Whose Plot in Ohio? A "Home Grown Terrorist" or Just Another FBI-Created "Illusionary" Threat?
Fitting pattern documented in 2014 study, parents of accused say FBI clearly "set him up" for violent act
The parents of Christopher Lee Cornell, who was arrested in Ohio on Wednesday for alleged threats to attack the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., say it is clear from their vantage point that the FBI used an informant and money to encourage their son to do things he would never, and could never, have done on his own.
Arrested by the FBI after purchasing two high-powered assault rifles and ammunition at a local gunstore near Cincinnati, various news outlets have reported the case of Cornwell as a typical in terms of its relation to other so-called examples of "home-grown terrorism." The Christian Science Monitor reported some of the specifics of the case as follows:
Gun store employees had been instructed by FBI agents to sell Mr. Cornell the guns and ammo. The young man, who paid $1,900 in cash, was described by employees as shy but talkative. As soon as Cornell walked to the parking lot, agents tackled and arrested him. Included as part of the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) making the arrest were state and local law enforcement agencies as well as US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the US Secret Service.
Cornell became known to the FBI last summer when he began voicing support for the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) in the form of statements, videos, and other content posted to his Twitter accounts. “Defendant Christopher Cornell also voiced his support for violent jihad, as well as support for violent attacks committed by others in North America and elsewhere,” according to the criminal complaint filed Wednesday with US Magistrate Judge Stephanie Bowman.
The FBI soon enlisted an undercover informant in return for what the complaint says was "favorable treatment with respect to his criminal exposure on an unrelated case." The informant made contact with Cornell via Twitter, then the two began communicating through another instant messaging service.
In its languge, CSM described it as "a textbook case of a lone wolf terrorist inspired by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State."
However, what is also familiar about this case, is what appears to be the high-level of involvement—from the very beginning—of an FBI informant, under threat of criminal prosecution and with the guidance of government agents, enticing and providing resources towards the development of a criminal plan that would otherwise not exist.
According to a report released last summer by Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute, an examination of numerous so-called "foiled" terror plots in the U.S. showed that government agents used entrapment strategies to create "illusionary" threats by people who vulnerable to manipulation.
The study, entitled Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in U.S. Terrorism Prosecutions, examined 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. It found serious infractions by government operatives at every turn.
As Andrea Prascow of Human Rights Watch and one of the authors of the report said at the time: "Americans have been told that their government is keeping them safe by preventing and prosecuting terrorism inside the US. 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."
And in the current case, speaking with ABC News, Cornell's parents make it clear they believe that without the prodding, coaching, and financial support of the FBI informant who contacted their son, none of this would have happened.
John Cornell Sr. told the news outlet there was simply no way his son could have thought up a terror plot on his own.
“He told me he had went to a mosque and now I know, in hindsight I know, he was meeting with an FBI agent,” the father told ABC News. “And they were taking him somewhere, and they were filling his head with a lot of this garbage.”
Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, after looking at a large sampling of the available reporting of the case, sent out this tweet:
Ok. I've now read everything publicly out there on this kid who supposedly was going to attack the Capitol. This is so dubious on FBI's part
— jeremy scahill (@jeremyscahill) January 15, 2015
To bolster his defense of Christopher, the father said his son didn't have nearly enough money to buy the expensive assault weapons or large volume of ammunition that led to his arrest.
"These guns cost almost $2,000. Where did that money come from? Well, it came from the FBI," he said. "They set him up."