SURELY SOME MISTAKE?
EPISTEMICS RHETORIC REALPOLITIK

Friday, 21 September 2012

The War on 'Aspiring Jihadists'

Below is a report from Stratfor, part of the lucrative terrorism industry. The report exemplifies the self-serving nature of commentary emanating from self-styled "Terrorism Experts".

It relates a tale of "a four-month FBI investigation and sting operation, during which undercover agents had been communicating with Daoud [a suspect now under arrest] and recording his statements. Sting operations", it notes, "have become the tactic of choice for the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement organizations when investigating would-be jihadists."

Note that the suspect was arrested only five days earlier, so any criminal proceedings are well in the future. Like the British satirical magazine Private Eye which recently disgraced itself by imputing guilt to Julian Assange on its front cover, Stratfor is willing to publish prejudicial matter about ongoing criminal investigations. Where they are getting their narrative from is unclear, but we can be pretty sure it isn't the defendant.

The report seems to be based on the premise that the FBI's conduct here - and in all the other similar cases - is unproblematic. The defence of entrapment is treated, in true Dirty Harry style, as one of those pesky 'technicalities', an obstacle to be overcome by ticking the right boxes.

The law of entrapment is of course rather complex, and in the US favours the authorities rather more than one might suppose natural justice would permit. But two things can be said with some certainty: first, the author of this piece is quite wrong to suppose that 'coercion' is necessary for entrapment - it's not entirely clear that he even knows what the word means. And second, whatever the exact legal position in the relevant jurisdiction, this case and a fair number of others like it, stinks.

The article states that "Daoud was a typical aspirational jihadist" - yes, of course he was, since 'aspirational jihadist' here means no more than 'the kind of loudmouthed showoff that is likely to attract the attention of FBI provocateurs'. There are a number of vague and uncheckable allegations which appear to have been fed to the author by the authorities, such as that Mr Loudmouth had attempted to 'recruit' a number of people to help him plot some kind of attack - we have no idea what this amounted to, except that he did not in fact actually recruit anyone for anything until he 'crossed paths' with an FBI provocateur - at which point the issue of who recruited whom becomes an interesting and open question.

"By himself," we are told - and he was by himself - "Daoud was still a long way from posing a direct threat to the United States". Some of the commentary has an air of parody - "One of the characteristics of dramatic attacks of the sort Daoud envisioned, ['envisioned'] however, is that they are difficult to execute alone -- especially if the individual doesn't know how to make explosives or a bomb." Yes, I should say so. The author continues: "Early in Daoud's planning, [so 'early in his planning' that there wasn't any plan at all, it seems] he saw it necessary to reach out for help, which helped to tip off law enforcement agents." Yes, to tip off law enforcement agents that here might be a clueless idiot who, given sufficient encouragement, assistance and coaching might provide them with a terrorism conviction.

The author notes that the FBI rejected the option of "immediately arresting Daoud and making a weak case to a federal judge based on an 18-year-old's online rants". Yes, I bet they did. Instead, "investigators continued to monitor Daoud, seeking more evidence to make a stronger case and get a more severe sentence." Or indeed, one might suppose just to make sure that he was as much of a joker as he appeared, and wouldn't be recruited by someone who actually had a plan or some expertise? No - quite the opposite, it seems. Not satisfied with monitoring this character, "the FBI set up a sting operation, during which authorities recorded Daoud plotting an attack with an undercover law enforcement agent." Not with anyone else, just this undercover agent provocateur.

"In a textbook sting operation targeting an aspiring jihadist, an undercover agent offers the suspect an explosive device (or other deadly weapon). As soon as the suspect attempts to use the inert explosive device, authorities have all the evidence they need to charge the suspect with attempt to use a weapon of mass destruction. The FBI has conducted dozens of these sting operations, where it finds an individual who self-identifies as an aspiring jihadist and then uses informants or undercover agents to collect more evidence against the suspect. Many of those put on trial have received 20- to 30-year sentences."

Having laid out this 'textbook' model of gaining terrorism convictions (which will of course be cited by political and media hacks, spooks and 'terrorism experts' as real and serious disrupted plots, of course), even this author seems to realise it may be necessary to allay some obvious concerns about the usefulness and justice of this approach:

"While the government's pursuit of an incompetent, would-be jihadist may seem extreme, individuals like Daoud (known in some law enforcement circles as "Kramer jihadists," after the bumbling character from Seinfeld) have posed a threat before when they have linked up with competent jihadist operatives. For example, the FBI conducted surveillance on the group that would conduct the 1993 World Trade Center attack but dropped the investigation when the informant turned out to be problematic and when it was determined that the group did not possess the skills to pose a threat."

Er, let me stop you there, Ben. You say that the FBI dropped the investigation? I think you must mean 'discontinued their surveillance'. So that would appear to be the problem there wouldn't it. The FBI stopped watching people they had identified as potential future recruits. |So what you should be recommending is that the FBI should have continued keeping any eye on the suspects - who by your own account would then have led them to some actual terrorist recruiters. Of course that would also require that these bozos had not already been put away for some fake crime entirely manufactured by the FBI, wouldn't it.

Aspiring Jihadist Arrested in Chicago

September 20, 2012 | 0900 GMT

By Ben West
On the evening of Sept. 15, Adel Daoud parked a Jeep Cherokee loaded with a large explosive device outside a bar in downtown Chicago. As he walked down the street away from the vehicle, he activated a trigger to detonate the bomb. The bomb, however, was inert, and FBI agents positioned nearby immediately took Daoud, an 18-year-old from the Chicago suburbs, into custody.
Daoud had been the subject of a four-month FBI investigation and sting operation, during which undercover agents had been communicating with Daoud and recording his statements. Sting operations have become the tactic of choice for the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement organizations when investigating would-be jihadists. As U.S. law enforcement agencies perfect their sting operations to identify aspiring jihadists and prevent attacks, jihadists, too, can be expected to innovate and evolve alternate means of communication and vetting of those with whom they collaborate.

Details of Daoud's Case

Daoud was a typical aspirational jihadist. He read Inspire magazine (an online jihadist publication), watched jihadist training videos, cited arguments from the late Anwar al-Awlaki, participated in jihadist forums denouncing U.S. policy and justified attacks against U.S. citizens. He was not shy in voicing his intent to kill Americans in retaliation for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Daoud tried to recruit at least six people over the span of seven months to help plot an attack against the United States before he crossed paths with an undercover agent on the Internet around May 2012. Based on records later obtained by investigators, Daoud did not appear to have any hard skills to conduct a bombing attack. He downloaded several instructional documents and videos on how to make explosives and build bombs, but there is no indication that Daoud attempted to make any weapons himself. Instead, he talked about going to Saudi Arabia or fighting in Yemen, although he expressed a desire to conduct attacks in the United States before going abroad.

By himself, Daoud was still a long way from posing a direct threat to the United States, but he was bent on conducting an attack. Along the way, he made a number of mistakes. For one, it is apparent from Daoud's conversations with the undercover agent, documented in the Sept. 15 criminal complaint, that Daoud did not heed all of the advice that he read in Inspire magazine. Over the years, Inspire has emphasized that big, elaborate attacks are risky, expensive and hard to put together. One of the magazine's main contributors, Nasir al-Wahayshi, has argued that small, simpler attacks such as the Fort Hood shooting in 2009 are much easier to execute, are more effective than bombings and do not open up aspiring jihadists to discovery by the authorities during the planning stage.

Daoud unequivocally rejected the idea of a shooting attack, even mocking the July 20 shooting that killed 12 people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Daoud insisted on carrying out a spectacular attack, killing "a lot of enemies" and making headlines worldwide. One of the characteristics of dramatic attacks of the sort Daoud envisioned, however, is that they are difficult to execute alone -- especially if the individual doesn't know how to make explosives or a bomb. Early in Daoud's planning, he saw it necessary to reach out for help, which helped to tip off law enforcement agents.

Rather than immediately arresting Daoud and making a weak case to a federal judge based on an 18-year-old's online rants, investigators continued to monitor Daoud, seeking more evidence to make a stronger case and get a more severe sentence. The FBI set up a sting operation, during which authorities recorded Daoud plotting an attack with an undercover law enforcement agent. The FBI also watched Daoud conduct surveillance on the bar he intended to attack. In a textbook sting operation targeting an aspiring jihadist, an undercover agent offers the suspect an explosive device (or other deadly weapon). As soon as the suspect attempts to use the inert explosive device, authorities have all the evidence they need to charge the suspect with attempt to use a weapon of mass destruction. The FBI has conducted dozens of these sting operations, where it finds an individual who self-identifies as an aspiring jihadist and then uses informants or undercover agents to collect more evidence against the suspect. Many of those put on trial have received 20- to 30-year sentences.

While the government's pursuit of an incompetent, would-be jihadist may seem extreme, individuals like Daoud (known in some law enforcement circles as "Kramer jihadists," after the bumbling character from Seinfeld) have posed a threat before when they have linked up with competent jihadist operatives. For example, the FBI conducted surveillance on the group that would conduct the 1993 World Trade Center attack but dropped the investigation when the informant turned out to be problematic and when it was determined that the group did not possess the skills to pose a threat. Later, the group met Omar Abdel-Rahman (also known as the Blind Sheikh), who arranged for competent jihadist operatives -- Abdul Basit (also known as Ramzi Yousef) and his partner, Ahmed Ajaj -- to come in and lead the group of amateur jihadists. Under the leadership of Basit, the group transformed into the terrorist cell that successfully attacked the World Trade Center.

Other jihadist operatives, such as Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, were similarly incompetent but became dangerous when competent bombmakers and operatives exploited their willingness to conduct jihad. Given these past failures, U.S. counterterrorism officials have no appetite for letting aspiring jihadists slip through the cracks just because they appear incompetent on the surface.

Pre-Empting Entrapment

With the investigation under way, the FBI initiated its efforts to dispel any inklings of coercion. Defense attorneys, civil rights groups and some in the media have alleged that FBI sting operations targeting aspiring jihadists are entrapment -- where law enforcement agents coerce an individual who would not otherwise have posed a threat into an illegal act. The FBI's handling of Daoud's case shows that it is taking steps to combat these charges.

Several times during recorded conversations, the FBI undercover agent gave Daoud opportunities to back away from his planned attack. The agent cited Ramadan as a reason to delay the attack and further delayed by fabricating excuses, such as needing to wait for approval from his sheikh. On at least two occasions, the undercover agent directly asked Daoud if he was sure he wanted to carry out his attack. The agent emphasized that Daoud had to have jihad in his heart in order to carry out a justified attack. He stressed that Daoud couldn't be pressured into the attack, that he had to be completely self-motivated to execute it. Any outside help would be just that -- help, not coercion.

As stated above, this step was likely included deliberately. Entrapment has been raised as a possible defense in the upcoming trial of Mohamed Mohamud, the 21-year-old Somali-born American accused of attempting to bomb a Christmas ceremony in Portland, Ore., in November 2010. Even though the entrapment defense hasn't proved to be successful, to avoid a recurrence of this defense in Daoud's case, the undercover agent cleverly used jihadist principles to get Daoud to emphatically show that he wanted to commit an attack himself and that nobody was forcing him to do it.

Recordings of these conversations will make for a more solid case when prosecutors put Daoud on trial in the coming weeks or months.

The Effectiveness of the Sting

U.S. law enforcement agencies have been extremely active with these types of jihadist sting operations, especially in the past three years. While most of the suspects that the stings involve do not appear to pose a serious threat at the outset, aspiring jihadists can be dangerous if they encounter the right people with the right tradecraft.

In addition to being an effective law enforcement tactic, sting operations also threaten the integrity of jihadists' communication channels. Such operations will increasingly make aspiring jihadists skeptical of the person to whom they are speaking. In Daoud's case, he told the undercover agent that one of his contacts thought he was talking to a spy. Daoud's sheikh, who was not aware of the planned attack, also repeatedly discouraged him from talking about jihad and violence. Others around him knew the risk of discussing plans of attack, but Daoud persisted due to his inexperience.

U.S. law enforcement's struggle with aspiring jihadists will be a drawn-out affair, punctuated by action and counteraction. The FBI and other U.S. agencies are refining their skills in sting operations, which have proved to be an effective tool for pre-empting terrorist attacks. The success of these stings will plant doubts in aspiring jihadists' minds about who they can trust, further complicating their efforts to conduct dramatic attacks. Now the onus is on the jihadists to adjust. They can be expected to implement alternate methods of communication and to step up efforts to verify one another's identities to avoid detection and arrest.


Errant husband apologises for "foresaking all others" vow (also: astroturf video)

So Nick Clegg has made a public apology for breaking his very public election pledge to oppose increased financial barriers to education, or 'tuition fees' (though few of those paying them will actually receive any tutorials).

Only that is not what Clegg has apologised for. The mainstream media have somehow managed almost entirely to skirt around the crashingly, painfully obvious fact that Clegg's strategy team has chosen to apologise not for breaking an election promise but only for making the pledge in the first place. Picture an unfaithful husband, caught in flagrante delicto, grovelling to his wife, begging for forgiveness. "I'm sorry darling - it was a terrible mistake. I should never have said 'forsaking all others'".
 
The closest Clegg gets to apologising (as if that is of any use to anyone but himself anyway) for breaking his promise is "we made a pledge, we didn't stick to it - and for that I am sorry": that is, he apologises for making-and-breaking the promise. But the context makes it absolutely clear that it's the making and not the breaking that he's apologising for.

This is not an apology for making a dishonest or empty promise, either: the wriggling Clegg claims the pledge was 'in good faith', and surrounding commentary (for example in this video from the BBC's politician-friendly Nick Robinson) clarifies and endorses the chosen narrative: had Clegg thought about it, he would have realised the pledge was impossible to keep.

It wasn't really impossible, of course, just inconvenient. But the grand myth of the Economic State of Emergency has by now become such an article of faith among the political and media classes that any cut - no matter how ideological or counterproductive, and the more brutal the better - can be presented, and accepted, as a fact of nature.

In one or two places the MSM does at least explain that Clegg is apologising for the vow rather than for the cheating, but only in rather obscure places, and never - of course! - spelling out just how disingenuous this actually is, nor examining in much detail the implied claim - largely left unstated - that it was 'impossible' for the Lib Dems to keep their word and oppose the massive fee hikes. Not that it would bear much examination. The news bulletins, the headlines, the stories in main current affairs programming: all lap up this obvious spin uncritically. (Even the Graun leaves it to the bloggers of their aptly named Comment is Free section to make these obvious points.)

But as far as showing contempt for the public is concerned, this carefully crafted non-apology, accepted almost without question by the MSM, is just a warm up. There's also the 'spoof' video.

As spoofs go, the 'viral' video (the press are willing to report it as viral on the basis of 'thousands' of views, it seems) is a real turkey. It doesn't even manage to attain the status of 'topical comedy', a genre familiar from such TV programmes as Mock the Week, in which general-purpose gags are hastily adapted to the weeks headlines without regard for truth or meaning let alone satire. There is nothing funny about the video at all. It is certainly not a 'spoof' - the speech is rendered faithfully and without any criticism, and Clegg is not made to look any more ridiculous than he already does. Yet for some reason the MSM have picked up on this utterly inoffensive, not particularly 'viral' and entirely unfunny piece of - frankly, excuse my French madam - shit, and run with it.

Rumours of the death of satire have been underplayed


The only effect of the 'spoof'' is to publicise the apology, while blurring and distracting from the detail: detail which, as I've pointed out above, is something the Lib Dems have every reason to want blurred and distracted from as much as possible. In fact, the lack of any discernible humorous content makes it a bit of a mystery what motive anyone would have to create this tedious little production, other than to assist the Lib Dems. We are told that Clegg has given 'permission' for the wretched ditty to be turned into a charity single; who on earth other than the Lib Dem strategy unit might actually have proposed such a thing is left unclear, of course.

Well, so far so circumstantial: as Surely Some Mistake acknowledges, the 'cui bono?' approach is heuristic, and cannot on its own establish conspiracy. But there are a couple of other features of the case which might be thought relevant to the question of just how contrived the whole affair is.

For one thing, the video, which - as the media put it - 'emerged' on an anodyne sub-humorous website called 'the Poke', is credited to "Alex Ross and James Herring". Alex Ross, the link divulges, is a professional-looking music producer, while James Herring - who does not provide a link - is a PR man who specialises in...publicity stunts!

And there's more. One of the few (relatively) in-depth analyses of the affair occurred on the BBC's Daily Politics show, on which Lib Dem minister Steve Webb is interviewed. His script contains a couple of intriguing comments. First he avers that Clegg 'knew it would be on YouTube' - leaving it rather ambiguous as to whether he is talking about the official spoken video or the musical version. Second, he quips that "We're going to hire those creatives for our next party political" - 'creatives' being a term used in the grubby world of PR/marketing/advertising to mean the kind of failed artist who comes up with this kind of crud in order to put one over on the likes of you and me.

Now you might think that these comments, which almost seem to be hinting that the whole thing was a manufactured PR stunt from the start, are not the kind of thing Webb would come out with if that were really the case. Wrong! The learnt naïvety of the media and the general public, bolstered by such tactics as the use of 'conspiracy theorist' labels at the slightest provocation, should not blind us to the fact that this apology is the Lib Dems' single biggest PR tactic of the year, possibly of the entire coalition period. This mid-term party conference is the moment chosen for some rather gentle ritual humiliation: long enough after the event to make it plausible that some real soul-searching has gone on and issued in a change of mind; long enough before the next election for the damage caused by such self-abasement to have worn off (so they hope).

A huge amount of work will have gone into it; consultants and advisers will have agonised over every angle, every nuance; hundreds of hours will have been spent discussing and choreographing it. Like a magic trick, much of the effect is due to the massive disparity in effort and deviousness between producer and consumer. The audience doesn't have much time, nor the training, temperament or insider knowledge, to analyse the trick - and to do so would in any case spoil the entertainment (I find it hard to believe that anyone finds it entertaining, but then the same applies to most prime time TV). So some effort is required to take off the rose-tinted specs and the dunce's cap, and put on the old tinfoil helmet for a minute.

In fact I strongly suspect these comments have three aspects: bluff, spoiler, and insurance.

First, bluff: the idea that only an innocent person would make remarks that draw attention to the possibility of guilt is exactly the idea a manipulator of the kind under discussion would expect and want the audience to have (or rather the particular tiny section of the audience that even notices any of this).

Second, spoiler: by raising the issues in this rather obvious way, Webb spikes the guns of any journo who might be tempted to actually run a realistic analysis of the kind I'm bothering to do. The 'concocted publicity stunt' angle has lost its originality, its off-the-wall contrarian charm, and instead is made, ironically, too obvious to comment on.

Third, insurance: in the unlikely event that anyone in the MSM might be even vaguely - and belatedly - interested in looking into the degree of complicity involved in the 'emergence' of the 'spoof' - the public have become inured to being manipulated, while the story will be dead in a few days with the only lingering effect, so the LDs hope, being a diffuse sense that Clegg is actually rather a decent sort of chap -  in that unlikely event, Webb's slightly cryptic comments can be cited to show that actually, the Lib Dems were quite open about the fact that this was a publicity stunt. So that's OK then.

And of course in that case, the press would be full of admiration for the brilliance of the Lib Dems' media manipulation, and suffer no embarrassment at all over the fact that it was they who allowed themselves to be manipulated. Of course some in the press will have their suspicions, and probably knowledge, about the astroturf nature of the viral phenomenon, but won't want to report it; it's too hard to explain; they'll be called conspiracy theorists; there's a convention that this kind of spin doctoring is to remain behind the scenes; for journalists who prosper so well on a diet of predigested press releases and ready-made stunts, this is the kind of dirty laundry that's not to be washed in public.

And shining through all of this, the total contempt these people, press, politicians, and obviously PR 'creatives', have for the general public.