Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 12, 2010

Walking a tightrope: Mr. Holder on terrorist stings and entrapment

Filed under: Legal Issues,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on December 12, 2010

Friday evening Attorney-General Holder spoke to the annual dinner in San Francisco of the Muslim Advocates.   Applause greeted many of his comments, including:

There can be no “us” or “them” among Americans. And I believe that law enforcement has an obligation to ensure that members of every religious community enjoy the ability to worship and to practice their faith in peace, free from intimidation, violence or suspicion. That is the right of all Americans. And it must be a reality for every citizen. In this nation, our many faiths, origins, and appearances must bind us together – not break us apart. Our justice system must be used to empower, not to exclude or target. And security and liberty must be guideposts – not opposing forces – in ensuring safety and opportunity for all.  (Read his prepared remarks)

The audience of mostly Muslim lawyers was less pleased with the Attorney-General’s defense of “sting operations” directed against potential terrorists.

Some have expressed concerns about the recent charges brought against Mohamed Osman Mohamud in Portland, Oregon, for his alleged involvement in planning – and attempting to execute – a terror attack during a Christmas Tree-lighting celebration.

Mr. Mohamud’s arrest was the result of a successful undercover operation – a critical and frequently used law enforcement tool that has helped identify and defuse public safety threats such as those posed by potential terrorists, drug dealers and child pornographers for decades. These types of operations have proven to be an essential law enforcement tool in uncovering and preventing potential terror attacks.

Since 2001, more than 400 individuals have been convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related violations in federal courts. And in those terrorism cases where undercover sting operations have been used, there is a lengthy record of convictions.

The use of sting operations has been effective in flushing out several freelance operators.  There has, however, been concern that such tactics have amplified the actual threat presented by several suspects.  This was previously discussed at HLSWatch in regard to the wanna-be Portland Christmas Tree bomber. (Here and here.)

Saturday in Stockholm two explosions were linked to threats emailed to a Swedish news agency and others. It appears a vehicle-bomb caught fire but did not fully detonate, while nearby an apparent  suicide bomber killed himself, perhaps earlier than he intended.  While both blasts occurred in a busy shopping area only two others were slightly injured.

According to the BBC:

Police are investigating a set of e-mails sent shortly before the blasts threatening attacks because Sweden had sent troops to Afghanistan. Sweden has some 500 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan as part of the international military force.

The e-mails, with MP3 audio files in Swedish and Arabic, were sent to the Swedish security service and the TT news agency. They called for “mujahideen” – or Islamist fighters – to rise up in Sweden and Europe, promising Swedes would “die like our brothers and sisters”.

They also attacked the country for caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad drawn by Swedish artist Lars Vilks.

The investigation of the Stockholm bombings is still in its earliest stages, but media reports suggest that Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, a 29-year-old Iraqi Swede was acting alone.  According to coverage of the Swedish blasts in The Guardian (UK):

“The worrying thing about this development is that there is almost zero chance of finding lone jihadists like this before they strike, and that – as each is acting alone – there can be greater numbers of attacks,” said Claude Moniquet, head of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre in Brussels.

Well… Mr. Holder might point to the Portland suspect, two recent arrests in Virginia and Maryland, and the product of other sting operations in the United States.  

Sting operations — like most police tactics — work best when tough procedures and protocols, combined with professional supervision, and the highest prosecutorial standards eliminate short-cuts and give the suspects plenty of space for extracting themselves.  When this is done and the suspects demonstrate not just a readiness for pulling the trigger but a commitment to doing so, I would rather sting than be stung.

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Comment by Arnold Bogis

December 12, 2010 @ 8:40 pm

I certainly don’t disagree with your conclusion regarding stinging vs. stung(ing?). Yet these episodes still unnerve and do not make me feel comfortable that we’ve developed a domestic law enforcement/intelligence system appropriate to the challenges we face.

Every sting seems to involve someone looking to not be a lone wolf. They actively seek other help or participants in their schemes (I hesitate to call any of these plots). Not one has struck me, at least through what is known through media reporting, to have been capable of pulling off any of the set-up attacks. In every instance the FBI not only is (thankfully) controlling the situation, but is actively required to supply all the materials to get to the point the wanna-be terrorist dials that cellphone to explode the “bomb.”

Perhaps they are just catching the periphery of a population that is willing to resort to violence? Just as an off-the-cuff example, what if the FBI targeted churches or other venues where known violence-espousing anti-abortion activists congregate? Could they perhaps convince one of their number to follow through with their ambitions towards violence? I don’t know the answer, but it is a troubling question.

Following 9/11, the nation rejected a MI-5-like domestic intelligence capability and the FBI stepped up to say they could handle the counter-terrorism job. It seems, however, that they are using tried and true methods applicable in criminal cases to terrorism. I’m not entirely sure they translate. I’m no expert, but stings that catch drug dealers and child pornographers seem to be targeted against those who are suspected to have trafficked in the past. These terrorist stings seem to be throwing a wide net to see who is espousing violent intent and seeing how far they will go.

I suspect and worry that the terrorists we have the most to fear will certainly not allow a random stranger (i.e. FBI plant) to so easily infiltrate their plans. I hope I am wrong.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 13, 2010 @ 5:04 am

Arnold, We don’t disagree. The opportunity for abuse is considerable. I welcome all the skepticism, concern about entrapment, and related legal challenges. This is part of keeping the process as principled as possible. I also want a law enforcement tool-kit sufficiently tough to address a serious challenge within the bounds of our legal system. It is a tightrope. We will occasionally fall. If we are operating within the legal system, we have a good safety net. It is when we step outside the legal system that I am more concerned about a deadly fall.

Comment by A Tightrope Indeed!

December 13, 2010 @ 7:48 am


A tightrope indeed!

Remember that those seeking our demise at a time of War, those willing to take up sword and stand over us and cut our heads off without any hesitation…intentional atrocities against the “infidel” and civilization.

This is serious business.

Those directly involved w/Homeland Security should be working with the new Congressional members of which 50% of entering House members are new and stringent laws should be enacted by anyone involved in any terrorist planning and activity.

Let us not underestimate those seeking our demise. They are intent in their ways and we must be prepared and all law enforcement must have whatever they need to effectively alter such devious plans and expect that laws in place offer no loopholes whatsoever…

Com’on fellas, let get it Rght! 9/11 happened long ago and from the perspective on Main Street USA, we need to use every tool and more.

We are at great peril.

By the way, when will the world – not the US – the world address Iran. Have you not learned from history. Substantial measures should be taken now in the global community imposing very serious sanctions on the “Brutes of Tehran” and their dastardly deeds.

Also, while the Chinese gear up with $1.8 trillion dollars (our fed notes) dedicated to new innovation, technology, business development, it is time China plays its role in the global community and lets the “youngster” in Korea know that while it does not want millions jumping its border from North Korea, this – axis of evil – will not be tolerated.


Comment by John G Comiskey

December 13, 2010 @ 8:41 am

Please: sting away!

LE/Intelligence stings are a necessary evil that democratic society struggles with. Traces of ultra nationalism and anathematic domestic spying pervade our understanding and acceptance of normative democratic governance.

The 9/11 Commission lamented failed imagination and recommended intelligence reform. Those recommendations included affirmative means to avoid the slippery slope to totalitarianism and to ensure a level of civility and privacy commensurate with the Constitution.

Domestic intelligence is an imperfect practice that attempts to provide the government with both strategical and tactical advantage over those who would do us harm. It asks all of us to say something when we see or hear something that might threaten our hometown-homeland security.

Domestic Intelligence deters criminals and terrorists who might fear detection should they attempt to enlist the aid of conspirators that might be undercover government officials/confidential informants. The wide net cast by domestic intelligence and law enforcement typically yields the unlucky/unwise/happenstance criminals and terrorists. Those who are committed/addicted to criminality/terrorism will, by necessity, further entangle themselves in the net.

Collaterally, unwise and sometimes not fully aware or mentally incompetent criminals/terrorists will also entangle themselves in the net. Perhaps an unknowing, foolish, or innocent person might also entangle him/her self in that same net. To that end, I propose K-12 and public educational initiatives to inform citizens of the “new normalcy” and commensurate civic rights AND responsibilities.

Lest we be stung!

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