The prosecution of a 21-year-old Somali-American for attempting to detonate a fake bomb at a crowded Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in 2010 brings into sharp focus the often dubious tactics employed by US law enforcement agencies in their "war on terror".
Mohamed Osman Mohamud, whose trial on a charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction began last week in Portland, Oregon, was actively groomed by agents and supplied with a "bomb" housed in a van, which he tried to detonate using a mobile phone. He claims he is a victim of entrapment: that agents posing as international terrrorists psychologically manipulated him into committing the crime in an elaborate sting operation. His lawyer contends that the FBI "created a crime that never would have happened without them".
An FBI agent testifying at Mohamud's trial earlier this week reluctantly reinforced this narrative under cross-examination. He testified that there was no evidence that Mohamud, who was born in Somalia but grew up in suburban Portland, attempted to obtain explosives or searched the internet for information on bomb-making or explosives before meeting with undercover agents. He also admitted that a fellow agent had described Mohamud in an email as "conflicted and manipulable". The sting was launched merely because Mohamud was, as his defence lawyer readily admits, "radicalised".
Mohamud is not alone. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the FBI has been vigorously pursuing what its director Robert Mueller has described as a "forward-leaning - preventative - prosecutions" strategy, which involves targeting individuals who appear to be sympathetic to what the agency considers radical ideologies in elaborate sting operations.
FBI agents - or paid informants, often with criminal backgrounds - aggressively infiltrate universities, activist groups and mosques and try to persuade targeted suspects, some of whom have low IQs or psychiatric problems, to carry out attacks. They supply them with weapons and equipment, and help them to plan and launch "operations" they would otherwise not have the wherewithal, or in some cases any desire, to undertake. As Rick Perlstein of Rolling Stone put it, these are people who would be "unable to terrorise their way out of a paper bag without law enforcement tutelage".
Mike German, a former FBI agent who works with the American Civil Liberties Union and is an expert on counter-terrorism, told The Guardian newspaper: "We are still seeing an expansion of these tools. It is a terrible prospect. Most of these suspected terrorists [have] no access to weapons unless the government provided them. Most [real] terrorists have links to foreign terrorist groups and have trained in terrorism training camps. FBI resources should be spent finding those guys."
This tactic is extremely counterproductive because it alienates the very communities that law enforcement agencies depend on for information needed to address real terrorist threats, according to Karen Greenberg, a law professor at Fordham University in New York who specialises in FBI methods. She told The Guardian: "They are making mosques suspicious of anybody. They are putting fear into these communities."
In a New York University Center for Human Rights and Global Justice report on FBI infiltration tactics, the academic Smita Narula concurs: "The US government's continued focus on Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities in its counter-terrorism efforts infringes on fundamental human rights without furthering national security goals. These communities have suffered [years of] social scrutiny, bias and government persecution. The Obama administration and Congress should be leading efforts to defend their rights, rather than supporting pernicious discrimination and further disrupting these communities."
Mohamud is clearly a nasty piece of work and probably quite deluded, but targeting an individual in this way, essentially steering them in the direction of serious criminal behaviour merely because they are sympathetic to a radical ideology, is not only morally reprehensible but a colossal waste of law enforcement resources.