investigative report by Democracy Now! producer Anjali Kamat and Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films.
Democracy Now! producer.
independent journalist. She is finishing a book on terrorism trials in the United States called The Best Terrorists We Could Find.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys made their final arguments this week in the trial of the Newburgh Four, a high-profile case that has made national headlines as a potent example of so-called "homegrown terror." The defense has argued that the defendants were entrapped by government agents and not predisposed to commit a terrorist crime. For several months, Democracy Now!’s Anjali Kamat and Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films traveled through Muslim communities in New York and New Jersey to track the Newburgh case and two others. In all three, Muslim men were arrested on terrorism charges. In all three, no terrorist crime was actually committed. And all three cases relied heavily on hundreds of hours of surveillance recorded by a paid government informant. Today, a Democracy Now! special investigation. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Prosecutors and defense attorneys made their final arguments this week in the trial of the Newburgh Four, a high-profile case that has made national headlines as a potent example of so-called homegrown terror. The four men from Newburgh, New York, are charged with plotting to bomb a synagogue and a Jewish community center in the Bronx. US Assistant Attorney David Raskin says the four are, quote, "criminally minded" people who, quote, "wanted to do something to America." But the defense argued they were entrapped by government agents and not predisposed to commit a terrorist crime.
The case of the Newburgh Four bears many of the same characteristics of two other recent so-called homegrown terror cases involving Muslim men: the case of the Fort Dix Five, where five men from suburban New Jersey were convicted last year of conspiring to kill American soldiers at the Fort Dix Army base, and a case in Albany, New York, where a pizzeria owner and the imam of a local mosque were convicted of money laundering and conspiracy to support terrorism. In all three cases, Muslim men were arrested on terror charges. In all three cases, no terrorist crime was actually committed. In fact, no one was killed or injured. And all three cases rely heavily on hundreds of hours of surveillance secretly recorded by a paid government informant.
Well, Democracy Now!'s Anjali Kamat and Big Noise Films' Jacquie Soohen spent months tracking these three stories. Anjali Kamat files this report.
KRISTINE JOHNSON: Motivated by hate and bent on killing their neighbors.
REPORTER: According to the FBI, this was a plot to blow up two synagogues and a community center, all in the Bronx.
ANJALI KAMAT: On May 20th, 2009, four African American men from the city of Newburgh, New York, were arrested outside a synagogue in the Bronx. Known as the Newburgh Four, they made national headlines as stark examples of “homegrown terror.”
REPORTER: Prosecutors describe the suspects as extremely violent men who embraced every opportunity for terrorism.
ANJALI KAMAT: More than a year after their arrest, the Newburgh Four are now facing trial in Manhattan for conspiracy to use of weapons of mass destruction and anti-aircraft missiles. But the case has raised serious questions about the government’s role in creating and then foiling fake terror plots.
REPORTER: The suspects were duped. The bombs and missile were fake, supplied by the FBI and NYPD.
ANJALI KAMAT: Alicia McCollum is the aunt of David Williams, one of the Newburgh Four. Since his arrest, she has tried to mobilize support for her nephew. Taking the train to the first day of the trial in August, she is visibly upset.
ALICIA McWILLIAMS-McCOLLUM: I was restless last night. I couldn’t even sleep. You know, it was just so much. You know, you think about the family and what you’re getting ready to go through, and it’s like this whole year of fighting for the case, and now it’s like finally happening and we’re going to trial. And just worried, you know, that the governemnt want to make a case so bad that my nephew can go away for life, so it’s just been like heavy on my mind last night. Very heavy.
ANJALI KAMAT: Like the other members of the Newburgh Four, twenty-nine-year-old David Williams lived in the economically devastated city of Newburgh and had served prison time on drug charges and petty criminal offenses. All four men were converts to Islam, and one of them, Laguerre Payen, is a Haitian-born immigrant and a paranoid schizophrenic.
Alicia says she was shocked when she heard that these four men were being called terrorists.
ALICIA McWILLIAMS-McCOLLUM: Well, I got a call at 3:00, 2009, in May, 3:00 at night, and my sister said they kicked in Lissy house. I’m like, "Who kicked in Lissy house?"
They was like, "The FBI."
I’m like, "The FBI? What are you talking about?"
She was like, "David. It got something to do with David. It’s on the news."
So I turned the news, and I’m looking at Bronx 12. It kept saying "Bronx Terror."
NEWS ANCHOR: Federal agents moved in tonight and say their suspects are homegrown would-be terrorists.
ALICIA McWILLIAMS-McCOLLUM: I was cursing my TV out. They kept showing David. They kept showing David, I’m like, "Oh, my god!" It was horrible. You know, I’m like, "Homeland Security? The FBI? Bloomberg?" We did not turn from the news.
ANJALI KAMAT: Approaching the courthouse, Alicia, a devout christian, says a prayer.
ALICIA McWILLIAMS-McCOLLUM: Keep your hands on me, Father. Guide me through these six weeks, Lord. Give me strength. Give me strength.
ANJALI KAMAT: The Newburgh case is only one of several high-profile terrorism cases in the New York-New Jersey area. Less than a three-hour drive from Newburgh is the quiet suburb of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. In May of 2007, it was the center of an FBI raid.
NEWS ANCHOR: Police arrested six men and charged them with planning to attack the Fort Dix Army base.
REPORTER: Four of the six were of Albanian descent, and they’re suspected of being Islamic fundamentalists.
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: This is a new kind of terrorism. It is not only coming from outside the United States in, but it is also growing inside our own country.
FBI SPECIAL AGENT J.P. WEISS: These homegrown terrorists can prove to be as dangerous as any known group, if not more so.
BURIM DUKA: It all happened from when me and my brothers and a couple of friends, we went to a Poconos trip.
ANJALI KAMAT: Burim Duka is the younger brother of three of the men convicted of conspiring to attack the nearby Fort Dix Army base. He explains that the FBI began following them after the family took their annual vacation to the Pocono mountains in northern Pennsylvania in 2006.
BURIM DUKA: We were going to the Poconos once a year, around the beginning of the year, in wintertime. We would go either in January or February. For one week, we used to go.
Smile for the camera.
We went skiing. We were playing soccer in the snow. We were doing a lot of stuff. And then me and my brother, Eljvir Duka, we went to Circuit City. We wanted everyone to have copies of how much fun we had.
ANJALI KAMAT: Burim Duka and his brother Eljvir had taken their home video to Circuit City to make DVDs. Included in the footage are scenes of the brothers and their friends firing guns in what they claim was simply target practice. As they shoot, the young men are heard to say, “Allahu Akbar,” an Arabic phrase that means "God is great." When they’re not shooting, they just seem to be having fun, throwing snowballs and posing for the camera.
BURIM DUKA: What’s happening, brother?
BROTHER: What’s up, man? Allahu Akbar.
ANJALI KAMAT: The clerk at Circuit City, however, decided to turn the video over to the local police.
BURIM DUKA: That’s how the case all started, from the clerk at Circuit City. He turned it in to the police. The police turned it in to the FBI, and they started following us from then.
ANJALI KAMAT: When the men were arrested in 2007, federal prosecutors said their trips to the Poconos, as well as a later excursion to play paintball, were all part of their training for jihad. They said the group was plotting to attack the Fort Dix Army base near their home. Two years later, five of the men on the Poconos trip, all in their twenties, were convicted of conspiring to kill American soldiers at Fort Dix.
The Duka family are Albanians from the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Ferik and Zurata Duka came to the United States in 1984 and lived in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, with their three sons, Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir. As their family grew larger, they moved to New Jersey, and the boys joined their father in his roofing and construction business. At the time of their arrest, Dritan and Eljvir Duka were married with six children. Now, with three of the brothers in solitary confinement in the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, the children live with the grandparents.
We visited the family in July and met Lejla Duka, a twelve-year-old who insists her father, Dritan Duka, is innocent.
LEJLA DUKA: I know they’re innocent. We all do. But people out there just don’t want to look into the evidence. Hopefully they’ll come home.
ANJALI KAMAT: The three Duka brothers, along with their Palestinian American friend Mohamad Shnewer, are serving sentences of life plus thirty years.
Hanan Shnewer is the sister of Mohamad Shnewer. She’s also married to Eljvir Duka. She says the men are not terrorists.
HANAN SHNEWER: They’re not that kind of people. They’re normal people, not maniacs like the way they made them seem. Mostly I think it’s Muslims are now a target for American government, and that’s mostly the purpose, I know.
ANJALI KAMAT: Two hundred miles from the Duka house, Fatima Hossein, covered in a full veil, is busy running a pizzeria in downtown Albany. While caring for her six children, aged four to eighteen, she works from morning to night making pizza. She and her husband, Mohammed Hossein, are Bangladeshi immigrants. Her husband was arrested in 2004 along with the imam of the local mosque in a money laundering scheme the FBI claims was related to terrorism. Fatima still has trouble explaining what happened to her family.
FATIMA HOSSEIN: This is not easy answer to tell that, what happened. It still is, to me, look like something like broke on your head. My husband, he’s really hardworking man. I think — I wish you can have a chance to meet with him. Everybody know him, all the local people, as he’s delivery man, fixing house, taking care of family. His life turned different, like tragedy.
JAMES COMEY: Last night, FBI agents in Albany, New York, arrested two men: thirty-four-year-old Yassin Muhiddin Aref and forty-nine-year-old Mohammed Mosharref Hossein.
ANJALI KAMAT: In August of 2004, Mohammed Hossein and Yassin Aref, neither of whom had any criminal record, were arrested and accused of being terrorists. Two years later they were convicted of money laundering and conspiracy to support terrorism and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
REPORTER: The Muslim community is standing strong and speaking out as two of their members learn their fate.
SHAMSHAD AHMAD: They are not terrorists. They had no criminal record. They had no interest of any violation of laws that are so. Simply, they were tricked.
ANJALI KAMAT: Supporters of the two men say Mohammed Hossein thought he was just getting a loan from a Pakistani man who had recently befriended him. He enlisted the imam, Yassin Aref, who was a Kurdish refugee from Iraq, to witness the loan. What they didn’t know at the time was that the National Security Agency had been secretly wiretapping Yassin Aref’s phone calls, and the loan was part of an FBI sting operation. The generous Pakistani man was in fact an FBI informant.
AMY GOODMAN: Homegrown terror or entrapment? We’ll come back to this documentary by Democracy Now!'s Anjali Kamat and Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We return now to Anjali Kamat and Jacquie Soohen's "Homegrown Terror or Entrapment?" This is Democracy Now!, as we return to a report on the FBI’s use of undercover informants in domestic terror cases. The report focuses on the Newburgh Four case, where jury deliberations are set to begin today over whether four African American men from Newburgh, New York, are guilty of conspiring to attack a synagogue and Jewish community center in the Bronx. The report also looks at two older cases, that of the Fort Dix Five, five young men from suburban New Jersey who were convicted last year of conspiring to attack US soldiers at the Fort Dix Army base, and a case in Albany, New York, where two men were convicted in 2007 of money laundering and conspiring to support terrorism.
ANJALI KAMAT: Like the case of the Fort Dix Five and the Newburgh Four, no terrorist crime was actually committed in Albany. No bombs went off. Nothing was blown up. No one was killed or even injured. All three cases rest on fake plots concocted by the FBI and rely heavily on hundreds of hours of surveillance video and audio secretly recorded by a paid government informant.
Karen Greenberg from New York University’s Center on Law and Security says informants have become a crucial part of the post-9/11 domestic counterterrorism strategy.
KAREN GREENBERG: The use of informants in the fifty most high-profile terrorism cases since 9/11 is 62 percent. The conviction rate for those cases that involved informants is almost a hundred percent; it’s 97 percent. So that gives you a kind of sense of how important they are and how useful they’ve been.
ANJALI KAMAT: The FBI did not respond to our request for an interview, but we did speak to a former FBI agent who worked with multiple informants during his thirty-five years at the bureau. James Wedick told us that informants are unreliable sources.
JAMES WEDICK: Look, informants are the most dangerous individuals on the planet. If you don’t monitor them, something can go wrong.
ANJALI KAMAT: A former street agent, Wedick says the line between uncovering terrorist plots and creating them has become increasingly blurry.
JAMES WEDICK: I’ll venture to say in 90 percent — 90 percent of the cases that you see that have occurred in the last ten years are garbage.
ANJALI KAMAT: In Albany, the FBI used an informant named Shahed Hussain. He was a Pakistani businessman who fled his country after being arrested three times on charges that included murder. He wound up in Albany, New York, in 1994, where he set up an illegal license scheme while working as a translator at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Shamshad Ahmad is the president of the As-Salaam mosque in Albany.
SHAMSHAD AHMAD: Living in a suburb where there are other Pakistanis, he was known to them. And people did not have a good opmnion about him. They knew that he is cunning, he is deceptive, he cheats. Later on, we found out that he was also known in the community that he can arrange illegal licenses.
ANJALI KAMAT: The feds caught on to Shahed Hussain’s license scam, and in 2003 he was arrested in a sting operation. But as Muslim communities in America came under increased scrutiny after 9/11, Shahed Hussain proved to be very useful. He was a Muslim willing to spy on fellow Muslims in exchange for amnesty. Instead of sending him to jail or deporting him, he got off on a plea deal, and the FBI hired him as an informant.
KAREN GREENBERG: When you’re dealing with informants, you’re dealing with people who have been convicted of or threatened with conviction or found in the act of some kind of criminality. And there is everything in their interest to make sure that they do what the FBI wants.
ANJALI KAMAT: In the summer of 2003, the informant showed up at Mohammed Hossein’s pizzeria in Albany, posing as a wealthy businessman with ties to militant groups in Pakistan. Mohammed Hossein’s wife Fatima recalls how persistent the informant was in trying to befriend them.
FATIMA HOSSEIN: This person keeps coming to me, coming to me. And after a couple time, I told my husband, I says, "Look like he’s keep coming, keep coming. I don’t know what is his intention or anything."
ANJALI KAMAT: The informant drew Mohammed Hossein into extended debates about jihad. Across hours of secretly recorded conversations, the informant repeatedly brought up American foreign policy and the role of militant Islam.
KAREN GREENBERG: The defendant is recorded saying, "Look, this is not — I’m not really into violent jihad. That’s not really what I’m about." And the informant keeps coming back and saying, "Are you sure? Are you sure?"
ANJALI KAMAT: Then, as Mohammed Hossein’s pizza business began to fail, the informant made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
FATIMA HOSSEIN: Economically we was little bit crisis situation, so we didn’t go bank. And he was saying, "Brother, I am your brother. If you need some money, so I can be — maybe you can borrow from me and give it to me."
ANJALI KAMAT: The informant offered Mohammed Hossein a loan of $45,000 and a gift of $5,000. The imam of the mosque, Yassin Aref, was brought in to witness the loan. At a few points, the informant told the men he was a member of the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad, or JEM. On one occasion, he showed the pizzeria owner Mohammed Hossein a part of a missile and later made obscure references to a fictitious JEM plot to assassinate a Pakistani diplomat in New York with a missile.
KAREN GREENBERG: He did say it was for weaponry. I think it was for a missile in this case. And he did say that it was for a terrorist cause. And so, you know, that part of it is very discomforting, that, you know, preying upon people’s vulnerabilities and pushing them to this point is unsettling.
ANJALI KAMAT: It’s unclear from the recordings how much the men understood that the money for the loan had been allegedly laundered from weapon sales to a terrorist group. But Mohammed Hossein’s acceptance of the loan and Yassin Aref’s witnessing of the loan formed the basis for the government’s case against the two men.
Promises of money played a key role in the Newburgh case, as well. James Wedick says it’s not uncommon for the FBI to send informants into poor communities.
JAMES WEDICK: What they’re looking for is money, because they’re desperate. They’re looking for a job. They’re looking for some way to feed their family. And so, they’re there because this informant is flashing money around, driving a fancy car, and maybe living in a fancy apartment. And they, too, want part of that prize.
ANJALI KAMAT: By 2007, the informant in the Albany case, Shahed Hussain, showed up in the impoverished largely African American community of Newburgh. He arrived at the Al-Ikhlas mosque one day, flush with funds and driving a BMW.
IMAM SALAHUDDIN MUHAMMAD: We called him Maqsud, because that’s who he said he was.
ANJALI KAMAT: Salahuddin Mustafa Muhammad is the imam of the mosque in Newburgh. He remembers the informant well. Posing again as a wealthy Pakistani businessman with ties to the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad, Shahed Hussain followed a remarkably similar script to the story he told in Albany.
IMAM SALAHUDDIN MUHAMMAD: I started hearing from different members of the community that he was talking stuff about jihad and something about a group in Pakistan and telling the brothers they should go over and help them in Pakistan because he’s a part of some group.
ANJALI KAMAT: The imam recalls that one man was willing to listen to the informant’s stories and happy to be driven around in his car and treated to free meals. James Cromitie is a forty-four-year-old petty criminal who had been in and out of prison numerous times.
The FBI began secretly recording conversations between James Cromitie and the informant in October 2008, after the informant reported that James had made extremist anti-American statements. The informant promised James $250,000 to help him carry out a plot to bomb a synagogue and a Jewish community center in the Bronx and attack military planes at the Stewart International Airport near Newburgh.
Within a few months, the informant was urging James to recruit more people to act as lookouts while they carried out the plot. That’s when Alicia McCollum’s nephew David Williams entered the scene. At the time, his twenty-year-old brother, Lord, had just been diagnosed with a deadly liver disease. The doctors said he needed a liver transplant to survive, but the family couldn’t afford the surgery.
ALICIA McWILLIAMS-McCOLLUM: You know, I’m like, OK, Lord was sick, OK. He needed money, alright. I’m like, ooh, he got caught up in a bad situation. Then I heard "informant." Informant?
ANJALI KAMAT: The informant had promised to give David Williams at least $25,000 and drove him to visit his brother in the hospital.
ALICIA McWILLIAMS-McCOLLUM: He’s a manipulator. I’m from the streets. He’s a manipulator. He’s a con artist.
This is a damn bad motion picture. They should be ashamed of theirself.
ANJALI KAMAT: In court, the government has admitted that the FBI picked the targets and supplied the men with the fake bombs and the missile. But the government says the fact the men actually planted the bombs near the Riverdale synagogue is evidence of their willingness to commit terrorism.
KAREN GREENBERG: The big story is who took the lead here, who created the story of the crime that was going to ensue, and who made it happen.
ANJALI KAMAT: Karen Greenberg says the way the trial is going, it’s the informant who’s in the spotlight.
KAREN GREENBERG: If we’re ever going to have a public debate on the use of informants in terrorism cases, this is the case, more than any of the other cases we’ve seen.
ANJALI KAMAT: Alicia McCollum believes her nephew and the rest of the Newburgh Four were entrapped by the FBI.
ALICIA McWILLIAMS-McCOLLUM: This is entrapment. You’re going to send an informant into an impoverished community, the most impoverished county, to do your trickery. You ain’t stumbled upon a cell. Nobody ain’t tell you that someone was plotting to do anything. You created a crime!
ANJALI KAMAT: The government maintains this was a sting operation and the four men were not entrapped. They say the four are militant Muslims who can be heard actively planning for the attack in the recordings made by the informant. But James Wedick says the recordings alone don’t prove anything.
JAMES WEDICK: You can get anyone to say anything on any given day, if you just try long enough. And that’s what some of these informants do.
ANJALI KAMAT: He warns that the FBI’s use of unscrupulous informants in poor communities is a dangerous business.
JAMES WEDICK: You just can’t continue to, you know, to get a select group of people who are responsible for petty crimes, give them huge amounts of money, and send them into a small minority community, desperate because of the recession and work not being there, and suggesting people commit crimes, and not expect an explosion to happen, because they’re desperate for money and the informant is offering huge rewards.
ANJALI KAMAT: The imam of the Newburgh mosque isn’t surprised by what happened here. It’s happened before to the African American community, he says. This just reminds him of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program.
IMAM SALAHUDDIN MUHAMMAD: I believe that what we are seeing today with the FBI surveillance and the FBI allowing for agent provocateurs to enter into Muslim communities is the same thing that happened in the '60s with a lot of the black nationalist organizations. That’s what I see happening today in the Islamic community. The FBI, they are sending these agent provocateurs into the community, and they are cultivating and nurturing and actually creating situations that would never have occured if they didn't have their man in there to do that.
ANJALI KAMAT: To what extent are informants driving these cases? We spoke to one informant who agreed to an on-camera interview on the condition we don’t show his face. His name is Mahmoud Omar, and he was one of two informants the FBI used in the Fort Dix case. He acknowledged that he was central to the government’s case against the Duka brothers and Mohamad Shnewer.
MAHMOUD OMAR: I can say American government lucky he have me this time, and if he don’t have me, we didn’t know something can happen.
ANJALI KAMAT: Would it have been possible without your help?
MAHMOUD OMAR: No, of course not. Somebody have to do it, and I did it. Nobody can — I did. I’m the one did everything.
ANJALI KAMAT: Mahmoud Omar is an Egyptian national who has lived in the United States since the mid-1990s and was arrested and imprisoned for bank fraud in 2001. He was facing possible deportation when he agreed to work for the FBI as an informant on this case.
Former FBI agent James Wedick acknowledges that the FBI often has to resort to people with criminal pasts to work as their informants. But the well-established exception, he says, is lying.
JAMES WEDICK: If they are liars or they’ve got something in their past that suggests they’re liars, like a bank fraud conviction, you can’t use that individual.
ANJALI KAMAT: Wedick says that in addition to dropping charges and helping with immigration troubles, the FBI typically offers informants large sums of money to work for them.
JAMES WEDICK: If you think he’ll lie just because he wants to tell you a lie, he’ll lie easy for $200,000.
ANJALI KAMAT: Mahmoud Omar was paid over $200,000 plus expenses for the three years that the FBI hired him to befriend the young men who had gone to the Poconos and record their conversations. At the trial, the informant testified that the men wanted to attack soldiers at Fort Dix. He said one of the men, Mohamad Shnewer, spent most of his time watching videos glorifying Islamist violence.
But Burim Duka says it was the informant who urged them to download the videos onto Shnewer’s computer.
BURIM DUKA: Ninety-seven percent of the videos that Mohamad Shnewer had on his computer were downloaded from Mahmoud Omar. Mahmoud Omar was telling Mohamad Shnewer, "Download this video. Download this video." And I guess he was trying to get Mohamad Shnewer’s anger to build up. He used to tell us, like, the older people overseas, they’re fighting against the people that are attacking the Muslims. He goes, "Older people are fighting. What about us? We’re young. We’re strong. How come we’re just sitting at Dunkin’ Donuts drinking coffee?"
ANJALI KAMAT: The informant denies he was the one driving the plot forward and says twenty-one-year-old Mohamad Shnewer was the ringleader.
MAHMOUD OMAR: I’m not taking Mohamad to anywhere. Mohamad, he knew where we’re going to go.
ANJALI KAMAT: So it was his idea.
MAHMOUD OMAR: I have nothing I do with that. I’m just only recorder.
ANJALI KAMAT: Today, more than a year after the sentencing, the informant defends his role in the Fort Dix plot and says the five men got what they deserved. But Mahmoud Omar now feels like he can’t show his face in the community.
MAHMOUD OMAR: When I face the Arab people and the Muslim people, they think like I did that for money. And this is people like Dukas family and Shnewer family. He make it like government making case. And this, of course, is not true. And he make it like I’m the one that put his kids in jail, and that’s even not true. People being in jail rest of his life, I can’t do anything about. You did that for yourself. I don’t do anything to you. I don’t tell you do anything. You did that for yourself.
ANJALI KAMAT: Mohamad Shnewer and the Duka brothers were arrested soon after purchasing machine guns from the FBI informant. But Karen Greenberg says there’s little evidence that they would have used them to carry out a terrorist plot.
KAREN GREENBERG: How do we draw the line between young men who are willing to do violence, who talk it up a lot, who get into a head that is not good — and, you know, you’d like to stop them from what they’re doing — and then whether they were actually going to commit terrorism? And I think what — in the Fort Dix case, again, you know, the purchasing of weapons and — is a difficult one. How much was this going to be terrorism, how much they actually identified with terrorism causes, we don’t know.
ANJALI KAMAT: James Wedick believes it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars for the FBI to be investigating terrorist plots it helped create, whether in Fort Dix, Albany or Newburgh.
JAMES WEDICK: It’s my opinion that while the bureau busies itself with these nonsense cases, they could have been expending these resources catching real bad guys. And that’s the problem.
ANJALI KAMAT: This strategy has led to growing concerns that in its zeal to make the American public feel safe from terrorism, the government is racially profiling Muslims as potential terrorists.
FARHANA KHERA: It’s based on generalized suspicion about an entire community and not based on actual evidence of wrongdoing.
ANJALI KAMAT: Farhana Khera is the director of the group Muslim Advocates. She’s concerned that the FBI surveillance of Muslims is on the rise.
FARHANA KHERA: I would say since the beginning of 2010 there seems to be almost a ratcheting up of scrutiny of the community. We seem to be getting even more reports of community members coming forward saying they’ve gotten a surprise visit at their home or their office from an FBI agent asking questions.
ANJALI KAMAT: Back in Albany, we asked Shamshad Ahmad if he thinks the FBI is still watching his mosque.
Do you believe that the mosque is still being surveyed, that people in this community are still under surveillance?
SHAMSHAD AHMAD: I believe so, yes. I believe so. I still see some people about whom I have doubts, and I know certain peoples are being used by FBI. Some of them said that they refused, but I suspect that they refused in the beginning, but ultimately they have to accept that offer. We are not taking it lightly. We don’t consider that FBI has become, all of a sudden, angel. Reality is there that we feel that they have not changed.
ANJALI KAMAT: The imam at Newburgh agrees that the Muslim community is still being watched and infiltrated. But next time, he says, they’re not going to be quiet if an informant comes in.
IMAM SALAHUDDIN MUHAMMAD: This time, that if we do suspect someone, we’re telling. We’re not going to allow some individuals to get caught in a web again, because we believe that had we said something this time, that those four men would still be in the backyard somewhere. They would just be right out there, frustrated, broke, just, you know, feeling miserable and just talking. At least that person, the agent provocateur, would have had to go somewhere else, because they would have probably told him that his cover was blown.
ANJALI KAMAT: In other places, too, people are also speaking up against what they see is a wider pattern of entrapment and preemptive prosecution of Muslims. This is Albany Common Council member Dominick Calsolaro.
DOMINICK CALSOLARO: It just doesn’t seem right. I mean, I just don’t understand how our government, you know, can take these actions.
ANJALI KAMAT: In April of this year, the Albany Common Council passed a resolution calling on the Justice Department to reexamine past terrorism cases to assess whether the classified evidence used by the government also contained material that might have exonerated the men, if they had been allowed to see and use this evidence. They based the resolution on a July 2009 report by the inspector general of the Department of Justice.
DOMINICK CALSOLARO: The inspector general’s report was really key, because when you come in and the government, you know, does a study, and they themselves says you should look at these cases again, you know, it should be done. It seems like, you know, they did this, these actions, because they had to show that they were being — you know, the federal government is trying to be tough on terrorism. But the fact that if you have to send in, you know, an agent provocateur, whatever you want to call them, in order to entrap someone, who’s not doing anything illegal to begin with, I mean, where is this going? And then, where does this stop?
ANJALI KAMAT: The families of the men are left questioning whether it’s possible for Muslims to receive a fair trial in post-9/11 America.
FATIMA HOSSEIN: I didn’t find out what kind of terrorists we are, what we did, which part, the part that require the terrorist. Still I don’t know. They broke our trust. And I saw when I get married, my husband, he carry American flag all the way from here as a proud citizen of this country. And when he go back home, he say, "I am American."
ANJALI KAMAT: Even after twenty-six years of living in this country, Fatima Hossein believes she and her family will never be seen as Americans.
FATIMA HOSSEIN: Living that long this society, still we are not part of here. I don’t know. After September 11, changed everything from everywhere.
ANJALI KAMAT: Ferik Duka, the father of the three Duka brothers, says his faith in the American justice system has been shattered.
FERIK DUKA: I’m surprised at the justice of this country. I came here because I believed in American justice and American freedom and American democracy. I’m upset and disturbed. How could this happen to America? Muslims, they don’t raise their voices, because they are scared. Everybody thinks, who’s going to be next? Because they can see they’re convicting people with no facts. They are good fabricators. They are professionals of making up things.
I lost three sons. And I’m losing everything else. They destroyed me. There’s no justice no more here for Muslims.
ANJALI KAMAT: NYU’s Karen Greenberg warns that increasing the perception that Muslims are being unfairly or preemptively prosecuted is both wrong and counterproductive to national security.
KAREN GREENBERG: To target Muslims in what we call a democracy is not a place we want to be going. What we need is a kind of leadership that is brave enough to distinguish the issues, just like we distinguish criminals from non-criminals in other environments.
ANJALI KAMAT: Former FBI agent James Wedick believes that the only way things can change is if the Justice Department rethinks the role of informants in terrorism investigations.
JAMES WEDICK: If the Obama administration is interested in giving desperate people a fair shake, he’s got to make the Justice Department look at this issue involving informants and do something.
ANJALI KAMAT: Meanwhile, families of the accused and convicted men are not waiting for the Justice Department to act. They are continuing to mobilize and fight for justice, despite the pain of losing their loved ones to prison.
LEJLA DUKA: I decided to start speaking out to everyone because I saw many people wouldn’t want to do that, because they were scared. So I decided to defend them and my family from the name "terrorists," which they’re not.
ALICIA McWILLIAMS-McCOLLUM: This wasn’t no cell. This wasn’t no —- "Oh, oh my god! They want to -—" This was bull! This is a plot and a skit directed by the FBI. You know, we was the extras, and we didn’t get paid. Thank you very much. You know, but you’re going to use a family, and you think nobody was going to speak up. Not one person’s speaking up. People telling me what my government can do to me. Then bring it! Do what you want to do. But we coming together for justice. We’re fighting for justice.
ANJALI KAMAT: For Democracy Now!, this is Anjali Kamat and Jacquie Soohen. Special thanks to Hany Massoud, Petra Bartosiewicz, John Hamilton, Nicole Salazar, Ayesha Hoda, and Project SALAM.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. When we come back, Democracy Now!'s Anjali Kamat will join us. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, I'm joined now in studio by Democracy Now!'s Anjali Kamat, with that superb investigation she did with Jacquie Soohen. We're also joined by independent journalist Petra Bartosiewicz. She’s the forthcoming author of a book on terror in the United States since 9/11. It’s called The Best Terrorists We Could Find.
Welcome you both to Democracy Now! First, Anjali, you have spent months in Muslim communities in the New York area. Congratulations on this very important documentary that brings out the voices of people at the grassroots. What most surprised you in this investigation that you did on these three cases?
ANJALI KAMAT: Well, thanks, Amy.
I think one of the things is, you know, today we’re all seeing in the newspaper, as Faisal Shahzad was just sentenced to life in prison, the Times Square bomber, the foiled Times Square bomber — we keep hearing of threats of terrorism, homegrown terror. Last month, the co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission released a report singling out domestic terrorism as the largest threat and something that we’re not prepared for in this country. And one of the things that I was interested in was seeing news reports, when the Newburgh case started, that the informant who was used in the case had been used in a previous case. And I was like, here is an FBI informant, an undercover informant with a criminal past, coming in, and you see these communities are poor communities, vulnerable communities, one of the most impoverished areas in the country, Newburgh, New York, and these are four young African American men who were caught up in this case. How much can you call them — to what degree can you call these men terrorists? Did they commit a crime? Yes. Were they terrorists? Are these terrorist crimes? And that’s the question I wanted to investigate and set out. And one of the things I found is that you have over a thousand prosecutions since 9/11, terror-related prosecutions. Many of these cases are based on the testimony of paid government informants. Only a few of these cases are more serious, like the Faisal Shahzad case. And Petra was in the courtroom yesterday when he was sentenced.
AMY GOODMAN: Petra, we often find that one case paints or taints another case. Talk about this case. Now, here’s a case where a man pled guilty. He said he was doing this.
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ: Yeah, I think you’ll see in the coverage, even though these two cases, the Newburgh case and the Faisal Shahzad case, unfolded literally on the same floor of a courthouse, in adjoining courtrooms, in Faisal Shahzad’s case, this is somebody who actually attempted to do something. That’s very rare. Almost no —- very, very few cases have unfolded like that. And he pled guilty to that. And I think it’s interesting to look at this case as almost something that was resolved not because of some new initiatives that have been instituted since 9/11 in terms of security measures, but despite that, because in fact he was thwarted only by his own incompetence when the bomb failed to detonate. Meanwhile, you have -—
AMY GOODMAN: You were in the courtroom yesterday —-
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ: Yesterday.
AMY GOODMAN: —- when the sentencing happened.
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ: That’s right. And he was without remorse. The proceeding took place very quickly. He was sentenced to life in prison. And as far as it appears, there’s — you know, there may be an appeal, but he wasn’t interested in appealing.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, he’s pled guilty. What does he say?
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ: He sort of said this is the first salvo in a long, you know, war of — that America is going to, you know, go down. And he wasn’t particularly eloquent or original. I think he made his point at his arraignment a while back. And I think the judge said, you know, pretty accurately, "You’re thirty years old. You’re going to have a long time to think about this. It was a stupid thing to do."
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, right across the hallway, Petra?
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ: Right across the hallway, a case that’s going to be considered just another homegrown terrorism case. But so different. Four defendants who had no prior criminal records, no evidence of prior terrorism involvement, no involvement with any groups — they didn’t attend any training camps. They were four poor guys from Newburgh, New York, and they were approached by an informant who worked on them for — at least the lead defendant, for four months before the tapes started rolling. And the other three defendants were brought in in the very last month. And, you know, it’s — as Anjali says correctly, they are guilty perhaps of criminal acts, but what is missing is that crucial political motivation that would bring this to the level of a crime of terrorism.
AMY GOODMAN: And what does "terrorism" mean, when you lay terrorism on that? Is it like hate crime in the sense it will just mean enhanced sentencing?
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ: I think it does a number of things. Number one, their sentences will be far longer. I think in the Fort Dix case, they got thirty years plus life, as we saw in the documentary. So they’re going to go to prison for much longer. But it also adds to the Justice Department’s sort of statistical scorecard in the war on terrorism. These cases serve an incredibly important purpose in that they kind of justify this terrorism machinery that has come in in almost the last decade. It involves a lot of money, a lot of new investigative procedures, a lot of infringement of civil liberties. And without these cases, we really don’t have much to show. So they are important in that respect alone.
AMY GOODMAN: Anjali?
ANJALI KAMAT: And if these are the cases, if this is what we have to show, what we need to remember — I mean, who were the four defendants in the Newburgh case? It’s quite striking. One if them is a paranoid schizophrenic. An immigration judge earlier refused to deport him because of mental instability. He lived in a one-room occupancy in Newburgh’s crack alley. When he was arrested, there were open containers of urine his room, because he was too afraid to walk down the hall to use the restroom. This man, we’re supposed to believe, is a terrorist. Charge him with a crime, charge him with stupidity — one of the family members said this — charge these people with stupidity, with getting involved with stupid, you know, informants and agreeing to do things, but what actually happened? Nothing happened. No bombs went off. No missiles were fired. The bombs were fake. The missiles were fake. They were supplied by the government. They were led into this by a government informant. This is what the defense has been arguing.
AMY GOODMAN: And people would then say, "But if they weren’t fake?"
ANJALI KAMAT: And then, if they weren’t fake — I mean, this is what the government comes in and says, right? Their argument is, these four men agreed to drive the bombs up to the synagogue. They planted them there. They did not know they were fake. They assumed they were real. Now, the question is, would they — and this is what the defense has been trying to argue, this sort of entrapment defense — is, were they predisposed to commit this crime? Would they have committed this crime, would they have plotted to do this, if the government informant hadn’t put this idea into their head?
And there’s actually evidence that came out during the trial that shows that the handler, the FBI handler in the case, Robert Fuller, sent a memo in January 2009 to his colleagues, pointing out that he had told the guards at Stewart Air Base, which is one of the places where the attack was supposed to take place, telling them that if the lead defendant, James Cromitie, came there on his own, he was not a threat. He was only dangerous if he comes with the informant. I wasn’t able to get a copy of this document, because it wasn’t entered into evidence, apparently, but it was something that was mentioned in the first weeks of the trial.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, it’s interesting, Anjali. The FBI, you called them repeatedly, over and over, and they would not grant an interview.
ANJALI KAMAT: No.
AMY GOODMAN: Yet you did have an interview with this former FBI agent, who talked extremely critically about informants.
ANJALI KAMAT: Yeah. James Wedick is a very interesting figure. He was at the bureau for thirty-five years. He was a street agent. And, you know, I mean, this is the other thing. The use of informants, in its own, is not something new for law enforcement. Something that’s happened for decades, and it’s something that law enforcement — it’s a tactic that law enforcement relies on to crack investigations. They’re very important. The difference is, he says, what happened after 9/11. One of the things he told me is that after 9/11 the rule book went out of the window. You weren’t supposed to use informants in cases where there was no evidence of criminal activity. You’re not supposed to use informants when the informants have a history of lying, history of bank fraud. I mean, this is something that Petra has been working on for years.
AMY GOODMAN: Petra?
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ: Yeah, I think you see these informants oftentimes have criminal records that they want some assistance with from law enforcement, or they’re facing deportation for other reasons. They get sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars to —- from the FBI in expenses and, you know, basically, payment for their services. There have been cases where informants have been shown to be using marijuana during the course of the investigation. So -—
AMY GOODMAN: And this informant in the Newburgh case was convicted of bank fraud.
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ: Yes, among many other things. And so, any FBI agent, as Anjali is saying, will tell you that once they’re proven liars, you shouldn’t be working with them. And yet, there have been repeated cases where these informants are proven liars and then they are still used. And I think it goes to sort of a bigger dilemma for the FBI, because the question is, really, what is the FBI supposed to do in these cases when they come across someone like a James Cromitie, who seems suspicious? Should they investigate? Absolutely. Should they watch them? Yes. But should they be in the business of manufacturing plots, of manufacturing code words, of providing weapons, of basically creating these scenarios? I don’t think so. I think that that starts to stray into very dangerous territory.
And during the closing arguments of the Newburgh case yesterday, or earlier this week, one of the prosecutors was saying, "Are these defendants innocent-minded?" And I think once we start thinking about defendants in terms of “innocent-minded,” we are straying into some very, very dicey territory. And the problem is, when you’re relying heavily on informants who themselves have very shaky credibility and have an agenda that is financially motivated or legally motivated and you’re dependent on them to provide the bulk of the evidence, it’s just a recipe for disaster.
AMY GOODMAN: And you have this case, where Newburgh is now going into jury deliberations, but in the context of a man who said he was — he’s a self-proclaimed terrorist — he did try to blow up Times Square — that case happening across the street. It’s hard to imagine they don’t know that that was taking place, and that’s the context within which this very different case is taking place.
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ: And you would think that we would be putting our resources into preventing another Faisal Shahzad from occurring, rather than spending the enormous amount of time and manpower and money that it takes to prepare a sting operation, which sometimes takes years.
ANJALI KAMAT: We just heard about the amount of money the informants were paid. The amount of money that went into each of these investigations runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars. And when you think about the fact that these are sting operations on people that you have very little evidence of any wrongdoing or intent to kill Americans or intent to carry out plots, where is our focus? What are we doing?
AMY GOODMAN: We just saw the sentencing of the Pakistani scientist Aafia Siddiqui to eighty-six years — she’ll be serving in Texas — a case, Petra, you’ve been following.
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ: Yeah, a very complicated case. A lot of questions remain — whether she was detained extra-legally by Pakistanis or whether the US had any involvement. None of that was answered during her sentencing. Again, same courthouse as these other cases we’re talking about today. But during her sentencing, she spoke, for the first time, extensively, to the courtroom, and what emerged was somebody who seems mentally ill, quite frankly, and the psychiatrists who have examined her have said that she is potentially schizophrenic. So, that is another very troubling case.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Anjali, we just have a few seconds, but you spent months on this investigation, traveling through communities, really bringing out the voices of people in these communities, particularly, of course, Muslims.
ANJALI KAMAT: I mean, I think the most important thing to highlight is the sense of fear that is pervasive across these communities. Muslim communities that I met across New York and New Jersey are just getting more and more paranoid about being watched, about being surveyed, about every conversation being recorded. Any new person they meet — is this an informant? Mosques are under surveillance, as we heard in the piece. Farhana Khera, the executive director of the group Muslim Advocates, said that there’s been a ratcheting up of surveillance of Muslim Americans or Muslims, immigrant Muslims, in this country. And that’s something we need to pay attention to.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Anjali, congratulations. Thank you for this report. And thank you very much, Petra Bartosiewicz, for being with us.