On August 8, 2013, Jordan Nicole Furr met with someone she almost certainly thought was a friend, most likely somewhere near Austin, Texas. The subject at hand was her husband, Michael Wolfe, who also went by the name Faruq. “[H]e just wants to hop into Syria. He’s just ready to die for his deen,” Furr said—using an Arabic word for faith or religion—according to a criminal complaint filed by the FBI. “He’s ready to die for someone. For something.”
Unwittingly, Furr was speaking with an undercover FBI agent, one of two involved in a sting operation against her and her husband. During the next ten months, Wolfe and Furr repeatedly talked to the two agents in person and over the phone, concocting a plan to travel to Syria and fight jihad. By July 2014, Michael Wolfe would be arrested for material support of terrorism: specifically, attempting to go to Syria to join the Islamic State (ISIS).
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, recently said that around 180 people have attempted or succeeded in traveling from the United States to Syria, though not all have joined militant groups. Wolfe is among the failed attempts: at least 26 Muslims who have been arrested in the United States for trying to travel abroad to join a militant group in recent years, according a report from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. Most of them were allegedly attempting to get to Syria to join ISIS; others, to join Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria or Yemen.
U.S. officials regularly tout the dangers of domestic terrorists and lone wolves. “Homegrown violent extremists continue to pose the most likely threat to the homeland,” Clapper told a Senate committee in February. FBI Directory James Comey echoed that line when addressing another Congressional committee: “The threat from homegrown violent extremists is of particular concern.” Media tend to repeat those claims on face value. An ABC report on Wolfe’s paraphrases unnamed law enforcement officials who posit that “young men and women could possibly return home [from Syria], freshly trained in deadly operations, and unleash havoc on the homeland.”
Homegrown. Homeland. The FBI wants you to remember where it’s fighting this battle. The Bureau has evolved from an agency focused on law enforcement to one focused on counterterrorism, which now commands $3.3 billion annually, or 40 percent of the total operating budget, according to a 2014 report from Human Rights Watch. Busts like Wolfe's help the Bureau justify the billions spent on preventing terrorist attacks.
Yet a close examination of Wolfe’s case, as well as numerous similar cases, call into question the threat posed by homegrown extremists. The recent cases, taken as a whole, describe an intelligence agency indulging in borderline entrapment. The FBI is conflating jihadi fanboys on social media with serious threats to national security; to make cases, the FBI relies heavily on paid informants acting in their own self-interest. The feds are flexing to show they can prevent terror attacks—a mission only made more difficult when the Bureau overreaches, sowing suspicion in communities it is tasked with protecting.
Prior to his departure, Wolfe waffled about his decision to make the trip, and at times in the complaint he comes across as unsure of his plan. “It’s not that I don’t want to go, it's just that I need to figure out the best situation,” he tells one of the undercover agents. Later, the complaint states: “Wolfe indicated he had struggled with whether to stay or go.” Getting the money together for the tickets was a major obstacle for him as well. The second coming of Ramzi Yousef, he wasn't. He is, however, facing up to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to attempting to join ISIS.
Since 9/11 the FBI has repeatedly used informants to manufacture plots for targets who would never have been capable of carrying them out on their own. “Of 508 defendants prosecuted in federal terrorism-related cases in the decade after 9/11, 243 were involved with an FBI informant, while 158 were the targets of sting operations,” writes Trevor Aaronson, a journalist who has studied the FBI’s use of informants. As the enemy du jour has shifted from Al Qaeda to ISIS, the practice still appears to be common in FBI terrorism arrests.
In at least a dozen recent terrorism busts, confidential informants or undercover FBI agents were intimately involved in crafting travel plans or violent plots that the suspects would later be arrested for. In many cases, the suspect’s illegal conduct took place only after an informant or undercover agent appeared. An analysis of court documents in more than a dozen cases shows the arrest of three bumbling Brooklyn would-be jihadis in February is only the most recent example of the FBI overhyping a threat that was largely of its own making. And though the practice of using informants and undercover officers to ensnare unsuspecting Muslims is widely criticized by civil liberties groups, the FBI hasn't faced any official sanctions for its reliance on the practice.
“What the FBI can’t do is treat terrorism cases as fundamentally different [from other cases]—to use their own agents and informants to manufacture reasonable suspicion for a crime,” says Naureen Shah, director of the security and human rights program at Amnesty International USA. “They’ve got a hunch, or a suspicion, and so they send in an informant in some of these cases to produce the evidence that in another case would be the evidence they were waiting for.”
Social media seems to be the FBI’s preferred way into the latest batch of would-be jihadis. Many of the criminal complaints list Facebook or Twitter entries that tip off the Bureau and evince a criminal disposition, thus hampering any future entrapment defense. The FBI’s heavy scrutiny of social media tracks with a broader phenomenon of law enforcement trolling Facebook and Twitter for perceived threats that range from anti-gang initiatives to surreptitiously befriending activists for illegally questionable surveillance. ISIS's savvy on social media only increases the FBI’s interest in monitoring those platforms. The group “has proven dangerously competent at employing such tools for its nefarious strategy," FBI Director James Comey said at the congressional hearing.
But investigating online loudmouths can result in cases with more smoke than fire. Take the case of Mufid Elfgeeh. Elfgeeh was arrested in September 2014 for allegedly sending money to a Yemeni man to help him travel to Syria, for attempting to facilitate travel of two New York men—both FBI informants—to fight alongside ISIS, and plotting to kill U.S. veterans. But he only took those actions after one of the two FBI informants had been working him for about a year.
In early 2013, that informant—who has been working with the Bureau since 2000—told the FBI about Elfgeeh’s inflammatory Twitter posts, and was ultimately paid more than $21,000 for his work on the case. Additionally the FBI “made an informal request to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for visitor visas for five of CS-1’s family members.” Just how hard the informant pressed Elfgeeh in evolution from Twitter warrior to low-level ISIS recruiter isn’t clear, but he had strong incentives to make sure Elfgeeh ended up in handcuffs.
A second FBI informant in the case was paid $7,000, and repeatedly pressed Elfgeeh to provide proof that killing U.S. soldiers returning from war overseas was religiously permissible. Neither informant knew the other was working with the FBI.
Chris Cornell, the Ohio man who made headlines for his alleged plot to bomb the U.S. Capitol, was similarly pulled into the FBI’s orbit by an informant “who began cooperating with the FBI in order to obtain favorable treatment with respect to his criminal exposure on an unrelated case," according to the criminal complaint. The FBI paid an informant to ensnare Nicholas Teausant after he posted on Instagram and other social media that (all sic) he “despise[d] america and want its down fall.” Teausant repeatedly told the informant that although he wanted to fight in Syria, he had no idea how to get there. When the informant asked Teausant what group he wanted to join, Teausant responded, “I like ISIS,” though he forgot what the name stood for. “Islamic state of um crap … I forget. Islamic State of Al Sham,” he said, according to the criminal complaint.
Another recent arrestee, Basit Javed Sheikh, has said in court that believed he was traveling to Syria to marry a nurse with Jabat Al Nusra, who was in fact an FBI informant. In subsequent pre-trial hearings, Sheikh was found to be incompetent to stand trial and ordered hospitalized for 120 days to “restore his competency or to determine whether there is a substantial probability that his competency will be restored in the foreseeable future.”
Some of the less sophisticated arrestees elicit more pity than fear. Shannon Conley, a Denver teenager recently sentenced to four years in prison after pleading guilty to material support of ISIS, repeatedly told openly identified FBI agents that she was planning to break the law and join ISIS. Her cluelessness mirrors the three Brooklyn men who openly opined about killing President Barack Obama to identified FBI agents.
Others are teenagers, for whom decades in prison may not be humane or wise. Thomas Durkin, a lawyer for Mohammed Hamza Khan, a young man from Bolingbrook, Illinois, attempted to cast his client’s behavior not as high treason, but merely a teenager’s confusion about his religious obligations. In a pretrial hearing, he praised Denmark’s “deprogramming” practice as more progressive than anything in the United States: “I would submit that that’s the approach that needs to be taken here.”
Denmark’s approach to extremist disengagement and reintegration into society contrasts with the draconian approach of many Western European countries. “What’s easy is to pass tough new laws,” Allan Aarslev, a Danish law enforcement official, told the Guardian. “Harder is to go through a real process with individuals: a panel of experts, counseling, healthcare, assistance getting back into education, with employment, maybe accommodation. With returning to everyday life and society. We don’t do this out of political conviction; we do it because we think it works.”
Shah, of Amnesty International, agrees that’s the proper approach. “If the U.S. government believes that certain youth in communities are at risk of this behavior, and they want to direct programs at what they believe is a threat, based on scientific evidence, then they ought not to have the FBI taking the lead,” she said. “It should be social services-oriented agencies.”
Durkin, the defense attorney, also highlighted the discrepancy in treatment between Connelly, the Denver teen who the FBI tried to talk about of traveling to Syria, and his client. “But I’d like to know how it is that Shannon Conley gets reported to her parents, and Hamzah Khan gets arrested. I’d like them to justify that,” he said in a pre-trial hearing. “And I don't think there is any justification for it other than the obvious.”
Beyond questionable investigative tactics, the drumbeat over homegrown extremists obscures, rather than clarifies, the threat they pose. The likelihood of Al Qaeda or ISIS launching a massive attack inside the United States is “infinitesimal,” according to the Washington Post, yet a recent poll found 86 percent of Americans now see ISIS as a threat to U.S. security.
That perception, however, is based largely on a myth. The Triangle Center’s report states that publicly available information does “not indicate widespread recruitment of Muslim-Americans by transnational terrorist organizations to engage in attacks in the United States, or sophisticated planning by the handful of individuals who have self-radicalized.”
Despite the hype, there’s a good chance that the latest would-be jihadi is more hapless wannabe than violent terrorist. “As public debate continues over terrorism, it is worth keeping these threats in perspective,” the report concludes. “Terrorists aim to instill fear disproportionate to their actual capabilities to generate violence, and to provoke social and policy overreactions that they can use in their recruitment efforts.” As the FBI gins up its own disproportionate reactions to these alleged threats, it should heed the warning.