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[Editor's Note: To mark the 20th anniversary of the rise of the American security state after the September 11th attacks, The Dissenter presents a retrospective on this transformation in policing and government. Each entry in the series, "Twenty Years In A Security State," will connect with whistleblower stories where possible.]
The FBI spent the last two decades targeting potential informants based on their race, religion, and ethnicity. They also mapped and collected data on entire Arab, Muslim, and South Asian communities, regardless of whether they were specifically investigating a terrorism suspect in those communities.
Former FBI special agent Terry Albury is one of the very few people within the bureau, who challenged racial profiling, surveillance, and abusive informant recruitment practices.
Albury, who is a Black man, was prosecuted under the Espionage Act during President Donald Trump’s administration after he provided documents to the Intercept. He accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to about four years in federal prison.
A New York Times Magazine profile by journalist Janet Reitman detailed Albury’s life and career as an FBI special agent and what led to his disclosures.
“There is this mythology surrounding the war on terrorism, and the FBI, that has given agents the power to ruin the lives of completely innocent people based solely on what part of the world they came from, or what religion they practice, or the color of their skin,” Albury told Reitman. “And I did that. I helped destroy people, for 17 years.”
Albury was the only Black agent in the regional office for most of the time that he worked for the FBI’s terrorism squad in Minnesota. He was a special agent in the FBI’s Minneapolis Field Office from 2012 to August 28, 2017.
It was on February 19, 2016, that Albury shared screen shots of documents from a “counter-radicalization program known as Shared Responsibility Committees” (SRCs).
Reitman described the SRCs as an idea to “bring together local and federal law enforcement with various members of the community — imams, teachers, psychologists, coaches, social workers — to come up with intervention strategies to help “off-ramp” young people they feared might be radicalizing.”
Albury was concerned that SRCs were simply a shrewd way for the FBI to grow its network of informants by enticing local police agencies and nonprofit organizations with large sums of cash that could fund “community-engagement workshops” or other events.
As The Intercept reported, a “potentially violent extremist” could be referred to an SRC. The members would develop a plan to help the individual, whether that was through mental health or substance abuse treatment or housing and education. But the FBI was under no obligation to let members know if that person would remain under investigation. Nor were they required to inform the SRC if they planned to arrest or charge the person with a crime.
Any information shared with the FBI could be passed on by the bureau to other U.S. security agencies or even foreign government agencies while SRC members, as the Intercept noted, were required to sign confidentiality agreements. They had no legal protection, which contributed to fears that SRC members might be liable if an individual they helped engaged in violence.
Later that same year, Albury provided the Intercept with an internal presentation showing the FBI’s proposed plan for “infiltrating mosques and Muslim student associations” in order to recruit Yemeni students as informants.
The FBI wanted information from sources on al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but targeting individuals “based solely on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion or activities protected by the First Amendment, or a combination of only such factors” is supposed to be prohibited by the bureau’s guidelines.
The Intercept’s Cora Currier recalled how the FBI’s informant network grew to more than 15,000 following the 9/11 attacks. “ In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union obtained documents showing that the FBI had used ‘mosque outreach’ programs ostensibly meant to build relationships with Islamic communities in order to collect intelligence.”
With the perceived threat of the Islamic State, the FBI ramped up their reliance on informants and sting operations. From 2014-2016, there were more than 100 “Islamic State-related cases” in federal courts and over half of them involved confidential human sources or undercover agents, according to the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School.
'There Was Nothing Connecting The Kid To Terrorism'
By 2017, Albury provided the Intercept with screenshots of a cache of documents that reflected the incredible expansion of the FBI and the “secret rules” that agents followed while exercising great power within the United States.
One of the internal policy guidelines indicated profiling still occurred, despite Attorney General Eric Holder’s public opposition.
“Behind the scenes, the FBI had reportedly pushed back against any rules from Holder that would ban consideration of race, ethnicity, and religion in counterterrorism investigations,” Currier reported.
Guidelines contained loopholes that allowed for the cultivation of sources of a “particular ethnicity when investigating a terrorist organization made up of members of that ethnic group.” The FBI could focus on the demographics of a community when collecting intelligence, and FBI agents could specifically pursue informants in Somali communities to help them fight al Shabab in Somalia.
Also, the documents Albury provided showed the FBI will require a supervisor’s approval if an undercover agent or informant wants to pose as someone and join a religious, political, or academic group. However, if an FBI agent makes a determination that a group is “illegitimate” or an informant takes it upon themselves to spy on a group, then the guidelines may not necessarily matter.
Albury was part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Minneapolis and involved in developing informants. It often required him to target Somali immigrants, people who fellow agents derogatorily referred to as “skinnies.”
“In all his years as an FBI agent,” Albury shared, “[he] had never heard the sort of unabashed hatred for any group of people as he did for the Somalis, whom agents denigrated for their poverty, or their food, or the habit some Somali immigrant women had of tucking their cellphones inside their hijabs while shopping at Walmart or driving a car.”
Albury shared many details with Reitman from one investigation into the little brother of Adaki, an al Shabab fighter who traveled from Minnesota to Somalia. An informant code-named Cottonball worked with the FBI for a year and made “wildly contradictory claims” about this young kid. However, there was little that Albury believed he could do to help him so he was not “screwed for life.”
There was nothing connecting the kid to terrorism. Albury knew this after spending months completing a process known as ‘baseline collection’: scouring his social media, checking his phone records, running his name through the D.M.V. database as well as myriad other secret and top-secret government databases. But now his name was in the system. That meant any number of government agencies — the FBI, the CIA, the DEA, ICE — could have access to his file.”
"Now, any time he applied for a passport, or a job that required a background check, or a driver’s license, or simply had his name run through any sort of government database, for the rest of his life, it would show up that he’d been looked at by the FBI, which would inevitably be viewed as suspicious. That was what was so insidious about the process, Albury thought. And it wasn’t just this kid — there were thousands of Minneapolis Muslims in the system just like him and untold millions elsewhere in the country.
Albury’s job recruiting informants involved dangling the possibility of a green card if they worked for the FBI. He could also threaten to deport people who were unwilling to be informants. Yet another technique involved suggesting misinformation would be spread about them in the community if they did not collaborate.
“I don’t think anyone fully appreciates how demoralizing it is to be sitting across the table from a peace-loving man or woman from a foreign country, insinuating all kinds of baseless BS, attempting to coerce them to spy on their equally peaceful community, but it was also my job,” Albury said.
“What the FBI was directing us to do was to go into these communities and instill fear and then generate this paranoia within these people so that they know that they’re under suspicion perpetually.”
Creating A Database Of American Muslims
Albury further elaborated, “Say you’d get an alert from the CIA or some other intelligence source that an ISIS recruiter had been trying to recruit teenagers and young men from a specific Syrian refugee camp during a specific time period. This happened all the time. That would give the FBI license to look at every male Syrian refugee between certain ages who had been at that camp and then come into the United States after the time the recruiter was supposed to have been there.”
“And so the FBI would look at all of those kids, and they could keep looking at those kids, and their friends, and maybe all the kids in a 30-block radius because they could say they had ‘credible intelligence’ to suggest that some of these people had terrorist sympathies,” according to Albury.
Why would it be important for the FBI to have thick files on Arab or Muslim kids, who are entirely innocent? What purpose could that serve?
“It achieves ‘intelligence,’” Albury asserted. “And that is a nebulous, wonderful-sounding word that everyone likes to throw around, but based on my experience, the entire purpose of these assessments was to create a database of American Muslims.”
In 2013 and 2014, the CLEAR Project and Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit on behalf of American Muslims who refused to act as FBI informants and were placed on the No Fly List to coerce them into spying on their communities.
Muhammad Tanvir, a lead plaintiff, rejected multiple requests by FBI agents to work as an informant in Queens, New York. He contended it would have violated his religious beliefs. He also had no information to share. Tanvir later learned he was on the No Fly List and was instructed to speak with FBI agents. The agents were willing to remove Tanvir from the list so long as he became an informant.
CCR used the watchlisting guidance from the National Counterterrorism Center, which was released by drone whistleblower Daniel Hale to bolster their lawsuit alleging a violation of religious freedom and due process rights.
Over the following years, the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. On December 10, 2020, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a unanimous decision upholding the rights of American Muslims to pursue damages for the alleged violations of their religious freedom.
“A damages remedy is not just ‘appropriate’ relief as viewed through the lens of suits against Government employees. It is also the only form of relief that can remedy some [religious freedom] violations. For certain injuries, such as respondents’ wasted plane tickets, effective relief consists of damages, not an injunction.”
In other words, it was not enough to remove their names from the No Fly List. People like Tanvir had a right to their day in court against those responsible for the suffering they endured.
To Albury, this was vindication. “That Thomas, of all people, wrote the majority decision—that blew my mind,” and, “It made me feel like I actually accomplished something.”
Next in the series: Congress gives President George W. Bush a blank check for waging war