The FBI is responsible for more terrorism plots in the United States than any other organization. More than al Qaeda, more than al Shabaab, more than the Islamic State, more than all of them combined.
This isn't likely how you think about the FBI. You probably think of FBI agents gunning down bad guys like John Dillinger, or arresting corrupt politicians.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the FBI became less concerned with gangsters and crooked elected officials. The new target became terrorists, and the pursuit of terrorists has consumed the FBI.
Every year, the Bureau spends 3.3 billion dollars on domestic counterterrorism activities. Compare than to just 2.6 billion dollars combined for organized crime, financial fraud, public corruption and all other types of traditional criminal activity.
I've spent years pouring through the case files of terrorism prosecutions in the United States, and I've come to the conclusion that the FBI is much better at creating terrorists than it is at catching terrorists.
In the 14 years since 9/11, you can count about six real terrorist attacks in the United States. These include the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, as well as failed attacks, such as the time when a man named Faisal Shahzad tried to deliver a car bomb to Times Square. In those same 14 years, the Bureau, however, has bragged about how it's foiled dozens of terrorism plots. In all, the FBI has arrested more than 175 people in aggressive, undercover conterterrorism stings.
These operations, which are usually led by an informant, provide the means and opportunity, and sometimes even the idea, for mentally ill and economically desperate people to become what we now term terrorists.
After 9/11, the FBI was given an edict: never again. Never another attack on American soil. FBI agents were told to find terrorists before they struck. To do this, agents recruited a network of more than 15,000 informants nationwide, all looking for anyone who might be dangerous. An informant can earn 100,000 dollars or more for every terrorism case they bring to the FBI. That's right, the FBI is paying mostly criminals and con men six figures to spy on communities in the United States, but mostly Muslim American communities.
These informants nab people like Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif and Walli Mujahidh. Both are mentally ill. Abdul-Latif had a history of huffing gasoline and attempting suicide. Mujahidh had schizoaffective disorder, he had trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy. In 2012, the FBI arrested these two men for conspiring to attack a military recruiting station outside Seattle with weapons provided, of course, by the FBI. The FBI's informant was Robert Childs, a convicted rapist and child molester who was paid 90,000 dollars for his work on the case. This isn't an outlier.
In 2009, an FBI informant who had fled Pakistan on murder charges led four men in a plot to bomb synagogues in the Bronx. The lead defendant was James Cromitie, a broke Walmart employee with a history of mental problems. And the informant had offered him 250,000 dollars if he participated in that plot. There are many more examples.
Today, The Intercept published my new story about a counterterrorism sting in Tampa involving Sami Osmakac, a young man who was living near Tampa, Florida. Osmakac also had schizoaffective disorder. He too was broke, and he had no connections to international terrorist groups. Nonetheless, an FBI informant gave him a job, handed him money, introduced him to an undercover agent posing as a terrorist, and lured him in a plot to bomb an Irish bar.
But here's what's interesting: The lead undercover agent — you can see him in this picture with his face blurred — would go back to the Tampa field office with his recording equipment on. Behind closed doors, FBI agents admitted that what they were doing was farcical. A federal judge doesn't want you to hear about these conversations. He sealed the transcripts and placed them under a protective order in an attempt to prevent someone like me from doing something like this. Behind closed doors, the lead agent, the squad supervisor, described their would-be terrorist as a "retarded fool who didn't have a pot to piss in." They described his terrorist ambitions as wishy-washy and a pipe dream scenario.
But that didn't stop the FBI. They provided Sami Osmakac everything he needed. They gave him a car bomb, they gave him an AK-47, they helped him make a so-called martyrdom video, and they even gave him money for a taxi cab so that he could get to where they wanted him to go. As they were working the sting, the squad supervisor tells his agents he wanted a Hollywood ending. And he got a Hollywood ending. When Sami Osmakac attempted to deliver what he thought was a car bomb, he was arrested, convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Sami Osmakac isn't alone. He's one of more than 175 so-called terrorists, for whom the FBI has created Hollywood endings. U.S. government officials call this the War on Terror. It's really just theater, a national security theater, with mentally ill men like Sami Osmakac unwitting actors in a carefully choreographed production brought to you by the FBI.
Tom Rielly: So, those are some pretty strong accusations, pretty strong charges. How can you back this up?
Trevor Aaronson: My research began in 2010 when I received a grant from the Investigative Reporting Program at U.C. Berkeley, and a research assistant and I put together a database of all terrorism prosecutions at the time during the first decade after 9/11. And we used the court file to find out whether the defendants had any connections to international terrorist groups, whether an informant was used, and whether the informant played the role of an agent provocateur by providing the means and opportunity. And we submitted that to the FBI and we asked them to respond to our database. If they believed there were any errors, we asked them to tell us what they were and we'd go back and check and they never challenged any of our findings. Later, I used that data in a magazine article and later in my book, and on appearances on places like CBS and NPR, they were offered that opportunity again to say, "Trevor Aaronson's findings are wrong." And they've never come forward and said, "These are the problems with those findings." So the data has since been used by groups like Human Rights Watch on its recent report on these types of sting operations. And so far, the FBI has never really responded to these charges that it's really not catching terrorists so much as it's catching mentally ill people that it can dress up as terrorists in these types of sting operations.
TR: So The Intercept is that new investigative journalism website, that's cofounded by Glenn Greenwald. Tell us about your article and why there.
TA: The Intercept seemed to be the most logical place for this because my article is really leveraging the fact that a source had leaked to me transcripts of these private FBI conversations that a federal judge had sealed based on the government's claim that their release would irreparably damage the U.S. government's law enforcement strategy. So a place like The Intercept was set up to protect journalists and publish their work when they're dealing with very sensitive matters like this. So my story in The Intercept, which was just published today, tells the story of how Sami Osmakac was set up in this FBI sting and goes into much greater detail. In this talk, I could only highlight the things that they said, such as calling him a "retarded fool." But it was much more elaborate, they went to great lengths to put money in Sami Osmakac's hands, which he then used to purchase weapons from the undercover agent. When he went to trial, the central piece of evidence was that he paid for these weapons, when in truth, these transcripts show how the FBI orchestrated someone who was essentially mentally ill and broke to get money to then pay for weapons that they could then charge him in a conspiracy for.
TR: One final question. Less than 10 days ago, the FBI arrested some potential ISIS suspects in Brooklyn, saying that they might be headed to Syria, and were those real, or examples of more of the same?
TA: Well so far, we only know what's come out in the court file, but they seem to suggest it's another example of the same. These types of sting operations have moved from flavor to flavor. So initially it was al Qaeda plots, and now the Islamic State is the current flavor. What's worth noting about that case is that the three men that were charged only began the plot to go to Syria after the introduction of the FBI informant, and in fact, the FBI informant had helped them with the travel documents that they needed. In kind of a comical turn in that particular case, one of the defendant's mother had found out that he was interested in going to Syria and had hid his passport. So it's unclear that even if he had showed up at the airport, that he ever could have gone anywhere. So yes, there are people who might be interested in joining the Islamic State in the United States, and those are people that the United States government should be looking at to see if they're interested in violence here. In this particular case, given the evidence that's so far come out, it suggests the FBI made it possible for these guys to move along in a plan to go to Syria when they were never close to that in the first place.
TR: Thanks a lot, that's amazing. TA: Thank you.