A 21-year-old Bangladeshi man tried and failed to blow up the Federal Reserve Building in downtown Manhattan on Wednesday, largely thanks to the efforts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That "thanks" ought to be attached both to the "tried" and the "failed" parts of that sentence, since it was the FBI that not only coaxed the suspect, Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, into moving forward with the bombing but also supplied him with the means to do so. Don't worry. The Feds know what they're doing. They do this all the time.
Nafis is just another terrorist. He arrived in the United States in January ambitious like a lot of immigrants. Except his ambition wasn't to open a small business or work his way up the ladder of an American company. He wanted to "destroy America," according to a statement he wrote to claim responsibility for the terrorist attack he would inevitably attempt to carry out. However, it's unclear if he would've gotten as far as he did without help from undercover FBI agents.
After arriving in the United States and settling into his new home in Jamaica, Queens, Nafis got to know a person whom he believed was connected to Al Qaeda. This contact talked him through the process of identifying a target. First it was a high ranking government official, and then it was the New York Stock Exchange. Nafis and his accomplice finally settled on the Federal Reserve Building in downtown Manhattan, since they thought it could reap the most damage on the American economy. Said accomplice helped Nafis acquire "20 50-pound bags of purported explosives," according to the U.S. Attorney's office, and even rode in the van with Nafis as he went to deliver the payload on Wednesday, arming the bomb on the way. They parked the fan in front of the Fed and retreated to a hotel room, where Nafis recorded a video explaining the attack. The only problem was that this accomplice was an undercover FBI agent, the bomb materials were fake and as soon as Nafis flipped the switch to finalize his attack on America, the Feds swooped in and arrested him.
Let's try to process all that. Our first reaction was a simple one: "Yea, we caught a terrorist!" And then we started thinking, "Wait a second -- it seems like the FBI had a lot to do with planning this fake attack." Which leads to, "Would this terrorist have actually built this bomb and delivered it to the Fed's doorstep if the FBI hadn't walked him through the process?" This question inevitably leads to one thinking, "What they hell am I thinking? This guy wanted to 'destroy America,' " and he didn't thanks to the FBI." Then, maybe your mind might wander into patriotic territory, "Maybe I should join the FBI and fight terrorists, too."
These aren't easy questions. In general, America's response to the terror threat has been expansive, sometimes intrusive and inevitably aggressive. But we've been led to believe that the alternative to an aggressive defense against terrorism is, well, terrorism, and terrorism stinks. This is generally how debates against laws like the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act devolve into discussions about how much we're willing to sacrifice civil liberties to feel safe in a fearsome world. American lawmakers have approved and renewed both of these measures, probably because they'd rather err on the side of national security.
But what about the FBI? On a regular basis, the FBI recruits, trains and compensates informants like the one that helped facilitate the attempted bombing on the Federal Reserve Building. When we say "regular basis," we mean that there are literally thousands of informants across the country working with would be terrorists, and so far, they have a pretty good success rate. The latest issue of Mother Jones includes a feature about these efforts. It's worth reading in full, but we'll quote it at length to make one last point:
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.
This sounds a lot like the foiled Federal Reserve plot, but that's not the only one:
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.
And so we return to our original question: If the FBI both planned and thwarted a terrorist attack, who's the hero? This is up for debate, and until we know more about what happened in this latest failed attack, we won't know exactly how determined Nafis, the suspected terrorist, was about destroying America.
We'll go ahead and jump to an amenable conclusion, though, and say that the war on terror is not conducive to making heroes. The process of spotting plans before they're hatched and stopping violent jihadists before they attack is a complex and Sisyphean one, for every terrorist we take into custody, half a dozen more are inspired to join the fight. Is inspiration a crime? We'll leave that to a judge to decide. Is the FBI doing its job? We haven't seen a terrorist attack on American soil in over a decade. This is the 53rd foiled terrorist plot since 9/11, and unfortunately, it probably won't be the last.