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What are the Limits of FBI Terrorist Entrapments?

by Felix Moyer

Courtroom sketch of Mohamed Osman Mohamud.

Bureaucratic minds everywhere regularly miss the biggest issues of justice. Jesus skewered the religious bureaucrats of his day for fussily keeping lesser laws while neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Matthew 23:23) They focused so narrowly on finding tiny “gnats” drowning in their mouths that, Jesus said, they swallowed entire “camels.” (Matthew 23:24)

That imagery arises again in recent FBI defenses of its entrapment tactics used to provoke domestic terrorists. In the past few years, the FBI has increased its use of trickery to lure youths into terrorist acts. The less polite simply call this entrapment. But the Obama administration insists that the FBI isn’t technically involved in illegal seduction. The Obama administration’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, says, “I make no apologies for how the FBI agents handled their work…Those who characterize the FBI’s activities…as entrapment simply do not have their facts straight or do not have a full understanding of the law.” The administration insists that these tactics have been critical in neutralizing criminals for years.

In November, the FBI arrested Mohamed Osman Mohamud in Portland just before he was to set off a fake bomb in the city’s Pioneer Square. On the surface, it sounded like solid FBI work. But it clearly wouldn’t have occurred without FBI support, direction, and instigation.

Mohamed Osmam Mohamud was born in Somalia in 1991. When he was in elementary school there, his parents took him and fled that country’s violence and famine for a Somali community in Portland. They became upstanding members there, and Mohamed grew up like a typical American guy. He did well in school, enjoyed the Portland Trail Blazers, and attended Oregon State as an engineering student.

Like most of these recent stings, the FBI started by tracking Mohamud’s Internet conversations in which he expressed opposition to the United States. They then sent two FBI agents to him, posing as eager Muslim jihadists. The agents setup secret meetings in Portland hotels. According to court documents, Mohamud told them in July he desired to become “operational but noted he did not know how and he would need training.”

The FBI posers discussed potential bombing targets with Mohamud and, ultimately, even supplied and constructed the bomb, as well as performing a test explosion for him in the countryside. Other FBI agents acting as jihadists helped dress Mohamud in clothing he didn’t normally wear, a white robe, head-dress, and camouflage jacket in order to create a video in which he took responsibility for the attack. Finally, on November 26, Mohamud investigated the fake bomb the FBI had supplied him in a white van it had also provided. In it were six 55-gallon drums, a coil of detonation cord, blasting caps and a gallon of diesel fuel. When Mohamud tried to set the detonation of the elaborate, phony bomb, the FBI arrested Mohamud.

The chief federal public defender in Oregon, Steven Wax, said after a hearing, “the question we’ll be looking into is the question of entrapment.” Wax added, “The government provided the money, the government provided the transportation, the government was involved in the meetings.” Since 9/11, no terror trial has been successful in arguing for entrapment.

A few weeks later, the FBI arrested Antonio Martinez in Catonsville, Maryland through a very similar FBI-orchestrated terror sting with another fake bomb to be set off outside a military recruitment office. Similarly, earlier in the year, the FBI snared a Jordanian national, Hosam Smadi, 20, in a setup to attack a downtown Dallas skyscraper with yet another phony, FBI-assembled bomb. The list of FBI terror stings is growing longer – The Liberty City Seven, the Fort Dix Six, the Detroit Ummah Conspiracy, the Newburgh Four. The FBI provided each of these groups with money for cell phones, clothes, bombs, and more. Authorities provided cars and facilities for meetings. They provided assembled bombs and instructions on how to place and use them.

Martinez allegedly targeted this Catonsville, Md. recruitment station.

All these pathetic “terrorists” were too poor to have carried out any of their scripted attacks without massive FBI funding and stage-managing. Without the federal government’s role in all these cases, the individuals would have only had anger and impotent bravado.

These tactics aren’t new. Court documents have revealed the intricacies of the 1993 FBI terror sting operation in the first attempt to bring down the World Trade Center towers via a basement bomb that left six dead and thousands injured. The FBI employed Emad A. Salem, a 43-year-old former Egyptian army officer, to penetrate a group of Muslim extremists. Salem said the FBI provided him with the bomb for the extremists, and the plan was for the FBI to replace the real bomb powder with phony powder, but the plan somehow failed. The real bomb exploded on February 26. After the bombing, Salem complained to his FBI supervising agent, John Anticev, about the FBI’s failure in “building the bomb with a phony powder and grabbing the people who was involved in it.” For some reason, the switch didn’t happen.

Yet, none of these cases is said to constitute entrapment. In real life, we would normally count such clear setups to sin as far over the line. But courts only see entrapment when persons are persuaded by law enforcement officers to commit crimes they have no previous intent to commit. The law does not consider an act to be entrapment when persons are ready and willing to break the law, with the government “merely” providing supplies and opportunity. Defendants have to prove that the idea did not originate with them and that the government agents persuaded them to commit the crime. In turn, the FBI argues in court that it shows the intent of the subject was to follow through with the stated plan. The FBI insists that the potential terrorists go through all the steps themselves, dialing the cell phone or pulling the trigger. The FBI insists it’s not entrapment because they give the targets constant opportunities to back out of the operation.

But wait a minute. Take a step back. Ignore the gnats a moment. Why must the FBI try to entice potential terrorists in the first place? Why can’t they just go after actual terrorists? Why must they spend so much time and money on potential criminals? Isn’t the world flush in terrorists? If so, why not just focus on actual terrorism instead of manufactured crimes? Something is gravely amiss.

Take an even further step back and consider the theology of temptation in Scripture. Set aside the strained definitions of entrapment. The issue is temptation. That’s really what these FBI tactics involve. Should government agents be involved in formal acts of temptation?

Whose role is temptation in a Christian framework? Is temptation a weighty act of justice or is it a cowardly surrender to paganism? In the very opening pages of Scripture, the Satanic serpent plays the part of the tempter, not God. The serpent entices Adam and Eve into sin. He supplies the opportunity and suggests the materials.

Perhaps in light of the Fall, the Mosaic code sought to guard the weak: “You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but shall fear your God: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:14) We’re not supposed to cause the physically blind to stumble, and the same principle can be applied to the spiritually blind. We ought not entice the weak into crimes. In addition, the law repeatedly sought to protect the foreigner, calling us to “administer justice” for “the stranger, giving him food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:18) The Mosaic law gets even louder on the point: “Cursed is the one who perverts the justice due the stranger.” (Deuteronomy 27:19) Proverbs captures the spirit of the Old Testament angle on entrapment: “A violent man entices his neighbor, and leads him in a way that is not good.” (Proverbs 16:29) Just men don’t entice.

In the New Testament, Jesus didn’t go about tempting people into crimes as some alleged grand act of justice and security. Again, we find Satan as the tempter of Jesus, tempting Jesus with self-satisfaction, greatness, wealth, and government power. (Matthew 4) Jesus declined the offer. Jesus’ opponents constantly played the role of entrappers. We read how they again and again “plotted how they might entangle Him.” (Matthew 22:15)

The apostle James summarized the situation this way: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.” (James 1:13) In other words, it’s not God’s character to go about tempting or entrapping people into sins or crimes. That’s contrary to His way of life. In Scripture, entrapment is the role of the accuser, the enslaver, Satan. How did the U.S. and the FBI get so turned inside out on such a basic point? How did a nation that prides itself on justice end up taking up such a hideous biblical role?

The more pressing question now, though, is once a nation starts acting out that satanic role, where is the limit? If that nation won’t play by the very basics of Christian ethics, then what standards limit their entrapments at all? Where will it stop? If Obama’s Attorney General can be so high-handed to say “I make no apologies for how the FBI agents handled their work,” what’s to rein them in when the target hits closer to home, instead of Somali “strangers” in Portland, Maryland, and Dallas? “Woe to you…Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!…You outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:23,24,28)

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