Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before

Reading about a federal indictment of several Muslim men accused of plotting to bomb a synagogue in the Bronx I couldn't help but be reminded of terror plots past: the plot to bomb the Sears Tower; the plot to
attack Fort Dix; the plot to destroy the 34th Street subway station in Manhattan.

What do these indictments have in common? Well, they all involve defendants who allegedly chose huge targets that would take a very skilled and organized terrorist to take down. Yet in each and every case the defendants in question were far from organized and, more disturbingly, did not remotely have the means to pull the plots in question off. Perhaps worst of all, in most cases the defendants did not even initiate the terror plots--the plots were hatched by informants. [More...]

In my book Snitch, I closely examined the 34th Street terror plot. In this case, an FBI informant in New York befriended a young Muslim man named Shahawar Matin Siraj who worked at an Islamic book store in Brooklyn. The informant showed Siraj pictures of the torture at Abu Ghraib and urged him to "do something" to retaliate against the United States. The informant then told Siraj that he could facilitate terrorist acts against the U.S. because he was connected to a shadowy terror network called "The Brotherhood." The organization, the informant explained, could even provide financial assistance to Siraj and his family should he decide to join.

Siraj was impressed by the informant and he and the informant discussed what they might do to retaliate against the U.S. for the war in Iraq and its torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The pair decided to mount an attack on the 34th Street subway station, yet neither had any real sense of how this could be accomplished--and neither man obtained or even sought to obtain explosives. And as the informant discussed the attack, Siraj grew increasingly nervous and told the informant "I don't want to do it."

No matter: the feds had been recording Siraj's conversations with the informant and on August 28, 2004 Siraj was taken into custody and charged in federal court with four counts of bombing conspiracy. Incredibly, it turned out that the informant was not only not a member of "The Brotherhood"--the organization was made up by the informant. And the informant was paid $100,000 by the NYPD for his work.

Just like the Bronx synagogue indictment today, the Siraj indictment received huge headlines and even fawning coverage in New York Magazine. The Siraj case was cited as an example of why New York had not been hit by a terrorist attack after 9-11 one sub-hed in the New York magazine story proudly proclaimed "WE HAVE INFORMANTS EVERYWHERE."

This thin, informant driven case unfortunately brought a guilty verdict: on January 8, 2007, Siraj was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.

The equally absurd Sears Tower case also brought guilty verdicts.

These so-called "preemptive indictments"--in which defendants are charged based on their intentions and not their actions--are a perversion of justice and a cruel joke, every bit of a joke as the theory of "preemptive war" that led us to Iraq. And yet it is this legal theory that drives our anti-terror strategy in the U.S.

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    Great post, Ethan (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by Jeralyn on Thu May 21, 2009 at 05:13:35 PM EST
    I completely agree.

    Oddly, I saw that bit on the news this (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by Inspector Gadget on Thu May 21, 2009 at 05:35:15 PM EST
    morning and my cynical attitude kicked in figuring the arrests were too coincidentally timed.


    If Bush were still president (5.00 / 1) (#19)
    by FoxholeAtheist on Thu May 21, 2009 at 10:58:51 PM EST
    and these alleged Bronx terrorists were indicted the day before he gave a MAJOR National Security Speech, no clear-minded person would believe that "the timing" was a coincidence.  

    So, Inspector Gadget, you're not at all "cynical". In fact, it appears that you are thinking quite clearly for yourself.

    BTW, I wonder if anybody else is curious about what Ethan (the author of this post) thinks about "the timing". That being said, I am very grateful for Ethan's commendably bold and incisive piece of analysis.


    Siraj case = classic entrapment (5.00 / 1) (#13)
    by The Addams Family on Thu May 21, 2009 at 06:50:30 PM EST

    I don't want to speculate on the timing... (5.00 / 1) (#21)
    by Ethan Brown on Fri May 22, 2009 at 12:22:26 AM EST
    of the indictments but certainly the fear mongering that we see from Cheney, Rudy G helps create a climate of fear that results in guilty verdicts in very, very thin cases.

    Some other commenters have brought up the question of what stage a terror plot should be stopped at by law enforcement--and that's a legit question.

    Unfortunately, however, we're not seeing sophisticated plots stopped early but instead lots of expressions of intent from highly unsophisticated types who appear to be egged on by informants.

    It seems to me (none / 0) (#25)
    by Steve M on Fri May 22, 2009 at 06:52:55 AM EST
    that if you don't have this level of active participation and encouragement by informants, you can pretty much safely shut them down once they've satisfied the overt act requirement for conspiracy.  I, for one, wouldn't say boo in that situation.  But I guess that's not how the game is played.

    Listening to some radio coverage of this (5.00 / 1) (#24)
    by scribe on Fri May 22, 2009 at 03:52:41 AM EST
    case, and the arraignments, the commentator noted that one of the defendants admitted having gotten stoned the day before his arrest (When the judge asked if he was under the influence of anything) and another indicated he's bipolar.

    All of them, it seems, were high school dropouts.

    So, as the reporter noted, we had a stoner, a bipolar guy and none of them too bright crossing paths with a government informant.

    Oh, yeah.  It's also Fleet Week in NYC.  Not that the timing of the arrests coincides with that, or anything.

    And one of them is so insane (none / 0) (#26)
    by scribe on Fri May 22, 2009 at 08:45:08 AM EST
    when the government previously tried to deport him to his native Haiti, the immigration judge decided he was too insane to deport.

    But did they hatch the plan... (5.00 / 2) (#28)
    by kdog on Fri May 22, 2009 at 10:02:12 AM EST
    or did the FBI undercover informant?

    The $25,000 question...it would be nice to have faith and trust in the FBI, but that requires you to ignore 60 years+ of history.

    The Thought Police (none / 0) (#3)
    by Zorba on Thu May 21, 2009 at 05:36:28 PM EST
    I guess we all must be very careful about what we discuss, or even think about.  I have a real problem with this type of operation- using informants (and in some cases, I'm sure, undercover police) to lure people into committing (or in this case, not even close to committing, merely talking about) a crime that they would not have even thought of on their own.

    If you are talking about last night's (none / 0) (#8)
    by nycstray on Thu May 21, 2009 at 06:17:29 PM EST
    arrests, they went a tad farther than talking.

    Kinda sorta (5.00 / 1) (#15)
    by Steve M on Thu May 21, 2009 at 07:52:38 PM EST
    We really have no way of knowing whether these guys ever would have done a bad thing if they weren't spoon-fed the wherewithal by the FBI.

    It's not a clear-cut case of entrapment to me but it's sort of in a gray area.  The dilemma is that we'd love to be able to catch criminals before they actually do anything to hurt people, but we don't want to punish mere thought crimes...


    I'm also very uncomfortable (5.00 / 1) (#18)
    by gyrfalcon on Thu May 21, 2009 at 10:48:13 PM EST
    with this.  At least in this case, they stated up front right away that the "plot" was "aspirational"-- not that any of the Republicans or the TV people noticed.

    I'm not sure where the line is drawn between a thought crime and a conspiracy.  But I'd sure like to see this entrapment or near entrapment stuff drastically reined in.  Juries should see through it, but don't always, or the wannabe conspirator facing life in prison pleads out and never goes to trial.

    There are way too many flat-out doofuses getting caught in this stuff.


    I was uncomfortable when I first started (none / 0) (#31)
    by nycstray on Fri May 22, 2009 at 03:19:49 PM EST
    hearing the details about this one. Sounds kinds sketchy to me. I was just trying to clarify that in this case, that had gone beyond talking, not supporting that the actions of the informant/police were justifiable (does that make any sense?!)

    It's interesting how they are not putting terrorist in our prisons (or so they say) because they don't want them recruiting or whatever, yet they do exactly that on these "informant" operations.


    I should read your book (none / 0) (#4)
    by samtaylor2 on Thu May 21, 2009 at 05:37:23 PM EST
    But as a Detroit City resident the anti-snitch "movement" is part of the problem in terms of getting rid of the young men terrorizing our city.  Am I wrong in assuming that you do not define a "snitch" as the old neighbor calling the police because of illegal drug dealing is going on in the old ladies apartment building?  

    It's as bad as the terror (none / 0) (#5)
    by Anne on Thu May 21, 2009 at 05:42:12 PM EST
    alarms they would raise whenever they needed to push some horrible piece of legislation through the Congress - and it worked every single time.

    Just a title... (none / 0) (#6)
    by Ethan Brown on Thu May 21, 2009 at 05:48:29 PM EST

    The subtitle of the book explains what it's about: "Informants, Cooperators and the Corruption of Justice." It's an examination of the entire informant/cooperator institution--it's not an attempt to define who is or isn't a "snitch."

    And, FYI, as a resident of high crime New Orleans I'm very, very interested in fostering good relationships between cops and citizens...indeed, part of the thesis of my book is that the unregulated snitch/cooperator institution has undermined cop-community relations.

    Hope this makes sense...

    Ethan, I especially appreciate (5.00 / 1) (#20)
    by FoxholeAtheist on Thu May 21, 2009 at 11:11:05 PM EST
    this observation:
    These so-called "preemptive indictments"--in which defendants are charged based on their intentions and not their actions--are a perversion of justice and a cruel joke, every bit of a joke as the theory of "preemptive war" that led us to Iraq.

    Now we can add "preemptive detention" to the list - it's a far more telling term than the truthy "preventive detention" don't you think?


    I am going ot the library to pick it up (none / 0) (#30)
    by samtaylor2 on Fri May 22, 2009 at 10:18:24 AM EST

    Please! (none / 0) (#7)
    by Jensational on Thu May 21, 2009 at 05:57:11 PM EST
    Don't tell me you all think this is just a conspiracy.  The guys thought they were actually planting real bombs!  And they went so far as to put them in cars on the street!  Oh, wait, this is Bush's fault, too, huh.

    who knows if they would have had the ability (none / 0) (#9)
    by of1000Kings on Thu May 21, 2009 at 06:27:41 PM EST
    to obtain the bombs if the FBI hadn't giftwrapped then and stuck them under their christmas trees...

    what I don't get, though, is why are these guys being tried in the US...they are Islamic Terrorists (allegedly converted) and as we know Americans don't want terrorists in American prisons (unless, of course, Americans are only worried about olive-skinned terrorists)...

    but hey, Faux news says that America is over racism..so there must be a different reason why the American people don't mind these 'ruthless' terrorists in their back yards but they don't want the olive-skinned terrorists in their back yards...

    can anyone explain this to me?  why aren't we just sending these guys to Gitmo and torturing them until they tell us which major terrorist group they are working for (other than the CIA/FBI, that is)...


    Why send them to Gitmo? (none / 0) (#10)
    by nycstray on Thu May 21, 2009 at 06:31:57 PM EST
    If waterboarding isn't torture and nothing we do is "really that harsh" etc, we should be able to let the NYPD keep them and go to town on them, right?

    ya, I guess you're right... (none / 0) (#11)
    by of1000Kings on Thu May 21, 2009 at 06:36:58 PM EST
    if torture isn't against any laws at all then I'm not sure why our police officers don't do it when they're trying to get info out of people...

    love to see me some waterboarding on First 48...considering it's not illegal or immoral at all...

    matter of fact, let's sign up some Banksters for some waterboarding....I think we all know we'll never get a straight answer about why we had all the issues we're having without waterboarding the basturds...and since it's totally moral and legal, there should be no problem (oh wait, well, just round up the Muslim or Mid-eastern Bankers anyway, America won't have a problem with that...touch a white person or a person of Jewish faith though and watch out)...


    Just doing my part to reduce our (none / 0) (#12)
    by nycstray on Thu May 21, 2009 at 06:46:03 PM EST
    carbon footprint, lol!~

    Keepin us safe (none / 0) (#14)
    by MrConservative on Thu May 21, 2009 at 07:42:41 PM EST
    Clearly this is the reason we've had no attacks since 9/11.  Thumbs up Bush.

    what was the reason pre-9/11? (none / 0) (#17)
    by of1000Kings on Thu May 21, 2009 at 10:33:25 PM EST
    Bush there too I guess...

    he is amazing...


    Here's one perspective: (none / 0) (#27)
    by DancingOpossum on Fri May 22, 2009 at 09:30:30 AM EST
    The Angry Arab sez:

    I was reading about the terrorist plot in NYC. I do a lot of consulting (as an adviser or expert witness) with lawyers representing Arab or Middle East defendants in cases around the US and Canada. In my experience, many of the horrific schemes and terrorist plots originate with government informers trying to entrap fanatical fools or crooks in some cases. So I wait before I believe what I read. I once read about a group of dangerous terrorists only to be hired by lawyers representing them. It turned out that they were crooks and thugs but not terrorists.


    Worse things to pitch...:) (none / 0) (#29)
    by kdog on Fri May 22, 2009 at 10:16:37 AM EST

    Actually (none / 0) (#32)
    by catmandu on Fri May 22, 2009 at 07:17:39 PM EST
    this is no different than arresting someone attempting to locate a hit man to kill his wife.
    They could have located a real arms dealer, bombs are not that difficult to manufacture.  Just look at Tim McVeigh.  He made an excellant bomb without prior terrorist experience.
    it doesn't take much experience to park a car loaded with explosives in front of a building.
    They deserve what they get.