On March 25, 2010, a forum at NYU School of Law explored the role of agents provocateurs in several high-profile terrorism cases. Powerful testimony from the families and lawyers for defendants in several cases, raised an important question about each of the cases: would there have been a criminal act or plan if the FBI had not paid agent provocateurs to become involved? Was the FBI involved in capturing “homegrown terrorists” or were they making them?
Fran Korotzer, writing for Neft Left News, covered the forum, which was organized by the National Lawyers Guild, NYU Law ACLU, Middle Easter Law Students Association, and Law Students for Human Rights. According to Korotzer:
Many of those entrapped are very low income, under-educated men who live in marginalized communities and are ‘bribed’ with money, marijuana, and promises of help for whatever crisis they are facing. These cases are not isolated, they’re happening in large numbers all over the country. The people involved are from diverse backgrounds but they are united by abuses of due process.
Newburgh, New York - FBI informant targets schizophrenic
The first speakers were the mother and aunt of David McWilliams, one of the Newburgh 4, the young Muslim men were convicted of attempting to bomb synagogues with plastic explosives in the Bronx and plotting to shoot down planes from Stewart Airport with stinger missiles.
David McWilliams’ mother, Elizabeth, said that her son was not the monster he was made out to be. According to Korotzer, Elizabeth explained the David was:
promised money to help pay for medical treatment for his younger brother who is suffering with incurable cancer. Tears were flowing down her cheeks as she tried to speak. When his aunt, Alicia McWilliams spoke she presented a picture of a group of struggling, uneducated men trying to survive on the periphery of society. They had drug problems and one was schizophrenic. The FBI picked the most vulnerable county to establish their plot, one where there is “no jobs, no schooling” and “if you walk down Broadway you see it is drug infested.” “They didn’t send an agent to a mosque in Bushwick or Harlem because they would nave whooped his mother_ _.” Instead they’re “gonna pick some God damn fools and a person who can’t manage mental health.” According to McWilliams, those individuals couldn’t mastermind anything. These are who they chose to shoot missiles at planes and bomb synagogues in Riverdale? They never heard of Riverdale. “The boy is dyslexic.” “This boy is a petty crack dealer.” How did he go from that “to become a big national terrorist? He ain’t never even left New York.” He thought that the agent that entrapped him was “a good Muslim brother” who was going to get him a job and help pay doctor bills. McWilliams also pointed out that no family members were interrogated by the police or the FBI adding, they “didn’t need us when they had their own script.” She said that the families and communities that had been targeted had to stand together and let the government know that they “cannot target our families and drop a load of shit on us!”
The Department of Justice recently alluded to the Newburgh 4 case in its Final Report on the Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (download here). The Bureau of Justice Assistance wrote:
An example of the success of the program is a report of suspicious activity that was provided by a business that was a recipient of the training:
In May of 2009, an employee noticed something unusual while working at a self-storage facility. A group of suspicious-looking men had begun to meet around an outdoor storage unit. They aroused suspicion because they met frequently—as much as 20 or 30 times in the span of a few days. They were also very careful to conceal their property by backing their SUV right up to the storage unit door. The self-storage facility had been visited by local law enforcement in the past and had been provided information on indicators and warnings of suspicious activity as part of the New York State’s Operation Safeguard outreach program.
The employee contacted the local police department to report the suspicious activity observed. He also provided them with information on the vehicle and renter. The police department ran checks and found that the New York FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) had an active investigation and the individuals associated with the storage unit were currently under surveillance. Two weeks after the employee’s report, the New York JTTF arrested four men on a number of terrorism charges, including charges arising from a plot to detonate explosives near a synagogue and to shoot military planes with Stinger surface-to-air guided missiles. The employee’s information demonstrated the effectiveness of the Operation Safeguard efforts to help prevent terrorist attacks in New York State.
(Final Report, ISE-SAR EE, p. 69). In the example above, the DOJ cites a report of suspicious activity that likely involved its own paid informant. Thus, not only does the government use these prosecutions to stir up fear of “homegrown extremism,” but they are used to justify broadening domestic surveillance programs.
Fort Dix – Two Provocateurs with Records
The next speakers were 12 year old Leijla Duka, daughter of one of the Ft. Dix 5 (NJ) and her uncle, the youngest of the Duka brothers. The Ft. Dix 5 were convicted of conspiring to attack military personnel at Ft. Dix and kill as many as possible. Leijla and her uncle said that their family members were set-up by 2 Muslim agent provocateurs, Mahmoud Omar and Besnik Bakalli.
Both men had been convicted of serious crimes and were willing to act as agents in return for leniency and money. It all started, they explained, with a family vacation in the Poconos when a family member made a video recording of the young men on a shooting range, shooting and shouting “Allahu Akbar”, God is great. After the vacation the recording was brought to a Circuit City store to be duplicated so that everyone involved could have a copy. The clerk was suspicious when he viewed the video and notified the police who contacted the FBI.
[The FBI] sent in Omar who approached one of the men, befriended him, and convinced him to download terrorist videos. All of the videos watched were at the agent’s request and then he tried to persuade him to involve his friends, the other 4.
When [Omar] didn’t do so the other agent, Bakalli, an ethnic Albanian like the Dukas was brought in. The agents told the men that their Muslim brothers were being murdered overseas and that they should be ashamed of themselves because they were doing nothing to help them. A lot of money was being flashed around by the agents and weapons were offered for sale. Some of the men bought weapons so, they said, they wouldn’t have to wait to shoot at the shooting range. One, who worked at a pizza shop, showed the agent a map of Ft. Dix (used for pizza delivery) when the agent asked for one. Duka said that for a conspiracy case 2 or more defendants have to agree to a plot involving someplace or someone. That never happened in this case. The government admitted that there was no evidence that the defendants ever discussed the plot with each other. All 5 were arrested and at trial the judge said that millions had been spent on the case and “the lack of evidence doesn’t concern me.” Duka also explained that all of the jury members were either in the army or had family members in the army. Since they were personally involved in some way they should have been excluded. The prosecution showed frightening jihad films. All were convicted with some getting sentences of life plus 30 years.
Next, the forum heard from three lawyers: Lynne Jackson from Project Salam, Support and Legal Advocacy for Muslims (www.projectsalam.org), and Kathy Manley and Steve Downs who defended Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain from Albany, NY.
According to Korotzer’s report:
The agent provocateur in that case was the same person that was involved in the Newburgh 4 case, but using a different name this time. He was facing a prison sentence for selling fake drivers licenses, there was 25 civil suits pending against him, and there was the possibility of him being deported to Pakistan where it is believed that he was wanted for murder. The FBI was primarily interested in Yassin Aref, a local imam who spoke against the war and for Palestinian rights. Mohammad Hossain was collateral damage.
The plot, as it was explained, was to get the men involved in purchasing a surface to air missile with money laundered through Hossain’s pizza business. That would be used to shoot down a plane with the Pakistani UN ambassador on it. Hossain needed a loan which was offered by the agent, and Aref, the imam, was asked to witness the loan, as is a Muslim custom.
The money used for the $5,000 loan supposedly came from money that was earned by selling weapons to terrorists. There is no evidence that the men, especially Aref, knew anything about where the money came from or of the missile plot, but the fact of Aref witnessing the loan tied him to terrorists. Both were arrested, convicted, and got 15 year prison sentences.
This case was also recently portrayed in a documentary film calledWaiting for Mercy, selected for best documentary at the Ballston Spa Film Festival. (see trailer).
Other speakers at the forum provided powerful testimony on the Holy Land Foundation case and the use of secret evidence in the case of Fahad Hashmi. These stories challenge conventional wisdom and propaganda surrounding many terrorism prosecutions..
In their totality, they raise important questions about pre-emptive policing – the notion that the law enforcement should intervene in Americans’ affairs before a criminal act occurs. While these cases demonstrate that people can be enticed to commit or plan illegal acts, such an approach can have devastating consequences for the communities who feel they have been targeted by the government. Ultimately, “pre-emption” erodes mutual trust and undermines security.