):

What's missing from all of these celebrations is an iota of questioning or skepticism. All of the information about this episode -- all of it -- comes exclusively from an FBI affidavit filed in connection with a Criminal Complaint against Mohamud. As shocking and upsetting as this may be to some, FBI claims are sometimes one-sided, unreliable and even untrue, especially when such claims -- as here -- are uncorroborated and unexamined. That's why we have what we call "trials" before assuming guilt or even before believing that we know what happened: because the government doesn't always tell the complete truth, because they often skew reality, because things often look much different once the accused is permitted to present his own facts and subject the government's claims to scrutiny. The FBI affidavit -- as well as whatever its agents are whispering into the ears of reporters -- contains only those facts the FBI chose to include, but omits the ones it chose to exclude. And even the "facts" that are included are merely assertions at this point and thus may not be facts at all.

It may very well be that the FBI successfully and within legal limits arrested a dangerous criminal intent on carrying out a serious Terrorist plot that would have killed many innocent people, in which case they deserve praise. Court-approved surveillance and use of undercover agents to infiltrate terrorist plots are legitimate tactics when used in accordance with the law.

But it may also just as easily be the case that the FBI -- as they've done many times in the past -- found some very young, impressionable, disaffected, hapless, aimless, inept loner; created a plot it then persuaded/manipulated/entrapped him to join, essentially turning him into a Terrorist; and then patted itself on the back once it arrested him for having thwarted a "Terrorist plot" which, from start to finish, was entirely the FBI's own concoction. Having stopped a plot which it itself manufactured, the FBI then publicly touts -- and an uncritical media amplifies -- its "success" to the world, thus proving both that domestic Terrorism from Muslims is a serious threat and the Government's vast surveillance powers -- current and future new ones -- are necessary.

There are numerous claims here that merit further scrutiny and questioning. First, the FBI was monitoring the email communications of this American citizen on U.S. soil for months (at least) with what appears to be the flimsiest basis: namely, that he was in email communication with someone in Northwest Pakistan, "an area known to harbor terrorists" (para. 5 of the FBI Affidavit). Is that enough to obtain court approval to eavesdrop on someone's calls and emails? I'm glad the FBI is only eavesdropping with court approval, if that's true, but certainly more should be required for judicial authorization than that. Communicating with someone in Northwest Pakistan is hardly reasonable grounds for suspicion.

Second, in order not to be found to have entrapped someone into committing a crime, law enforcement agents want to be able to prove that, in the 1992 words of the Supreme Court, the accused was "was independently predisposed to commit the crime for which he was arrested." To prove that, undercover agents are often careful to stress that the accused has multiple choices, and they then induce him into choosing with his own volition to commit the crime. In this case, that was achieved by the undercover FBI agent's allegedly advising Mohamud that there were at least five ways he could serve the cause of Islam (including by praying, studying engineering, raising funds to send overseas, or becoming "operational"), and Mohamud replied he wanted to "be operational" by using exploding a bomb (para. 35-37).

But strangely, while all other conversations with Mohamud which the FBI summarizes were (according to the affidavit) recorded by numerous recording devices, this conversation -- the crucial one for negating Mohamud's entrapment defense -- was not. That's because, according to the FBI, the undercover agent "was equipped with audio equipment to record the meeting. However, due to technical problems, the meeting was not recorded" (para. 37).

Thus, we have only the FBI's word, and only its version, for what was said during this crucial -- potentially dispositive -- conversation. [...]
Do I think the FBI is lying? No. I'm not suspicious, I am skeptical. Skeptical that this whole ordeal didn't end up being akin something like what happened with Farooque Ahmed, who wanted to go to Afghanistan and join Taliban-allied fighters there and is now accused of wanting to bomb the metro. He didn’t get anywhere, as the guys he thought were his co-conspirators were FBI agents. From court documents it seems the plot was as much idea the agents as Ahmed. As asked in Newsweek: "If that's true, then are terrorists really planning to bomb the subway in Washington, or is that just a fantasy of the Feds?"

So, really, nothing about this makes me feel any better (emphasis mine):
After a week of public criticism for heightened security at airports, the White House suggested that the incident Friday in Portland may require federal action that some citizens might find objectionable.

"The events of the past 24 hours underscore the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism here and abroad," Abrams said. "The president thanks the FBI, Department of Justice and the rest of our law enforcement, intelligence and Homeland Security professionals who have once again served with extraordinary skill and resolve and with the commitment that their enormous responsibilities demand."
Portland, by the way, is not a member of the Joint Terrorism Task Force. City council voted to opt out of it in 2005.

Today Mohamud will appear in federal court for his arraignment. He will be represented by Stephen Sady, an attorney who volunteered to defend prisoners at Guantanamo.

I am very interested in what will come out in court over the course of the trial. I hope that zealousness for Safety!™ didn't make a mountain out of a molehill, or rather, make an arrestable terrorist setting off a dummy bomb out of an otherwise disaffected (and yes, apparently angry and violence-fantasizing) young man who may not have amounted to anything in terms of actually being a terrorist otherwise.

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