IS IT REALLY a terrorist plot if no one was ever in danger and the men you're plotting with—the handlers giving you cash, driving you around, and even building your bomb—are all (whoops!) government agents?
The US Attorneys' Office thinks so. For months, FBI agents did all that and more for Mohamed Osman Mohamud, letting him think he was helping to plan a devastating attack on Pioneer Courthouse Square. And then on Friday, November 26, the night of the planned attack, those same handlers turned around and arrested him on a charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction.
But Mohamud's attorneys? They're calling the sting—with its rent money, its bomb-making expertise, and its steady guidance—something else: entrapment.
"The question we'll be looking into is the question of entrapment," Federal Public Defender Steven Wax said just after Mohamud, only 19 years old, pleaded not guilty in his arraignment Monday, November 29.
And now, pointing to dozens of other choreographed FBI stings involving young Muslim men since September 11, 2001, others are also raising the question. For the first time, even national publications like the New York Times and Salon.com are devoting substantive stories to the issue.
Legal advocates wonder: By stringing along impressionable, disaffected youths in a bid for high-profile convictions, aren't authorities doing more to mold extremists in America than actual terrorist groups? While Mohamud claimed to be dreaming of jihad since he was a young teenager, he also was a university student known to drink and party and enjoy the company of friends who weren't Muslim.
"These are a bunch of 19-, 20-, and 21-year-old young people who wouldn't be involved in this kind of criminal activity without heavy FBI inducement," says Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and one of the attorneys who successfully lobbied to give Guantanamo Bay prisoners their right to a day in court.
"You can push kids a lot," he says, "especially if they don't have any money."
Response to that criticism has been forceful. Federal officials say agents explicitly offered the young man a path other than murder. And authorities also point out, in the FBI's affidavit, that Mohamud is the one who chose the time and location of the attack.
Still, in court, Wax's chief deputy, Stephen Sady, accused the FBI of letting "quite sophisticated government agents" spend months "grooming" Mohamud into someone so dispossessed he was willing to kill children at a holiday tree lighting ceremony.
What's more, Sady also complained that undercover agents' first meeting with Mohamud—the one where they allegedly gave him other options—was the only one that wasn't recorded. In entrapment cases, the first meeting is considered singularly important in determining whether a subject was already disposed to commit a crime. The FBI's 36-page affidavit blames technical difficulties.
"Who knows what else went into that conversation?" says Ratner. "We don't know if there was other coercion. We have no idea."
Ratner says this could be a "key" case in advocates' fight against FBI stings—particularly amid the uncertainty over the initial meeting with Mohamud.
But convincing a jury? Good luck. A recent New York University study of terrorism trials found an unbroken record of convictions when entrapment was raised. Experts say the magnitude of the crimes planned in the stings—even though the stage-managed plots were nowhere close to killing anyone—can be hard to shake from jurors' minds.
Undercover agents approached Mohamud soon after he was kept from boarding a plane to Alaska, where he hoped to find work. What if he'd gone? What if he hadn't been offered what agents were offering?
"There's a lot more to it," said Saba Ahmed, whose brother grew up with Mohamud. "This guy has been framed really badly."