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The Human Rights Watch/Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute report alleges that FBI operatives troll mosques like this one in New York City, pressuring targets to participate in terrorist activities. (photo: flickr / cc / Joseph)

FBI Entrapment Created 'Illusion' of Terrorist Plots: Report

A close look at government counter-terrorism tactics reveals that many people convicted would never have committed a crime if not for law enforcement encouraging, pressuring, and sometimes paying them to commit terrorist acts.

Deirdre Fulton

Federal officials and law enforcement agents are treating American Muslims like "terrorists-in-waiting," according to a new report released Monday by Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute.

The FBI, under pressure to appear effective and worthy of its $8.4-billion budget, has "targeted American Muslims in abusive counterterrorism 'sting operations' based on religious and ethnic identity"; sent informants to mosques to "troll for leads"; and in some cases encouraged or even paid individuals to undertake terrorist acts, the report (pdf) reveals.

"The FBI's proclaimed success in convicting alleged terrorist conspirators has come with serious and unnecessary costs to the rights of many of those prosecuted and convicted, to their families and communities, to the public, and to the rule of law."

“Americans have been told that their government is keeping them safe by preventing and prosecuting terrorism inside the US,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch and one of the authors of the report. “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.”

The study, entitled Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in U.S. Terrorism Prosecutions,  examines 27 federal terrorism cases (of more than 500 since September 11, 2001) from initiation of the investigations to sentencing and post-conviction conditions of confinement, finding infractions at every turn.

By preying on vulnerable individuals, utilizing questionable legal tactics, and subjecting citizens to harsh and disproportionate confinement conditions, the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI show disregard for civil rights and "may be creating terrorists out of law-abiding citizens," report co-author Tarek Z. Ismai writes at Just Security.

In fact, Illusions of Justice details how such practices are counterproductive, sowing seeds of mistrust within the American Muslim community:

The law enforcement practices described in this report have alienated the very communities the government relies on most to report possible terrorist threats and diverted resources from other, more effective ways, of responding to the threat of terrorism. Its proclaimed success in convicting alleged terrorist conspirators has come with serious and unnecessary costs to the rights of many of those prosecuted and convicted, to their families and communities, to the public, and to the rule of law.

This report is just one of several current examinations of the FBI's shady tactics. On Sunday, Al Jazeera's Investigative Unit released a film and multimedia piece—called Informants —that details how undercover operatives (who are often not government agents but "criminal offenders attempting to avoid prison time through their cooperation with the government") regularly target innocent citizens and set about to ensnare them in conspiracies.

It's not just American Muslims who are targeted. In an Al Jazeera opinion piece published Monday, scholar and author Abdullah Al-Arian, of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar, declared:

Perhaps most worrisome...is the ways in which the FBI has exploited the endemic poverty and social problems from drug use to lack of education that are prevalent within some black communities across the US in order to construct the perception of a terrorist threat.

An HBO documentary premiering Monday night documents an illustrative case of exactly that, in which an FBI informant recruited four African-American Muslim men into a terrorist plot (presenting them with the idea, offering them a sizeable chunk of change, and supplying them with the weapons to carry it out). The men are now serving 25 years in prison.

In an interview with the ACLU's Blog of Rights, the director of The Newburgh Sting notes:

The FBI was able to entice four destitute African Americans with no particular prospects in life, with $250,000, to do some bad deeds. The FBI is trying to sell this as a terrorist case, when really all you’ve got is proof that you can wave money at people who are desperate and poor and get them to “commit crimes.”

The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) "welcomes" the increased dialogue about post-9/11 counter-terrorism practices, said Haris Tarin, director of MPAC's Washington, D.C. office. With its Safe Spaces initiative, it is attempting to foster better communication between law enforcement officials and the American Muslims—something Tarin stressed will necessitate debate on Capitol Hill as well as on the community level.

As Tarin told Common Dreams, "You can't treat us as suspects and partners at the same time."


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