FBI 'stings' under scrutiny after NY bomb plot arrest
The arrest of a Bangladeshi immigrant Wednesday in New York on suspicions of attempting to blow up the US Federal Reserve building has reopened controversy about sting operations involving fake terror plots scripted and funded by the FBI.
US officials arrested a Bangladeshi immigrant on Wednesday for attempting to detonate a fake car bomb outside the Federal Reserve building in New York, the latest in a series of FBI sting operations that critics say lure vulnerable people into fictitious terror plots.
Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, a 21-year-old Bangladeshi who was in the United States on a student visa, was arrested after he attempted to detonate what he thought was a 1,000-pound bomb.
The explosives material was inert and the mobile phone that he believed served as a detonator had, in fact, been rigged by US authorities.
Nafis appeared in a New York federal court Wednesday to face charges of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to provide material support to al Qaeda. He entered no plea and was ordered to be held without bail.
In a statement released later in the day, Loretta Lynch, US attorney for the eastern district of New York, praised the law enforcement operation that led to the arrest. "The defendant thought he was striking a blow to the American economy,” said Lynch. "At every turn he was wrong, and his extensive efforts to strike at the heart of the nation's financial system were foiled by effective law enforcement."
Law enforcement officials have long defended undercover operations designed to expose lone-wolf actors seeking to commit violent acts on US soil.
But there have been several critiques of the post-9/11 rise in FBI stings, with civil rights groups questioning whether the elaborate undercover operations are actually thwarting terrorism or merely luring vulnerable people into a prefabricated plot that has been scripted and funded by the FBI.
“The big question is, would these people have been able to do these plots without the help of the FBI? Some have even been calling it entrapment," said FRANCE 24’s Nathan King, reporting from New York. This could even be seen as "creating terrorism", King said, quoting a judge from a 2009 case in which two men were convicted of trying to blow up synagogues.
An FBI informant who was turned in – to the FBI
In a controversial case that came to be called “the Newburgh 4”, four black Muslim men from Newburgh, a gritty, impoverished town about 60 miles north of New York City, were given 25-year sentences in 2009 for plotting to blow up two synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down military airplanes.
Investigative reports into the case revealed that the Newburgh 4 were poor black men, some of them with spotty criminal records for minor drugs offences, who got lured into the operation after they came into contact with an FBI informant who had infiltrated a local mosque.
US civil rights groups have criticised the use of FBI informants to infiltrate mosque congregations. Muslim community leaders say their congregations feel targeted by the very law-and-order processes designed to keep the communities safe.
In southern California's Orange County, Craig Monteilh, an FBI informant with previous drug convictions, was used to infiltrate local mosques posing as a Muslim.
In a Kafkaesque twist, Monteilh’s terrorist proselytizing so unnerved the local Muslim community that they obtained a restraining order against him and alerted the FBI.
National security vs. individual liberties
The results of Monteilh’s infiltration endeavours – which included hundreds of hours of audio and video recordings – have not produced a single conviction.
But in August, a US federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, claiming that the FBI violated civil liberties in the Monteilh case.
In his 36-page order, Judge Cormac Carney wrote that he was forced to weigh national security against individual liberties.
There have been a number of cases in which judges have admitted that the FBI has used questionable tactics. But US legal and civil rights experts say this has not affected the judicial outcomes, including guilty verdicts, lengthy prison sentences and dismissed appeals.
Jihadist chats and dummy bombs
The latest sting involving Nafis has several similarities with an undercover operation in Chicago that became public last month, according to an ABC News report.
Like Nafis, the suspect in the Chicago case – Adel Daoud – was a young man targeted by FBI agents monitoring jihadist chat sites. Both men were provided dummy vehicle bombs by the FBI and were arrested while attempting to detonate the fake explosives.
In the Nafis case, the Bangladeshi native travelled to the US on a student visa, where he attended Southeast Missouri State University before he asked for his student records to be transferred, a university official told the Associated Press.
Prosecutors say the evidence against Nafis includes a videotaped meeting in a Queens hotel room where the suspect is caught asking, “The thing that I want to do, ask you about, is that, the thing I'm doing, it's under al Qaeda?''
Responding to his arrest Thursday, his family in Bangladesh has denied that Nafis had radical tendencies.
"We heard the news this morning. Everyone is crying here," said the suspect's brother-in-law, Arik, in an interview with AFP. "Nafis never showed any form of radicalisation when he was in Bangladesh.”
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, however, noted that the arrest was proof that lone-wolf operators were still attempting to carry out terror attacks in the city and that law enforcement agencies were successfully thwarting plots.
“New York continues to be very much in the mind frame of terrorism. This individual came here with the express purpose of committing a terrorist attack; he was motivated by al Qaeda. We see this threat as being with us for a long time to come,'' said Kelly.
Despite the critics, this latest sting operation is proof that admittedly questionable FBI tactics such as sting operations are likely to continue – and yield results.