Why the arrests of African-American ISIS suspects deserve more scrutiny

Opinion

Tairod Nathan Webster (left) (Facebook) Pugh Hasan Edmonds and cousin Jonas Edmonds (Facebook)

Tairod Nathan Webster (left) (Facebook) Pugh Hasan Edmonds and cousin Jonas Edmonds (Facebook)

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Last Tuesday, two more African-American men were arrested on federal terrorism charges for trying to join ISIS.  The FBI arrested Hasan Edmonds, 22, a member of the Illinois National Guard, and his cousin, Jonas Edmonds, 29, for allegedly attempting to stage terror attacks in the U.S. and join the terror group ISIS.

News of the arrests comes a week after Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh, an Air Force veteran originally from New Jersey, was indicted by federal authorities for allegedly attempting to travel to Turkey to join ISIS and providing material support to the organization. In the past 18 months, 30 people have been charged with enlisting with or attempting to join terrorist organizations. And in February, three immigrants from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in central Asia were charged with conspiracy in Brooklyn, New York, and Florida in connection with failed attempts to join ISIS. The trio allegedly discussed attacking President Obama and Coney Island.

These and other cases suggest that Muslim Americans, particularly black Americans, suddenly have developed an interest in joining ISIS. Surely, successive stories of men plotting to launch attacks on American soil may conjure images of a growing national security problem. However, there is a need for scrutiny more here — by the public and by the media — when examining these cases.

In the war on terror, like the war on drugs, government agencies must justify their existence in order to continue their funding. In some cases, this means creating their own Hollywood production and enlisting actors, both voluntary and unwitting, to take part in the performance. It all speaks to the role of the FBI in entrapping suspects in terror plots the bureau itself manufactures through the aid of well-paid informants and agents provocateurs. This is made possible by an exaggerated fear of terror, rampant Islamophobia in American society, the exploitation of the poor, and a legacy of government surveillance in communities of color that was perfected during the COINTELPRO program of the 1950s through 1970s.

As a continuation of the spying campaign against Marcus Garvey and other civil rights leaders decades earlier, J. Edgar Hoover established COINTELPRO. The purpose of the program was to monitor and neutralize domestic movements and groups that were deemed subversive and a threat to national security, including Communists, leftwing and civil rights groups and the Ku Klux Klan.

One FBI document said COINTELPRO would “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.” Hoover wanted to “prevent the rise of a black messiah” and targeted figures such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and groups such as the Black Panther Party, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Christian Leadership Conference.

The FBI employed informants and agents provocateurs in a key role in disrupting organizations from within, exerting influence and inciting violence, including assassinations. In 1967, the FBI established a “Ghetto Informant Program,” which at its height employed 7,000 informants to attend meetings of “extremists” and identify black bookstores and others who were distributing “extremist literature.” COINTELPRO targeted not only groups such as the Panthers for infiltration but all Black Student Unions. As the nonprofit group Political Research Associates reported, “A combination of informant infiltration, other Bureau surveillance methods, and close cooperation with local police allowed the state’s repressive forces to practically encircle the black activist community in a 24 hour dragnet.”

Today, as was the case in recent arrests, the FBI continues its use of informants under the war on terror. As Stephen Salisbury reported in Salon in 2010, many so-called failed terror plots were pre-manufactured by the government, their narratives written ahead of time so that the investigators and prosecutors could take credit for the failure of the ineptly planned plots.

“The Liberty City Seven, the Fort Dix Six, the Detroit Ummah Conspiracy, the Newburgh Four — each has had their fear-filled day in the sun. None of these plots ever came close to happening. How could they?” Salisbury asked. “All were bogus from the get-go: money to buy missiles or cell phones or shoes and fancy duds — provided by the authorities; plans for how to use the missiles and bombs and cell phones — provided by authorities; cars for transport and demolition — issued by the authorities; facilities for carrying out the transactions — leased by those same authorities.”

A number of homegrown terrorism stings in recent years have involved poor black men in the inner city who were entrapped by informants with criminal backgrounds — unsavory conmen and habitual liars who promised suspects incentives such as money, trips or food. According to PBS Frontline, the intelligence community uses the acronym M.I.C.E. to classify these incentives: “Money (a bribe), Ideology (sympathizing with an insider), Compromise (blackmail or reduced jail time) or Ego (medals, plaques).”

For example, the two informants in the 2006 Liberty City Seven case — who were of Mideast origin and posed as al Qaeda operatives — received over $130,000 from the feds. The informants “infiltrated” a group of poor, nearly homeless black men in a low income community of Miami who were supposedly ready to “wage a full ground war on the United States” and blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago in exchange for $50,000 and supplies. The defendants were tried three times before they were convicted.

Similarly, Shahed Hussain, the Pakistani informant in the 2009 Newburgh Four sting, lured unemployed black ex-offenders on the margins in an impoverished New York town with promises of $250,000. Hussain began working with the FBI after being arrested for supplying illegal drivers licenses to recent immigrants. The prosecution’s only witness, he was paid $66,000 by the FBI. Further, posing as a representative of Osama bin Laden, Hussain convinced the suspects to leave bombs at two New York City synagogues — fake bombs created by the government — and participate in a missile attack at a National Guard air base.

The four men were convicted and sentenced to 25 years. Nevertheless, the judge said in her decision that there was “something decidedly troubling about the government’s behavior.… I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it, and brought it to fruition.”

“None of these brothers got jobs. There’s three of us with no jobs,” said James Cromitie, the alleged ringleader, to Hussain in a secretly taped conversation. “But actually, how do you think we feel?  We’re getting ready to do all this stuff, we ain’t got no money in our pocket. How do you think we feel? You know? How do you think they feel?”

Members of the African-American and Muslim communities attribute the targeting, monitoring and harassment of Muslim Americans, their mosques and institutions to Islamophobia.

“I remember years ago when we used to go after people we said were Communists. Then we went after gang members during the whole war on drugs.  And that led literally to the incarceration of a whole generation of African-American men. So ok, now Muslims are the new thing,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.).  Speaking in the HBO documentary The Newburgh Sting, Ellison added: “When I was elected, I was the first Muslim to ever be elected to Congress. And we experienced a torrent of invective and hate and all kind of suspicion and insult. And when you channel a vast array of resources towards a particular community, no doubt you’re gonna get some bad actors, because there are bad actors in every community.”

“I feel very betrayed personally because I was one of the most verbal proponents of strengthening a relationship with the FBI,” said Hussam Ayloush, the Los Angeles director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a leading Muslim American civil rights organization. Ayloush appeared in Informants, an Al Jazeera documentary on the shadowy figures who spy for the FBI. “We expect that the FBI is there to protect us, to protect our community from criminals, not to go and hire criminals to actually come into our mosques and put your youth at risk.”

While the Muslim American community has been well-positioned to partner with law enforcement to fight real crime, the authorities have broken trust and burned bridges. “You can’t really trust the FBI anymore. I mean period, you can’t trust the FBI anymore,” said Sheikh Yassir Fazaga of the Orange County Islamic Foundation in Mission Viejo, California. “In my own sermons I would tell my community members to please cooperate with the law. However when it comes to the FBI, the less you talk, the more you walk.”

This is why we should look at all of these homegrown terror cases and ask a lot more questions.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove