[Editor's Note: To mark the 20th anniversary of the rise of the American security state after the September 11th attacks, The Dissenter will spend the month of September presenting a retrospective on this transformation in policing and government. Each entry in the series will connect with whistleblower stories where possible.]
Following the September 11th attacks, an FBI whistleblower accused FBI Headquarters of failing to urgently respond to intelligence that pointed to a terrorism threat. It brought embarrassment to the FBI, and in the months to follow, the FBI transformed into a “preventative crime” agency.
FBI agents manufactured terrorism plots that they could then tell American citizens they thwarted. They would often prey upon young and impoverished Arab and Muslim men or even black men with no ties whatsoever to any terrorism group.
On May 21, 2002, former Minneapolis FBI’s chief division counsel Coleen Rowley sent a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller. She contended FBI headquarters prevented the office from obtaining a warrant against Zacarias Moussaoui to search his laptop.
He was arrested on August 16 by Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents on an immigration violation.
Moussaoui enrolled in August 2001 in the Pan-Am International Flight Academy in Eagan, Minnesota in August 2001. The flight school notified the FBI that Moussaoui “only wanted to learn how to take off and land the airplane, that he had no background in aviation, and that he had paid cash for the course,” according to an investigation by the Office of Inspector General for the Justice Department.
A federal district judge eventually approved a search warrant on September 11th for Moussaoui’s laptop after the attacks, and in Rowley’s memo she declared the “only main difference” between the information submitted to FBI headquarters for a warrant and the one the judge signed was the “fact that, by the time the actual warrant was obtained, suspected terrorists were known to have hijacked planes which they then deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.”
“[To say] that probable cause did not exist until after the disastrous event occurred is really to acknowledge that the missing piece of probable cause was only the FBI's (FBIHQ's) failure to appreciate that such an event could occur,” Rowley added. (The inspector general investigation maintained probable cause was not clear.)
During a congressional hearing in February 2006 on retaliation against national security whistleblowers, Representative Dennis Kucinich praised Rowley and stated, “Model employees are either ignored or told to keep their mouths shut. Their honesty is not rewarded but rather they and others in law enforcement, national security, and the intelligence community are punished through a systematic and harsh series of personal and professional retaliations.”
“There is absolutely nothing subtle about the retaliation which whistleblowers face. Scare tactics are used to enforce discipline to warn other potential whistleblowers against coming forward. National security whistleblowers are subject to harassment, to transfers or demotion or unrelated personal attacks about their sexual activities or personal finances. Instead of examining merits of allegations, the story becomes shifted to the whistleblower's conduct,” Kucinich recognized.
The FBI Promises Money To Destitute Black Men If They Engage In Terrorism
Around this time, the FBI was engaged in a sting operation in Miami against seven young black men, including two Haitian immigrants. The FBI accused them of planning to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago. They became known in the press as the “Liberty City Seven.”
But the group of men had no weapons. They had no ties to any terrorist group. They had no plot except for the one that was supplied to them by the FBI’s professional informant, Elie Assaad, who pretended to represent a cell of militants associated with al Qaida and Osama bin Laden.
Another FBI informant, Abbas al-Saidi, constantly put ideas in their heads and would laugh about it at his home.
Narseal Batiste, the leader of this group, strode around the poor neighborhood of Liberty City in a robe and with a wooden staff. He acted like he was a Moorish spiritual leader. Simultaneously, Batiste and the other men were trying to start a construction company and needed money.
In PBS FRONTLINE’s “In the Shadow of 9/11,” the targeted men tell their side of the story. They believed they could scam Assaad and take the money to help them deal with their troubles.
Batiste said, “I thought Abbas was an avenue to relinquish my financial difficulties. If I can just get the money, I can pay these immediate bills. That was the only thing that kept driving me, that if I get that one handful of money then it’s over with.”
Assaad told the men accused of conspiracy that they would help al Qaida blow up five FBI offices. They would perform reconnaissance so that the office in Miami could be attacked.
When Batiste was instructed by Assaad to give him a list of supplies needed to complete this operation, he asked for “knee-high boots” and “hand pistol machine guns.” He had no idea what to ask for and supplies he requested made zero sense.
On March 16, 2006, Assaad sat in a room and compelled the men to recite what he called an “al Qaeda pledge.”
“I am representing the sheikh Osama bin Laden. God’s pledge is upon me and so is his compact, and that I will be a soldier of the Islamic soldiers. And that I commit myself, along my brothers’ path on the road of jihad. You understand me, all of you. What’s clear. Now repeat after me,” Assaad proclaimed.
In June, the FBI conducted raids and arrested the seven men. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said, “Our philosophy here is that we try to identify plots in the earliest stages possible because we don’t know what we don’t know about a terrorism plot.”
Yet the FBI, and the prosecutors who prosecuted the men for “providing material support to terrorism,” knew the plot was effectively conceived by the agency through their informants.
The Justice Department went to trial three times. In 2007 and 2008, both juries deadlocked, and one of the men, Lyglenson Lemorin, was acquitted after the first trial. The U.S. government responded by deporting him to Haiti, and months later, when his 15 year-old son was killed on the highway while trying to help move a stalled vehicle, Lemorin was not permitted to attend his son’s funeral.
The third trial returned five guilty verdicts and another acquittal after two alternate jurors were brought in during deliberations. Batiste received a 35-year sentence while the other four received 10- or 15-year sentences.
Former FBI special agent and whistleblower Mike German reasoned, “Through 2005 and 2006, there had been a very heated debate over extending expiring provisions of the PATRIOT Act. So I think there was great pressure on the FBI to demonstrate both that there was still a powerful threat that existed inside the United States that justified the expanded surveillance authority and that the tools that they had been given through the PATRIOT Act were actually effective in identifying the plots."
A similar sting operation occurred in 2009 against the Newburgh Four. David Williams, a young black man with financial struggles, was offered "$250,000, several luxury cars, and financing for a barbershop,” if he helped a wealthy Pakistani businessman launch a terrorist attack against a synagogue in New York.
Shahed Hussain, who had a criminal record, was also a professional informant for the FBI. Hussain referred to Jewish people as the "root of all evil" and encouraged the men to behave in an anti-Semitic manner.
The Terror Factory Goes Camping
The FBI’s targets were not always young black or brown men living in poverty or dealing with social alienation. They could be someone like Adnan Mirza, who worked on cultural sensitivity training for the Houston Police Department about Islam.
As highlighted in a report from Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, in 2005 the FBI deployed an undercover agent named “Malik Mohammed” to pose as someone with a military background who had experience with hand-to-hand combat.
“On November 28, 2006, Mirza was arrested. After a four-day trial, the jury found Mirza guilty of all nine counts. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.”
Mohammed tagged along with Mirza, Jim Coates, and Kobie Williams when they went camping in Willis, Texas, “where they barbecued, shot at a shooting range, and engaged in discussions on a variety of topics, ranging from women to group travel to Afghanistan. Based largely on their conversation, the prosecution in the case against Mirza alleged that these were ‘training camps’ to prepare Mirza and his friends to go to Afghanistan and fight against U.S. forces.”
Coates, who worked with Mirza on a “Why Islam” campaign to confront negative stereotypes about Muslims, was a paid informant. He agreed to work for the FBI after he was stopped by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) in Big Bend National Park, and the CBP found weapons in his car.
The FBI’s informants encouraged the shooting and “military training.” They brought nearly all of the guns present at the camping site. They encouraged Mirza to practice shooting. They “suggested the idea of traveling overseas.” They made Mirza the “ringleader” by claiming he collected $1,000 from Williams and the informants that was supposed to go to the Taliban, though they had no evidence to back up this allegation.
While civil liberties organizations and human rights groups have partnered with universities or colleges to review this FBI practice, the U.S. Congress has refused to challenge the dozens of instances where the FBI manufactured the terrorism plots, which they later claimed in public were thwarted by their own agents.
All four presidential administrations—George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden—embraced preemptive prosecutions through coercive FBI sting operations.
In the time spent inventing terrorists, the FBI routinely missed individuals who posed threats: Faisal Shahzad (the “Times Square Bomber”), Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the “Underwear Bomber”), Major Nidal Hasan (the “Fort Hood Shooter”), Naser Abdo, who plotted to attack soldiers at Fort Hood, Khalid Aldawsari, a Saudi student who ordered chemicals to make a bomb, and Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Boston Marathon bombers).
Passengers on the plane thwarted Richard Reid, when he tried to blow up the aircraft by detonating a bomb in his shoe. Abdulmutallab was also stopped by airline passengers, who saw smoke, heard a pop, and subdued him.
Next in the series: Hundreds of Arabs or Muslims in the United States were rounded up after 9/11 attacks