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Why Sting?

September 30th, 2011 · 9 Comments

A bit of shameless speculation about why the FBI expends so much time and energy setting up goofballs like Rezwan Ferdaus, who it seems hard to believe would manage to translate their angry fantasies into serious threats without outside help. The relative paucity of sophisticated, coordinated plots not enabled by the FBI over the past few years suggests that there just aren’t a huge number of trained Al Qaeda operatives in the country. But the FBI has to assume that there might be a few who have slipped through the cracks at any given time.

One possible motive for these elaborate and highly publicized stings is that, whether or not the particular people they indict would have moved from rage to action without prompting, the steady stream of news reports will eventually force any candidate for jihad to assume that an “Al Qaeda recruiter” who approaches them is much more likely to be an FBI informant or undercover agent than a genuine operative. That’s likely to make it much harder for any real recruiters who’ve gone undetected to rope in anyone savvy enough to be truly dangerous. In a haystack of 300 million people—or even 2.5 million Muslims—the government can’t possibly be confident it will be able to identify in advance all the particular needles who are really prepared to carry out an attack, rather than simply ranting online. They may have concluded that the next best thing is to create a climate of suspicion in which such people are unwilling to risk collaborating with others. That means that the scale and destructiveness of any attacks that do occur are more likely to be limited to what a lone individual can achieve. Without the fuel of mutual encouragement or realistic hope of carrying out a really spectacular attack as a mere “lone wolf,” many of those angry young men may decide to give up and go bowling before they get around to putting their fantasies into practice. Or at any rate, such may be the FBI’s hope.

Tags: War



9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jayvie Canono // Sep 30, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    […]They may have concluded that the next best thing is to create a climate of suspicion in which such people are unwilling to risk collaborating with others. That means that the scale and destructiveness of any attacks that do occur are more likely to be limited to what a lone individual can achieve.[…]

    That’s pretty much what I’m hearing from my fellow Conservatives. Basically a “can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs” kind of reasoning. Not sure I agree, since creating a climate of suspicion doesn’t necessarily require an actualy putative terrorist to be encouraged into the point of almost doing something, but rather just muddying up the waters by producing false flags, reports on arrests that never turn out to be true, etc etc. That would be security theatre that actually meets the same goal, without breaking an egg, methinks.

  • 2 ScipioSE // Sep 30, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    That’s… charitable. Another possible motivation would be that the FBI needs to demonstrate the existence of a significant terrorist threat that they have a track record of stopping, so that money, resources, and prestige continue to flow to the FBI.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Sep 30, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    So, two things. First, actual “foiled plots” are much more likely to get major media attention, which is how you make sure the maximum number of people are aware that the person claiming to be a terror operative has a high probability of being an informer or undercover agent. Second, to get a strong deterrent effect over the longer term, people need to fear serious consequences if they trust the wrong person—which ultimately requires sending some people to jail.

  • 4 Jayvie Canono // Sep 30, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    This is the kind of issue I lock horns the most with Conservatives. It’s a sore spot considering I grew up in the Philippines, and news of false accusations, people getting “liquidated” by the military even in the post-Marcos era has me really suspicious. I may not be as…fastidious (oh my) as Glenn Greenwald but I am not as firebreathing a Conservative on these “nurtured arrests” either.

    Sticky spots all around.

  • 5 Kent // Oct 2, 2011 at 11:33 am

    Most actions, even when they don’t involve a massive bureaucracy, stem from multiple motivations. What should be more important than the motivation is the basic legality of these FBI stings. Read the transcripts from some of these indictments. The real criminal is usually the FBI informant.

  • 6 Michael Price // Oct 3, 2011 at 9:32 am

    The problem is that FBI stings don’t seem to be sophisticated enough to trap anyone who could do real damage. The FBI agents provocateurs are absurdly easy to spot, they come from outside the community, talk politics a lot, don’t have a backstory anyone can check (“You’re from XXX villiage in South Yemen, hey do you know my cousin?”) and of course don’t actually join in the normal community activities other than going to the mosque occasionally.

    If there was a lot of angry, capable, motivated potential terrorists around there the easiest way to contact each other would be to start out making jokes about the obvious agent provocateurs. Talking one on one one of the potential terrorists would say something like “A terrorist recruiter who wanted competent people would do X.”, the other PT would go “And he’d make sure to only approach people who were YYY, ZZZ etc.”. All theorectical, nice and easy, and only between people who’ve known each other for years. Very little risk.

  • 7 Wonks Anonymous // Oct 4, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    These were basically my thoughts but you’re the first person I’ve read put them in writing. The bottom line is that these stings may be a good idea and the terrorist threat may be overblown. Different sides will want to emphasize one or the other point.

  • 8 Barry // Oct 21, 2011 at 9:07 am

    Backing ScipioSE here. The most likely situation is that the FBI has very little way of penetrating a reasonably competant conspiracy (i.e, one where the people involved don’t involve anybody whose background is not well-established). To produce the numbers, therefore, they set up stings.

    Also, as has been noted by many (Balko being a good example), there’s a fair number of police who feel that SWAT-level gear and tactics are better used against schmucks than actual, dangerous criminals. For example, how many right-wing domestic (i.e., white) heavily armed terrorist conspiracies has the FBI recently cracked? You know they’re out there, and would have been kicked into high gear by a n***** president.

  • 9 Why Sting? | My Blog // Nov 21, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    […] September 30th, 2011 · 8 Comments […]

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