Did the FBI Thwart Its Own Plot in Oregon?

I was out of state when this happened, otherwise I probably would have covered this sooner. As usual, Glenn Greenwald delivers the goods:

It may very well be that the FBI successfully and within legal limits arrested a dangerous criminal intent on carrying out a serious Terrorist plot that would have killed many innocent people, in which case they deserve praise. Court-approved surveillance and use of undercover agents to infiltrate terrorist plots are legitimate tactics when used in accordance with the law.

But it may also just as easily be the case that the FBI — as they’ve done many times in the past — found some very young, impressionable, disaffected, hapless, aimless, inept loner; created a plot it then persuaded/manipulated/entrapped him to join, essentially turning him into a Terrorist; and then patted itself on the back once it arrested him for having thwarted a “Terrorist plot” which, from start to finish, was entirely the FBI’s own concoction. Having stopped a plot which it itself manufactured, the FBI then publicly touts — and an uncritical media amplifies — its “success” to the world, thus proving both that domestic Terrorism from Muslims is a serious threat and the Government’s vast surveillance powers — current and future new ones — are necessary. […]

We hear the same exact thing over and over and over from accused Terrorists — that they are attempting to carry out plots in retaliation for past and ongoing American violence against Muslim civilians and to deter such future acts. Here we find one of the great mysteries in American political culture: that the U.S. Government dispatches its military all over the world — invading, occupying, and bombing multiple Muslim countries — torturing them, imprisoning them without charges, shooting them up at checkpoints, sending remote-controlled drones to explode their homes, imposing sanctions that starve hundreds of thousands of children to death — and Americans are then baffled when some Muslims — an amazingly small percentage — harbor anger and vengeance toward them and want to return the violence. And here we also find the greatest myth in American political discourse: that engaging in all of that military aggression somehow constitutes Staying Safe and combating Terrorism — rather than doing more than any single other cause to provoke, sustain and fuel Terrorism.

Salon: The FBI successfully thwarts its own Terrorist plot

It’s entirely reasonable to assume that the FBI agent’s recording gear malfunctioned or that someone made an honest mistake in configuring the equipment, as anyone who has worked with recording gear can tell you. But from a strictly legal standpoint, it seems like that should be a big strike against the FBI. Unlike Greenwald, I’m not a lawyer, though, so I don’t know.

From what little I know about the case, it does seem that Mohamud was motivated to commit violence. But the specific plot and access to weapons was furnished by the FBI. Even taking the FBI at its word, its difficult to see Mohamud as a great threat on his own. Still, it’s clear that there are some angry people in this country willing to do violence to our citizens, and as Greenwald points out, there’s relatively little discussion as to why. Regular readers of this blog know that I’m no friend to Islam, but it’s clearer every day that US foreign policy is a bigger driver for terrorism than religion.

Update: My friend Johnny Brainwash has taken a look at the affidavit and has a post on it:

The specific notion of a car bomb was Mohamud’s, but he had no clue how to go about it. Not a single operational detail would have happened without the FBI. He did buy some of the bomb components, sure, but with money and a shopping list provided by the feds. He also provided some Google Maps images and a disguise, both also at the request of undercover agents. Beyond that, he couldn’t even get to Portland if the FBI didn’t give him a ride.
This alleged plot, like nearly every alleged jihadi plot in the US, amounts to nearly nothing. Not that the kid is blameless or should get off scot-free, but he wasn’t much of a threat. Not compared to people who have committed genuine terrorist acts on American soil in the last couple of years, and certainly not enough to justify the feramongering that has gotten an added boost out of this. The story isn’t “OMG America under attack!!1!” It’s more like “look, another dumbass with fantasies of jihad- at least this one didn’t set his nuts on fire.”

He adds in the comments:

I don’t necessarily ascribe such specific intent to individual FBI’ers, or to the agency as a whole. It’s their job to catch criminals, and their budgets and prestige depend on it, so they’re going to catch them even if it takes some wishful thinking to create them. I think lots of law enforcement types, like lots of other folks, buy into the narrative of terrorists lurking under every bed, and so they don’t always realize when they’re going overboard.

I think others of them probably do realize, though.

I’m sort of leery of ascribing intent these days, preferring to describe observed behavior. Remarkable how it untangles things sometimes.

See also Mr. Brainwash on who is and isn’t a terrorist.


  1. I’ve been over the FBI affidavit in the case, which is hardly conclusive but does represent the FBI’s version of events.

    I can’t see that this guy was planning anything when the FBI contacted him. There’s no indication he ever considered taking action in the US (as opposed to going abroad) until the FBI suggested it to him. And there’s every indication that he lacked any ability to plan the operation or build the bomb. He couldn’t even make it to Portland if the FBI didn’t give him a ride.


    I’ve seen lots of articles about the ongoing jihadi threat, but no one mentions that nearly every successful terror attack in the US over the last couple of years has been by white Americans, based on right-wing perspectives (or paranoia) on internal American issues.

  2. I find it a bit coincidental that the attack was “thwarted” just as the holiday season is beginning. The people running this country know just what buttons to push on which people to garner the support they “need” to continue their ongoing criminal agenda around the world. They sure know how to prey on people’s sympathies. Probably this isn’t the case at all, but what if…

  3. “It’s their job to catch criminals”

    O RLY?

    I tend more toward Mr. Viner’s appraisal. I also find it worth noting that Brainwash’s article on who is and is not a terrorist mentions nothing of a certain rogue state that murders its own citizens without trial and is racking up quite the civilian body count in AfPak. By any reasonable standard, the actions of the American government on a typical day far more resemble terrorism than inept Keystone “terrorists.”

    The history of the American intelligence community and agent provocateur-ism speaks for itself. I’d argue that in 2010 the burden of proof lies on those arguing that these actions come from somewhere else.

  4. Lev: I’ve never really written the article that’s in my head on what constitutes terrorism. The first half of it, however, would be to demonstrate that official military actions by proper nation-states fit pretty nearly any definition you could come up with, and account for the vast majority of the terror body-count. AfPak is an OK example, but strategic bombing in both WWII and Vietnam are where the numbers are truly overwhelming, and probably where the official policy of terror is most overt.

    I suppose there are some self-serving definitions of terrorism that exclude state actors, but I imagine I would dismiss those with a shallow one-liner and a sneer. I really should try to do better than that.

  5. Here’s a great example of a conspiracy: the FBI conspired to make a rebellious teenager into a terrorist.

    Now of course I know that the government, which makes the laws, would never allow a legalistic definition of conspiracy to describe its practices; that only applies to private civilians such as the various organized crime groups, and occasionally a corporation or two.

    But, factually speaking, that’s what they did: they got together and conspired, or planned if you will, to feed some social misfit’s adolescent desire for violence and retribution.

    Here’s another way of imagining it: does anyone ever remember an instance in middle school where a bunch of bullies would egg two weaker kids into fighting each other for the bullies’ collective amusement? And when the school administration and intervened and the weaklings got a week’s worth of detentions, it was a twofer. They could sit back knowing that legally and officially speaking, they were “blameless” even though they conspired to orchestrate the whole thing.

    Well, some of these bullies are almost certainly now in the FBI and other agencies.

  6. When one sees that this the FBI were in contact with him when he was 18, it looks pretty clear. Without the FBI, there probably would not have been a crime and this guy might have wised up as he got older. In one action, we’ve diverted resources from real dangers, criminalized a foolish teen-ager, and helped fuel xenophobia on all sides. Would that we were as efficient when we do things worth doing.

  7. In my opinion, based on what happened to the Black Panthers and the Weathermen, real terrorists get hunted down and killed, or herded into prison, not toyed with like the US is doing with the so-called al Qaeda. The West has had the technology to track down these people and exterminate them for years. They don’t do it because they want to keep the game going. The game is very profitable. Of course, they don’t want it to get out of hand, at least not yet, but they want it to be profitable.

    On another note, there are dangerous groups out there, that’s why it’s easier to go after weaklings like this kid. Naturally a lot of white people are afraid of him because of the color of his skin, but he’s really just a scared mixed-up kid.

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