HELPING HAND

On Wednesday we saw the latest in the long line of Foiled Terrorist stories that pop up intermittently. A lone 21 year old man hatched a plot to blow up the New York Fed with what he thought was a half-ton bomb. The bomb supplier, of course, was an undercover FBI agent. We have seen this script play out many times, and it always ends with law enforcement and Dick Cheney and your right-wing uncle reminding us that, you see, They are still trying to kill us.

It is indisputable that the suspect in this case is, by intent alone, a criminal and I'm glad law enforcement was able to intercede. It is fair to ask, however, how real the danger is in these situations. There are tens of thousands of lone wolf nutbars out there, from Islamic terrorists to bunker-dwelling survivalists and white supremacists. Many of them have the intent to commit this kind of act and their heads are likely full of various "plots" and schemes to strike at their enemies. The overwhelming majority – 99 percent plus – never advance beyond the idea stage, and 99% of the ones that progress beyond that point fail due to a lack of money, equipment, or sufficient intelligence to hatch a workable plot.

Of the remarkably small fraction that remain – people who are really, actively attempting to execute a terrorist attack – would any of them even get close to completion without undercover law enforcement showing up to offer, remarkably enough, whatever the plotter happens to need in terms of weapons or supplies? Would this guy plotting to blow up the Fed ever have managed to get his hands on a real bomb, or did he walk into a law enforcement trap specifically because he couldn't figure out how to get one?

These cases follow the same pattern and leave themselves open to the same question: Are these people "real" terrorists, capable of executing a plot of any complexity, or are they wannabes, so clueless that they couldn't knock off a liquor store until the FBI came waltzing in to offer them bombs, vehicles, technical skills (bomb-making manuals, etc) and other things they wouldn't otherwise get? Logically, if it is possible to get thousand-pound bombs (real ones) from some terrorist source there would be a greater number of terror attacks. I mean, law enforcement couldn't intercept and halt all of them. Some plotters would end up getting their "bomb" from the FBI but others would acquire a real one from a real criminal/terrorist.

The fact that this is not happening suggests that the only people out there offering to make 1000 pound bombs available to terrorists are…undercover FBI agents. People have almost exclusively fear- and gut-based reactions to the dangers posed by terrorism so it's no surprise that we don't think very deeply about these cases. It is worth asking, though, just how much danger this person actually presented on his own without the helping hand of the FBI. Did we just have a narrow miss from a major terrorist attack? Or did we just arrest a person with evil intentions that would never have materialized if left to his own resources?

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36 Responses to “HELPING HAND”

  1. Middle Seaman Says:

    Helping hand by your friendly FBI agent goes beyond terror and covers drug cases as well. In hidden labs, the FBI is now working on ways to entrap bankeers, mortgage brokers and, hopefully after November, Bain Capital outsourcers.

    Al Qaida, the sender of the above mention 21 year old village boy, behave inexplicably moronic sending time and again inept operatives who stick out like a sore thumb. Devising the ultra sophisticated 9/11 was probably a flock atypical to them.

    Why not arrest the boychick when he arrives and send him right back? Wouldn't that be the more prudent approach?

  2. LK Says:

    With FUD being a commonly used policy tool, why not assume this is the intention? When you "flood" the news with "bogus" terrorist interceptions (the scare-quotes are there because we can't prove entrapment), you make people more afraid of terrorists (and as a side-benefit, more likely to report suspicious activity should they happen to see it), while at the same time giving law-enforcement the appearance of competence. This means they can all sit on their butts when a real terror attack comes along (one they couldn't have prevented, because it was planned and executed well enough compared to their actual preventative actions), and point to their list of "successes" saying "hey, look, we're actually good at it, but this one slipped by us".

  3. Blakenator Says:

    A closer look at almost every advertised "terrorist" attack since the original 9-11 reveals what looks like FBI "engineering" to a cynic like me. Probably the most outrageous one was the Florida gang who wanted to blow up something in Chicago. Except they had no ideas, no money, and no bomb until the inevitable FBI informant provided. You're right about the average American: nobody ever wants to actually look under the hood before they buy it. Of course, the worthless excuse for a press we have are the real enablers.

  4. Major Kong Says:

    "To ask the question is to know the answer"

    – Buddha, or Mark Twain or Yogi Berra or somebody.

  5. ABK Says:

    I've discussed this with colleagues often enough to come to the conclusion that actually executing an effective terror attack (especially in our city, which has one of the EU's largest ports) would not be terribly difficult for a small team, given the right amount of luck and planning. In the end, we think that it comes down to the fact that terror doesn't attract the right kind of human capital, but instead the lone wolf nutbar survivalists, supremacists, and extremists that Ed mentions, with dreams of epic revenge or glorious martyrdom. That tends to rule out experienced operatives, pragmatic planning, or even slightly strategic target selection (blowing up utilities/transportation facilities isn't as sexy as THE FED).

  6. c u n d gulag Says:

    You know, I just had a thought (almost always a stupid one – sometimes a dangerous thing):
    What if 9/11 was a plot that the Bush mis-Administration knew all about, and helped along, so they could seem like hero's?

    Maybe they arranged the flight training, gave these lunatics the box-cutters, arranged for the planes to be loaded with gas, and drove the soon-to-be captured terrorists to the airport?

    And then, with the usual degree of competence they exhibited for the remaining 7+ years (NOT!!!), things got unhinged somewhere along the line.

    So, there's W., reading to some kids about some pet goat, waiting to be told the news that a terrible terrorist attack to blow-up the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the Capital Building, had been thwarted, and that he, and Dick, and Condi, were hero's!

    And then, instead of having it whispered in his ear that the attack had been thwarted, he hears that it has succeeded – except for the plane that crashed in PA, and W. realizes that the goat he was reading about wasn't the only one in the room.
    Maybe that explains the dumb, WTF look on his face.

    Food for thought, no?***

    ***HA! JUST KIDDING!!!
    I think…

  7. Both Sides Do It Says:

    Are we going to end up like this? Us Gen-Xers and Millennials (and uh I guess those reading this that are young at heart)? Unable to see even the most basic workings of institutional self-interest? Responding again and again to outlandish racial threats that don't pass the laugh test with knee-jerk jingoism? Refusing to even acknowledge the tradeoffs that get taught in middle school? And should we be too cynical about brown-person terrorism for it to be an effective cudgel, what even more obscene workings of our national institutions will we be cheering and feeling thankful for at our own expense?

    Why do people who fell for this once – and realize that they were taken – fall for it again, for lower stakes? Is it habitation? Does getting under your desk to prepare for a Rooskie bomb just break down the minimum amount of self-respect required to treat this shit with the response it deserves? Are human beings just that fucking weak? Willing to bleat approval at whatever shadow security tableaux gets played out in front of their dull cow eyes, no matter how contrived?

    Do we need more or better blogs? Poets? Artists? Less economic inequality, or more job security, or true universal health care? Another PAC? More and better Democrats? More tumbrels? Thicker communities? More meaningful lives? Or is the only thing left to pray that there's intelligent life somewhere out in space because there's bugger-all down here on Earth?

  8. comrade x Says:

    Whenever I hear of these " foiled plots" I think of Julia's response to Winston Smith when he asks her if she thinks The Resistance is real:

    " None of it is real."

  9. Talisker Says:

    You don't have to be the sharpest tool in the box, or need access to any exceptional knowledge or materials, to make a highly destructive fertilizer bomb. Oklahoma City demonstrated that.

    But if you're a wannabe terrorist who is just clever enough to be dangerous, you might well decide the easier option is to team up with this guy who says he sympathises with your cause and knows a lot more about bomb making than you do. Your new ally turns out to be an undercover FBI agent, and you go to jail. Simple.

    If the FBI didn't bother to do this, then some non-zero percentage of these wannabes would go to the effort of making their own bomb. Or perhaps they would just kill their innocent neighbours while attempting to make one. Either way, it's not a desirable outcome.

    Of course the cry of "ZOMG foiled terrorist attack they want to kill us cause of our freedoms!!!111!!!!" is often misused for political purposes. There's also a question over how aggressive law enforcement should be in mounting these sting operations, but I am not against them in principle.

  10. Sluggo Says:

    OK.They entrapped someone with Al Qaeda ties and are sending him to prison. Best case, that gets one guy off the street. Now we gotta foot the bill to keep this guy locked up for the 20-50-70 years. They gotta do better.

    For christsakes, did they lose all the spy vs spy training manuals from the Cold War. He knows people! Turn him!! Double Agent material here!!!! This is about as smart as eating your bait. At least, try to catch the big fish.

  11. Jeff Says:

    I suppose the providing people with the (nominal) materials to carry out the attacks they "want" to do is one way of making sure they don't settle for the attacks they're actually capable of on their own – such as getting a gun and shooting up a shopping mall or public landmark or something.

  12. Monkey Business Says:

    What they're doing is a pretty common tactic in the security world. It's called using a honeypot.

    For those of you that are unfamiliar with the term, a "honeypot" is something too good to pass up placed outside a security perimeter for the purposes of observing attack methodology and ensnaring potential attackers.

    In my field, information security, it's occasionally a server that appears to be unprotected and loaded with valuable information, placed inside the network firewall but not behind the second internal firewall. It looks like a relatively common configuration error, but in actuality it's a low-risk way to observe and identify potential attackers.

    In the FBI's case, they're offering material and expertise the potential terrorists would not otherwise be able to get, or at least not as easily or readily.

    Personally, I'd rather have the FBI take the stupid terrorists off the streets using things like honeypots, and let them focus their real attention on the guys that aren't quite so dumb.

  13. Michael Says:

    The FBI created a plot from nothing, and then solved it. Job well done!

    There was no bomb – ever. There was no Al Qaeda – ever. There was no threat – ever. At no point did anyone involved have a weapon of any sort.

    Basically the FBI goes into chatrooms and stirs up trouble until they find a stupid, vaguely disgruntled individual who is susceptible. Then they trick him into committing some act – any act at all – which he believes is in furtherance of a terroristic activity, which is all that is needed for a conviction and a decades-long prison sentence.

    Imagine a security guard goes to a placid herd of cows in a field. He hits them with a stick, for hours at a time, until one of them tries to kick him. Then he shoots the cow, and goes back to the farmer, and tells him: I protected you from a rogue cow that was trying to kill us all! That's the modern FBI.

    You the taxpayers are paying probably something in the neighborhood of ten million dollars just for this one guy. All the taxes that you and all your friends have ever paid in your entire lives just went to this operation, to entrap, try, and imprison someone who was never a threat to anyone. Why not just light the ten million dollars on fire? At least you could keep a homeless person warm for a couple of hours.

  14. ladiesbane Says:

    It would be easy to join the armchair quarterbacks in the Game On Terror, but the fact is that I don't have enough data. Are we going by popular "news" (the weird margarine of journalism we denigrate so often)? Are we going by FBI press releases, arguably created to whip up fear to increase their funding? Whether its bombs or guerrillas or plots (or trumped up pap injected with those triggery word-drugs), we have no clear, complete, correct idea of what is actually going on.

    How each of us is inclined to react in the absence of facts (MOAR GUNZ! or GOVT CONSPIRACY! or PFFT FUCKEMALL, etc.,) might indicate something about us, or our general take on the topic, but having a reaction to a trigger still doesn't mean we know jack.

  15. tdd Says:

    There is a solid Radiolab story on this.
    http://www.radiolab.org/blogs/radiolab-blog/2012/jun/04/grumpy-old-terrorists/

    " We're left wondering how seriously to take these guys–are they really would-be terrorists, or just trash-talking senior citizens? US Attorney Sally Yates weighs in, and Dina Temple-Raston, counterterrorism correspondent for NPR, tries to help us get our bearings, but in the end, we're left with an unsettling question: does catching men like this really make us feel any safer?"

  16. Pat Says:

    "It is indisputable that the suspect in this case is, by intent alone, a criminal and I'm glad law enforcement was able to intercede."

    Look, I get it: You're about to make a logical and therefore one-sided brief against the ever-increasing security state, so you need to issue this caveat up front, to make sure no one mistakes you for being On the Side of the Terrorists. But it's patent nonsense I'm sure you know some lawyers or first-year law students who can explain to you that "intent alone" does not, cannot, make someone a terrorist. We don't arrest people for their thoughts or intentions in the absence of acts; the showing of intent is often necessary for a criminal conviction, but it is never sufficient. (In One-L speak, this is the requirement of actus reus along with mens rea.)

    And you're making your case far too timidly. This kid was 21 years old and pissed off—quelle surprise. If he hadn't met an FBI undercover, he would have graffitied a bridge or gotten mouthy in a bar. Or take Jose Padilla—the guy wasn't within a light year of the technical knowledge on how to make a dirty bomb, but we said he wanted to, so then we had to hold him in sensory deprivation until his mind was destroyed. (Our penal institutions are more Arkham, Mass., than Arkham Asylum, it seems.) Or take the shoe bomber, or underwear bomber; both of these guys were incompetent jokers who succeeded in burning themselves and nothing else, but now I have to take off my shoes and get photographed naked every time I fly. And so does everyone else. It serves no practical purpose—deep down, we know it serves no practical purpose. We go along with it because… well, I'm not really sure how to finish that sentence. That we go along with it, I suppose, is all that matters.

  17. Chicagojon Says:

    Hrm.

    If there's intelligent life on other planets why haven't they contacted us?

    If there are terrorists lining up to commit terror why are the only real or 'stopped' bomb plots led by CIA entrapment officers?

    Of course terror sells a lotta tickets — everybody loves a good war Bob

  18. Mo Says:

    Actually had a case in Alaska like this.

    "did we just arrest a person with evil intentions that would never have materialized if left to his own resources?"

    The people in the Alaska case were plotting to murder a judge and his children. The FBI informant did draw them out, but their trial left the jury convinced that an awful crime had indeed been averted by their arrest, and so they were convicted.

    http://www.themudflats.net/?p=32876

  19. mel in oregon Says:

    we don't have enough data as ladiesbane says. we do know 9-11 & the ok city bombing were committed by terrorists who cared nothing for the people they killed. but so many americans seem unaware that the united states kills thousands of innocents every year. a little story from 7 years ago. about 35 years ago my wife's friends at work chartered a greyhound bus to reno. it was very nice, very comfortable seats, plenty of room, stopping at very nice restaurants, allowing plenty of time to enjoy a relaxed meal. so as dumb as i am, i thought a regular unchartered greyhound bus to reno would be the same. nope, first we stood in line for over 30 minutes to get wanded & frisked. now we aren't wealthy, but we were probably 10 times as well off as the next wealthiest person on the bus. it was old black people in their 70s, who you could tell had been hurt their whole life by a system that cared nothing about them. there were latino field workers that had no idea what 9-11 was. then there were a few poor white people who again were defeated by a system that didn't give two hoots about them. the drivers were all rude, arrogant, just nasty. we would stop at convenience stores & have 10 minutes to eat & get back on the bus. the seating was cramped & dirty. at 3:00 am in sacramento everyone had to get out for 45 minutes while they cleaned the bus. the crazy part was, everyone on the bus didn't throw anything on the floor or create any more dirt, they were all very courteous, unlike the drivers. of course all the stores very locked, as were the bathrooms. my wife said she knew this would be the way it was. so i guess women are smarter than men, they certainly can see through romney much better than men. needless to say, we won't ever go greyhound again.

  20. mothra Says:

    Dina Temple-Raston, counterterrorism correspondent for NPR
    Oh, you mean the reporter who simply repeats whatever the government tells her and doesn't really bother to question anything? Yeah. I am sure she is full of insight.

    Have to tell you folks–I have worked on material support of terrorism cases and the lies and bullshit from our government are not to be believed. Really, really depressing. But, since they classify everything, they make sure all that stuff stays a secret. So, no, don't believe ANY of the shit that is reported about these potential "terror" suspects/plots. Michael's version is probably spot on.

    And remember this: the smart terrorist, the one who succeeds, is TOTALLY clued in to the FBI's techniques by now. So they are not going to be accepting any offers to be hooked up with a bomb by some "sympathetic new pal" who just materialized.

  21. BruceJ Says:

    I'm seriously starting to wonder if these amazingly omnipresent 'FBI informants' are cousins of 'Fuzzy Dunlop' that remarkably well-informed informant that featured in a number of episodes of 'The Wire'…aka the mysterious black boxes they've installed in the nation's telecom systems…

  22. Lit3Bolt Says:

    The FBI and CIA are pleased with their 1000-lb-terrorist-bomb program, and it's working much better than their Italian-bolt-action-rifle program they tried 50 years ago.

  23. JazzBumpa Says:

    I've always wondered why anyone thought 9/11 was a sophisticated operation.

    All they needed were cell phones, box cutters (or any other crude weaponry), flight schedules, and a cadre of suicidal martyrs.

    I'm deadly serious. After enough flight training to steer a plane that's already in the air, all they had to do was compare commercial flight schedules, buy tickets, and then storm the cockpits.

    Any three of us could do planning at that level, over pizza and a kegerator.

    JzB

  24. ladiesbane Says:

    JazzBumpa, that is exactly why so many people get worked up about things such as this.

    Some people react to single events of massive disruption by taking steps which may or may not prevent future events, but which palliate their stress. (Or which combine with other fears to entrench and amplify the anxiety, making it a part of their normal world.)

    Other people, especially people not directly affected by the catastrophe, are insensitive to that anxiety, but also have better perspective. Yet for some reason telling victims, Hey, relax, how often does that happen? doesn't calm them down.

    That's where facts come in handy. We now have a for-profit media invested in whipping up reader emotions (especially fear, panic, and prurience) for the sole purpose of sales. We need facts integrated with context and history, presented in clean prose, to develop grounded opinions and meaningful discernment.

  25. Robert Says:

    If it hadn't been for FBI infiltrators, the CPUSA (M-L) would have disbanded in the 1950s – not enough dues-paying members.

  26. Bernard Says:

    yes, idiots who would fall for planted FBI agents show how this was just a plain low level "gotcha" to keep all us Americans "scared." if you ever read the comic "Spy vs Spy," you have more knowledge than this dumb ass or the other idiots and their "plots." i mean, get real. but if you did get real, well. the scam would be over.

    bread and circuses to keep us busy while they steal it all.

    the appearance of this whole affair is that this looks like another set up by the FBI/Homeland to keep us scared. and it works. i would guess determined terrorists aren't dumb enough to risk blowing an operation like this idiot did. if they hate us taht much they won't succumb to easy marks or fall for "help" from closeted FBI Homeland agents. the marks would be sacrificed and the operation would continue. just read Tom Clancy's fiction to get a clue of what depth is involved in this war against the Empire.

    as has been said, it is amazing at the lack of obvious intelligence by the "plotters" in all these "attacks" we hear that we have been "saved" from. but Americans need to believe all this BS. Bread and Circuses.

    Since Americans don't think anymore, they/we are easy prey.

  27. Noskilz Says:

    Kind of makes one wonder if a another Church Commission might be useful.

    I'm a little more concerned that with this amount of effort and attention being given to the very, very low-hanging fruitcakes that other more serious efforts might effectively be getting a pass because they might take a lot more time, effort and resources to detect and analyze than these more "aspirational than operational" plotters.

    I'd certainly be a lot more impressed by investigations where the particants seem to have been something other than complete imbeciles.

  28. Senescent Says:

    It's like the schmucks who regularly get popped trying to solicit a hit on their estranged spouse/business partner/whatever – even if you've got an in in some shady circles, a lot of your common ruffians aren't willing to go that far and will turn them in principle. Another share don't have the competence to either pull it off or to keep their traps shut. And the hardened career types who in theory could? By that point they're used to the political economy of the underworld, and they know the schmucks aren't offering enough to tip the risk/reward ratio in their favor, especially when the alternative is to drop a dime and earn some easy brownie points, redeemable for future lenience, from their parole officers/DAs/organized crime unit supervisors.

  29. Arslan Says:

    Obviously entrapment is hard to prove, since you have to show that there is no way you would have committed this crime were it not for the involvement of law enforcement agents. Having said that, while we know there are plenty of people who would like to commit acts of terror on American soil(many of them American 'patriots'), the average person like this dumb schmuck has no idea how to get ordinary explosives or even hand grenades much less a half-ton bomb. If a real terrorist wants to do that kind of damage they'd learn how to build an ANFO device themselves, as did Tim McVeigh. That's what makes the whole thing suspicious. Are we supposed to believe that this guy came up with a plan all on his own and decided to go shopping for explosives, luckily meeting up with an FBI agent instead? He may have voiced a desire to blow something up to the agent who connected him with the undercover explosives dealer, and of course he had a choice to say no, but I just can't picture this dialog without some coaching from the FBI.

    Of course this is also what helps disprove many 9-11 conspiracy theories. With all the risks of getting caught(and keep in mind truthers basically claim the culprits have been caught), it makes far more sense for the conspirators to see to it that real terrorist paties were given inert biological or chemical weapons. Then they could bust them and claim that they foiled an attack which could have killed…1 MILLION PEOPLE. Hell, they probably could have found a man from Iraq to be a patsy.

  30. Mo Says:

    That's "AMFO," ftr.

  31. Jared Says:

    > What if 9/11 was a plot that the Bush mis-Administration knew all about, and helped along, so they could seem like hero's?

    Almost certainly it was something along those lines. Half of Bush's cabinet was signatory to their Project for a New American Century, which specifically called for some kind of "Pearl Harbor event". We know that they were repeatedly briefed about plans to attack ("Alright, your ass is covered"), and they knew that it probably involved airplanes.

    This is where the conspiracies break down. Quite simply, BushCo epitomized the banality of evil. Not a one of their misdeeds was committed without a paper trail a mile wide. Torture, imprisoning citizens without trial, false pretense for war, memos and letters about them abound. They didn't even make any real effort to conceal them.

    So to think that they were in any way shape or form a party to the actual attack is simply to _overestimate_ their ability to do anything without leaving a trail a 1st year journalism student could follow. Almost certainly they thought it would be a run of the mill airplane hijacking and figured they could use it to score a few cheap political points.

  32. Kaleberg Says:

    This is how a lot of murder for hire cases end. They usually start with some man or woman in a bar saying they want to hire someone to kill their significant other or ex-significant other. Even if your line of work actually was murder for hire, you are unlikely to respond to such an offer from someone you don't know, even if you think their s.o. or x-s.o. might actually need killing. So, the party tries again, and usually winds up with an off duty cop, or sometimes an on duty cop, often at the venue on other business. They then set up a next meeting where the money will be handed over and contact the AGs office to get the paperwork going.

    Yes, it's a form of entrapment, but if the idiot actually shows up with the money, he or she is taking a concrete step to arrange murder for hire. It usually works out better this way with no one actually getting killed.

  33. Arslan Says:

    "Almost certainly it was something along those lines. Half of Bush's cabinet was signatory to their Project for a New American Century, which specifically called for some kind of "Pearl Harbor event". "

    The document in question from PNAC didn't "call" for a "Pearl Harbor event." It was a document supporting the creating of an anti-ballistic missile shield, like the one they have been trying to install in the last six years or so.

  34. bb in GA Says:

    When you look at the FBI history of infiltration of dissident groups:

    The Klan
    CPUSA
    Various Militia Groups
    SCLC aimed at Dr ML King, Jr.
    etc.

    With so many instances of apparent entrapment and the 'end justifies the means' mentality, I wouldn't be surprised that most folks that pay attention to any degree are completely cynical on busted plots and catching any 'bad guys' be they foreign or domestic in origin.

    //bb

  35. Jared Says:

    > The document in question from PNAC didn't "call" for a "Pearl Harbor event."

    "Further, the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event––like a new Pearl Harbor"

    The 'transformation' of which it speaks was about American dominance and hegemony and, basically, empire, of which an ABM shield was merely one small part. Basically summed up here: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Project_for_the_New_American_Century#Key_positions

  36. Joseph Hines Says:

    I'm completely with you, G&T. Despite the scare-mongering of the "professional terrorist hunters", no really credible threats against ground targets in the US have been thwarted, except for the Time Square bomber, who was not caught until after the failed attack. It is interesting that most of the faux terrorist attacks have been against buildings. What terrorist gives a sweet sh-t about the Federal Reserve? Sounds more like a Ron Paul supporter.