Almost All Terror Plots Since 9-11 Manufactured by F.B.I. 15,000+ Informants
James Cromitie  was a man
of bluster and bigotry. He made up wild stories about his supposed
exploits, like the one about firing gas bombs into police precincts
using a flare gun, and he ranted about Jews. “The worst brother in the
whole Islamic world is better than 10 billion Yahudi,” he once
A 45-year-old Walmart stocker who’d adopted the name Abdul Rahman
after converting to Islam during a prison stint for selling cocaine,
Cromitie had lots of worries—convincing his wife he wasn’t sleeping
around, keeping up with the rent, finding a decent job despite his
felony record. But he dreamed of making his mark. He confided as much in
a middle-aged Pakistani he knew as Maqsood.
“I’m gonna run into something real
big ,” he’d say. “I just
feel it, I’m telling you. I feel it.”
Maqsood and Cromitie had met at a mosque in Newburgh, a struggling
former Air Force town about an hour north of New York City. They struck
up a friendship, talking for hours about the world’s problems and how
the Jews were to blame.
It was all talk until November 2008, when Maqsood pressed his new
“Do you think you are a better recruiter or a better action man?” Maqsood
“I’m both,” Cromitie bragged.
“My people would be very happy to know that, brother. Honestly.”
“Who’s your people?” Cromitie asked.
Crunch the Numbers
the prosecutions of 508 alleged domestic terrorists. View them by
affiliation or state, or play with the full data set.
Maqsood said he was an agent for the Pakistani terror group, tasked
with assembling a team to wage jihad in the United States. He asked
Cromitie what he would attack if he had the means. A bridge, Cromitie
“But bridges are too hard to be hit,” Maqsood pleaded, “because
they’re made of steel.”
“Of course they’re made of steel,” Cromitie replied. “But the same
way they can be put up, they can be brought down.”
Maqsood coaxed Cromitie toward a more realistic plan. The Mumbai
attacks were all over the news, and he pointed out how those gunmen
targeted hotels, cafés, and a Jewish community center.
“With your intelligence, I know you can manipulate someone,” Cromitie
told his friend. “But not me, because I’m intelligent.” The
pair settled on a plot to bomb synagogues in the Bronx, and then fire
Stinger missiles at airplanes taking off from Stewart International
Airport in the southern Hudson Valley. Maqsood would provide all the
explosives and weapons, even the vehicles. “We have two missiles, okay?”
offered . “Two Stingers,
Maqsood was an undercover operative; that much was true. But not for
Jaish-e-Mohammad. His real name was Shahed
Hussain , and he was a paid
informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Ever since 9/11, counterterrorism has been the FBI’s No. 1 priority,
consuming the lion’s share of its budget—$3.3 billion, compared to
$2.6 billion for organized crime—and much of the attention of field
agents and a massive, nationwide network of informants. After years of
emphasizing informant recruiting as a key task for its agents, the
bureau now maintains a roster of 15,000 spies—many of them tasked, as
Hussain was, with infiltrating Muslim communities in the United States.
In addition, for every informant officially listed in the bureau’s
records, there are as many as three unofficial ones, according to one
former high-level FBI official, known in bureau parlance as “hip
15,000 spies, some paid as much as $100,000 per case, many of them
tasked with infiltrating Muslim communities in the United States.
The informants could be doctors, clerks, imams. Some might not even
consider themselves informants. But the FBI regularly taps all of them
as part of a domestic intelligence apparatus whose only historical
peer might be COINTELPRO , the program the bureau ran from
the ’50s to the ’70s to discredit and marginalize organizations
ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to civil-rights and protest groups.
Throughout the FBI’s history, informant numbers have been closely
guarded secrets. Periodically, however, the bureau has released those
figures. A Senate oversight committee in 1975 found the FBI had 1,500
informant s . In 1980, officials disclosed there
. Six years later, following
the FBI’s push into drugs and organized crime, the number of bureau
informants ballooned to 6,000, the Los Angeles Times reported
 in 1986. And according
to the FBI, the number grew significantly after 9/11. In its
fiscal year 2008
budget authorization request ,
the FBI disclosed that it it had been been working under a November
2004 presidential directive demanding
an increase  in “human
source development and management,” and that it needed $12.7
million  for a program to
keep tabs on its spy network and create software to track and manage
The bureau’s strategy has changed significantly from the days when
officials feared another coordinated, internationally financed attack
from an Al Qaeda sleeper cell. Today, counterterrorism experts believe
groups like Al Qaeda, battered by the war in Afghanistan and the
efforts of the global intelligence community, have shifted to a
franchise model, using the internet to encourage sympathizers to carry
out attacks in their name. The main domestic threat, as the FBI sees
it, is a lone wolf.
The bureau’s answer has been a strategy known variously as
“preemption,” “prevention,” and “disruption”—identifying and
neutralizing potential lone wolves before they move toward action. To
that end, FBI agents and informants target not just active jihadists,
but tens of thousands of law-abiding people, seeking to identify those
disgruntled few who might participate in a plot given the means and the
opportunity. And then, in case after case, the government provides
the plot, the means, and the opportunity.
Here’s how it works: Informants report to their handlers on people
who have, say, made statements sympathizing with terrorists. Those names
are then cross-referenced with existing intelligence data, such as
immigration and criminal records. FBI agents may then assign an
undercover operative to approach the target by posing as a radical.
Sometimes the operative will propose a plot, provide explosives, even
lead the target in a fake oath to Al Qaeda. Once enough incriminating
information has been gathered, there’s an arrest—and a press
conference  announcing
another foiled plot.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because such sting operations
are a fixture in the headlines. Remember the Washington
Metro  bombing plot? The
New York subway  plot? The
guys who planned to blow up the Sears
Tower ? The teenager
seeking to bomb a Portland
Christmas tree  lighting?
Each of those plots, and dozens more across the nation, was led by an
Over the past year, Mother Jones and the Investigative
Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley have
examined prosecutions of 508 defendants in terrorism-related cases, as
defined by the Department of Justice. Our investigation found:
- Nearly half the prosecutions involved the use of informants,
many of them incentivized by money (operatives can be paid as much as
$100,000 per assignment) or the need to work off criminal or
immigration violations. (For more on the details of those 508 cases, see
our charts page  and searchable
- Sting operations resulted in prosecutions against 158
defendants. Of that total, 49 defendants participated in plots led by
an agent provocateur—an FBI operative instigating terrorist action.
- With three exceptions, all of the high-profile domestic terror
plots of the last decade were actually FBI stings. (The exceptions are
Najibullah Zazi, who came close to bombing
 the New York City subway
system in September 2009; Hesham Mohamed
Hadayet , an Egyptian who
opened fire on the El-Al ticket counter at the Los Angeles airport; and
failed Times Square bomber Faisal
- In many sting cases, key encounters between the informant and
the target were not recorded—making it hard for defendants claiming
entrapment to prove their case.
- Terrorism-related charges are so difficult to beat in court,
even when the evidence is thin, that defendants often don’t risk a
“The problem with the cases we’re talking about
is that defendants would not have done anything if not kicked in the
ass by government agents,” says Martin Stolar, a lawyer who represented
a man caught in a 2004 sting involving New
York’s Herald Square 
subway station. “They’re creating crimes to solve crimes so they can
claim a victory in the war on terror.” In the FBI’s defense, supporters
argue that the bureau will only pursue a case when the target clearly
is willing to participate in violent action. “If you’re doing a sting
right, you’re offering the target multiple chances to back out,” says
Peter Ahearn, a retired FBI special agent who directed the Western New
York Joint Terrorism Task Force and oversaw the investigation of the Lackawanna
Six , an alleged terror
cell near Buffalo, New York. “Real people don’t say, ‘Yeah, let’s go
bomb that place.’ Real people call the cops.”
A guide to
1001: Known as the “Al Capone,” Title 18, Section 1001 
of the federal criminal code covers the crime of lying to federal
agents. Just as the government prosecuted Capone for tax violations , it has frequently used 1001 against terrorism defendants  whose crimes or affiliations it
couldn’t prove in court.
: From 1956 to 1971,
the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program attempted to infiltrate and sometimes harass domestic
political groups , from the
Ku Klux Klan to the National Lawyers Guild and the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference .
DIOG: The Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide , a 258-page FBI manual for
undercover operations and the use of informants. Recently revised to
allow agents to look for information—including going through someone’s
trash—about a person who is not formally being investigated
, sometimes to flip them as an
Domain Management: An FBI data-mining and analysis program  used to map US communities along
ethnic and religious lines.
Hip pocket: An unregistered informant who provides information  and tips to FBI agents but whose
information is not used in court.
Joint Terrorism Task Force: A partnership among
federal and local law enforcement agencies ; through it, for example, FBI agents
can join forces with
immigration agents  to put
the squeeze on someone to become an informant.
Material support: Providing help to a designated
foreign terrorist organization. This can include money, lodging, training, documents, weapons, and
oneself, and including joining a terrorist cell dreamed up by the FBI .
Operator: Someone who wants to be a terrorist; in
the FBI’s view, sympathizers
become operators .
Predicate: Information clearly suggesting that an
individual is involved in unlawful activity; it’s required for the FBI to start an investigation .
Even so, Ahearn concedes that the uptick in successful terrorism
stings might not be evidence of a growing threat so much as a greater
focus by the FBI. “If you concentrate more people on a problem,” Ahearn
says, “you’ll find more problems.” Today, the FBI follows up on
literally every single call, email, or other terrorism-related tip it
receives for fear of missing a clue.
And the emphasis is unlikely to shift anytime soon. Sting operations
have “proven to be an essential law enforcement tool in uncovering and
preventing potential terror attacks,” said Attorney General Eric
Holder in a December 2010
speech  to Muslim lawyers
and civil rights activists. President Obama’s Department of Justice
has announced sting-related prosecutions at an even faster clip than
the Bush administration, with 44 new cases since January 2009. With
the war on terror an open-ended and nebulous conflict, the FBI doesn’t
have an exit strategy.
Located deep in a wooded area on a
Marine Corps base west of Interstate 95—a setting familiar from Silence
of the Lambs—is the sandstone fortress of the FBI Academy in
Quantico, Virginia. This building, erected under J. Edgar Hoover, is
where to this day every FBI special agent is trained.
J. Stephen Tidwell graduated from the academy in 1981 and over the
years rose to executive assistant director, one of the 10 highest
positions in the FBI; in 2008, he coauthored the Domestic Investigations
and Operations Guide, or DIOG
 (PDF), the manual for what
agents and informants can and cannot do.
A former Texas cop, Tidwell is a barrel-chested man with
close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. He’s led some of the FBI’s
highest-profile investigations, including the DC sniper case and the
probe of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.
On a cloudy spring afternoon, Tidwell, dressed in khakis and a blue
sweater, drove me in his black Ford F-350 through Hogan’s Alley
—a 10-acre Potemkin village
with houses, bars, stores, and a hotel. Agents learning the craft
role-play stings, busts, and bank robberies here, and inside jokes and
pop-culture references litter the place (which itself gets its name
from a 19th-century comic strip). At one end of the town is the
Biograph Theater, named for the Chicago movie house where FBI agents
gunned down John
Dillinger  in 1934. (“See,”
Tidwell says. “The FBI has a sense of humor.”)
Inside the academy, a more somber tone prevails. Plaques everywhere
honor agents who have been killed on the job. Tidwell takes me to one
that commemorates John O’Neill, who became chief of the bureau’s
then-tiny counterterrorism section in 1995. For years before retiring
from the FBI, O’Neill
warned  of Al Qaeda’s
increasing threat, to no avail. In late August 2001, he left the
bureau to take a job as head of security for the World Trade Center,
where he died 19 days later at the hands of the enemy he’d told the
FBI it should fear. The agents he had trained would end up reshaping
the bureau’s counterterrorism operations.
Before 9/11, FBI agents considered chasing terrorists an undesirable
career path, and their training did not distinguish between Islamic
terror tactics and those employed by groups like the Irish Republican
Army. “A bombing case is a bombing case,” Dale Watson, who was the FBI’s
counterterrorism chief on 9/11, said in a December 2004 deposition.
The FBI also did not train agents in Arabic or require most of them to
learn about radical Islam. “I don’t necessarily think you have to know
everything about the Ku Klux Klan to investigate a church bombing,”
Watson said. The FBI had only one Arabic speaker  in New York City and fewer than 10
But shortly after 9/11, President George W. Bush called FBI Director
Robert Mueller to Camp David. His message: never again. And so Mueller
committed to turn the FBI into a counterintelligence organization
rivaling Britain’s MI5 in its capacity for surveillance and clandestine
activity. Federal law enforcement went from a focus on fighting
crime to preventing crime; instead of accountants and
lawyers cracking crime syndicates, the bureau would focus on Jack
Bauer-style operators disrupting terror groups.
To help run the counterterrorism section, Mueller drafted Arthur
Cummings, a former Navy SEAL who’d investigated the first World Trade
Center bombing. Cummings pressed agents to focus not only on their
immediate target, but also on the extended web of people linked to the
target. “We’re looking for the sympathizer who wants to become an
operator, and we want to catch them when they step over that line to
operator,” Cummings says. “Sometimes, that step takes 10 years. Other
times, it takes 10 minutes.” The FBI’s goal is to create a hostile
environment for terrorist recruiters and operators—by raising the risk
of even the smallest step toward violent action. It’s a form of
deterrence, an adaptation of the “broken windows” theory used to fight
urban crime. Advocates insist it has been effective, noting that there
hasn’t been a successful large-scale attack against the United States
since 9/11. But what can’t be answered—as many former and current FBI
agents acknowledge—is how many of the bureau’s targets would have
taken the step over the line at all, were it not for an informant.
So how did the FBI build its
informant network? It began by asking where US Muslims lived. Four
years after 9/11, the bureau brought in a CIA expert on
intelligence-gathering methods named Phil Mudd . His tool of choice was a
data-mining system using commercially available information, as well
as government data such as immigration records, to pinpoint the
demographics of specific ethnic and religious communities—say,
Iranians in Beverly Hills or Pakistanis in the DC suburbs.
The FBI officially denies that the program, known as Domain
Management, works this way—its purpose, the bureau says, is simply to
help allocate resources according to threats. But FBI agents told me
that with counterterrorism as the bureau’s top priority, agents often
look for those threats in Muslim communities—and Domain Management
allows them to quickly understand those communities’ makeup. One
high-ranking former FBI official jokingly referred to it as “Battlefield
Some FBI veterans criticized the program as unproductive and
intrusive—one told Mudd during a high-level meeting that he’d pushed the
bureau to “the dark side.” That tension has its roots in the stark
difference between the FBI and the CIA: While the latter is free to
operate internationally without regard to constitutional rights, the FBI
must respect those rights in domestic investigations, and Mudd’s
critics saw the idea of targeting Americans based on their ethnicity and
religion as a step too far.
Nonetheless, Domain Management quickly became the
foundation for the FBI’s counterterrorism dragnet. Using the
demographic data, field agents were directed to target specific
communities to recruit informants. Some agents were assigned to the
task full time. And across the bureau, agents’ annual performance
evaluations are now based in part on their recruiting efforts.
People cooperate with law enforcement for fairly simple reasons: ego,
patriotism, money, or coercion. The FBI’s recruitment has relied
heavily on the latter. One tried-and-true method is to flip someone
facing criminal charges. But since 9/11 the FBI has also relied heavily
on Immigration and
Customs Enforcement ,
with which it has worked closely as part of increased interagency
coordination. A typical scenario will play out like this: An FBI agent
trying to get someone to cooperate will look for evidence that the
person has immigration troubles. If they do, he can ask ICE to begin or
expedite deportation proceedings. If the immigrant then chooses to
cooperate, the FBI will tell the court that he is a valuable asset,
scalp, Craig Monteilh has been a versatile snitch: He’s pretended to
be a white supremacist, a Russian hit man, a Sicilian drug
trafficker, and a French-Syrian Muslim.
Sometimes, the target of this kind of push is the one person in a
mosque who will know everyone’s business—the imam. Two Islamic religious
leaders, Foad Farahi 
in Miami and Sheikh Tarek Saleh in New York City, are currently
fighting deportation proceedings that, they claim, began after they
refused to become FBI assets. The Muslim American Society Immigrant
Justice Center has filed similar complaints on behalf of seven other
Muslims with the Department of Homeland Security.
Once someone has signed on as an informant, the first assignment is
often a fishing expedition. Informants have said in court testimony
that FBI handlers have tasked them with infiltrating mosques without a
specific target or “predicate”—the term of art for the reason why
someone is investigated. They were, they say, directed to surveil
law-abiding Americans with no indication of criminal intent.
“The FBI is now telling agents they can go into houses of worship
without probable cause,” says Farhana Khera, executive director of the
San Francisco-based civil rights group Muslim Advocates. “That raises
serious constitutional issues.”
Tidwell himself will soon have to defend these practices in
court—he’s among those named in a class-action
lawsuit  (PDF) over an
informant’s allegation that the FBI used him to spy on a number of
mosques in Southern California.
That informant, Craig Monteilh, is a convicted felon who made his
money ripping off cocaine dealers before becoming an asset for the Drug
Enforcement Administration and later the FBI. A well-muscled
49-year-old with a shaved scalp, Monteilh has been a particularly
versatile snitch: He’s pretended to be a white supremacist, a Russian
hit man, and a Sicilian drug trafficker. He says when the FBI sent him
into mosques (posing as a French-Syrian Muslim), he was told to act
as a decoy for any radicals who might seek to convert him—and to look
for information to help flip congregants as informants, such as
immigration status, extramarital relationships, criminal activities,
and drug use. “Blackmail is the ultimate goal,” Monteilh says.
Officially, the FBI denies it blackmails informants. “We are
prohibited from using threats or coercion,” says Kathleen Wright, an FBI
spokeswoman. (She acknowledges that the bureau has prevented helpful
informants from being deported.)
FBI veterans say reality is different from the official line. “We
could go to a source and say, ‘We know you’re having an affair. If you
work with us, we won’t tell your wife,'” says a former top FBI
counterterrorism official. “Would we actually call the wife if the
source doesn’t cooperate? Not always. You do get into ethics here—is
this the right thing to do?—but legally this isn’t a question. If you
obtained the information legally, then you can use it however you
But eventually, Monteilh’s operation imploded in spectacular fashion.
In December 2007, police in Irvine, California, charged him with
bilking two women out of $157,000 as part of an alleged human growth
hormone scam. Monteilh has maintained it was actually part of an FBI
investigation, and that agents instructed him to plead guilty to a
grand-theft charge and serve eight months so as not to blow his cover.
The FBI would “clean up” the charge later, Monteilh says he was told.
That didn’t happen, and Monteilh has alleged in court filings that
the government put him in danger by letting fellow inmates know that
he was an informant. (FBI agents told me the bureau wouldn’t advise
an informant to plead guilty to a state criminal charge; instead,
agents would work with local prosecutors to delay or dismiss the
The class-action suit, filed by the ACLU, alleges that Tidwell, then
the bureau’s Los Angeles-based assistant director, signed off on
Monteilh’s operation. And Tidwell says he’s eager to defend the bureau
in court. “There is not the blanket suspicion of the Muslim community
that they think there is,” Tidwell says. “We’re just looking for the
bad guys. Anything the FBI does is going to be interpreted as
monitoring Muslims. I would tell [critics]: ‘Do you really think I
have the time and money to monitor all the mosques and Arab American
organizations? We don’t. And I don’t want to.'”
Shady informants, of course, are as
old as the FBI; one saying in the bureau is, “To catch the devil,
you have to go to hell.” Another is, “The only problem worse than
having an informant is not having an informant.” Back in the ’80s,
the FBI made a cottage industry of drug stings—a source of countless
Hollywood plots, often involving briefcases full of cocaine and Miami
as the backdrop.
It’s perhaps fitting, then, that one of the earliest known terrorism
stings also unfolded in Miami, though it wasn’t launched by the FBI.
Instead the protagonist was a Canadian bodyguard and, as a Fort
Lauderdale, Florida, newspaper put it in 2002 ,
“a 340-pound man with a fondness for firearms and strippers.” He
subscribed to Soldier
of Fortune  and hung
around a police supply store on a desolate stretch of Hollywood
Boulevard, north of Miami.
Howard Gilbert aspired to be a CIA agent but lacked pertinent
experience. So to pad his résumé, he hatched a plan to infiltrate a
mosque in the suburb of Pembroke Pines by posing as a Muslim convert
named Saif Allah .
He told congregants that he was a former Marine and a security
expert, and one night in late 2000, he gave a speech about the plight
“That was truly the night that launched me into the terrorist
umbrella of South Florida,” Gilbert would later brag 
to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
Nineteen-year-old congregant Imran Mandhai, stirred by the oration,
approached Gilbert and asked if he could provide him weapons and
training. Gilbert, who had been providing information to the FBI,
contacted his handlers and asked for more money to work on the case. (He
later claimed that the bureau had paid him $6,000.) But he
ultimately couldn’t deliver—the target had sensed something fishy
about his new friend.
The bureau also brought in Elie Assaad ,
a seasoned informant originally from Lebanon. He told Mandhai that
he was an associate of Osama bin Laden tasked with establishing a
training camp in the United States. Gilbert suggested attacking
electrical substations in South Florida, and Assaad offered to provide
a weapon. FBI agents then arrested Mandhai; he pleaded guilty in
federal court and was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison. It was a
model of what would become the bureau’s primary counterterrorism
M.O.—identifying a target, offering a plot, and then pouncing.
guys were homeless types,” one former FBI official says about the
alleged Sears Tower plotters. “And yes, we did show a picture where
somebody was taking the oath to Al Qaeda. So what?” Illustration:
Jeffrey SmithGilbert himself didn’t get to bask in his
glory; he never worked for the FBI again and died in 2004. Assaad,
for his part, ran into some trouble when his pregnant wife called
911. She said Assaad had beaten and choked her to the point that she
afraid  for her unborn
baby; he was arrested, but in the end his wife refused to press charges.
The jail stint didn’t keep Assaad from working for the FBI on what
would turn out to be perhaps the most high-profile terrorism bust of
the post-9/11 era. In 2005, the bureau got
a tip  from an informant
about a group of alleged terrorists in Miami’s Liberty City
neighborhood. The targets were seven men
—some African American, others
Haitian—who called themselves the “Seas of
David”  and ascribed to
religious beliefs that blended Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The
men were martial-arts enthusiasts who operated out of a dilapidated
warehouse, where they also taught classes for local kids. The Seas
of David’s leader was Narseal Batiste , the son of a Louisiana preacher,
father of four, and a former Guardian Angel.
In response to the informant’s tip, the FBI had him wear a wire
during meetings with the men, but he wasn’t able to engage them in
conversations about terrorist plots. So he introduced the group to
Assaad, now playing an Al Qaeda operative. At the informant’s request,
Batiste took photographs of the FBI office in North Miami Beach and
was caught on tape discussing a notion to bomb the Sears Tower in
Chicago. Assaad led Batiste, and later the other men, in swearing an
oath to Al Qaeda, though the ceremony (recorded and entered into
evidence at trial) bore a certain “Who’s on First?” flavor:
“God’s pledge is upon me, and so is his compact,” Assaad
said as he and Batiste sat in his car. “Repeat after me.”
“Okay. Allah’s pledge is upon you.”
“No, you have to repeat exactly. God’s pledge is upon me, and so
is his compact. You have to repeat.”
suggest that Batiste was mostly trying to shake down his
“Well, I can’t say Allah?” Batiste asked.
“Yeah, but this is an English version because Allah, you can say
whatever you want, but—”
“Okay. Of course.”
“Allah’s pledge is upon me. And so is his compact,” Batiste
said, adding: “That means his angels, right?”
“Uh, huh. To commit myself,” Assaad continued.
“To commit myself.”
“Brother,” Batiste repeated.
“Uh. That’s, uh, what’s your, uh, what’s your name, brother?”
“Ah, Brother Naz.”
“Okay. To commit myself,” the informant repeated.
“To commit myself.”
“You’re not—you have to say your name!” Assaad cried.
“Uh. To commit myself. I am Brother Naz. You can say, ‘To
“To commit myself, Brother Naz.”
Things went smoothly until Assaad got to a reference to being
“protective of the secrecy of the oath and to the directive of Al
Here Batiste stopped. “And to…what is the directive of?”
“Directive of Al Qaeda,” the informant answered.
“So now let me ask you this part here. That means that Al Qaeda will
be over us?”
“No, no, no, no, no,” Assaad said. “It’s an alliance.”
“Oh. Well…” Batiste said, sounding resigned.
“It’s an alliance, but it’s like a commitment, by, uh, like, we
respect your rules. You respect our rules,” Assaad explained.
“Uh, huh,” Batiste mumbled.
“And to the directive of Al Qaeda,” Assaad said, waiting for
Batiste to repeat.
“Okay, can I say an alliance?” Batiste asked. “And to the
alliance of Al Qaeda?”
“Of the alliance, of the directive—” Assaad said, catching
himself. “You know what you can say? And to the directive and the
alliance of Al Qaeda.”
“Okay, directive and alliance of Al Qaeda,” Batiste said.
“Okay,” the informant said. “Now officially you have commitment and
we have alliance between each other. And welcome, Brother Naz, to Al
Or not. Ultimately, the undercover recordings made by Assaad suggest
that Batiste, who had a failing drywall business and had trouble
making the rent for the warehouse, was mostly trying to shake down his
“terrorist” friend. After first asking the informant for $50,000,
Batiste is recorded in conversation after conversation asking how
soon he’ll have the cash.
“Let me ask you a question,” he says in one exchange. “Once I give
you an account number, how long do you think it’s gonna take to get me
“So you is scratching my back, [I’m] scratching your back—we’re like
this,” Assaad dodged.
“Right,” Batiste said.
suggest to the American public that we’re protecting them, we’re
not protecting them. The agents back in the bullpen, they know it’s
The money never materialized. Neither did any specific terrorist
plot. Nevertheless, federal prosecutors charged (PDF
) Batiste and his
cohorts—whom the media dubbed the Liberty City Seven—with conspiracy
to support terrorism, destroy buildings, and levy war against the
US government. Perhaps the key piece of evidence was the video of
Assaad’s Al Qaeda “oath.” Assaad was reportedly paid 
$85,000 for his work on the case; the other informant got $21,000.
James J. Wedick, a former FBI agent, was hired to review the Liberty
City case as a consultant for the defense. In his opinion, the
informant simply picked low-hanging fruit. “These guys couldn’t find
their way down the end of the street,” Wedick says. “They were
homeless types. And, yes, we did show a picture where somebody was
taking the oath to Al Qaeda. So what? They didn’t care. They only
cared about the money. When we put forth a case like that to suggest
to the American public that we’re protecting them, we’re not
protecting them. The agents back in the bullpen, they know it’s not
Indeed, the Department of Justice had a difficult time winning
convictions in the Liberty City case. In three separate trials, juries deadlocked
 on most of the charges,
eventually acquitting one of the defendants (charges against another
were dropped) and convicting five of crimes that landed them in
prison for between 7 to 13 years. When it was all over, Assaad told ABC News’ Brian Ross  that he had a special sense for
terrorists: “God gave me a certain gift.”
But he didn’t have a gift for sensing trouble. After the Liberty City
case, Assaad moved on to Texas and founded a low-rent modeling
agency . In March, when
police tried to pull him over, he led them in a chase
through El Paso  (with his
female passenger jumping out at one point), hit a cop with his car,
and ended up rolling his SUV on the freeway. Reached by phone,
Assaad declined to comment. He’s saving his story, he says, for a
book he’s pitching to publishers.
Not all of the more than 500 terrorism prosecutions  reviewed in this investigation
are so action-movie ready. But many do have an element of mystery.
For example, though recorded conversations are often a key element
of prosecutions, in many sting cases the FBI didn’t record large
portions of the investigation, particularly during initial encounters
or at key junctures during the sting. When those conversations
come up in court, the FBI and prosecutors will instead rely on the
account of an informant with a performance bonus on the line.
Osman Mohamud  was an
18-year old wannabe rapper when an FBI agent asked if he’d like to “help
the brothers.” Eventually the FBI gave him a fake car bomb and a phone
to blow it up during a Christmas tree lighting. Illustration:
Jeffrey SmithOne of the most egregious examples of a
missing recording involves a convoluted tale that begins in the
early morning hours of November 1, 2009, with a date-rape
allegation on the campus of Oregon State University. Following a
Halloween party, 18-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud , a Somali-born US citizen, went
home with another student. The next morning, the woman reported to
police that she believed she had been drugged.
Campus police brought Mohamud in for questioning and a polygraph
test; FBI agents, who for reasons that have not been disclosed had been
keeping an eye on the teen for about a month, were
also there . Mohamud
claimed that the sex was consensual, and a drug test given to his
accuser eventually came back negative.
During the interrogation, OSU police asked Mohamud if a search of his
laptop would indicate that he’d researched date-rape drugs. He
said it wouldn’t and gave them permission to examine his hard
drive. Police copied its entire contents and turned the data over
to the FBI—which discovered, it later alleged in court documents,
that Mohamud had emailed someone in northwest Pakistan talking
Soon after his run-in with police, Mohamud began to receive emails
from “Bill Smith,” a self-described terrorist who encouraged him to
“help the brothers.” “Bill,” an FBI agent, arranged for Mohamud to
meet one of his associates in a Portland hotel room. There, Mohamud
told the agents that he’d been thinking of jihad since age 15. When
asked what he might want to attack, Mohamud suggested the city’s Christmas tree
lighting ceremony . The
agents set Mohamud up with a van that he thought was filled with
explosives. On November 26, 2010, Mohamud and one of the agents
drove the van to Portland’s Pioneer Square, and Mohamud dialed 
the phone to trigger the explosion. Nothing. He dialed again.
Suddenly FBI agents appeared and dragged him away as he kicked and
yelled, “Allahu akbar!” Prosecutors charged him with attempting
to use a weapon of mass destruction; his trial is pending.
flush out terrorist sympathizers before they act. “What would you do?”
asks one. “Wait for him to figure it out himself?”
The Portland case has been held up as an example of how FBI stings
can make a terrorist where there might have been only an angry loser.
“This is a kid who, it can be reasonably inferred, barely had the
capacity to put his shoes on in the morning,” Wedick says.
But Tidwell, the retired FBI official, says Mohamud was exactly the
kind of person the FBI needs to flush out. “That kid was pretty
specific about what he wanted to do,” he says. “What would you do in
response? Wait for him to figure it out himself? If you’ll notice,
most of these folks [targeted in stings] plead guilty. They don’t
say, ‘I’ve been entrapped,’ or, ‘I was immature.'” That’s
true—though it’s also true that defendants and their attorneys know
that the odds of succeeding at trial are vanishingly small. Nearly
two-thirds of all terrorism prosecutions since 9/11 have ended in
guilty pleas, and experts hypothesize that it’s difficult for such
defendants to get a fair trial. “The plots people are accused of
being part of—attacking subway systems or trying to bomb a
building—are so frightening that they can overwhelm a jury,” notes
David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor who has studied
these types of cases.
But the Mohamud story wasn’t quite
over—it would end up changing the course of another case on the
opposite side of the country. In Maryland, rookie FBI agent Keith
Bender had been working a sting against 21-year-old Antonio
Martinez , a recent convert
to Islam who’d posted inflammatory comments
on Facebook  (“The
sword is cummin the reign of oppression is about 2 cease
inshallah”). An FBI informant had befriended Martinez and, in recorded
conversations, they talked about attacking a military recruiting
Just as the sting was building to its climax, Martinez saw news
reports about the Mohamud case, and how there was an undercover
operative involved. He worried: Was he, too, being lured into a sting?
He called his supposed terrorist contact: “I’m not falling for no
BS,” he told
Faced with the risk of losing the target, the informant—whose name is
not revealed in court records—met with Martinez and pulled him
back into the plot. But while the informant had recorded numerous
previous meetings with Martinez, no
recording  was made
for this key conversation; in affidavits, the FBI blamed a
technical glitch. Two weeks later, on December 8, 2010, Martinez
parked what he thought was a car bomb in front of a recruitment
center and was arrested when he
tried to detonate  it.
Frances Townsend, who served as homeland security adviser to
President George W. Bush, concedes that missing recordings in terrorism
stings seem suspicious. But, she says, it’s more common than you
might think: “I can’t tell you how many times I had FBI agents in
front of me and I yelled, ‘You have hundreds of hours of recordings,
but you didn’t record this meeting.’ Sometimes, I admit,
they might not record something intentionally”—for fear, she says,
that the target will notice. “But more often than not, it’s a
Wedick, the former FBI agent, is less forgiving. “With the technology
the FBI now has access to—these small devices that no one would
ever suspect are recorders or transmitters—there’s no excuse not to
tape interactions between the informant and the target,” he says.
“So why in many of these terrorism stings are meetings not recorded?
Because it’s convenient for the FBI not to record.”
So what really happens
as an informant works his target, sometimes over a period
of years, and eases him over the line? For the answer to that,
consider once more the case of James Cromitie , the Walmart stocker with a
hatred of Jews. Cromitie was the ringleader in the much-publicized
Bronx synagogue bombing plot that went to trial
last year . But a
closer look at the record reveals that while Cromitie was no one’s
idea of a nice guy, whatever leadership existed in the plot
emanated from his sharply dressed, smooth-talking friend Maqsood,
a.k.a. FBI informant Shahed Hussain.
A Pakistani refugee who claimed to be friends with Benazir Bhutto and
had a soft spot for fancy cars, Hussain was by then one of the
FBI’s more successful counterterrorism informants. (See our timeline of Hussain’s career as an informant
.) He’d originally come to
the bureau’s attention when he was busted in a DMV scam  that charged test takers $300 to $500
for a license. Having “worked off” those charges, he’d
transitioned from indentured informant to paid snitch, earning as
much as $100,000 per assignment.
he created the “impression” that his target would make big money by
bombing synagogues in the Bronx.
Hussain was assigned to visit a mosque in Newburgh, where he would start conversations with strangers about jihad . “I was finding people who
would be harmful, and radicals, and identify them for the FBI,”
Hussain said during Cromitie’s trial. Most of the mosque’s
congregants were poor, and Hussain, who posed as a wealthy
businessman and always arrived in one of his four luxury cars —a
Hummer, a Mercedes, two different BMWs—made plenty of friends.
But after more than a year working the local Muslim community, he
had not identified a single actual
Then, one day in June 2008, Cromitie approached Hussain in the
parking lot outside the mosque. The two became friends, and Hussain
clearly had Cromitie’s number. “Allah didn’t bring you here to work
for Walmart,” he told
him  at one point.
Cromitie, who once claimed he could “con the corn from the cob,” had a
history of mental instability. He told a psychiatrist that he saw
and heard things that weren’t there and had twice tried to commit
suicide . He told
tall tales, most of them entirely untrue—like the one about how
his brother stole $126 million worth of stuff from Tiffany.
Exactly what Hussain and Cromitie talked about in the first four
months of their relationship isn’t known, because the FBI did
not record  those
conversations. Based on later conversations, it’s clear that
Hussain cultivated Cromitie assiduously. He took the target, all
expenses paid  by the
FBI, to an Islamic conference in Philadelphia to meet Imam Siraj
Wahhaj, a prominent African-American Muslim leader. He helped pay Cromitie’s
rent . He offered to buy
him a barbershop
. Finally, he asked Cromitie to
others  and help him bomb
On April 7, 2009, at 2:45 p.m., Cromitie and Hussain sat on a couch
inside an FBI cover house on Shipp Street in Newburgh. A hidden
camera  was trained on the
“I don’t want anyone to get hurt,” Cromitie told
the informant .
“Think about it before you speak,” Cromitie interrupted.
“If there is American soldiers, I don’t care,” Hussain said, trying a
“Hold up,” Cromitie agreed. “If it’s American soldiers, I don’t even
“If it’s kids, I care,” Hussain said. “If it’s women, I care.”
“I care. That’s what I’m worried about. And I’m going to tell you, I
don’t care if it’s a whole synagogue of men.”
“I would take ’em down, I don’t even care. ‘Cause I know they are the
“We have the equipment to do it.”
“See, see, I’m not worried about nothing. Ya know? What I’m worried
about is my safety,” Cromitie said.
“Oh, yeah, safety comes first.”
“I want to get in and I want to get out.”
“Trust me,” Hussain assured.
At Cromitie’s trial, Hussain would admit that he created the—in his
word—”impression” that Cromitie would make a lot of money by
“I can make you $250,000, but you don’t want it, brother,” he once
told  Cromitie when
the target seemed hesitant. “What can I tell you?” (Asked about
the exchange in court, Hussain said that “$250,000” was simply a
code word for the bombing plot—a code word, he admitted, that only
But whether for ideology or money, Cromitie did recruit three others,
and they did take photographs of Stewart International Airport in
Newburgh as well as of synagogues in the Bronx. On May 20, 2009,
Hussain drove Cromitie  to the Bronx, where Cromitie put what
he believed were bombs
 inside cars he thought
had been parked by Hussain’s coconspirators. Once all the dummy
bombs were placed, Cromitie headed back to the getaway
car —Hussain was in the
driver’s seat—and then a SWAT team surrounded the car.
At trial, Cromitie told
the judge : “I am not
a violent person. I’ve never been a terrorist, and I never will
be. I got myself into this stupid mess. I know I said a lot of
stupid stuff.” He was sentenced to 25 years.
For his trouble, the FBI paid Hussain $96,000 . Then he moved on to another case,
another mosque, somewhere in the United States.
For this project, Mother Jones partnered with the
University of California-Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program , headed by Lowell Bergman, where Trevor
Aaronson  was an
investigative fellow. The Fund
for Investigative Journalism 
also provided support for Aaronson’s reporting. Lauren Ellis  and Hamed Aleaziz  contributed additional research.
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