How terrorists get 'punk'd'
Here's an indecent question: Under what conditions might a husband cheat on his wife?
Imagine if a major television network created a reality show designed to answer this question. Bringing together weeks of planning, heavy surveillance, psychological profiles, and a cast of young, alluring undercover agents, the show would put unwitting husbands to the ultimate test of spousal loyalty. After being conned for weeks, some of the "contestants" would inevitably capitulate and take that fateful step toward betrayal.
While this idea may seem farfetched, a similar scheme is being cooked up and served on a regular basis by the FBI in its campaign against terrorism.
Since 9/11, the majority of criminal convictions in high-profile terror cases in the United States relied on sting operations and informants. Some of these cases have raised concerns over whether the agents crossed the line into entrapment, using enticements to lure penniless men and sometimes teenagers into highly sophisticated plots they never could have handled (or even dreamed of) on their own.
One defendant, Hemant Lakhani, agreed to sell missiles to an undercover FBI agent who was posing as a terrorist. When it became clear that Lakhani had no access to such weapons, another undercover agent sold him a fake version of the arms so that he could, in turn, make the illegal sale. During the transaction, incidentally, Lakhani appeared to test the weapon by placing it on his shoulder pointed in the wrong direction. His entrapment defense failed and he received a forty-seven-year prison sentence.
In fact, over the last decade, the entrapment defense has never succeeded in such cases, prompting legal experts to suggest that juries may be weighting these claims differently than other types of entrapment cases, given the dramatic events of 9/11 and the constant media spotlight on terrorism.
As in many of the previous situations, the FBI's latest sting involved an isolated, impoverished young man. On February 17, prompted by undercover officers posing as al Qaeda members and offering the latest in high-yield explosives, Amine El Khalifi made his way to an attack site in Washington D.C. before being swarmed by police. If the previous pattern holds, he will now spend the rest of his life in prison.
Our point is not to forgive Khalifi, but rather to suggest that his behavior is not only a product of his personal disposition but also his social circumstances and the FBI's sting operation in particular. To be frank, our hopes for this suggestion are not high. Most Americans are carrying too much emotional and historical baggage to summon even one word of situational understanding for a terrorist act.
But what about the would-be philanderers on the reality show? Wouldn't most Americans at least acknowledge the extraordinary nature of the situation, and recognize that many of these cheaters would still be faithful husbands had it not been for the crafty, well-organized, sexually spectacular forces behind the deception?
If the answer is yes, the same moral calculus must be used to evaluate the Khalifi case, the FBI's role in creating this outcome, and the virtue of continuing these counterterrorism operations.
Joshua Woods is author of the recently released book "Freaking Out: A Decade of Living with Terrorism" (Potomac Books, January 2012). Jim Nolan, a former police officer and FBI official, is coauthor of "The Violence of Hate: Confronting Racism, Anti Semitism, and Other Forms of Bigotry" (Allyn and Bacon, 2010). Both authors teach in the Division of Sociology and Anthropology at West Virginia University.