In his speech on national security on May 23, 2013, President Obama addressed the threat of terrorism perpetrated inside the United States, stating that “the best way to prevent violent extremism inspired by violent jihadists is to work with the Muslim American community, which has consistently rejected terrorism, to identify signs of radicalization, and partner with law enforcement when an individual is drifting towards violence.”
Trevor Aaronson, in his new book The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism (Ig Publishing, January 2013), gives a very contradicting assessment of what this partnership actually entails, one that the government––by the looks of things––has no plans on reigning in anytime soon.
Assembling together the research that was originally a part of his award-winning project about FBI counterterrorism operations for Mother Jones in September 2011, Aaronson poured through the court records of every terrorism-related prosecution in the United States in the ten years following 9/11 to amass a staggering list of 508 defendants considered to be terrorists by the U.S. government. Analyzing this data in accordance as to whether the defendant was targeted through the use of an FBI informant, caught in an FBI terrorism sting or encountered by an agent provocateur (an undercover government agent used to provoke the defendant into illegal activity), Aaronson determined that he “could count on one hand” the number of actual terrorists who posed a direct and immediate threat to the United States.
We have all repeatedly been made well aware of who these “actual terrorists” are that he is referring to, people like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up an airplane over Detroit; Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square car bomber, and Richard Reid, the infamous “Shoe Bomber,” all of whom were mentioned in Obama’s address.
But what about all of the other initially well-publicized and media-warped terror-related cases that have come and gone since 9/11, cases such as the Lackawanna Six, the Liberty City Seven, or the Newburgh Four? These cases, and the ultimate convictions of those involved, were sold to the American people as triumphs in national security and further evidence as to the legitimacy of the whopping $3 billion from its $7.8 billion annual budget that the FBI allocated to its counterterrorism division in fiscal year 2011-2012.
And then they were swiftly swept under the carpet.
With the help and cooperation of dozens of current and former FBI agents around the country, The Terror Factory provides a rare glimpse inside the lives of these supposed terrorists who Aaronson describes as “powerless braggarts,” often times on the fringes of society, occupying neither the skills nor the financial resources necessary to execute an attack on their own and who never came into contact with Al Qaeda or any other terrorist network whatsoever. As one former agent said on behalf of Mahamed Osman Mohamud, the nineteen-year-old Somali-American student convicted of trying to bomb a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon: “This is a kid who, it can be reasonably inferred, barely had the capacity to put his shoes on in the morning.”
While every case is different, the disturbing pattern of a results-driven Bureau sending out undercover agents and informants who goad and coax these defendants with financial incentives, ideas, and mock weapons of mass destruction quickly emerges. Thus, these individuals, who are usually only guilty of committing some sort of Orwellian “thought crime” before the FBI becomes involved––watching jihadi videos on the Internet or ranting about a hatred of Jews––transform overnight into national security threats thwarted by the government in the fight against the “War on Terror,” or as Aaronson strongly asserts, “manufactured” terrorists.
In crisp, clean investigative fashion, The Terror Factory doles out one eye-opener after the next, taking readers through the strange and often sordid methods that are routinely utilized by the FBI’s network of over 15,000 informants, the largest network of spies ever to exist in the United States. The majority of these informants––who can literally be anyone; doctors, clerks, imams––are all deeply rooted within Muslim communities throughout the U.S., a practice that began under the George W. Bush administration, but has become even more common under Obama. While he claims to be working with the Muslim American community to help identify the next “lone wolf” terrorist before they strike, his administration appears far more focused on infiltration more than anything else, putting the government needlessly at odds with a community that would otherwise be eager to assist them in the fight against radicalization, if only they knew who they could trust.
During the course of his research for what would become The Terror Factory, Aaronson received financial support from the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California Berkley, the Fund for Investigative Journalism, and the Carnegie Legal Reporting Fellowship at Syracuse University, as well as a 2011 cover story in Mother Jones magazine. In January 2013 the book was released by Ig Publishing, a Brooklyn-based small press publisher that specializes in authors who are overlooked by the mainstream establishment, along with political and cultural nonfiction with a progressive bent. Since its publication, Aaronson has appeared on popular television channels such as MSNBC, CBS, and C-SPAN to discuss his work.
Yet, despite all that this book offers in terms of Aaronson’s indepth, leave-no-stone-unturned brand of investigative reportage, its central thesis––that the FBI’s current counterterrorism policies essentially run counterproductive––still ultimately finds itself rooted within an impossible ideological deficit.
Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who was interviewed by Aaronson, summed up the rather inarguable nature of the debate at hand quite well in his scathing review published by The Wall Street Journal in January. On the subject of Michael Curtis Reynolds, who described his dream of bombing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in an Internet chat forum and who Aaronson described as “a caricature of the all-American loser,” Soufan writes:
As you can't prosecute someone just for professing a desire to kill Americans, and you can't read minds to determine if they really intend to carry out their threats, either you wait to see if the real al Qaeda gets in contact—and hope you can track them—or you intercede. Most Americans would no doubt prefer the latter option to taking a serious gamble with civilian lives.
For every seemingly faux-terrorist that The Terror Factory examines, horrendous events like those which took place in Boston and, most recently, on the streets of London in broad daylight, will continue to provide the FBI with the justification that they need in order to maintain the status quo––and quite possibly expand upon it.