Khalifah al-Akili, a 34-year-old Muslim American from the Pittsburgh area, was to publicly claim that he was the target of an FBI sting operation at a press conference last month. Had he not been arrested at his home one day before the press conference was to take place, al-Akili would have described how he was harassed and stalked by undercover FBI operatives, one of whose identity was exposed after a Google search of his phone number returned results linking him to another undercover entrapment case in New York state.
Authorities claim that al-Akili “had made radical Islamic statements and that police had uncovered unspecified jihadist literature at his home,” as the Guardian’s Paul Harris reported (“‘Taliban sympathiser’ arrest prompts new questions about FBI tactics,” 26 March 2012).
Al-Akili is currently in detention, charged with a firearms code violation related to a seven-second video of him firing a gun at a shooting range.
Shortly before his arrest, al-Akili reached out to civil liberties groups, national Muslim organizations and the media with his claim of being targeted in an FBI entrapment plot. The timing of his arrest before the press conference hosted by the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms has caused some, including his lawyer, to suspect that his arrest was timed to prevent him from getting his story out.
Story of entrapment
At the press conference, al-Akili would have narrated how several months ago, he met a man who called himself Shareef, who would attend dawn prayers at an area mosque and, according to a National Coalition statement, would “with increasing frequency [turn] the conversation to fighting.” Shareef would repeatedly ask al-Akili to help him obtain a gun, which al-Akili refused to do (“Arrest of Muslim One Day before He Was to Participate in a NCPCF Press Conference,” 21 March 2012).
Shareef promised to help al-Akili finance a restaurant if al-Akili would do something for him, “which al-Akili understood to mean some ‘act of violence against others,’” according to the statement. Al-Akili tried to avoid the man, but this proved difficult as Shareef lived only two blocks away.
The National Coalition adds: “When Shareef offered to introduce al-Akili to a man he called his ‘brother,’ al-Akili tried to evade the meeting, but as he was walking back to his apartment from the store one night, Shareef pulled his vehicle up to al-Akili. A man got out of the passenger side, introduced himself as Mohammed, and said that he wanted to talk to al-Akili over coffee. Al-Akili made excuses, but when he got home the phone began to ring; it was Shareef and Mohammed downstairs, wanting to come in. Al-Akili pretended not to be at home.”
Mohammed would again appear out of nowhere, insisting that al-Akili meet him. Al-Akili took down his phone number and would eventually run a Google search of it. This is how he found out that Mohammed was actually Shahed Hussain, an undercover FBI operative.
According to an interview that al-Akili gave to the Times Union newspaper shortly before his arrest, when al-Akili asked Hussain whether he was an FBI informant, Hussain quickly ended the call and within a day, Shareef had vacated his apartment and vanished without a trace (“FBI informant in upstate stings, including Albany, surfaces in Pittsburgh case,” 17 March 2012).
Federal convict to FBI darling
When al-Akili ran a Google search of Mohammed’s phone number, he had found a reference to the Newburgh Four, a group of African American Muslim men who were convicted on the basis of testimony and secret recordings made by undercover informant Shahed Hussain.
The four men, from an impoverished community in upstate New York, are currently serving lengthy prison sentences for participating in a plot to blow up Jewish targets and fire a Stinger missile at US military planes.
Not exactly self-starters, the Newburgh Four were more likely motivated by financial gain than ideology. As Paul Harris reported in the Guardian last year, great material rewards including $250,000, free vacations and new cars were promised by Hussain to the alleged conspirators for their cooperation in the plot designed and encouraged by Hussain (“Newburgh Four: poor, black, and jailed under FBI ‘entrapment’ tactics”).
Hussain even paid for the food and rent of one of the men, as the Associated Press reported (“Was too much offered?,” 22 September 2010).
The men, all with serious troubles including jail time and mental health problems, may have believed they were playing Hussain — when Hussain gave one of them a camera to use for surveillance work related to the alleged plot, the camera was promptly sold. And when the same man, James Cromitie, tried to back out of the alleged plot, “Hussain said his overseas terrorist ‘brothers’ might cut his head off,” according to the Guardian.
For his services, Hussain, “the sole personal witness for the FBI,” earned $100,000.
Before setting his sights on Newburgh, Hussain was the government’s chief witness in the prosecution and conviction of two Muslim men in Albany, New York for money laundering to fund terror. As the Times Union reported in 2006, a loan promised by Hussain to one of the convicted men was the basis of the money laundering charges (“Informant for FBI is freed”).
According to the paper, Hussain has been involved in the arrest and prosecution of more than a dozen persons.
It was exposed during the Albany trial that the FBI recruited Hussain after he was arrested in December 2001 for taking bribes of several hundred dollars each as part of a ring to illegally give drivers licenses to immigrants who couldn’t pass the written examination. It was also revealed that he may have been involved in a homicide in Lahore, Pakistan.
Role of undercover informants begs scrutiny
Hussain isn’t exceptional as far as undercover FBI agents go — only that he was exceptionally bad at providing effective cover in the al-Akili case (al-Akili told the Times Union that Hussain and his colleague “were ‘too obvious’ and requested receipts even for small items they purchased like coffee and donuts”).
A groundbreaking study by Mother Jones magazine and the Investigative Reporting Program published last year examined the prosecutions of more than 500 defendants in terrorism-related cases in the US. The investigation found that “nearly half the prosecutions involved the use of informants,” motivated by money or “the need to work off criminal or immigration violations” (“The Informants,” September/October 2011), as in the case of Hussain.
Furthermore, “Sting operations resulted in prosecutions against 158 defendants. Of that, 49 defendants participated in plots led by an agent provocateur — an FBI operative instigating terrorist action.” Indeed, the report found that “With three exceptions, all of the high-profile domestic terror plots of the last decade were actually FBI stings.”
Because so few domestic terrorism cases actually go to trial — the specter of terror means juries almost always return guilty verdicts, so defendants usually take plea deals — the role of undercover FBI operatives in domestic terror cases rarely comes under scrutiny.
“No real hunt”
Rare insight into the FBI’s policy regarding undercover operatives was provided after ex-informant Craig Monteilh came forward about his role in the infiltration of Muslim communities in Orange County, California.
Monteilh, who served time for passing fraudulent checks, told the Guardian last month that the FBI even “gave him the OK to have sex with the Muslim women his undercover operation was targeting,” and to record their “pillow talk” (“The ex-FBI informant with a change of heart: ‘There is no real hunt. It’s fixed’”).
Monteilh’s provocateur tactics ironically prompted the community he was spying on to get a restraining order against him and he was reported to the FBI. The Guardian reports that Monteilh is now part of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the FBI, and has “joined forces” with the people he once targeted “to campaign for their civil liberties.”
Monteilh told the Guardian: “The way the FBI conducts their operations, it is all about entrapment … There is no real hunt. It’s fixed.”
Persecution of Muslims despite low threat
The study of domestic terrorism prosecution published by Mother Jones notes that “Ever since 9/11, counterterrorism has been the FBI’s No. 1 priority, consuming the lion’s share of its budget,” and the bureau now boasts “a roster of 15,000 spies — many of them tasked, as Hussain was, with infiltrating Muslim communities in the United States.”
However, a February report on “Muslim-American Terrorism in the Decade Since 9/11” by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security found that the scale of so-called homegrown Muslim-American terrorism “does not appear to have corroborated the warnings issued by government officials” for the year 2011.
Finding a “relatively low level of radicalization among Muslim-Americans,” the report adds that the US government’s predicted surge in “homegrown Islamic terrorism” has not materialized and that the decline in prosecutions for funding terrorism, which makes up the bulk of domestic terrorism cases, “is particularly notable in view of the heightened scrutiny that terrorism financing now receives from law enforcement agencies.”
Yet the extent to which the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have set Muslims in their sights is shocking. The Associated Press has published an explosive series of reports on leaked documents showing the New York Police Department’s mapping of Muslim communities and spying on student groups.
And last month, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act demonstrating that the FBI in San Francisco used a mosque outreach program to gather intelligence on Muslim organizations and their constituents “without any suspicion of wrongdoing” (“FBI FOIA Docs Show Use of “Mosque Outreach” for Illegal Intel Gathering”).
On my blog for The Electronic Intifada, I have covered a domestic terrorism case in which three young men in North Carolina received decades-long prison sentences for providing material support to terror groups — even though government prosecutors failed to identify the specific terror groups to which the men are supposed to have provided support.
Conversely, high-profile public figures have established close ties with and are providing advocacy to the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian dissident group on the US State Department’s designated foreign terrorist organization list. The US government is even providing training to this designated terrorist organization, according to a report by The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh (“Our men in Iran?,” 6 April 2012).
Incidentally, reporter Chris Hedges and others are challenging the Obama administration in court about whether “civilian activists and journalists should not fear being detained under a new anti-terrorism law” (“Lawyers tested in court over anti-terrorism act,” Reuters, 29 March 2012).
Of course, foreign policy is the driving force behind the development and application of anti-terror legislation, as the historic and contemporary targeting of Palestinian leaders and solidarity activists in the US reinforces. Opposition to the increasingly unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are frequently used against defendants in terror trials, who are sometimes prosecuted after having refused to become informants themselves, as in the case of Tarek Mehanna, who received a 17.5 year prison sentence yesterday for various trumped-up terror charges. As the ACLU of Massachusetts commented last month, “if you are Muslim and criticize US foreign policy, you too can be prosecuted — unless you agree to play the FBI’s game” (“Double standards distort the judicial process”).
The result of all this is that US Muslims like Khalifah al-Akili face lifetime sentences behind bars without having committed any acts of violence or harm as the government’s relentless drive to get terror convictions goes unchecked. Meanwhile the the civil liberties of entire communities are violated, burning whatever trust those communities may have had in the law enforcement that should be there to protect them, not go after them.
Maureen Clare Murphy is managing editor of The Electronic Intifada.