In an editorial this week, the Washington Post cited Florida Center for Investigative Reporting Associate Director Trevor Aaronson’s story about how the FBI in Boston launched an elaborate sting operation against a suspected terrorist with a far-fetched idea and no capability for terrorism just as it stopped tracking Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Aaronson’s story, which was also published by Mother Jones magazine, described how since 9/11 the FBI has pursued through sting operations alleged terrorists of questionable danger and importance as it has failed to detect real terrorists:
Since the 9/11 attacks, the FBI has arrested more than 175 alleged terrorists using operations like the one in Boston that nabbed Ferdaus. In these expensive and elaborate stings, the targets often are men on the fringes of Muslim communities; many are economically desperate and some are mentally ill, and they are easily manipulated by paid informants and undercover agents.
But in the years since 9/11, several operational terrorists in the United States have gone unnoticed or have been overlooked by the FBI.
Faisal Shahzad, a 33-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan, delivered a car bomb to Times Square on May 1, 2010. Shahzad wasn’t on the FBI’s radar until that day, after a street vendor reported the suspicious vehicle. Fortunately, the explosives he’d assembled failed to go off.
Nidal Hasan, a U.S. Army Medical Corps officer, shot and killed 13 people at Fort Hood on November 5, 2009, even after the FBI investigated 18 emails he’d sent to Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Al Qaeda propagandist who was killed in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen. The FBI didn’t realize Hasan was a threat until it was too late.
And despite the FBI’s initial interest in Tsarnaev, the same became true with him and his younger brother in Boston.
Crediting Aaronson’s reporting, the Washington Post called for “a deeper look at the FBI’s approach to counterterrorism”:
[T]he FBI has devoted considerable resources to sting operations against people it judges to be terror suspects, sometimes on what look like dubious grounds. Mother Jones magazine reported this week that, at the same time the FBI was concluding that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was not a threat in 2011, it launched an elaborate sting operation in Boston against Rezwan Ferdaus, who eventually pleaded guilty to charges of plotting to attack the U.S. Capitol with a remote-controlled model airplane loaded with grenades. In his case as well as others, it’s not clear that a sometimes far-fetched plot would have gone forward without the encouragement and help of FBI informants.
As we said, not every plot by terrorists can be detected. Respect for civil liberties means that not everyone who visits a jihadist Web site or is the subject of an inquiry by another government can be placed under permanent surveillance. But it’s worth asking whether the FBI’s methods for identifying and following up on threats need refinement.
Aaronson is the author of a recently published book about terrorism stings, The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism, which expanded on his award-winning Mother Jones story “The Informants.” This morning, Aaronson talked about the Boston Marathon bombing investigation and his reporting on the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts on Democracy Now!: