Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Monday, February 20, 2012

How I Learned To Stop Worrying

Moroccan Terrorist Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Let The FBI Stop Its Own Plots.

Last week brought news of an attempted Capital Hill bombing plot. A Moroccan resident was planning on place a bomb somewhere in the Capital and kill at least 30 people. Expect he wasn't because in no way could he have. The entire time he was being monitored by the FBI in a playbook written by them, the suspect played the leading character, and delivered himself to the agents. The bomb was a dud.

Of course, this Moroccan is a dangerous religious extremist who made the conscious decision to execute a terrorist plot in order to deliberately kills innocent civilians. For that, he deserves the harshest punishment.

It is becoming a recurring headline where Americans are told about this or that domestic plot involving an American Muslim, citizen or resident, that was prevented at the last minute thanks to the FBI. The way it works is that the FBI finds some Muslim living in America with admittedly fundamentalist tendencies. They may have connected the individual with extremist websites, for instance. FBI agents then work over the individual (including providing material assistance) and induce them to undertake a plot drawn up by the agency. All the while the now initiated terrorist is under surveillance so while the culprit poses a threat - it is theoretical. There is no genuine threat when the entire scene is planned and the ending is scripted.

The FBI should, of course, monitor the activities of individuals engaged in suspect behavior. But not every such individual is a born terrorist. Some of these people are alienated, angry over American foreign policy, and many may suffer personal discrimination. Left to their own devices many of them may pose no threat. A lot of high schools kids fit the Columbine profile, but few are deranged enough to actually do anything expect feel miserable. This is why the agency often has to spend months playing to their anger and frustrations. Once convinced, they are given the material and walk right into agency hands.

In the 1990s, the Supreme Court addressed the legality of such tactics. Is is permissible for federal agents to entrap a suspect? The Court ruled in the affirmative provided that the suspect is given the opportunity to opt out. Therefore the suspect may be deemed a free agent.

These schemes are conducted by career ambitious agents eager to move up in the ranks and preventing, or appearing to, this or that terrorist attack is advantageous to one's advancement. They have an incentive to convince their suspects to carry out a plot rather than seeking to offer them console that may illuminate a peaceful venue for their (real or imagined) grievances. A last minute offer to ditch after months of crafting and internalization of rationale is likely to have few takers. The agency may know this and not mind. Thus the Supreme Court's qualification may be a mere caveat that does little to ameliorate the manipulation played by a federal agency.

This is not about going after committed terrorists. But about latching onto people who need genuine help, some of whom are really young, and instead of playing on their misguided views, agency personnel who worry about the trajectory of certain individuals should notify family and the locale Muslim community centers to offer that person the aid they need and, in addition, keep them under watch on the side of caution. But to string them along, to parlay extremist inquiry or tendencies into full-blown plots, for purposes of bureaucratic aggrandizement in announcing that the FBI has done another great job of stopping terrorists when the same end - aborting a potential plot - could have been averted earlier on is objectionable for three reasons. Isn't a common pronouncement that Muslims are not doing enough to stop "their" extremists?

1) It represents over-zealous state power that institutes structural manipulation. Individuals are agentive, but there is asymmetry in the relationship between the state and the lay suspect.

2) Otherwise rather innocuous people have their lives ruined. One such case involved a poor 20-year old descendent of Somali immigrants who may now face decades in jail after going along with an agency plot. It is, of course, speculation but not all agency plots would inevitable have risen on their own. As I write, many may be astray individuals. Not everyone who looks at extremist websites is determined to inflict violence. Some are just extremely lost and need proper direction. If given the right help, they may see both the abhorrence and futility of such crimes. Why play on them when the more humane thing is an intervention? I am not here talking about people who have initiated contact with terrorist groups, but the FBI often picks up suspects who have done nothing more than browse militant sites.

3) It further animates anti-Muslim prejudice. Americans are now seeing headlines about domestic plots with Muslims over here. When these plots are formulated they may ruin salvageable lives and certainly add to the fears of many Americans that the Muslim down the corner may be a terrorist, or at least one ready to go off at any moment. Anti-Muslim animus is already being fanned by professional agitators, and there are enough Muslim terrorists to play into the former's propaganda, the last thing needed is the government needlessly creating its own. The fact that the plots are coordinated is rarely made salient in the press.

There is, I suspect, little sympathy for this view among many, if not most, Americans. The common reaction may be that if they're looking at suspect websites, they were liable to do something at one point, so the hell with them. But what many may fail to see is that unrestrained power is indiscriminate. It is easy to be indifferent when "the Muslims" are victims, but the undermining of rights will easily sting other Americans. The aforementioned Supreme Court case involved an African American man convinced to undertake a drug trade. Once a precedent is set, state employees - who are embedded with the same vain and greed calculations as all people - may turn that power against any foe. If a Muslim who looks at extremist websites may be given encouragement and material to undertake a terrorist act, why not convince a determined environmentalist to burn down a SUV car lot? Why not find bullied kids and convince them to go after their classmates? It is not that these individuals are helpless victims of state power, but there is the relation of power and manipulation that favors the state.

For all parties concerned, there is a better path that will stop committed terrorists, offer aid to alienated individuals, and build trust between American Muslims and the agency. And avoid the headlines that only add and cement prejudice.

Post Script: I normally would identify myself by name. But I will decline this time. You see the NYPD has been spying on Muslim students in the area and their tips are such innocuous matters as a rafting trip. Perhaps criticism of FBI policies would be cause for a (warrantless, I surmise) wiretap. Of course, such a matter would prove that I am NOT a terrorist since this is about as violent as I get.

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