brother of Sami Osmakac.
contributing writer at The Intercept and executive director of the nonprofit Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. He is the author of The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism. His most recent article for The Intercept is "The Sting: How the FBI Created a Terrorist."
Watch our extended interview about Sami Osmakac, a mentally disturbed, financially unstable young man who was targeted by an elaborately orchestrated FBI sting in early 2012. Click here to watch Part 1 of this discussion.
The Intercept’s Trevor Aaronson has long investigated the FBI’s use of informants in sting operations. In his new article, he tells the story of Sami Osmakac, a mentally disturbed, financially unstable young man who was targeted by an elaborately orchestrated FBI sting in early 2012. The operation involved a paid informant who hired Osmakac for a job, when he was too broke to afford inert government weapons. The FBI provided the weapons seen in a so-called martyrdom video Osmakac filmed before he planned to deliver what he believed was a car bomb to a bar in Tampa, Florida. His family believes Osmakac never would have initiated such a plot without the FBI. And transcripts of conversations obtained by Aaronson show FBI agents appeared to agree, describing him as a "retarded fool" whose terrorist ambitions were a "pipe-dream scenario." The transcripts show how the agents worked to get $500 to Osmakac so he could make a down payment on the weapons — something government prosecutors wanted to prove their case. In November 2014, Osmakac was sentenced to 40 years in federal prison, despite a court-appointed psychologist diagnosing him with schizoaffective disorder. We are joined by Avni Osmakac, the older brother of Sami Osmakac, and Aaronson, contributing writer at The Intercept and executive director of the nonprofit Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
AMY GOODMAN: "How the FBI Created a Terrorist." That’s the subtitle of a new exposé in The Intercept by Trevor Aaronson, a journalist who investigates the FBI’s use of informants in sting operations. The article tells the story about Sami Osmakac, a mentally disturbed, financially unstable young man who is targeted by an elaborately orchestrated FBI sting in early 2012. The operation involved a paid informant who hired Osmakac for a job when he was too broke to afford inert government weapons. The FBI provided the weapons seen in a so-called martyrdom video Osmakac filmed before he planned to deliver what he believed was a car bomb to a bar in Tampa, Florida. His family believes he never would have initiated such a plot without the FBI, and transcripts of conversations obtained by Aaronson show FBI agents appeared to agree. The transcripts show how the agents worked to get $500 to him so he could make a down payment on the weapons—something government prosecutors wanted to prove their case. This is part of an exchange between Special Agent Richard Worms and Special Agent Jacob Collins.
SPECIAL AGENT RICHARD WORMS: This poor guy, he gets almost 500 bucks in his hand tomorrow, and he says, "You need me for another week?" That’s a thousand bucks. Why wouldn’t he show up?
SPECIAL AGENT JACOB COLLINS: Well, right, but you’re a hard-working, logical human being.
SPECIAL AGENT RICHARD WORMS: No, I’m trying to think, if I’m a retarded fool who is hard up for money, and I don’t have a pot to [expletive] in, another $500 looks pretty good.
AMY GOODMAN: That was part of a conversation between FBI Special Agents Richard Worms and Jacob Collins referring to Sami Osmakac as a, quote, "retarded fool" in the lead-up to his arrest. In November 2014, he was sentenced to 40 years in federal prison, despite a court-appointed psychologist diagnosing him with schizoaffective disorder.
Well, for more, we’re joined now by two guests. In Tampa, Florida, we’re joined by Avni Osmakac, the older brother of Sami. And we’re joined by Trevor Aaronson, a contributing writer at The Intercept and executive director of the nonprofit Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. Trevor is the author of The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism, his most recent piece in The Intercept called "The Sting: How the FBI Created a Terrorist." He’s joining us from Vancouver, Canada, where he delivered a TED talk this week on Sami Osmakac. Democracy Now! invited a spokesperson from the FBI to join us on the show, but the agency declined.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Trevor, let’s begin with you. Lay out this story.
TREVOR AARONSON: Right. Sami Osmakac’s case is not unlike the cases of many other men who have been caught in these types of sting operations. You know, Sami Osmakac was mentally ill. He had schizoaffective disorder, which meant he had trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy. And he’s not unique. There was a case in Seattle, for example, involving two men—a man named Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif and Walli Mujahidh—who were targeted by an informant in a sting operation in which they plotted to attack a military recruiting station outside Seattle. You know, both Abdul-Latif and Mujahidh were mentally ill. Mujahidh, in fact, also had schizoaffective disorder. And they were convicted—actually, they ended up pleading guilty for their role in that plot, which was led by an informant who, you know, it’s worth noting, was a convicted rapist and child molester. In Sami Osmakac’s case, he was targeted by an informant who then passed him over to an undercover agent, and like the men in Seattle and the dozens of others who have been caught in these sting operations, didn’t have the means or the opportunity to commit this type of crime.
Nevertheless, the government has a near-perfect record of conviction in these types of cases. And Sami was the 12th person to argue entrapment at trial following one of these terrorism sting operations. He was unsuccessful, as have been the 11 others who have come before him and made that argument. The problem for many people charged in these types of cases is that the government has a really low bar in arguing against entrapment. That is to say, they can make the case that someone like Sami Osmakac was predisposed to commit the crime. And if you’re predisposed to commit the crime, the entrapment defense can no longer apply. And juries are willing to accept as evidence of predisposition things like watching an extremist video or going to the mosque more frequently, as—in the FBI’s claims, which indicates a greater level of extremism. And these types of First Amendment-protected activities are what the government is able to use to suggest that someone like Sami Osmakac, who didn’t have any weapons, who didn’t have any money, who didn’t have any connections to international terrorist groups, is nevertheless somehow predisposed to commit this type of crime.
And because the courts have not pushed back on these cases, because there’s a near record—near-perfect record of conviction, and because there’s very little oversight, congressional oversight, of these types of tactics by the FBI, the FBI has learned that this is kind of a tried and true tactic that it can use. And what we see is the use of these tactics in field office after field office after field office, with agents running these cases, getting promoted, informants working these cases making lots of money. And there’s perverse incentives along the lines for the FBI to build more and more cases, despite the fact that there’s a really growing chorus of criticism coming from people like me and groups like Human Rights Watch that these cases are not really catching truly dangerous people, so much as they’re nabbing mentally ill and economically desperate people who can easily be manipulated by government agents.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another part of the FBI recordings in this case. This is part of the conversation between Special Agent Taylor Reed and Special Agent Jacob Collins.
SPECIAL AGENT TAYLOR REED: The gun charge is weak, but multiple explosive devices would be big, really big. So if he wears one, that’s a much bigger charge than the one device or one gun. And I’m wondering if we can keep him, scare him away from the guns by saying, "Dude, you know, you can’t give me anything, your buddy doesn’t have a lot of money, you guys can’t afford a gun. But with the money you have, I can get you several explosives, I can get you a vest with four grenades.
SPECIAL AGENT JACOB COLLINS: Yeah, but that was an initial request. With the source, he wanted to buy two AKs, nothing at all about explosives in every pipe-dream scenario he’s had since then.
SPECIAL AGENT TAYLOR REED: How do we come up with enough money for them to pay for everything?
AMY GOODMAN: So, that clip between Special Agent Taylor Reed and Special FBI Agent Jacob Collins, Trevor Aaronson, if you could talk about the significance of what they are saying?
TREVOR AARONSON: Well, first of all, this clearly shows that the FBI is controlling every aspect of the sting operation. And for the purposes of kind of persuading a future jury to convict someone like Sami Osmakac, they would have a much better case and much better sentencing guidelines to work with, if they could get Sami Osmakac to use an explosive device versus a gun such as an AK-47. And in this exchange, what you’re clearly seeing is the FBI essentially orchestrating a situation that would allow Sami Osmakac to have an explosive vest and have a bomb, which, in the government’s view, would make the prosecution of their case much, much easier.
And what you’re also seeing is an attempt to satisfy prosecutors, who had told them that they wanted Sami to pay for these weapons. The problem, of course, that Sami was broke. He had no money. He had no transportation. In fact, the government had to give him money to put a car battery in his car so he could get to where they wanted him to go. And yet, in these conversations, the government is not only orchestrating the types of weapons he will have, the types of weapons that will be most beneficial for their prosecution, but are also orchestrating a situation that would allow Sami to have money to pay for those weapons, essentially using government weapons to purchase—excuse me, government money to purchase government weapons, and then blaming Sami for it and prosecuting him for it as part of a conspiracy.
AMY GOODMAN: Avni Osmakac, talk about the toll this case has taken on your family.
AVNI OSMAKAC: Well, ever since this happened—we have a little business in St. Petersburg, Florida. Everybody is just scared, and our family is scared to even go outside, because ever since this happened, multiple times they broke into the business. We have gotten death threats, letters and everything else. We sold our house to get lawyers—raise money for the lawyers. Now, everything that went down, we pretty much spent all the money that we can. And we’re really looking for somebody that can help us to raise some money to get a lawyer for his appeal and everything. And there’s really nothing else we can say about this. I just want people to understand that everything that’s going on with this case is, the government is doing all these things, and they want you to be scared when they see these videos. And even the cameras, holding the camera, the government is doing all this. And they need to understand, there’s no terrorism going on in the United States without the government’s help or without the government knowing about it.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Avni, about Sami’s state of mind, about his mental health?
AVNI OSMAKAC: Well, ever since late 2009—we came back from a European trip—he’s changed, because we had a disturbance in the plane. And we thought—me and him were in the plane. I thought we really were going to crash and die. And ever since then, he’s been very isolated. He started isolating from his friends, his family. He met this guy at the mosque, Russell Dennison, who calls himself Abdullah. But up to this day, I know he’s an agent. And ever since, being around him changed the way he talked, thought, dressed. He wouldn’t sleep. His color was—he was always pale. He wasn’t wanting to do anything. Just—
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Trevor Aaronson, can you talk about who the informant was?
TREVOR AARONSON: So, the informant was a man named Abdul Dabus, and Dabus was a well-known businessman in the Tampa community, and, in fact, was an associate of Sami Al-Arian, who was the USF—excuse me, University of South Florida professor who was charged under the PATRIOT Act and just recently accepted deportation to Turkey. Abdul Dabus was well known in the Tampa community and ran a Middle Eastern market in Tampa, Florida. What I discovered through records was that he was also in rough financial straits when he worked this operation with the FBI. His house was under foreclosure proceedings. His business was under foreclosure proceedings. He owed money around town, according to civil complaints that had been filed against him. And the FBI gave him $20,000 to participate in this plot.
You know, it’s worth noting, I think, that money is often the common motivator for FBI informants. And although Dabus, in my interview with him in Gaza, which is where he now is, says he wasn’t motivated by money, his financial circumstances such as they were when he met Sami Osmakac, that he was under multiple foreclosures and owed money across town, certainly suggested that $20,000 would have gone a long way. And that’s not an unusual situation for informants.
AMY GOODMAN: Trevor, you’re saying that Abdul Raouf Dabus is in Gaza now?
TREVOR AARONSON: He’s in Gaza now. After Sami Osmakac was arrested, Abdul Dabus went to Gaza. He says he’s receiving treatment there for cancer. That’s not something I can verify. That’s his claim. And because he was in Gaza, the government did not produce him as a witness in Sami Osmakac’s trial. He neither provided testimony in the trial or any sort of deposition, which, to my knowledge, is really the first time one of these counterterrorism sting operations has gone to trial and an informant, especially an informant who was so closely tied to the sting operation, was not required by the judge to be a witness at the trial.
AMY GOODMAN: Who is Russell Dennison, Trevor?
TREVOR AARONSON: Russell Dennison is a pretty mysterious guy. It’s clear from Sami’s story that Russell Dennison was there as kind of Sami’s turn toward extremism began. And it was Russell Dennison, who is an American-born convert to Islam, who had encouraged Sami to post YouTube videos, in which they, you know, ranted about nonbelievers, and, in some cases, Sami would call the leaders of the local Muslim communities derogatory names, and then rant even about kind of their strong faith in Islam. What’s interesting about Russell Dennison is that he miraculously takes Sami on a 45-minute drive to meet Abdul Dabus, the informant who worked the sting operation. And to this day, Sami doesn’t know why he agreed to go on this ride. And to this day, he’s not sure why Russell Dennison even wanted to go. But they went along. And when he gets to meet Abdul Dabus, Dabus offers him a job, and that’s the beginning of the sting operation.
What’s really interesting about Russell Dennison, however, is that he was in contact with another person. I mentioned earlier in our interview a man named Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif, who was a man who was targeted in a sting operation in Seattle. According to a confidential FBI file we obtained on Russell Dennison, after Osmakac’s arrest, two FBI agents go and interview him, and he admits to them that he knows Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif. You know, it’s fairly suspicious to me that a man living in Florida would know two people being targeted in FBI sting operations on opposite ends of the country, and that man just so happened to be the one who kind of miraculously delivers Sami Osmakac to the informant, just as the government needs. So, you know, as Avni mentioned, he and his family suspect that Russell Dennison was somehow working with the government in some capacity and that he, in turn, was there to help deliver Sami Osmakac into the sting operation. The records I have received do not indicate either way whether Russell Dennison was working with the government. And after Sami Osmakac’s arrest, he disappeared. There’s some emails that suggest he’s in Syria, but I really don’t know where he is at this time.
AMY GOODMAN: Avni, what would have happened, do you think, if your brother, Sami, had gotten mental health help?
AVNI OSMAKAC: Well, I know other people that have mental health issues, and we have people in my family that have mental health histories. They got prescription medication. They went to see a psychiatrist. And they’re fine. They’re living with it. I know if the government would have never got involved, he would have never even thought about any crimes. Before all this happened, he never committed a crime at all. Ever since the government got involved, he became so outspoken. He was a shy guy who was training with an ex-Secret Service person to become a kickboxer. This is before he became sick. So I know for a fact he would never be able to do any of the crimes that the government is claiming. That’s never been in his ideas to do any crime, because that’s not us. I have seven other siblings. Nobody ever has committed a crime, period.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Avni Osmakac, we’ll continue to follow the case of your brother, Sami. And I want to thank you, Trevor Aaronson, for being with us. We will link to your piece at The Intercept at democracynow.org. This piece is called "The Sting: How the FBI Created a Terrorist."