It seems relatively straightforward: Four black Muslims in Newburgh, NY, known as the “Newburgh Four,” team up with Shahed Hussain, who claims to be a member of al-Qaeda, and plot to bomb synagogues in the Bronx and shoot Stinger missiles at military planes. The FBI thwarts the attack just in time, jails the terrorists, and then-Police Commissioner Ray Kelly deems the operation a “textbook example of how a major investigation should be conducted.” Instead of being an open-and-shut case, however, it became one of the most controversial FBI counterterrorism sting operations of the past decade.
Hussain, an ex-convict who had turned into an FBI informant in 2002, began the operation by frequenting the Masjid al-Ikhlas mosque in Newburgh. There, he began having hypothetical conversations with James Cromitie about plotting attacks in the name of Allah. After Cromitie lost his job at Walmart and Hussain promised him $250,000 if he agreed to an attack, the conversations became less hypothetical. Soon, Cromitie was recruiting three other people as lookouts: Laguerre Payen, who was believed to suffer from mental illness, David Williams, a part-time student trying to come up with enough money to pay for his brother’s liver cancer, and Onta Williams, a drug dealer and ex-convict. All men were offered money, cars, and prestige if they carried out the plan Hussain had meticulously laid out for them. They all agreed, but not before stipulating: “We want to just destroy property. We don’t want to take no lives.” Even Judge Colleen McMahon, who sentenced all four men to 25 years in prison, called the plot a “fantasy terror operation” and claimed that “only the government could have made a ‘terrorist’ out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope.”
The Newburgh Four case is not unique to the world of domestic terrorism arrests. In fact, it is quite typical. At least half of the 500 domestic terrorism cases since 9/11 have been FBI informant-led sting operations. Oftentimes the informants are former murderers, thieves, rapists, or drug dealers that were offered a shorter sentence or immunity in exchange for cooperation with the FBI, making them especially dedicated to landing an arrest. Hussain, who is one of the FBI’s most active informants, was convicted of identification fraud and later admitted to fleeing Pakistan on murder charges.
In a typical case, the FBI informant first infiltrates various community forums, often a religious group or chat room. While posing as a member of al-Qaeda or another extremist group, the informant ensnares “potential terrorists” by offering an opportunity to get involved in a plot, providing the means and a monetary incentive, and removing all obstacles. The FBI then waits for the target to go forward with the attack, and swoop in for an arrest just as the target is about to press the button that detonates the bomb.
Sting operations are not new to counterterrorism strategy. Rather, they have been a large part of the FBI’s strategy almost as long as the organization has existed. The difference between a traditional sting operation and its current iterations is that traditional sting operations deal with targets that have a history of committing the same type of crime. Today, anti-terrorism sting operations often target people because their communities, opinions and backgrounds are stereotypically associated with terrorism, and criminal history is no longer the distinguishing factor. In the case of the Newburgh Four, Hussain began search for a target by visiting mosques. Targeting mosques and other religious institutions that Muslim-Americans frequent insinuates that Muslims are predisposed to terrorism, and inevitably results in “treating American Muslims as terrorists-in-waiting.”
These biases become even more apparent during trials. As criminal defense lawyer Martin Stolar said to Al Jazeera, “In the post-9/11 era, Muslims accused of terrorism start out with three strikes against them and maybe four strikes,” making the justice system inherently unfair. Furthermore, these operations have historically targeted the young, people with mental or intellectual disabilities, and the economically disadvantaged — all of whom are particularly susceptible to being persuaded by an informant to join a terrorist plot and who probably wouldn’t have the means or the initiative to pull it off otherwise. Most of the suspects have no previous involvement with any terrorist groups when they are initially targeted by an informant.
After being charged, the majority of those suspected of terrorism plead guilty in exchange for shorter sentences. A few, however, claim entrapment — although none of these claims have ever been successful; as long as the prosecutor can show predisposition to commit a crime, the defendant is found guilty. The Newburgh Four case has come the closest to succeeding with an entrapment defense, especially in regards to Payen, the defendant who suffers from mental illness. The problem with the entrapment defense, however, lies in jury bias. Presumably, the target has a background that characterizes him or her as having a propensity towards terrorism.
There is little doubt that preventing terrorism attacks has been the highest priority for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies since 9/11, but sting operations are not the best way to find terrorists. Not only do these operations blatantly rely on stereotypes and prey on vulnerable targets, but their effectiveness is also questionable at best. While traditional agent provocateur cases are useful in infiltrating a community and acquiring evidence against the leaders of a group, these sting operations target the very bottom of the food chain. True terrorists cannot be deterred by the possibility of prosecution, which makes prevention the primary goal of anti-terrorism strategy. The targets of these operations are more akin to thugs-for-hire than terrorists, a distinction that may not mean much in the judicial system but is extremely important in the developing of an effective counter-terrorism strategy. The value of arresting these so-called terrorists discovered by informants is chronically overestimated and weakens the overall system as a result.
Terrorism, as a word, has many serious implications and connotations. By claiming that these sting operations are foiled terrorist plots, the FBI is both corrupting and belittling the concept of terrorism.
This piece is part of BPR’s special feature on terrorism. You can explore the special feature here.