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.