Eighteen year-old Muslim American Adel Daoud was arrested in Chicago on September 14 after a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) undercover sting operation, where he allegedly tried to set off a car bomb outside of a bar. The story reported by local Chicago news and other media outlets credited the FBI with thwarting a plot by an individual intent on killing Americans.
Daoud apparently had committed himself to violent jihad. According to the New York Times, the authorities said he was “enamored with Osama bin Laden.”
The New York Times left out the part where FBI undercover agents in the operation, pretending to be extremists, helped Daoud obtain what he believed to be explosives for the attack and pushed him to eventually pull the trigger that would have set off the bomb.
According to the Associated Press’s coverage, the FBI spent months spying and targeting Daoud. The FBI monitored Daoud’s activity in “jihadist Internet forums,” where he was apparently accessing articles written by US-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who the Obama administration had placed on a “kill list” and executed because of alleged ties to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The FBI monitored Daoud’s online activities and caught him searching for information on how to make bombs. He was also reading “Inspire,” an English-language online magazine published by AQAP. The AP does not indicate whether the online searches and accessing of articles took place before the undercover agents reached out to talk to him.
In May, agents “introduced him to another agent who claimed to be a terrorist living in New York.” This third agent met with him “six times in the suburb of Villa Park over the summer and exchanged messages.” Daoud then identified “29 potential targets, including military recruiting centers, bars, malls and tourist attractions in Chicago” and, when he settled on the bar, according to the FBI, he conducted surveillance using Google Street View and “visiting the area in person to take photographs.”
Daoud apparently told an agent about the location selected for bombing, “It’s a bar, it’s a liquor store, it’s a concert. All in one bundle,” and it would be filled with “kuffars,” or non-believers—the “evilest people.”
The teenager met up with an undercover agent after 7 pm in Villa Park on September 14. They drove downtown. Restaurants and bars were bustling with Chicagoans. Daoud and the agent went into a parking lot, “where a Jeep Cherokee containing the phony bomb was parked.” Daoud then parked the Jeep Cherokee in front of the bar, walked a block away and tried to detonate the bomb. After attempting to blow up the bar, he was arrested.
The entire operation, based on what the FBI put in the affidavit reported on by the AP, was a typical sting operation where a vulnerable person was targeted and the FBI invented a terror plot that this person could commit. According to Thomas Durkin, the teenager’s attorney, agents convinced Daoud to launch an attack by not only posing as terrorists but by also claiming imams overseas wanted him to engage in terrorism. This contradicted instructions Daoud was receiving from his imams, as they had said “violence ran counter to Islamic teachings.” They played “the imam card,” Durkin told reporters, and added, “I’ve never seen that before.”
What the Center for Human Rights & Global Justice (CHRGJ) at the New York University School of Law calls “the targeted and abusive use of paid informants in Muslim communities” received a full examination in a report the Center published in May 2011. It looked at how law enforcement has increasingly targeted Muslims as “potential threats” in the United States and how operations appear to be carried out under the following assumptions:
…Muslims are more likely to become terrorists; that American Muslims are increasingly being “radicalized” and compelled into committing violence in the name of Islam; and that counterterrorism policies should focus on identifying individuals who hold certain ideologies and exhibit certain behaviors as indicative of “radicalization” in order to stop them before they can act…
The case of Daoud seems to hinge upon what CHRGJ calls the myth of radicalization, “the view that American Muslims are increasingly being ‘radicalized’ into committing violence in the name of Islam.” For example, in 2007, the New York Police Department published a report, “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat,” that popularized “radicalization theories.” It likely formed the basis for launching widespread surveillance operations of Muslim communities, which the AP exposed through its Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting over the past year.
These theories are premised roughly on the notion that “the path to terrorism has a fixed trajectory and that each step of the process has specific, identifiable markers.” Yet no empirical, social scientific research supports the notion of a “religious conveyer belt” that predictably leads to terrorism. In fact, research suggests that there is no such process that can be identified with any confidence. Equally troubling, the so-called markers of radicalization are over-determinate and focused on Muslim religious practice in fundamentally discriminatory ways.
This notion that radicalization is identifiable has led to law enforcement using preventative policing. FBI guidelines pertaining to the recruitment of informants currently authorize the agency to place informants in communities where specific criminal activity is not suspected. Informants may also engage in conduct that might otherwise be illegal and there is no “unequivocal ban on entrapment.” (Prior sets of guidelines under former Attorney Generals John Ashcroft and Janet Napolitano did prohibit an informant from initiating “a plan or strategy to commit a federal, state, or local offense.” Alberto Gonzales removed the prohibition when he was Attorney General.)
Daoud’s case bears a similarity to the cases of the Newburgh Four, whom the FBI targeted because they were poor, Muslim and in need of money; the Fort Dix Five, who were targeted by the FBI after a Circuit City clerk turned in a vacation video of the men saying Allahu Akbar [God is Great]; and the case of Shahawar Siraj Martin, who was sixteen years-old and targeted by the NYPD, which used an informant who became a kind of father figure. The informant in Martin’s case showed Martin Abu Ghraib photos when they first became public and told him it was his “duty as a Muslim to do jihad in response.” In all three cases, the people were vulnerable individuals being targeted for their religious/political views.
What is not public is the extent to which the FBI pressured to follow through with the act. It certainly appears FBI informants planted the idea of launching an attack in Daoud’s mind but the extent to which Daoud developed the plot without the aid of FBI is not known yet. And, the FBI supplied Daoud with what he thought were the weapons he needed for the attack. Was he suggesting his intent to secure weapons for an attack prior to the FBI sending in any informants? These are the questions that should be asked.
It is easy to say Daoud should’ve known not to go and detonate a bomb outside of a bar. That is and should be undisputed. What is disputed, unfortunately, is whether it is acceptable for undercover agents to infiltrate the life of a person and spy on that person with paid informants or undercover agents, who exploit radical or unpopular views of a person and manipulate that person into agreeing to commit an act of terrorism.
Such conduct by law enforcement does not merely raise questions about whether human rights are being violated but also raises questions about the extent to which the FBI is expending resources and money to send people into communities—whether they be Muslim or African-American or activist communities—to invent terrorists. Moreover, the FBI’s decision to target and entrap someone whom they find lurking in a “jihadist forum” raises key issues about the chilling of freedom of expression.
What exactly was Daoud posting? Did he intend to commit imminent lawless action? Was he likely to engage in that action? It is not evident that Daoud’s actions on any forum advocated for any specific lawless act and, given that the undercover agents had to spend months developing a plot with Daoud, it is probably safe to presume Daoud was singled out because of how easy he was to target and not because he was prepared to launch an attack on a bar and needed to be thwarted immediately. Were that the case, the FBI could have just had Daoud arrested before anything dangerous happened.
In conclusion, freedom of expression or First Amendment issues exist. There’s a case to be made that Daoud was entrapped. Unfortunately for Daoud, the entrapment defense has not worked in any case since the September 11th attacks. Judges may display anxiety over the fact that agents were essentially creating terrorists, but, in the end, the judges and juries have all decided the individuals agreed to blow up explosives so they are criminals.