Maqsood said he was an agent for the Pakistani terror group,
tasked with assembling a team to wage jihad in the United
States. He asked Cromitie what he would attack if he had the
means. A bridge, Cromitie said.
"But bridges are too hard to be hit," Maqsood
pleaded, "because they're made of steel."
"Of course they're made of steel," Cromitie
replied. "But the same way they can be put up, they can
be brought down."
Maqsood coaxed Cromitie toward a more realistic plan. The
Mumbai attacks were all over the news, and he pointed out how
those gunmen targeted hotels, cafés, and a Jewish community
"With your intelligence, I
know you can manipulate someone," Cromitie told his
friend. "But not me, because I'm
intelligent." The pair settled on a plot to bomb
synagogues in the Bronx, and then fire Stinger missiles at
airplanes taking off from Stewart International Airport in the
southern Hudson Valley. Maqsood would provide all the
explosives and weapons, even the vehicles. "We have two
missiles, okay?" he
offered. "Two Stingers, rocket missiles."
Maqsood was an undercover
operative; that much was true. But not for Jaish-e-Mohammad.
His real name was Shahed
Hussain, and he was a paid informant for the Federal
Bureau of Investigation.
Ever since 9/11, counterterrorism has been the FBI's No. 1
priority, consuming the lion's share of its budget—$3.3
billion, compared to $2.6 billion for organized crime—and
much of the attention of field agents and a massive,
nationwide network of informants. After years of emphasizing
informant recruiting as a key task for its agents, the bureau
now maintains a roster of 15,000 spies—many of them tasked,
as Hussain was, with infiltrating Muslim communities in the
United States. In addition, for every informant officially
listed in the bureau's records, there are as many as three
unofficial ones, according to one former high-level FBI
official, known in bureau parlance as "hip pockets."
The bureau now maintains a roster of 15,000 spies, some paid
as much as $100,000 per case, many of them tasked with
infiltrating Muslim communities in the United States.
The informants could be doctors,
clerks, imams. Some might not even consider themselves
informants. But the FBI regularly taps all of them as part of
a domestic intelligence apparatus whose only historical peer
might be COINTELPRO,
the program the bureau ran from the '50s to the '70s to
discredit and marginalize organizations ranging from the Ku
Klux Klan to civil-rights and protest groups.
Throughout the FBI’s history,
informant numbers have been closely guarded secrets.
Periodically, however, the bureau has released those figures.
A Senate oversight committee in 1975 found the FBI had 1,500
In 1980, officials disclosed there were 2,800.
Six years later, following the FBI’s push into drugs and
organized crime, the number of bureau informants ballooned to
6,000, the Los Angeles Times reported
in 1986. And according to the FBI, the number grew
significantly after 9/11. In
its fiscal year 2008
budget authorization request, the FBI disclosed that it it
had been been working under a November 2004 presidential
an increase in "human source development and
management," and that it needed $12.7
million for a program to keep tabs on its spy network and
create software to track and manage informants.
The bureau's strategy has changed significantly from the
days when officials feared another coordinated,
internationally financed attack from an Al Qaeda sleeper cell.
Today, counterterrorism experts believe groups like Al Qaeda,
battered by the war in Afghanistan and the efforts of the
global intelligence community, have shifted to a franchise
model, using the internet to encourage sympathizers to carry
out attacks in their name. The main domestic threat, as the
FBI sees it, is a lone wolf.
The bureau's answer has been a strategy known variously as
"preemption," "prevention," and
"disruption"—identifying and neutralizing
potential lone wolves before they move toward action. To that
end, FBI agents and informants target not just active
jihadists, but tens of thousands of law-abiding people,
seeking to identify those disgruntled few who might
participate in a plot given the means and the opportunity. And
then, in case after case, the government provides the plot,
the means, and the opportunity.
Here's how it works: Informants
report to their handlers on people who have, say, made
statements sympathizing with terrorists. Those names are then
cross-referenced with existing intelligence data, such as
immigration and criminal records. FBI agents may then assign
an undercover operative to approach the target by posing as a
radical. Sometimes the operative will propose a plot, provide
explosives, even lead the target in a fake oath to Al Qaeda.
Once enough incriminating information has been gathered,
there's an arrest—and a press
conference announcing another foiled plot.
If this sounds vaguely familiar,
it's because such sting operations are a fixture in the
headlines. Remember the Washington
Metro bombing plot? The
New York subway plot? The guys who planned to blow up the Sears
Tower? The teenager seeking to bomb a Portland
Christmas tree lighting? Each of those plots, and dozens
more across the nation, was led by an FBI asset.
Over the past year, Mother Jones and the
Investigative Reporting Program at the University of
California-Berkeley have examined prosecutions of 508
defendants in terrorism-related cases, as defined by the
Department of Justice. Our investigation found:
- Nearly half the prosecutions
involved the use of informants, many of them incentivized
by money (operatives can be paid as much as $100,000 per
assignment) or the need to work off criminal or
immigration violations. (For more on the details of those
508 cases, see
our charts page and searchable
- Sting operations resulted in prosecutions against 158
defendants. Of that total, 49 defendants participated in
plots led by an agent provocateur—an FBI operative
instigating terrorist action.
- With three exceptions, all of
the high-profile domestic terror plots of the last decade
were actually FBI stings. (The exceptions are Najibullah
Zazi, who came close to bombing
the New York City subway system in September 2009; Hesham
Mohamed Hadayet, an Egyptian who opened fire on the
El-Al ticket counter at the Los Angeles airport; and
failed Times Square bomber Faisal
- In many sting cases, key encounters between the
informant and the target were not recorded—making it
hard for defendants claiming entrapment to prove their
- Terrorism-related charges are so difficult to beat in
court, even when the evidence is thin, that defendants
often don't risk a trial.
"The problem with the cases
we're talking about is that defendants would not have done
anything if not kicked in the ass by government agents,"
says Martin Stolar, a lawyer who represented a man caught in a
2004 sting involving New
York's Herald Square subway station. "They're
creating crimes to solve crimes so they can claim a victory in
the war on terror." In the FBI's defense, supporters
argue that the bureau will only pursue a case when the target
clearly is willing to participate in violent action. "If
you're doing a sting right, you're offering the target
multiple chances to back out," says Peter Ahearn, a
retired FBI special agent who directed the Western New York
Joint Terrorism Task Force and oversaw the investigation of
Six, an alleged terror cell near Buffalo, New York.
"Real people don't say, 'Yeah, let's go bomb that place.'
Real people call the cops."