(Trevor Aaronson) In the ten years following 9/11, the FBI and the Justice Department convicted more than 150 people following sting operations, though few had any connection to real terrorists.
The following is an excerpt from The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism by Trevor Aaronson (Ig Publishing, 2012).
Antonio Martinez was a punk. The twenty-two-year-old from Baltimore was chunky, with a wide nose and jet-black hair pulled back close to his scalp and tied into long braids that hung past his shoulders. He preferred to be called Muhammad Hussain, the name he gave himself following his conversion to Islam. But his mother still called him Tony, and she couldn’t understand her son’s burning desire to be the Maryland Mujahideen.
As a young man, Martinez had been angry and lost. He’d dropped out of Laurel High School, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and spent his teens as a small-time thief in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. By the age of sixteen, he’d been charged with armed robbery. In February 2008, at the age of eighteen, he tried to steal a car. Catholic University doctoral student Daniel Tobin was looking out of the window of his apartment one day when he saw a man driving off in his car. Tobin gave chase, running between apartment buildings and finally catching up to the stolen vehicle. He opened the passenger-side door and got in. Martinez, in the driver’s seat, dashed out and ran away on foot. Jumping behind the wheel, Tobin followed the would-be car thief. “You may as well give up running,” he yelled at Martinez. Martinez was apprehended and charged with grand theft of a motor vehicle—he had stolen the vehicle using an extra set of car keys which had gone missing when someone had broken into Tobin’s apartment earlier. However, prosecutors dropped the charges against Martinez after Tobin failed to appear in court.
Despite the close call, Martinez’s petty crimes continued. One month after the car theft, he and a friend approached a cashier at a Safeway grocery store, acting as if they wanted to buy potato chips. When the cashier opened the register, Martinez and his friend grabbed as much money as they could and ran out of the store. The cashier and store manager chased after them, and later identified the pair to police. Martinez pleaded guilty to theft of one hundred dollars and received a ninety-day suspended sentence, plus six months of probation.
Searching for greater meaning in his life, Martinez was baptized and became a Christian when he was twenty-one years old, but he didn’t stick with the religion. “He said he tried the Christian thing. He just really didn’t understand it,” said Alisha Legrand, a former girlfriend. Martinez chose Islam instead. On his Facebook page, Martinez wrote that he was “just a yung brotha from the wrong side of the tracks who embraced Islam.” But for reasons that have never been clear to his family and friends, Martinez drifted toward a violent, extremist brand of Islam. When the FBI discovered him, Martinez was an angry extremist mouthing off on Facebook about violence, with misspelled posts such as, “The sword is cummin the reign of oppression is about 2 cease inshallah.” Based on the Facebook postings alone, an FBI agent gave an informant the “green light” to get to know Martinez and determine if he had a propensity for violence. In other words, to see if he was dangerous.
The government was setting the trap.
On the evening of December 2, 2010, Martinez was in another Muslim’s car as they drove through Baltimore. A hidden device recorded their conversation. His mother had called, and Martinez had just finished talking to her on his cell phone. He was aggravated. “She wants me to be like everybody else, being in school, working,” he told his friend. “For me, it’s different. I have this zeal for deen and she doesn’t understand that.” Martinez’s mother didn’t know that her son had just left a meeting with a purported Afghan-born terrorist who had agreed to provide him with a car bomb. But she wasn’t the only one in the dark that night. Martinez himself didn’t know his new terrorist friend was an undercover agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and that the man driving the car—a man he’d met only a few weeks earlier—was a paid informant for federal law enforcement.
Five days later, Martinez met again with the man he believed to be a terrorist. The informant was there, too. They were all, Martinez believed, brothers in arms and in Islam. In a parking lot near the Armed Forces Career Center on Baltimore National Pike, Martinez, the informant, and the undercover FBI agent piled into an SUV, where the undercover agent showed Martinez the device that would detonate the car bomb and how to use it. He then unveiled to the twenty-two-year-old the bomb in the back of the SUV and demonstrated what he’d need to do to activate it. “I’m ready, man,” Martinez said. “It ain’t like you seein’ it on the news. You gonna be there. You gonna hear the bomb go off. You gonna be, uh, shooting, gettin’ shot at. It’s gonna be real. … I’m excited, man.”
That night, Martinez, who had little experience behind the wheel of a car, needed to practice driving the SUV around the empty parking lot. Once he felt comfortable doing what most teenagers can do easily, Martinez and his associates devised a plan: Martinez would park the bomb-on-wheels in the parking lot outside the military recruiting center. One of his associates would then pick him up, and they’d drive together to a vantage point where Martinez could detonate the bomb and delight in the resulting chaos and carnage.
The next morning, the three men put their plan into action. Martinez hopped into the SUV and activated the bomb, as he’d been instructed, and then drove to the military recruiting station. He parked right in front. The informant, trailing in another car, picked up Martinez and drove him to the vantage point, just as planned. Everything was falling into place, and Martinez was about to launch his first attack in what he hoped would be for him a lifetime of jihad against the only nation he had ever known.
Looking out at the military recruiting station, Martinez lifted the detonation device and triggered the bomb. Smiling, he watched expectantly. Nothing happened. Suddenly, FBI agents rushed in and arrested the man they’d later identify in court records as “Antonio Martinez a/k/a Muhammad Hussain.” Federal prosecutors in Maryland charged Martinez with attempted murder of federal officers and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. He faced at least thirty-five years in prison if convicted at trial.
“This is not Tony,” a woman identifying herself as Martinez’s mother told a reporter after the arrest. “I think he was brainwashed with that Islam crap.” Joseph Balter, a federal public defender, told the court during a detention hearing that FBI agents had entrapped Martinez, whom he referred to by his chosen name. The terrorist plot was, Balter said, “the creation of the government—a creation which was implanted into Mr. Hussain’s mind.” He added: “There was nothing provided which showed that Mr. Hussain had any ability whatsoever to carry out any kind of plan.”
Despite Balter’s claims, a little more than a year after his indictment, Martinez chose not to challenge the government’s charges in court. On January 26, 2012, Martinez dropped his entrapment defense and pleaded guilty to attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction under a deal that will require him to serve twenty-five years in prison—more years than he’s been alive. Neither Martinez nor Balter would comment on the reasons they chose a plea agreement, though in a sentencing hearing, Balter told the judge he believed the entire case could have been avoided had the FBI counseled, rather than encouraged, Martinez.
The U.S. Department of Justice touted the conviction as another example of the government keeping citizens safe from terrorists. “We are catching dangerous suspects before they strike, and we are investigating them in a way that maximizes the liberty and security of law-abiding citizens,” U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement announcing Martinez’s plea agreement. “That is what the American people expect of the Justice Department, and that is what we aim to deliver.”
Indeed, that is exactly what the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have been delivering throughout the decade since the attacks of September 11, 2001. But whether it’s what the American people expect is questionable, because most Americans today have no idea that since 9/11, one single organization has been responsible for hatching and financing more terrorist plots in the United States than any other. That organization isn’t Al Qaeda, the terrorist network founded by Osama bin Laden and responsible for the spectacular 2001 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. And it isn’t Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Al-Shabaab, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or any of the other more than forty U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations. No, the organization responsible for more terrorist plots over the last decade than any other is the FBI. Through elaborate and expensive sting operations involving informants and undercover agents posing as terrorists, the FBI has arrested and the Justice Department has prosecuted dozens of men government officials say posed direct—but by no means immediate or credible—threats to the United States.
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