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The Kansas Bomb Plot: What Has the Media Missed?

Photo: Mel Underbakke.

Resolution has been reached in the Kansas Bomb Plot case with the sentencing of three men on January 25 for conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy against civil rights. Two of the men, Curtis Allen and Gavin Wright, were sentenced to 25 years on the first charge, and 10 years on the second, with sentences to be served concurrently.  Wright also received an additional year for lying to the FBI. Patrick Stein, considered to be the ringleader, was sentenced to 30 years.

The targets of the plot were a group of Somali immigrants. Why were they targeted? Because of their race, national origin and their religion, which is Islam. The community was very traumatized, and is still fearful. One of the victims testified by video at the sentencing, saying “Don’t hate us. Please don’t kill us. We are brothers and sisters. Please change your mind.”

This was an undeniably horrible plan that was to take place the day after the 2016 election – if Trump were not elected. Although even the judge expressed doubt that the defendants could have carried out the plot, many innocent people would have died had it succeeded.

Attorneys for the defense argued that the context of the election campaign in 2016 should be taken into account, since then-candidate Donald Trump was warning that radical Muslims were “trying to take over our children.” Wright’s attorneys argued that, “As long as the executive branch ‘condemns Islam and commends and encourages violence against would-be enemies, then a sentence imposed by the Judicial Branch does little to deter people generally from engaging in such conduct if they believe they are protecting their countries from enemies identified by their own Commander-in-Chief.”

There has been a massive amount of media coverage of this case. The narrative has typically been that Stein, Allen, and Wright were plotting to bomb a Somali community when another man named Dan Day came across the plot and stopped it by reporting it to the FBI. For example, the Associated Press reported that the conspiracy was “foiled after another militia member alerted authorities and agreed to wear a wire as a paid FBI informant.”

But what has the media missed? Possibly the most important aspect that has not been mentioned is that there was no plot to disrupt until Dan Day came along and created one. Day became a paid FBI informant in October of 2015, and didn’t meet Patrick Stein until February 2016. At that time, Stein did not know Allen and Wright, so clearly there could have been no conspiracy in the works. Stein met the other two men at the end of February of 2016, but Day did not meet Allen and Wright until March of 2016.  When he met the men, Day began fanning the flames of hatred and fear regarding Muslims. He also recorded everything that was said, even accidentally recording some dialogue with his FBI handlers about how to proceed with the plot. The three men were very susceptible to his influence; Stein due to mental health, drug and alcohol issues and Allen because of PTSD from his service as a Marine in Iraq. Wright had just been through a divorce, lost his dad and moved to a new location.

What else was missed? The “ringleader”, Patrick Stein, received the longest sentence, but he did not commit any act other than speech. There is no denying that he said a lot of horrible things about the Somalis and Muslims, and he talked a lot! He was described as “extraordinarily loquacious” and very “enthusiastic” in the planning. But his attorney Jim Pratt noted that he was “all hat and no cattle,” and he went on to say that “the government was willing to supply the cattle.”

In Stein’s case, there was only speech, but the prosecutor claimed that Stein is particularly dangerous because he is ideologically motivated. She went on to say that terrorists are an ongoing risk because they are ideologically motivated.

Speech, even hate speech, is protected by the Constitution, but the judge felt that this speech was particularly heinous because of the “animus to race and religion” and deserving of an extremely long sentence. For the same reason, he felt this plot was worsethan the Oklahoma City bombing, even though 168 people died in that bombing.

There was no act of violence in the case, only talk and informant-aided planning. However, even though no act of violence had occurred in this case, the judge noted the extreme emotional trauma inflicted on the Somalis. Regarding this point, it is worth noting that the Somalis only learned about the plot from the media. One of the Somali men testified via video that he saw it [the plot] on TV, and his wife was at home so he was very scared.

There have been hundreds of similar cases since 9/11 in the government’s ongoing “war on terror” in which the US government has targeted and entrapped individuals, using “confidential informants” to persuade or coerce the targets into participating in illegal activities manufactured by the FBI. Most of these targets have been Muslim, but the technique is also being used with non-Muslims. These cases are detailed by the Coalition for Civil Freedoms and Project SALAM in the 2014 report Inventing Terrorists, the Lawfare of Preemptive Prosecution.

The so-called confidential informants – actually professional con men and criminals – befriend the target, and probe for weaknesses. They challenge the target to support violent action, and to remain loyal to their co-conspirators. Targets are goaded into speaking intemperately. The defendants’ words are secretly recorded, and analyzed by the FBI to determine how best to manipulate the targets. Against the overwhelming power of trained professionals and unlimited resources, the defendants have no chance. Hundreds have been  entrapped in this way.

Virtually every entrapment case brought by the FBI has resulted in a victory for the prosecution because, unlike most Western Democracies, America has no effective legal defense against entrapments.  Hundreds of targets – mostly Muslim – have been entrapped and convicted over the last two decades for phony crimes which they probably would not have committed if the FBI had not come along with a hunger for convictions and unlimited resources to achieve them.

Let us be clear. The actions which Stein, Allen and Wright were induced to take by the FBI– bombing a Somali housing complex – were wrong and would have been criminal – had they taken place.  Just as the actions that many Muslims and other targets were induced to take were wrong and criminal.  Violence and hate speech directed at other groups is un-American. We must all take responsibility to ensure that it stops.  But in a free society people must be able to speak their minds without fear that it will bring the predatory power and resources of the government after them with the intention of entrapment.  It is not the FBI’s job to decide with some kind of crystal ball who might engage in crime in the future, and to entrap these targets in pretext plots to prevent crime before it happens. The FBI’s job is to solve crime – not create it.

The victims of these sting operations are more than just the defendants whose lives have been ruined by entrapment. The families here have all been devastated and have the right to ask, “How could this have been done to us by our own government?” Their community, and other communities like theirs, can well feel an overwhelming sense of betrayal from a government who was supposed to protect them. This sense of betrayal is also shared by hundreds of Muslim families and communities who have lost loved ones to entrapment. In the end, this sense of betrayal will be the greatest legacy of predatory entrapment.  Who can ever trust the government, knowing that it maintains a policy to manipulate—and radicalize—its citizens into criminal conduct.

We assume that the Somali community wants to live in peace with its neighbors.  It does not want the government inflaming hatred between communities. In what way will FBI “protection” by entrapment benefit anyone? In what possible way is it better for the FBI to inflame hatred against the Somali community and then entrap and incarcerate people who react to this provoked hatred, rather than educating people on what fine American citizens and residents the Somali community and immigrants in general have proven to be. What happened to the defendants here and to the Somali community as well, represents a fundamental betrayal by the federal government of its duty toward its citizens.

Throughout the sentencing the judge indicated that he realized that the paid informant played a major role in creating the plot, and he had strong doubts that the defendants had the ability to carry out the plot. However, he also said that in a conspiracy charge, none of that mattered. He repeated several times that he didn’t think the FBI did anything wrong.

Entrapment is such an infringement on our personal liberties that legislation is long overdue to limit the FBI’s entrapment to Constitutional parameters.We intend to propose legislation this year to prevent this kind of abuse from ever happening again.

Mel Underbakke is the Executive Director of the Coalition for Civil Freedoms (CCF).  Steve Downs was formerly the Executive Director of the CCF, and currently serves as the Chairman of the Board of Directors.

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