Last March, John T. Booker, a 20-year-old from Kansas, checked himself into a mental health facility for evaluation. Now, a year later, he faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison, charged with attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization and attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction — the fake bomb that he was provided by undercover FBI informants.
Booker was arrested earlier this month in an alleged plot to attack a Kansas military base. Booker, who had reportedly been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, had publicly expressed violent and extremist views for roughly a year before FBI agents induced him to commit a criminal act that would land him behind bars.
In the United States today, individuals who make statements that could be construed as advocating violent extremism — even those who have mental health issues — often become the targets of law enforcement officials whose priority is putting people in prison, not helping them change course. Recognizing the shortcomings of such government efforts, new grassroots initiatives have emerged that seek to empower Muslim communities, rather than subject them to intensified intelligence and law enforcement scrutiny.
The “Safe Spaces Initiative,” launched by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, came into being after a series of cases perceived as government entrapment of troubled youth in the Muslim-American community. “The program was inspired by the case of Mohamed Mohamud, the purported Portland bomber,” said Alejandro Beutel, who helps run the program. “He was a 19-year-old kid who came from a broken home, had substance abuse and mental health issues. He started saying some things which alarmed his father, who then called the FBI.”
“But the FBI didn’t ‘help’ Mohamud,” Beutel said. “They introduced him to an informant who aggressively pushed him even further in a negative direction, ensuring that he would spend the next several decades of his life behind bars. If his father had gone to the community, and if they had the tools and confidence to deal with troubled youth like this, Mohamud might not have had his life destroyed as it was.”
It’s a pattern that has been repeated hundreds of times over the past decade: the FBI “foils” a terror plot, except the would-be terrorist’s only conspiracy is with government informants.
“There’s a perception among counterterrorism agents that they need to be producing something — they’re under pressure from above, and they start to feel like they’re better safe than sorry by locking troubled people up if there’s no other real option out there,” said Mubin Shaikh, who worked as an undercover agent for the Canadian Security Intelligence Services in several terrorism cases, and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in the psychology of radicalization. “Part of the reason that 14 years after 9/11 we don’t have a handle on this problem is that we continue to focus almost exclusively on things like ideology and religion, instead of grappling with more complex questions about community engagement, mental health, and how aggressive foreign policies inevitably generate terrorism,” Shaikh told The Intercept.
One of the major aims of Safe Spaces is to help communities understand their legal rights and ability to discuss politically sensitive issues without fear of government retribution. In the post-9/11 era, an endemic problem within Western Muslim communities has been the paranoia and suspicion generated by informants and other forms of surveillance, which have made people hesitant to engage with individuals perceived to exhibit anti-social behaviors. “People are so scared of the possibility of the FBI breathing down their neck, they just kick anyone expressing troubling views out of the mosque,” said Beutel.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who would eventually plant bombs at the Boston Marathon, was ejected from his local Boston mosque the year before the attack for making anti-American political statements. An attendee of his mosque who spoke with The Intercept suggested that the pervasive fear of government agent provocateurs among the congregation led many to choose disengagement from people who expressed troubling views, rather than trying to work with them to sway their opinions.
“Our goal is to treat Muslim communities like any other communities, not as something unique. We treat this as a public health program, not so-called ‘countering extremism’ in a way which stigmatizes an entire group within society,” said Beutel.
A 2014 Human Rights Watch report found that the FBI now maintains a network of 15,000 confidential informants throughout the country, the greatest number at any time in its history. As FBI Director James Comey recently commented, the agency has “investigations of people in various states of radicalizing in all 50 states.”
Harsh police tactics like mass surveillance and entrapment — widely viewed as discriminatory toward the most vulnerable members of the Muslim community — may also have the counterproductive effect of alienating Muslim minorities domestically. “Not all sting operations are created equal. Some can be employed in legitimate investigations,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. “But those cases which involve mentally ill people — or people who would have otherwise been unable to mount an attack on their own — create a sense in the community that they are being unfairly targeted.”
While criticizing these tactics, Patel is also cautious of “soft” intervention programs, which often come under the banner of “countering violent extremism.” “I am most troubled by programs that seek to identify at-risk individuals, particularly when schools are involved,” Patel said. “The risks of making mistakes are very high given that there is no consensus as to the indicators of someone who is going to become a terrorist.”
Approaches taken in Europe have had mixed results in dealing this issue. A program in Denmark has achieved positive results by seeking to rehabilitate returned foreign fighters and other individuals perceived to have been radicalized. Programs such as Prevent and Channel in the United Kingdom — which attempt to identify individuals at risk of radicalization and recommend either law enforcement intervention or the help of social services — have been more controversial, generating charges of McCarthyism from local Muslim communities.
Safe Spaces takes a different approach. “We need to provide guidance to communities about how to deal with law enforcement,” Beutel said. “The FBI are not our friends, but we are taxpayers, so to some degree we are their bosses. They have to be responsive to us.”
Shaikh, the former undercover agent, said he is in favor of sting operations in certain cases, but critical of the singularly punitive approach authorities generally take when dealing with individuals, particularly young people, who are suspected of being radicalized.
“Heavy-handed tactics don’t work,” he said. “The fact is that for many people, there needs to be a third option between locking them up in jail and just doing nothing if they might be a danger to themselves or others.”
Photo: Chris Hawley/AP