How the FBI has transformed from a reactive law enforcement agency to a proactive counterterrorism organization that traps hapless individuals in order to justify the $3 billion it spends every year fighting terrorists.
A groundbreaking work of investigative journalism, The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War on Terrorism (Ig Publishing, 2013) exposes how the FBI has, under the guise of engaging in counterterrorism since 9/11, built a network of more than 15,000 informants whose primary purpose is to infiltrate Muslim communities to create and facilitate phony terrorist plots so that the Bureau can then claim it is winning the war on terror. The following is an excerpt from the book's introduction, showing the case against Michael Curtis Reynolds, a would-be terrorist who Aaronson argues was never a threat.
Michael Curtis Reynolds was unemployed and living in his elderly mother’s house in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, when he became a government-manufactured terrorist.
At forty-seven years of age, Reynolds was a drifter with a bad employment history and a worse credit report. In addition, his behavior over several decades suggested that his grip on reality was tenuous at best. In 1978, for example, he tried to blow up his parents’ house in Purdys, New York, wiring gasoline, cans of paint, and propane to a timed ignition device. The improvised bomb failed to ignite the propane and merely started a small fire. Reynolds pleaded guilty to attempted arson.
Reynolds got married in 1982 and fathered three children. His father-in-law, Richard Danise, despite not approving of the marriage, tried to help his daughter Tammy and Reynolds start a life together, giving them an acre of land and signing for a mortgage to finance the construction of a home. But Reynolds couldn’t reconcile the reality of his average life with the fantasy of his outsized ideas. “He literally wanted to build a castle, with turrets and everything else,” Danise remembered. The house was never built, and Tammy divorced Reynolds, getting full custody of their children.
Reynolds was a man on the margins, bouncing around from place to place, job to job. In 2005, outraged by the war in Iraq and living in his mother’s house in Pennsylvania, Reynolds logged in to a Yahoo forum called OBLCrew—OBL for Osama bin Laden—and shared his dream of bombing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. He needed assistance, he told the forum members. No one responded. Reynolds followed up the next day. “Still awaiting someone serious about contact. Would be a pity to lose this idea,” he wrote.
The following day, a person claiming to be an Al Qaeda operative responded and offered $40,000 to fund the attack, which evolved into a plan to fill trucks with explosives and bomb oil refineries in New Jersey and Wyoming, as well as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. They arranged to meet at a rest stop on Interstate 15 in Idaho, where Reynolds believed that he’d collect the $40,000 and move forward with his ambitious plan. But Reynolds didn’t know that his supposed Al Qaeda contact with money to burn was an FBI informant. On December 5, 2005, Reynolds arrived at the rest stop only to be greeted by FBI agents. At the time of his arrest, Reynolds had less than twenty-five dollars to his name. Eventually, he was tried and convicted of providing material support to Al Qaeda and received thirty years in prison. “Because of the astute work of the FBI, the diabolical plans of a would-be Al Qaeda sympathizer were uncovered,” Pennsylvania U.S. Attorney Thomas A. Marino said in a statement following Reynolds’s conviction. “Individuals such as Reynolds represent a threat to our safety. I commend the FBI and everyone involved in the prosecution of this case for bringing him to justice.”
Despite his conviction, was Reynolds a dangerous terrorist? The answer is no—he was a troubled man unlikely to escape the fringes of society. He talked big and had a history of doing stupid things. He was unemployed, broke, and living with his mother at middle age, a caricature of the all-American loser. But an informant posing as an Al Qaeda operative offered him more money than he had ever seen at one time in his entire life and overnight he became a “threat to our safety.”
For years, as an investigative reporter with newspapers, I couldn’t help but notice how the U.S. government was putting forward to the public people who seemed to have become terrorists only as a result of the prodding and inducements of FBI informants and undercover agents. In most of these cases, the defendants appeared to be sad sacks like Michael Curtis Reynolds—individuals with no capacity to do any significant harm if left to their own devices—and it was FBI informants who provided the ideas, the means, and the opportunities for horrific plots involving the bombings of government buildings and office towers, synagogues, and public transit systems. Curious, I began pulling court records about these cases and documenting which ones involved defendants who, like Reynolds, had no actual contacts with terrorist organizations and were lured into their plots by FBI informants. A provocative question underpinned my research: How many so-called terrorists prosecuted in U.S. courts since 9/11 were real terrorists? I wanted to do a systematic analysis of all terrorism cases since September 11, 2001, to answer this question, but I hit an early roadblock: While the U.S. Department of Justice tracked terrorism prosecutions internally, this data was not made public. I needed to know exactly which cases the Justice Department considered terrorism-related, and so I needed this internal data—which was impossible to obtain without someone leaking it from the inside.
Ironically, it was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Kuwaiti-born mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, who was responsible for my lucky break. After his capture in Pakistan in 2003, Mohammed had been sent to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. In November 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder decided that the Justice Department would prosecute Mohammed and four others involved in planning the 9/11 attacks at the U.S. District Court in Manhattan. Citing concerns about public safety and the handling of potentially classified information during a trial that would be open to the public, Congress questioned the wisdom of putting the 9/11 mastermind on trial on U.S. soil. Holder appeared before Congress in March 2010 to assure the public that the Justice Department was not only capable of providing a secure and fair setting for the trial, but also was well accomplished in prosecuting terrorists. To prove the latter, the attorney general provided a document containing nearly nine years’ worth of the very data I needed—a list of about 400 people whom the Justice Department had prosecuted in the United States since 9/11 and considered terrorists.
The document explained clearly, and for the first time publicly, how the Justice Department determined whether a particular defendant was a terrorist. The government segregated terrorism offenses into two categories. Category I included the kind of offenses you would typically associate with terrorism, such as aircraft sabotage, hostage taking, and providing material support to terrorists. Category II offenses could be any federal crime in the United States, including lower-level felony offenses such as an immigration violation or lying to an FBI agent, committed by someone who had a link, however oblique, to international terrorism. For the first time, I had a government data set that could form the basis of a systematic analysis of terrorism prosecutions since 9/11 and a formula to use in determining whether future cases fit the Justice Department’s terrorism criteria. How many of the defendants posed actual threats, based on the evidence? How many of the prosecutions involved FBI sting operations using informants? How many of those informants played such an active role in the investigation that they reasonably could be described as agents provocateurs? Those were just some of the questions I wanted to answer, and the data Attorney General Holder and the Justice Department provided represented only the beginning. For every case, I would need to pore over hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of court records to answer those questions. I would also need to add and analyze defendants whose cases met the Justice Department’s criteria for terrorism but were announced after Holder released his document in March 2010.
The cost of and time needed for this type of investigation seemed staggering, and I had about as much capacity to do it on my own as Michael Curtis Reynolds had on his own of bombing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. While I had some early research funding from the Carnegie Legal Reporting Fellowship at Syracuse University and the Fund for Investigative Journalism, I knew I needed about a year to build and analyze the database and then meet with enough current and former FBI officials to help me understand what the data meant. I pitched this ambitious project to the University of California Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, run by Lowell Bergman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former 60 Minutes producer. Bergman’s IRP had funded ambitious projects that examined in recent years, among other things, death investigations in the United States and the connections between U.S.-based casino companies and organized crime in Macau.
Bergman took a gamble on my project in the fall of 2010. For several months inside an office across the street from the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, I worked with a research assistant, Lauren Ellis, to examine closely court records from every case on the Justice Department’s list as well as from every subsequent case that fit the government’s criteria for terrorism. From these examinations we built a database that provided fields for whether an informant was used, the name of the informant, the role of the informant, and notes to explain how cases were connected, particularly through the use of the same informant. It was painstaking, time-consuming work. While the Justice Department discloses when the FBI uses informants, it doesn’t advertise their use. There’s no check box, no single place in the court file where the Justice Department reports whether the FBI used an informant in its investigation. Lauren and I had to read through thousands of pages of court records to find the information. Sometimes, confirmation of the government’s use of an informant was easy to locate—it would be mentioned on the first page of the criminal affidavit, one of the first documents prosecutors file when bringing charges. Other times, confirmation of an informant’s presence would be buried in a defense lawyer’s motion or wouldn’t come up until the trial.
But we didn’t stop there. A primary part of what we wanted to document was how the FBI used an informant in a terrorism case. Did the informant just provide a tip that the FBI acted on, as you might expect an informant to do? Or did he play a more active role, such as in a sting operation? And if the informant was in a sting operation, was he—like the informant in the case of Michael Curtis Reynolds—an agent provocateur, providing the means and opportunity to an individual who had no capacity on his own for terrorism? Looking closely at each case, we could determine this, and then document it systematically.
By August 2011, with nearly ten years of terrorism prosecutions since 9/11, we had a database of 508 defendants whom the U.S. government considered terrorists. The way the data broke down was illuminating. Of the 508 defendants, 243 had been targeted through an FBI informant, 158 had been caught in an FBI terrorism sting, and 49 had encountered an agent provocateur. Most of the people who didn’t face off against an informant weren’t directly involved with terrorism at all, but were instead Category II offenders, small-time criminals with distant links to terrorists overseas. Seventy-two of these Category II offenders had been charged with making false statements, while 121 had been prosecuted for immigration violations. Of the 508 cases, I could count on one hand the number of actual terrorists, such as failed New York City subway bomber Najibullah Zazi, who posed a direct and immediate threat to the United States.
While building the terrorism database, I spent a lot of time in New York and Washington, D.C., interviewing current and former FBI agents in an effort to understand what was going on at the Bureau and what the story was behind the data. I also pulled state court records in cities including New York, Los Angeles, and Miami in an attempt to reveal the full tales of the men—most of them criminals themselves—identified as informants in FBI sting operations. Lowell Bergman and I presented our findings to Mother Jones, which agreed to sign on as a full partner, devoting a cover story and substantial resources to make my database accessible and searchable online, as well as providing the fact-checking manpower to make sure that everything, from the data to the story, was correct and confirmed.
What became clear from my reporting is that in the decade since 9/11, the FBI has built the largest network of spies ever to exist in the United States—with ten times as many informants on the streets today as there were during the infamous Cointelpro operations under FBI director J. Edgar Hoover—with the majority of these spies focused on ferreting out terrorism in Muslim communities. The Mother Jones story revealed for the first time the inner workings of the FBI’s informant program and how agents provocateurs were behind most of the scary terrorist plots you’ve heard about since 9/11. But after that story was published, I couldn’t help but think about all of the material I had that didn’t make it into the article—the rich history of how the FBI transformed into something of a domestic CIA, the inside stories of dozens of terrorism sting operations, interviews with current and former FBI agents I’d met during my reporting, and the full explanation of how the government has exaggerated the threat of Islamic terrorism in the United States. I believe the FBI’s use of terrorism stings is one of the most important national security stories of the last decade, and a desire to tell that story in full, and in as much detail I could, led me to write this book.
For more than a decade, the FBI has thrown as much as it can toward an effort to stop the “next” terrorist attack. Every year, the U.S. government allocates $3 billion to the FBI to prevent the next 9/11, more money than the Bureau receives to combat organized crime. But what an analysis of ten years’ worth of Justice Department data shows is that Islamic terrorism in the United States is not an immediate and dangerous threat. The FBI’s thousands of informants and billions of dollars have not resulted in the capture of dozens of killers ready and able to bomb a crowded building or gun down people in a suburban shopping mall. Instead, the FBI’s trawling in Muslim communities has resulted largely in sting operations that target easily susceptible men on the margins of society, men like Michael Curtis Reynolds. Since 9/11, the FBI and the Justice Department have labeled as terrorists a mentally troubled man who worked at Walmart, a video game store clerk whose only valuable possession was a set of stereo speakers, a university student who was about to be evicted from his apartment, and a window washer who had dropped out of college, among others. All of these men were involved in FBI terrorism stings in which an informant came up with the idea and provided the necessary means and opportunity for the terrorist plot. While we have captured a few terrorists since 9/11, we have manufactured many more.
Reprinted with permission from The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War on Terrorism by Trevor Aaronson and published by Ig Publishing, 2013.