To Catch a Terrorist

A piece in today’s New York Times explores the possible ramifications of the Boston Marathon bombings for the professional legacy of FBI director Robert Mueller, especially in light of the fact that agents from the bureau had interviewed one of the suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, in 2011.

Journalist Trevor Aaronson has written The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism.  The book, which grew out of work he did as an investigative reporting fellow at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, documents how the Feds use informants and agent provocateurs to lead would-be jihadis to strike, then make a highly publicized arrest before the bogus plot unfolds.

With hearings now underway on Capitol Hill to determine what happened in Boston, California approached Aaronson with questions about the FBI’s methods. He responded by email.

California: First of all, what’s wrong the FBI’s strategy if it catches people like the Brothers Tsarnaev before they can do real harm?

Aaronson: The strategy’s flaw is that it doesn’t catch dangerous people like the Tsarnaev brothers. FBI terrorism sting operations, involving paid informants and weapons provided by the FBI, have a long record of catching people of questionable danger and importance, men on the margins of Muslim communities who are economically desperate or mentally ill—people easily manipulated by an FBI informant or undercover agent. None of these sting operations has caught someone with a bomb or a significant weapon. Instead, they catch loudmouths who espouse violence for whatever reason but have no means of carrying out a significant attack on their own. The FBI provides everything — the transportation, the weapons, sometimes even the idea. At the same time, the FBI is missing the truly dangerous guys. Before the Tsarnaevs, the FBI missed Faisal Shahzad, who delivered a bomb to Times Square that fortunately did not go off; and Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people at Fort Hood.

California: What did you think when you learned that the FBI had in fact interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011, apparently at the request of the Russian government, only to dismiss him as a threat? 

Aaronson: Given that the tip came from the Russian government, I was surprised the FBI chose not to continue tracking Tsarnaev. In these sting cases, we see the government spend months, even years, with accused would-be terrorists who come to the attention of agents through paid informants with criminal histories and a financial interest in finding someone who can be prosecuted as a terrorist. We’ve seen the FBI pursue men who posted inflammatory comments on Facebook or on a message board. We’ve seen the FBI investigate people for months who agents knew did not pose a danger, did not have contacts with overseas terrorists, and were – to use the FBI parlance – more aspirational than operational. I think that context makes what happened in Boston troubling.

California: In a piece for Mother Jones you wrote that the FBI was pursuing at least one other terrorist threat in the Boston area at the same time that Tamerlan was cleared for travel to Russia: Massachusetts-born Rezwan Ferdaus, a Northeastern University graduate is now serving a 17-year-sentence for what sounds like a rather cockamamie scheme to blow up the capitol building with a remote-controlled airplane (which the FBI bought) laden with explosives (that agents provided). Is it your argument that the Ferdaus sting diverted attention and resources away from the real threat? 

Aaronson: I don’t make the argument that the FBI can’t do two things at once. Obviously, the bureau is capable of investigating multiple people. But the question I ask in my book is: What is the FBI missing while it spends so much time and money pursuing targets in sting operations who are of questionable danger? The Boston case begins to answer this. We missed the Tsarnaev brothers. In January 2011, the FBI investigated two potential terrorist threats, Tsarnaev and Rezwan Ferdaus. Even though Ferdaus had no means and no connections to international terrorists—the FBI had to give him everything he needed to move forward with his harebrained idea—the bureau chose to pursue him rather than Tamerlan Tsarnaev. I’m not saying this was an either-or choice for the FBI. But I am saying this raises a policy question: Are we catching easily manipulated people in sting operations while the truly dangerous terrorists go unmonitored?

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