Stage-Managing the War on Terror
Ensnaring Terrorists Demands Creativity
Informers have by now become our first line of defense in our battles with the evildoers, the go-to guys in the never-ending domestic war on terror. They regularly do the dirty work -- suggesting and encouraging the plots, laboring as bag men to move the money, fashioning the bombs, and eliciting the flamboyant dialogue, even while following the scripts of their handlers to the letter. They have attended to all the little details that make for the successful and now familiar arrests, criminal complaints, trials, and (for the most part) convictions in the ever-distracting war against... what? Al-Qaeda? Terror? Muslims? The inept? The poor?
The Liberty City Seven, the Fort Dix Six, the Detroit Ummah Conspiracy, the Newburgh Four -- each has had their fear-filled day in the sun. None of these plots ever came close to happening. How could they? All were bogus from the get-go: money to buy missiles or cell phones or shoes and fancy duds -- provided by the authorities; plans for how to use the missiles and bombs and cell phones -- provided by authorities; cars for transport and demolition -- issued by the authorities; facilities for carrying out the transactions -- leased by those same authorities. Played out on landscapes manufactured by federal imagineers, the climax of each drama was foreordained. The failure of the plots would then be touted as the success of the investigations and prosecutions.
A band of virtually homeless and penniless men in Florida, we were told, were planning to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago. They just needed the right combat boots to pull it off, and a little free money.
A cell of New Jersey roofers, handymen, and cab drivers was scheming to use a laminated pizza delivery map to guide them through a devastating attack on Fort Dix, the enormous military base in Burlington County, south of Trenton.
Ex-cons in Detroit, mostly known for patronizing a weekly soup kitchen to stave off hunger, were also planning to set up their own country in Michigan under Islamic law.
And a band of Orange County New York parolees and former drug peddlers placed bombs at two Bronx synagogues and was preparing to launch missile attacks on military cargo planes at Stewart National Guard Air Base in Newburgh.
In the Liberty City Seven case, which revolved around two informants paid in excess of $130,000 for their services, the government tried the hapless defendants three times before finally wresting a conviction from a jury. One defendant was acquitted at the first trial, another in the third, and five were eventually convicted of at least some terrorism-related charges. In the Fort Dix case, jurors were shown horrific films said to be on a computer owned by one of the defendants, who claimed an FBI informant demanded more and more videos for viewing.
Another defendant actually called the Philadelphia police, mid-plot, and said he was being pressured to commit radical acts by what turned out to be an FBI informer. Prosecutors dismissed this as an obvious decoy maneuver. The key informer in that case -- the FBI eventually paid two people to spy on the group -- an Egyptian on probation, received $236,000 for his services.
Most recently, this duplicitous landscape of war-on-terror "success" has been illuminated yet again by the case of four alleged Newburgh, New York, conspirators -- the Newburgh Four -- and in the botched arrest and fatal shooting (a first for federal authorities) of an African American imam in Detroit, leader of the so-called Ummah Conspiracy. As the details have slowly emerged, these two cases offer vivid examples of how government-scripted many of the terror plots "uncovered" in the U.S. in recent years have turned out to be. Each case, in fact, offers a window onto a stark world in which nothing is what it seems to be.
The "Un-Terrorism Case"
In the years following 9/11, when I was reporting my book, Mohamed's Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland, many defense and immigration attorneys I interviewed insisted that the mere mention of "terrorism" has often been enough to knock down any and all defenses. In the Newburgh conspiracy, however, the federal judge, Colleen McMahon, has shown a more questioning attitude toward what, in a May 28, 2010, pre-trial hearing, she took to calling the "un-terrorism case."
After their May 2009 arrests, the four Newburgh conspirators were portrayed as Jew-hating Muslim converts who intended to blow up synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down military planes based at Stewart Airport in Newburgh. "It's hard to envision a more chilling plot," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Snyder at the time, describing the defendants as "extremely violent."
The men were indeed arrested only after placing bogus bombs (courtesy of the FBI) near two Bronx synagogues. New York Police Chief Raymond Kelly said the plotters believed "it would be alright" to kill Jews. The Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a statement noting that the uncovered plot cooked up by "the jihadist terrorists" showed "that the dangers from such fanaticism have not passed and that American Jews must maintain their vigilance." New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg reiterated that vigilance remains a necessity for all concerned.
With their anti-Semitic bona fides established and the men caught in the act, all that seemed left was a perfunctory trial, followed by life in prison for James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams, and Laguerre Payen. A decade earlier, Cromitie had been arrested for dealing drugs behind a school. Payen, a Haitian immigrant, is a crack addict and certified paranoid schizophrenic, often found living on the street; his earlier deportation had been on hold due to his mental instability. Onta and David Williams, not related, had pasts pocked by drug busts and spotty work at minimum wage jobs scrounged from Newburgh's depressed economy. All four men were black.
Almost immediately, however, questions about the conspiracy began to arise. For one thing, the FBI informer who broke the case was a Pakistani named Shaheed Hussain, who arrived in Newburgh in the summer of 2008 driving a flashy Mercedes, showing lots of money, and promising jobs to down-and-out African American hangers-on at Masjid al-Ikhlas, Newburgh's main mosque. Convicted in a fraudulent driver's license scheme in 2002, he agreed to work undercover for the FBI shortly afterward to avoid deportation and turned out to have been an informer in a previous terrorism case in Albany in 2004.
The Albany case, in which an imam and a pizza shop owner were convicted of money laundering as part of a phantasmagorical scheme to kill a Pakistani diplomat with a missile, was bitterly contested by defense attorneys. They claimed that the elaborate plan had been concocted by Hussain himself. The jury didn't buy it, convicting both imam and pizza shop owner.
The Newburgh case shares much with the Albany case, especially a fondness for baroque plotting, the flashing of great wads of money in front of needy people, and the aggressive use of an informant by the FBI in a house of worship, in this case Masjid al-Ikhlas. The intricate plotting and the use of an informer made it into the criminal complaint, but all that flashing money didn't. There was no mention of the enticing job offers made by the seemingly well-to-do informer. Nothing about his offer of a $250,000 payment for carrying out the plot. Nothing about the BMW he pushed on Cromitie, who didn't even have a driver's license. Nothing about the $25,000 he was ready to pay anyone willing to act as a "lookout."
Maybe Cromitie wasn't the brightest hustler in town, but he was quite capable of grasping the significance of such sums of money in distressed Newburgh. He assured Hussain that dangling cash would lure participants, no matter what. "They will do it for the money," he said. "They're not even thinking about the cause."
Nor did the complaint mention, as the defense now maintains, that even the anti-Semitic talk was triggered by the informant. He baited the defendants, telling them that Jews were responsible for the U.S. wars in the Middle East and for other acts of violence against Muslims. Cromitie had an unexpected reaction during one of these conversations, according to government transcripts. "I'm not gonna hurt anybody," he said, after being badgered about possible attacks. "The plane thing... is out of the question."
On the streets of Newburgh, relatives and neighbors say that they have never heard the four men even mention Jews or jihad, let alone link the two together in murderous rants. Lord McWilliams, the severely ill brother of David Williams, called such a characterization "crazy." Hussain, he insisted, had promised his brother so much money that he would have been able to pay for the liver transplant that Lord desperately needed.
In fact, more substantial members of the mosque had pegged Shaheed Hussain as an informer almost the moment he arrived, but had no idea what to do about him. "Maybe the mistake we made was that we didn't report him," Salahuddin Mustafa Muhammad, imam at Masjid al-Ikhlas, told congregants shortly after the May 2009 arrests. "But how are we going to report the government agent to the government?"
The Ummah and the Death of an Imam
Money also played a role in the deadly Detroit case involving 53-year-old Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah, born Christopher Thomas, and gunned down during a sting operation run by the FBI in a Dearborn, Michigan, warehouse on October 28th of last year. For at least three years, FBI informants had filed copious reports on the conversations and activities of Abdullah, as he ministered to his largely indigent congregation at Masjid al-Haqq, a mosque so poor it could not even pay property taxes in disintegrating Detroit. Al-Haqq was evicted from its long-time home on Michigan Avenue early in 2009 and moved its operation -- a soup kitchen and religious services regularly attended by several dozen largely African American families, ex-convicts, former addicts and alcoholics, and homeless men and women -- into a house on Clairmount Street on Detroit's west side.
It is from this pathetic building, surrounded by an increasingly vacant and collapsing neighborhood, that the FBI contends Abdullah was plotting rebellion, hiding weapons, and planning efforts to move stolen goods. A 43-page criminal complaint describes Abdullah as "a highly placed leader of a nationwide radical fundamentalist Sunni group consisting primarily of African Americans" whose "primary mission is to establish a separate, sovereign Islamic state ('The Ummah') within the borders of the United States, governed by Shariah law."
The complaint opens with page after page of over-the-top political trash talk, provided by three informants listening to (and sometimes recording) Abdullah's sermons and conversations, tying the imam to H. Rap Brown, a 1960s radical and a former leader in the Black Panther Party now serving life in prison for the shooting deaths of two Georgia state troopers. According to the complaint, Abdullah was rarely without a gun or knife. He daydreamed about cop killing, engaged in elaborate revolutionary plotting, and enthusiastically told anecdotes about past violent encounters, largely with police. In effect, the complaint conjures up an old-time boogeyman: the angry, gun-toting Black Panther given over to "anti-government and anti-law enforcement rhetoric" -- now dressed up with sympathy for Osama bin Laden.
But in its efforts to be all-inclusive, the complaint also features an extraordinary section that describes an FBI informant offering Abdullah $5,000 "to pay to have someone 'do something' during the 2006 Super Bowl in Detroit." The imam rejected the offer. "Abdullah said he would not be involved in injuring innocent people for no reason," the complaint blandly states. So much for entrapment on the political front.
Despite page after page of braggadocio from Abdullah, following the rebuff over Super Bowl violence, no further effort was apparently mounted to entice him into a terrorist "plot." The complaint outlines no grounds for charges of treason, none for terrorism, and nothing even for a charge of material support for terrorism (that reliable catch-all used to ensnare dozens of American Muslims and institutions and even human-rights groups). Despite the heavy emphasis on descriptions of violent radicalism, the criminal complaint ultimately accuses Abdullah and several congregants of the pettiest of fencing operations -- 54 powertools, 46 TVs, and the like -- involving small amounts of money ($100, $200, $500).
FBI agents worked out a simple but comprehensive sting. Undercover operatives rented a warehouse and offered the imam and his congregants money for help in moving batches of furs and small electronic items. Money, goods, trucks, warehouse, and plans were all supplied by covert federal agents, and all activities were reported, virtually in real time, by informers close to Abdullah and inside the mosque.
Then, as the sting unfolded on October 28th, Abdullah was gunned down by FBI agents as they sought to round up the purported members of the fencing operation. No one else was harmed. The FBI claimed Abdullah fired first, killing a police dog, which was taken by helicopter to a veterinary hospital. After he was shot, the imam was handcuffed behind the back and dragged from the warehouse into a trailer full of TVs and other "stolen" goods. Presumably, at this point he was dead, though no information has been released describing his condition or the circumstances of his removal from the warehouse. Abdullah's body was photographed in the trailer and picked up by the Wayne County medical examiner, who then declined to release autopsy findings. The head of the local FBI office claimed that he was "comfortable with what our agents did" to protect themselves.
This whole murky incident with a still unfolding aftermath has caused deep anxiety and not a little anger in Detroit's African American and Muslim communities. Why was the imam shot in the back? Why was the dog given emergency medical treatment and the imam handcuffed and dragged around? Was he dead when the shooting ended? Did he even have a gun?
Was Abdullah's death an instance of score settling for his unrepentant association with Rap Brown, known as Jamil Abdullah al-Amin since the 1970s? In a conversation I had recently with a black leader in Philadelphia, he said that rumors are spreading on the street of nationwide interrogations of African American Muslims who, in the past, associated with al-Amin. (In Philadelphia, a mosque founded by civic-minded entrepreneur Kenny Gamble, well known for his efforts to assist the black community, has been attacked by anti-Islamic groups for its purported association with "The Ummah.")
Members of Abdullah's congregation and prominent Muslims in Detroit told me that Abdullah was indeed incensed by the poverty and racism he saw all around him and could indeed deliver harsh attacks on the government -- but that hardly distinguished him in a city as ravaged and beaten down as Detroit. Moreover, those who knew Abdullah insist that they never heard him promote any violent separatist effort on behalf of any organization.
National Islamic organizations, such as the Muslim Alliance in North America, insist as well that "The Ummah" is nothing more than an association of largely African American mosques. ("Ummah" is an Arabic term that refers to the Muslim community.) The alliance calls the FBI description of the Ummah "an offensive mischaracterization." (Abdullah El-Amin, an imam at the largest African American Detroit mosque, told the New York Times that he had heard Abdullah discuss a separatism that would be "sort of like the Pennsylvania Dutch have their own communities and stuff." There are similar comments from Abdullah in the criminal complaint.)
In any event, the indictment that followed Abdullah's death, naming 11 of his congregants and associates, makes no mention of radical politics or the shadowy "Ummah" or "offensive jihad" -- all highlighted in the earlier criminal complaint. The 11 were indicted as petty criminals, charged with selling and receiving stolen goods, tampering with vehicle identification numbers, and weapons offenses.
Many officials and organizations, including Congressman John Conyers, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, the local chapters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil-rights and advocacy organization, the ACLU, and the NAACP, have called for an investigation of the killing -- calls unanswered so far by the Obama administration. The U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division is reviewing the case. The state attorney general named a prosecutor to look into the matter after the FBI refused to hand over documents to the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office because, the bureau said, the documents were "classified."
In early June, Cyril Wecht, a well-known forensic pathologist asked by CAIR to review the autopsy findings (they were finally released in February), said Abdullah's face was pierced by wounds and lacerations consistent with a dog attack. His jaw was fractured. Wecht also said there were two gunshot wounds in Abdullah's back, not one. This prompted Wayne County Medical Examiner Carl Schmidt to defend his findings and accuse Wecht of emotionalism, according to a Detroit Free Press report. "We don't always say what others would like us to say," Schmidt commented. "We can only describe what we see."
As the wait for reviews and investigations and answers drags on, the immediate area served by Abdullah's mosque -- blighted, black, and destitute -- frays further, and is in danger of losing a small but critical social and economic resource. Abdullah ran a well-attended soup kitchen for years, worked to rid the neighborhood of gang violence, and sought to provide support for the poor, the homeless, and ex-convicts. His family and his depleted mosque are now struggling to keep the house of worship and soup kitchen going. Mosque attendance has plummeted and contributions, never robust, have evaporated; law-enforcement investigators continue to fan out through the community.
"People are still scared," said Omar Regan, one of Abdullah's 13 children, who makes his living as an actor, comedian, and motivational speaker based in Los Angeles. "They are still interrogating people. The more people push about injustice, the more they harass Muslims in that area [of Detroit]. My father took care of all these people. They leaned on him. He was a reason a lot of them didn't commit suicide. They came for food. For shelter."
Regan is incensed that the FBI provided the money to acquire stolen goods, the actual goods as well, and even the warehouses to store them in, while working out plans for moving the goods through informants and undercover employees clustered around Luqman Abdullah and the Masjid al-Haqq mosque. And now Omar Regan's father is dead.
"It's the FBI setting the whole thing up," he lamented. "How can that be legal?"
It's a question more and more people are asking as the war on terror grinds on, now directed by the Obama administration. If nothing else, the cases of the Newburgh Four and the Detroit Ummah Conspiracy show that street-smart accused conspirator James Cromitie knew what he was talking about when he said that chronically poor people will "do it for the money" and "don't care about the cause."
This simple fact underlies both the Detroit and Newburgh cases. The FBI contends that the Detroit sting was not about terror, but about mundane criminal activity. If that's the case, why was the criminal complaint larded with characterizations of Luqman Abdullah's supposed violent political views? What relevance does H. Rap Brown, now in prison, have to moving stolen goods in Dearborn?
Beyond that, what justification do federal authorities have for characterizing "the Ummah" as a threatening separatist movement? Many Muslim leaders argue that such a characterization is a fantasy akin to tales spun by the FBI's most imaginative informers. Both Newburgh and Detroit are, indeed, instances of "unterrorism," as the Newburgh judge said of the "plot" before her. Yet both are starkly framed by the on-going war on terror, both involve elaborate set-ups arranged by federal informers and covert agents, and both ensnared inept, virtually destitute black people scrambling to get by in post-racial America.
It remains to be asked: How expansive will the stage become for creative informers and their government directors now working the theater of the Great Recession?
[Note on sources: The criminal complaint for the Detroit Ummah conspiracy can be found in pdf file format by clicking here.]
Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His most recent book is Mohamed's Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland (Nation Books). Catch Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Salisbury discusses how terror cases are created via entrapment and informers by clicking here, or to download to your iPod, click here.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture, as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's (Haymarket Books).]