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Reporters swarmed the Federal Reserve building in downtown Manhattan, one of the landmark buildings in the Wall Street area. Then they massed in a New York courtroom as 21-year-old Bangladeshi student Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis heard the charges against him. Later, some came to the Metropolitan Detention Centre in Brooklyn, where he is being held, and to his apartment in the bustling neighbourhood of Jamaica, Queens. They wanted to piece together the story of this man who the government alleges came to the United States to conduct an act of terror.
The newspaper and television headlines screamed: “Terrorist Attack Thwarted.” The details came in fast and furiously, mostly a variant of the statement released by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Loretta E. Lynch: “The defendant came to this country intent on conducting a terrorist act on U.S. soil and worked with single-minded determination to carry out his plan. The defendant thought he was striking a blow to the American economy. He thought he was directing confederates and fellow believers. At every turn, he was wrong, and his extensive efforts to strike at the heart of the nation’s financial system were foiled by effective law enforcement.”
The government alleges that Nafis had ties to Al Qaeda. After he came to the U.S., he began to posture as a militant on the Internet, mainly on Facebook. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the New York Police Department (NYPD) spotted his posts. An FBI-NYPD agent posing as a sympathetic militant made contact with Nafis on Facebook, and together they began to consider an attack. The agent provided Nafis with what the young man believed was a 1,000-pound (454 kg) bomb and a detonator. Nafis placed the bomb in a van parked near the Federal Reserve and repaired to the Millennium Hotel, from where he was arrested when he attempted to detonate the dummy device.
The government indictment is vague on the details. Since such terrorist cases are shrouded in the mystery of “national security”, the government is not disposed to expose its many secrets. Questions about Nafis’ state of mind prior to meeting the FBI-NYPD agent are essential —was he simply disaffected or already plotting to conduct acts of violence? NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly said that the FBI-NYPD agent did not “entrap” Nafis. “You have to be otherwise not disposed to do a crime” if you plead that the government entrapped you, Kelly argued. “If it’s your intent to do a crime, and somehow there are means made available, then generally speaking, the entrapment defence does not succeed.” Kelly alleges that Nafis was already eager to conduct a terror attack. His accomplice, Howard Willie Carter II (also known as Yaqueen), was arrested for possession of child pornography and is being questioned in relation to the bomb plot. A young man, an unbalanced older man, an agent of the government, rash statements about “destroying America” and even more dangerous intimations of a bomb plot (“I want something big”)—out of this confused soup emerged an attempted attack, an arrest and then a brief media feast that fed the fears of a society made anxious by over a decade of commemoration of disaster (9/11) and anticipation of more such.
Nafis never had a chance. He sits in his cell as his family frets and as his government in a very quiet voice tries to exercise its consular rights. Meanwhile, the U.S. government uses its expansive powers to collect evidence and shield it from the defence team that valiantly tries to make Nafis’ case. “He thought he was directing confederates and fellow believers,” says Attorney Lynch, but he was actually in touch with the FBI-NYPD, whose agents used the vast arsenal of methods given to them during the George W. Bush administration and now enhanced by the Barack Obama administration—these governments have set aside the spirit of the U.S. Constitution, sending the tradition of the Magna Carta to the taxidermists to be stuffed with hot air. What evidence is collected will not see the light of day, with the FBI asking judges to seal it in secret rooms, to be seen by lawyers who have to be screened for clearance.
The Nafis case seems like a cliché even before it comes to trial. Senior government officials gingerly say that this case is not like the others—they have in mind the college student who wanted to bomb the tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon; the Virginia man who wanted to be the first suicide bomber in the U.S.; the four men in Newburgh, New York, who wanted to shoot Stinger missiles at military aircraft. They say that Nafis is the real thing, which means that others were either deluded or mentally challenged, easy pickings for a trained FBI informant’s manipulation. David Shipler, author of Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America (2012), notes that most men like Nafis who get caught up in the FBI dragnet “seem ambivalent, incompetent and adrift, like hapless wannabes looking for a cause that the informer or undercover agent skilfully helps them find”. Furthermore, Shipler writes, “The stings initially target suspects for pure speech—comments to an informer outside a mosque, angry postings on web sites, e-mails with radicals overseas—then woo them into relationships with informers, who are often convicted felons working in exchange for leniency, or with FBI agents posing as members of Al Qaeda or other groups.”
What Shipler says fits the bill for several high-profile counterterrorism cases studied carefully by journalists and writers, such as Dina Temple-Raston ( The Jihad Next Door, reviewed by me in Frontline, May 9, 2008) and Amitava Kumar ( A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm A Tiny Bomb, 2010). Both these books reveal how “hapless wannabes” fall into the arms of the FBI, which is then able to validate the extra powers it has garnered as a result of the post-9/11 anxiety. The more such cases, the more the population is injected with fear and eager to turn over more of its hard-won rights to the government.
The ghost in all these stories is the informant, who is often an immigrant caught up in some petty criminality or small-scale trouble. The FBI offers these immigrants, in these cases mostly Muslim men, immunity for their petty crimes if they inform on the local Muslim community, and money if they help build a case against one or more people. Some informants become minor celebrities in the world of the FBI. One such, Shahed Hussain, a Pakistani migrant, would not only be the key figure in a case against two men in Albany, New York, but he would play the leading role in the case of the Newburgh Four.
The Albany story is recounted in a very moving book written by Shamshad Ahmad, president of the Masjid as-Salam ( Rounded Up: Artificial Terrorists and Muslim Entrapment after 9/11, The Troy Book Makers, Albany, 2009). In the “post-9/11 atmosphere”, as Ahmad puts it, the FBI set Hussain (in this case with the name Malik) on an Iraqi Kurdish imam of a mosque, Yassin Aref, and a Bangladeshi pizza parlour owner, Mohammed Hossain. Malik’s manipulation and the FBI’s selective use of the facts drew the net tight against Aref and Hossain. It would come out that the FBI set their eyes on Aref because of a scrap of information found in northern Iraq that was badly translated; “paper litter” found in a terrorist camp in Rawah, Iraq, bore Aref’s name, his old address and the word “kak” before his name. The FBI decided that “kak” meant “commander” though in Kurdish it is a simple honorific for “brother”. Suddenly, the rather tame Brother Aref became Commander Aref, a vital link in a sleeper cell in the U.S. poised to do acts of terror. This is all bogus, as Aref makes clear in his short memoir, Son of Mountains: My Life as a Kurd and a Terror Suspect (Muslim Solidarity Committee, Albany, 2008). Aref’s lawyer noted that the government follows a pattern with these cases, “to leap to conclusions with booms, and then fizzle down when the facts emerge”. Hossain’s lawyer pleaded with the judge, “This is a fictional case. Let it be fiction, and let the case be dismissed.”
Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, an undated photograph obtained from a social media site. The FBI arrested him on October 17 in a sting operation on charges that he was attempting to blow up the New York Federal Reserve Bank.
Instead, Aref and Hossain were convicted and sentenced to 15 years each. Aref was sent to Terre Haute, Indiana, the destination for most people convicted in counterterrorism cases.
Strikingly, as Aref and Hossain waited in prison, the informant Malik reached out to them. He told them he had “misled and tricked” them “under the impression that they would receive a prison sentence of a few months to a year and that after that everything would be fine”. Whether Malik was being genuine or not is not germane. What his message reveals is that Malik felt bad about what he had done. It did not stop him, however, because he would act soon after in the same manner against the Newburgh Four. Malik’s momentary remorse is not uncommon. In October, the Associated Press ran a story from a NYPD informant who said that the police paid him to “bait Muslims” (the reporters Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo confirmed this story after thorough fact-checking). Shamiur Rahman (age 19) had been arrested a few times for drug possession. To erase this record, the NYPD told him to spy on students at John Jay College and at area mosques. He was told to “bait” Muslims into saying incriminating things for an NYPD programme developed in association with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), called “create and capture”.
Rahman, like Nafis, is a Bangladeshi American. Both are young and both are college students. One became an informant for the NYPD-CIA, and the other became a target of the NYPD-FBI. “I made a mistake,” said Rahman, who announced his duplicity on Facebook. Nafis also made a terrible mistake, using his Facebook account to brag about his views and then being “created and captured” into a web set up by the government. His case will go forward, but if the earlier cases of this kind are any indication, Nafis will soon be on his way to Terre Haute.
Early into the Albany case, Shamshad Ahmad met with Joe Lombardo of Bethlehem Neighbours for Peace, who offered to stand with the beleaguered Muslim community against the government’s wiles. Ahmad said to Lombardo, “Muslims are here, we are part of this society, and we are like any other regular members of it. The FBI’s game plan is to make us look like bad guys and enemies of society, and we want to fight that with the help of outspoken individuals and groups such as yourselves.” A coalition of the mosque’s members and the peace activists formed the Muslim Solidarity Committee (MSC) in 2006. Groups like MSC are invested in community actions to transform the fear that lingers in the hearts of so many Americans into something that resembles conviviality. It is this fear that invest politicians with the power to make policies that help the police “create and capture” terrorists and entrap the “hapless wannabes” for their high-profile cases and their high-security prisons.