FBI Entrapment Eyed

• Controversy surrounds bureau’s use of dubious paid informants

By Richard Walker

The recent arrest of a Bangladeshi student for trying to blow up the New York Federal Reserve with what turned out to be a fake bomb has called into question the use of paid informants in the majority of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) home-grown terrorism cases since September 11, 2001.

The FBI says the methods it uses to trap terror suspects are all part of “the war on terror,” but many legal experts believe those operations are really entrapment.

The majority of the 500 terror cases since 2001 have relied on evidence from FBI informants within the Muslim community. In many cases, the informants encouraged individuals to commit terrorist acts as a way of gaining their trust. Subsequently, informants, with the help of FBI agents, helped those same suspects devise elaborate terror plots they might not otherwise have ever thought of.

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In the latest case, a N.Y. informant and his FBI handlers convinced Bangladeshi student Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, 21, that he was transporting a bomb to the Fed, but the bomb was in fact a fake. He will now face terrorism charges likely to put him away for life.

The FBI said Nafis arrived in N.Y. in January, having come here with the intention to commit mass murder. His aim, they alleged, was to put together a terror cell. It appears they helped him put together a fictitious cell and justified their sting on the basis he was determined to commit mass murder until they intervened.

It is almost impossible to discover how the FBI recruits its informants and to what extent they are permitted to engage in illegal activities as part of their roles. If terror tactics in Europe are anything to go by, informants are often highly paid or are blackmailed into working for intelligence  agencies. In many instances, they are unreliable individuals with criminal backgrounds.

The debate about whether FBI stings are forms of entrapment of poor and in some cases misguided and low-intelligence people has caught the attention of legal scholars. In 2011, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University’s School of Law produced a report on the issue, which specifically examined three New York terror cases. The report was frank in pointing an accusing finger at the FBI and the federal government for sending paid informants into Muslim communities purely on the basis of suspicion.

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In one part of the report, its authors addressed the issue of entrapment, stating that in the three cases they looked at, “the government selected or encouraged the proposed locations that the defendants would later be charged with targeting. . . .

“In all three cases, the government also provided the defendants with, or encouraged the defendants to acquire, material evidence such as weaponry or violent videos, which would later be used to convict them,” the report alleged.

It also linked the feds’ ability to “claim we face a homegrown threat” to some high profile terror cases in which informants played a critical role.

The report demanded changes in the law so the FBI would be “explicitly forbidden from using informants to engage in entrapment or  inducement to commit crimes.”

So far, juries have been reluctant to reject FBI evidence in terror cases. Defense lawyers also complain that using an entrapment defense is all but a waste of time in the American jury environment of post September 11, 2001. 

Richard Walker is the pen name of a former N.Y. news producer.