Federal authorities have conducted undercover investigations and arrested men in California, Texas, New York, New Jersey, and Ohio who were allegedly trying to travel to territory held by the Islamic State, and that's just in the last month. But the feds' approach to snaring potential terrorists with surveillance and aggressive informants—many of them using tactics bordering on entrapment—began well before ISIS emerged as a top concern last year.
For example, in September 2010 authorities in Chicago announced charges against 21-year-old Sami Hassoun for planting what he thought was a backpack carrying a bomb in a trash can near Wrigley Field. Instead, it was a fake that had been supplied by an FBI informant. The evidence was damning, since Hassoun was recorded discussing the attack and other potential plots over the course of a year.
But the evolution of the case was more complicated. Hassoun, who had lived through wars in the Ivory Coast and Lebanon before immigrating to the United States, showed signs of mental instability and tendencies to fabricate even before he was approached by an informant in 2009, his defense attorneys said.
Desperate for money, he was receptive to the informant's offers to pay him to develop schemes against the government, many of which were outlandish, such as poisoning Chicago's water supply and making a bomb out of baking soda. Hassoun's own justification for an attack was also illogical, as he expressed hope that a bombing might inspire Chicagoans to rise up against Mayor Daley, whom he blamed for joblessness.
Yet the informant kept pushing Hassoun to come up with more ideas for attacks and other criminal activity; at one point, he told Hassoun that he could teach him how to deal heroin—which prompted FBI agents to chastise the informant about engaging in entrapment.
Eventually the informant brought the fake bomb to Hassoun, who agreed to plant it. "Given the facts, it seems extraordinarily improbable that Sami, a 21-year-old with no technical skill in the science of bomb-building, could have or would have engaged in a terrorist attack in Wrigleyville without the government's efforts and the informant's participation," argued Hassoun's attorneys.
Federal prosecutors stressed that Hassoun was ultimately willing to plant a bomb that could kill or maim scores of people on a busy Saturday night. "While the source [informant] offered Hassoun the allure of terrorism for profit, Hassoun also appeared interested in violence as a goal in-and-of itself."
Hassoun pleaded guilty to charges of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and attempted use of an explosive device, and in 2013 was sentenced to 23 years in prison. The case was cited by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who serves as vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on a list of terrorist plots foiled by federal authorities.
Feinstein also listed the case against Adel Daoud, a teenager from suburban Hillside accused in 2012 of trying to detonate a car bomb outside a downtown Chicago bar. By most accounts, Daoud has mental deficiencies. "He's not the person with a complete mind," his mother, Mona, told Human Rights Watch. "He didn't talk until five. He was the last one of my kids to talk. He doesn't even talk Arabic . . . like the rest of our family, because he's slow."
Daoud spent much of his free time online in his parents' basement. In 2011, when he was 17, the FBI began keeping tabs on him after he posted and emailed comments about violent jihad and al-Qaeda. Two undercover informants began communicating with him a few months later.
"Daoud sought guidance regarding whether to carry out a terrorist attack in the United States," federal prosecutors later alleged, and the informants provided it. One told Daoud he had a cousin in New York who was a terrorist and offered to put them in touch. Daoud agreed. Between June and September 2012, the "cousin"—who was an undercover agent—met with Daoud six times, often arguing, according to court records, that he thought it was important to attack Americans. Daoud agreed that terrorist attacks were justified because the United States was killing Muslims.
Daoud also expressed doubts. He often asked questions—and argued—with leaders of his mosque. They told him violence was wrong, and his parents also dissuaded him from thinking about it. But the "cousin" told Daoud that his sheikh had signed off on an attack.
On September 14, 2012, the undercover agent drove Daoud downtown to a parked green Jeep and told Daoud a bomb was in it. Daoud drove the Jeep to a downtown bar—the name hasn't been released—and walked a block away. Daoud hedged for a moment, but the agent "dispelled the doubts [the] defendant had even in the final minutes, and stood next to him when [the] defendant pressed the trigger to detonate the fake bomb," his attorneys wrote in a court filing.
There was no explosion—but FBI agents appeared on the scene and placed Daoud under arrest.
In the time since, Daoud's lawyers have battled prosecutors over access to evidence against him that was collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which gives the government broad powers to gather electronic data without warrants. But in June 2014 the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Daoud's attorneys would not get to see all of the evidence because "there are indeed compelling reasons of national security for their being classified."
Daoud was set to go on trial this summer, but last month it was pushed back so that he could undergo a mental health evaluation. The judge made the decision after Daoud behaved erratically during a court appearance, shouting, "You arrested me because I'm Muslim" and "I'm not crazy."
Seventeen-year-old Abdella Ahmad Tounisi attended the same mosque as Daoud, and in 2011 authorities started monitoring him as well. With a slight build, Tounisi had been bullied as a kid and took refuge in his religion. He was outraged by atrocities committed by the Syrian government and talked with Daoud about wanting to go there and fight. Daoud's contact—the undercover agent—offered to help Tounisi, but Tounisi suspected he was a government "spy."
After Daoud was arrested, the FBI tapped Tounisi's phone and followed his Internet activity. Over the next few months agents noted that he conducted searches on "martyrdom" and watched videos on fighting in the Middle East. In March 2013 he contacted a website calling for recruits to join Jabhat, a spinoff of al-Qaeda fighting the Syrian government (and later battling with ISIS as well). Tounisi e-mailed to ask for help in joining them.
The person who responded offered encouragement and asked if he had money for the trip. Tounisi said he had $1,396 but worried about his role with the organization. "Concerning my fighting skills to be honest I do not have any," he wrote. "I'm very small (5 feet six inches, 120 pounds) physically but I pray to Allah that he makes me successful."
He was told that his faith was "ultimate" and asked if he was willing to follow it even to martyrdom, or shahada. "With that in mind, brother Abdullah, we ask if you are willing to be a shaheed if the will of Allah comes upon you to be one?" Tounisi responded: "If the opportunity is given to me to attain shahada I will take it." A week later he booked a flight to Turkey, and soon after that his contact e-mailed him a bus ticket from Istanbul to Gaziantep, a city near the Syrian border.
What Tounsisi didn't realize was that the site had been set up by the FBI and he was corresponding with an undercover agent. On April 19, 2013, as he waited at O'Hare for his flight to Istanbul, Tounisi was arrested and charged with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. If convicted, Tounisi faces up to 15 years in prison. His attorney has been talking with prosecutors about a plea deal, and a hearing is scheduled for later this month.
The Chicago-based cases are not an aberration. Across the country, federal investigations have targeted people with intellectual or mental disabilities, and many relied on secret evidence, according to "The Illusion of Justice," a 2014 report from Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School. "At times, in aggressively pursuing terrorism threats before they even materialize, U.S. law enforcement overstepped its role by effectively participating in developing terrorism plots," the report concluded. v