Imagine this story. “A shadowy group referred to in the press as “the JTTF” has claimed responsibility for a planned attack on a college cafeteria. Aspiring martyr Alex Ciccolo, 23, of North Adams, MA, apparently fell under the influence of this group over a year ago. The JTTF has over one hundred cells located all over the country.
This is not the first time the JTTF has claimed responsibility for fomenting fear in our nation’s cities. It has a pattern of recruiting vulnerable, mentally ill young men, often playing on their religious feelings to incite them into criminal attacks on their fellow Americans.”
This reads like an absurd fiction, but it’s actually a fairly accurate description of the work done by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force on the recently announced Ciccolo case and in many other similar cases over the years.
First, to the facts. On July 14, it was announced that Alexander Ciccolo, 23, of North Adams, MA, had been arrested on July 4 for felony possession of four firearms previously used in interstate commerce. It was a felony because he had previously been convicted of a DUI in February of this year. The firearms had been delivered to him by a confidential FBI informant being paid by the FBI’s Western Massachusetts JTTF.
A supporting affidavit alleges, based on the testimony of a paid confidential informant, that Ciccolo intended to attack targets such as “college cafeterias”, maybe in Massachusetts and maybe elsewhere, and had expressed support for ISIS; and that Molotov cocktails, jihadist materials, and terror attack planning materials were found at his home. The FBI says they were tipped off by Ciccolo’s father, a police captain, that Ciccolo has had a history of mental illness and had been interested in Islam for about a year. The Western Mass Joint Terrorism Task Force took on the task of surveilling Ciccolo, and found a Facebook profile associated with him, which expressed an interest in martyrdom. It appears that the JTTF then arranged for a confidential informant to meet with Ciccolo and gain his trust. Wiretapped conversations then suggest that Ciccolo “spoke about his plans to travel to another state to conduct terrorist attacks on civilians, members of the U.S. military and law enforcement personnel”, a plan which later developed into a desire to attack an unspecified college cafeteria. Ciccolo bought a pressure cooker on July 3, and then was furnished with the guns by the confidential informant on July 4.
This case is worth probing because, horrifying as Ciccolo’s intentions may have been – we can all be glad that no such attack took place – it raises important questions about how counter-terrorism work is done in America today.
First, as we saw with the Teausant case in California, the FBI is not putting forward any evidence that Ciccolo was ever in contact with anybody affiliated with ISIS. If they had it, they’d surely make it public, which does suggest that it isn’t there. Thanks to Section 207 of the PATRIOT Act, renewed by the USA FREEDOM Act last month, the FBI has no need to demonstrate any actual link to a foreign terrorist organization in order to investigate somebody for international terrorism. In this case, no terrorism charges have yet been brought.
In the runup to July 4 CNN in particular, prompted by nebulous FBI warnings, spent hours and hours talking about the threat of ISIS-inspired attacks on the homeland on July 4. No such attacks materialized, and we now find that the only reason this was a “July 4 attack” is that that’s the day the confidential informant, prompted by the FBI, sold Ciccolo the guns. But hey, it makes for good press and fuels the partnership between the media and the surveillance state in terms of marketing the ubiquity and severity of the terrorist threat. Despite the absence of any connection to ISIS, the terms being used are “ISIS attack”, or an “ISIS-inspired attack”; but the ordinary rules of logic would seem to preclude describing this as either. Bluntly, if we’re worried about who’s doing the radicalization here, and is responsible for putting firearms into the hands of mentally unstable young men, we might as well describe this as a “JTTF-inspired plot.” The FBI wants the credit for disrupting something it encouraged into being itself. There’s such a long history of this kind of “crime creation” that there’s even a new documentary out about it. In fact, all but four of the plots uncovered by the FBI since 9/11, are known to have been brought about as a result of confidential FBI informants encouraging such men in the design and conduct of terrorist attacks. In Western Massachusetts itself, the JTTF’s desperate desire to lever itself into the inner councils of local Muslims led to the arrest and conviction of local community leader Ayyub Abdul-Alim, who was targeted for refusing to become an FBI informant. The damage to relations between the US government and American Muslims by these kinds of practices is incalculable.
This is going to seem desperately unfair to the JTTF and its supporters. In their minds, they don’t really want attacks on America. They’re giving this young man guns and advice via a confidential informant precisely to head off the possibility of a real attack. They see anyone voicing support for the Islamic State as being essentially a terrorist already, and as it being only a matter of time before such a person pulls off an attack on their own; so what’s wrong with leading them into committing a fake attack, and arresting them for being willing to participate in it? Ciccolo was clearly unstable and sympathetic to radical Islam, and had some propensity to commit these acts, so they will likely shed few tears for him.
It does seem that Ciccolo had some propensity to commit an attack. But organizing attacks is hard, especially if you’re mentally ill. It’s especially hard without support. And that support was supplied, not from afar by ISIS, but from near at hand, by JTTF itself. Without such support, we really cannot know what Ciccolo would have been able to do; and we don’t know how far JTTF’s involvement made things worse.
Violent terrorist attacks are exceedingly rare. The vast majority of the people expressing support for ISIS online aren’t going to do anything about it in terms of planning or committing violent acts; and if their support is confined to mere words, without any such planning – as Ciccolo’s seems to have been at the time he was placed under surveillance – then it’s protected by the First Amendment, just as much as Nazis parading in Skokie were protected.
Why would anybody rationally express even verbal support for ISIS? In a unipolar world, where the United States is extraordinarily dominant militarily, there are going to be a lot of people who bloviate online or to friends about how the US needs to be taken down a peg or two, and who hang their hats on whoever seems to be offering resistance to the hegemon. The distinctions between friends and enemies of the United States in Syria and Iraq are blurry, and change rapidly; a group that is an “enemy” of the United States today, may have been a friend yesterday and may even be an ally tomorrow. ISIS, for example, these days is al-Qaeda’s chief rival; some subset of people opposed to al-Qaeda will pull a General Vlasov and support ISIS because of that opposition. Nor is it clear that ISIS is uniquely bad in the region: their opponents include Bashar al-Assad, a tyrant who has caused immense suffering to the Syrian people, and the House of Saud, who lash and behead dissenters with as much alacrity as ISIS does. Picking any side in the Middle East is going to involve some degree of myopia towards your own side’s abuses.
Speaking of that myopia, the FBI has a model of how to prevent young people from becoming radicalized, which it calls “Countering Violent Extremism”, or CVE. CVE is a myopic model because it claims that there are outward signs by which one can reliably detect a person’s radicalization, and that there are steps one can take to disrupt it. Instead of focusing on preventing violent terrorist acts, CVE asserts that it’s possible to change people’s hearts before they go too far down the road to being willing to commit such acts. Here’s the downside. CVE necessitates close surveillance of communities perceived as being at risk of radicalization, which, in the US, basically means Muslims (you’ll search in vain for a CVE office in Charleston or St. Louis or Oklahoma City). That close surveillance inevitably captures far more people who are, say, growing their beards or studying deeply in the Koran for entirely innocent reasons, than it captures people actually meditating violent acts. Communications which among non-Muslims would tend to be interpreted as being innocent bloviating are leapt on as evidence of terrorist intent. And that religiously based harassment – which is what it is – in turn generates anger in Muslim communities, which itself is more likely to lead individuals to resent the US government. Paradoxically, the very effort to watch ends up fostering the very problem it’s designed to suppress.
Financially, constitutionally and morally, we should be questioning whether the FBI should conduct crime creation operations of this nature at all.
I live in Massachusetts. I have a family. I have every reason to be concerned about things that threaten our safety. But here, as is so often the case with the FBI’s crime creation efforts, it’s hard to get rid of the nagging feeling that Ciccolo may well not have ended up doing anything criminalizable – beyond his DUI and a bunch of social media bloviating – but for the FBI. Essentially, what the FBI did here was to pluck from among the ranks of the tens of thousands of people who do that kind of bloviating, someone who had converted to Islam and had a convenient prior criminal record, and made him into a terrorist under their steam, so that he did not become a terrorist under his own steam. And the choice to do that raises all sorts of questions. If they’re going to craft terrorists, for example, why choose Muslims over, say, white supremacist cells? Why don’t we see the FBI taking people like, say Dylan Klebold or Seung-Hui Cho or Adam Lanza, and making them terrorists under their own steam? If that wouldn’t be OK, why is it OK for them to do it to Muslims?
Ciccolo had a long history of mental illness. It’s not the FBI’s job to take mentally ill people, lead them up to a cliff, ask them why they’re not brave enough to jump off it, and then clap them in handcuffs if they make a motion to jump. Ciccolo will no doubt be put away for a long time for his (apparently real) criminal intent, while the people who helped him to it bask in their offices and collect their checks as the glowing press and favorable performance reviews rain down. What the hell kind of operations are we funding here?
POSTSCRIPT: There’s a bill afoot in Congress, not to rein in CVE, but to expand it, proposed by Rep. McCaul (R-TX). It’s in hearings right now (as in today, July 15). Call your legislator and tell them CVE does nothing to help the security of the United States.