FBI undercover stings foil terrorist plots — but often plots of the agency’s own making
Announcements of foiled terrorist plots make for lurid reading.
Schemes to carry out a Presidents Day jihadist attack on a train station in Kansas City. Bomb a Sept. 11 memorial event. Blow up a 1,000-pound bomb at Fort Riley. Detonate a weapon of mass destruction at a Wichita airport — the failed plans all show imagination.
But how much of it was real?
Often not much, according to a review of several recent terrorism cases investigated by the FBI in Kansas and Missouri. The most sensational plots invoking the name of the Islamic State or al-Qaida here were largely the invention of FBI agents carrying out elaborate sting operations on individuals identified through social media as being potentially dangerous.
In fact, in terrorism investigations in Wichita, at Fort Riley and last week in Kansas City, the alleged terrorists reportedly were unknowingly following the directions of undercover FBI agents who supplied fake bombs and came up with key elements of the plans.
“What I get concerned about is where the plot is being hatched by the FBI,” said Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and former FBI agent. “There has been a clear effort to manufacture plots.”
Law enforcement has increasingly used undercover agents and informants to develop such cases in recent years, especially against people suspected of being inspired by the Islamic State.
Of 126 Islamic State-related cases prosecuted by federal authorities across the country since 2014, nearly two-thirds involved undercover agents or informants, according to the Center on National Security at the Fordham University School of Law in New York. The FBI has stepped up its use of sting operations, which were once seen as a tactic of last resort.
FBI officials have said the sting operations are just one tool for thwarting terrorist attacks and that the suspects in such cases are given many opportunities to back out before their arrest. Federal authorities employ the stings on the theory that a person willing to engage in terrorism would eventually find real accomplices to carry out an attack.
Such cases are almost never successfully challenged in court with entrapment defenses.
But some question whether the FBI is catching real terrorists or tricking troubled individuals into volunteering for a long prison sentence.
The most recent alleged plotter, 25-year-old Robert Lorenzo Hester Jr. of Columbia, was indicted last week after federal prosecutors accused him of participating in an Islamic State plan to cause mass casualties in a bombing attack on a train station and possibly buses and trains in Kansas City on Feb. 20.
The two men leading Hester in the alleged plot were actually undercover FBI employees. They suggested the time, place and type of attack, and loaned Hester $20 to buy the 9-volt batteries, duct tape, roofing nails and copper wire that they implied would be ingredients for a bomb. Hester reportedly failed to buy the copper wire, saying he could not find it. There were no actual bombs.
The FBI employees had identified Hester as a suspect after seeing Facebook posts he made about his “conversion to Islam, his hatred for the United States and his belief that supposed U.S. mistreatment of Muslims had to be ‘put to an end,’ ” according to court documents.
But despite Hester’s denials, the FBI employees noted, he continued to test positive for marijuana even though it is frowned upon by Islamic teachings. And he allegedly found it necessary to bring his children to a meeting with the FBI workers because he had no other options for child care.
At a December meeting, one of the FBI employees threatened Hester with a knife, saying he “knew where Hester and his family lived” to make the point that Hester was not to plan any attacks of his own.
“It seems like outrageous conduct,” said German, the former FBI agent, who noted other aspects of the investigation that he thought seemed “odd.”
The FBI found Hester on Facebook in August and made contact with him through an undercover employee on Oct. 2, a day before Hester was arrested in Columbia for reportedly throwing a pocket knife through a grocery store window during an argument with his wife and menacing store employees with a 9 mm handgun he carried in a diaper bag.
Hester was released from jail on bond and remained under electronic monitoring for the next three months as he continued talking with the undercover employees and allegedly grew more deeply involved in their plans.
In January, Hester pleaded guilty in the Columbia case. He remained free on bond and was taken off electronic monitoring. The plot with the undercover FBI employees sped up, ending with his arrest in February, a month before he was to be sentenced in the Columbia grocery store incident.
German questioned why Hester was allowed to walk free.
“If the government had a legitimate reason to think this person was a danger to society, why would they let him out on bond?” he asked. “And this person was about to walk into a jail cell. It makes me think the reason is they didn’t believe he was a threat, but they could use him to make a case.”
It’s not unusual for authorities to go undercover to try to foil terrorist plots, said Daryl Johnson, a former analyst for the Department of Homeland Security. And some plots show evidence of being very real.
In 2007, Johnson noted, six Muslim men from New Jersey and Philadelphia were charged with plotting to attack Fort Dix with automatic weapons and possibly rocket-propelled grenades in what authorities said was a plan “to kill as many soldiers as possible.”
“The Fort Dix case was the most serious — they actually had a small arsenal,” Johnson said.
In Kansas last year, authorities uncovered what they said was a plot by a militia group to detonate bombs at a Garden City apartment complex where a number of Somalis live. The defendants in that case included three men who, according to court documents, had stockpiled weapons and told an FBI source of their plan.
Johnson said it’s harder to find the real threat in sting cases, such as Hester’s, where a person spouting off on social media, with no resources or ability to carry out an attack, is led by undercover FBI agents down a path to acting out a pretend terrorist plot.
“Most of these cases are trumped-up, FBI facilitated,” Johnson said. “A lot of times, these people are just engaging in free speech. If they’re American citizens, they can say they hate America, they can say, ‘I support ISIS.’ Then they become targeted.”
In these cases, he said, law enforcement has facilitated a terrorist plot with someone who held some hateful views but didn’t have the capability to do anything.
“And they were either provided the capability, or they were arrested for just the plotting aspect,” he said.
KC terrorism cases
Several of the Kansas and Missouri cases followed a similar pattern.
In 2013, FBI agents arrested a 58-year-old Kansas man as he tried to use his employee badge to bring a fake bomb onto the tarmac of a Wichita airport. The arrest of Terry L. Loewen came after a months-long sting operation in which two FBI agents posed as his co-conspirators and led him in a supposed plot they devised with phony explosives.
The FBI had found Loewen on Facebook, where he told an undercover agent of his interest in jihad. Over a period of about six months, the agents arranged for Loewen to meet in person an undercover agent posing as a terrorist, asked him to scout the airport and take photos for an attack they planned, and instructed him to gather items supposed to be used in bomb-making. According to court documents, Loewen eagerly participated and expected to die in the explosion.
In 2015, FBI agents arrested 20-year-old John T. Booker Jr. as he attempted to set off a fake car bomb at Fort Riley. Booker had been befriended by a pair of undercover FBI agents after posting inflammatory messages on Facebook. Booker told the agents he wanted to join the Islamic State and would do whatever they said. “I will follow you,” he said.
When the agents, posing as terrorists, asked what target they should attack, Booker suggested Fort Riley. At the agents’ direction, Booker rented a storage locker and went with an agent to local retailers to buy components for what was supposed to be a homemade bomb. No real explosives were involved in the operation.
In court, Booker’s attorney said Booker was being treated for bipolar disorder. He pleaded guilty to two counts related to the bomb plot and faces 30 years in prison.
The same year, an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested 20-year-old Joshua R. Goldberg at his parents’ home in Orange Park, Fla. Goldberg was accused of trying to help plan — online — an attack on a 9/11 memorial in Kansas City by providing details on how to build a pressure cooker bomb.
FBI agents had become aware of Goldberg through a social media account in which he reportedly posed as a terrorist instigator living in Australia. Online, Goldberg allegedly took credit for inspiring a May 2015 attack on a “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest” in Garland, Texas, in which police killed two armed men.
An undercover FBI agent contacted Goldberg online and expressed interest in carrying out a bomb attack in Kansas City. Goldberg allegedly suggested targeting the Sept. 11 memorial event, supplied links to online bomb-building manuals and suggested packing the bomb with nails, glass and metal dipped in rat poison.
While FBI agents kept Goldberg’s home under surveillance, they received information from Australian police that Goldberg had been identified as an “online troll” who engaged in internet hoaxes. Days later, they arrested Goldberg on one federal count of distributing information relating to explosives.
Since his arrest, Goldberg has been held in a federal detention center in Miami and repeatedly found incompetent to stand trial because of mental illness. Psychological examinations found him to be “paranoid,” “childlike” and unable to understand the legal proceedings against him.
His defense attorney, Paul Shorstein, said a federal court may make a decision in the next few weeks on whether Goldberg can be tried. Shorstein said Goldberg was not a real terrorist.
“He was sort of pretending to be somebody and playing the role,” Shorstein said. “He’s not a threat to anybody. It’s not a terrorism case — it’s a mental health case.”
Still, these investigations could help thwart terrorism, said Dru Stevenson, a law professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston who has studied how such undercover cases prevail over entrapment defenses.
By locking up people who would be willing to carry out terrorist acts, the stings can reduce the potential recruiting pool for real terrorists looking for willing followers, Stevenson said. And the knowledge that undercover FBI agents and informants are out there could make that recruitment more dangerous, difficult and slow for actual Islamic State plotters.
“If the choice is between waiting for the person to find some real terrorists to get involved with, or giving them a phony plot, I’m fine with giving them a phony plot,” Stevenson said.
Taking the Boston Marathon bombers as an example, he said, “Those are the kind of people I wish someone had caught in a sting before they hurt a lot of people.”
So far, the courts have agreed. No defendant in the Islamic State sting cases has successfully argued entrapment.
But the sheer volume of cases that depend on sting operations in which FBI agents supply the plot says something about the reality of the terrorist threat, said Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security, which authored the Islamic State prosecutions report.
Most of the potential terrorists being prosecuted have a lot in common, Greenberg said. Their average age is 26, 77 percent are U.S. citizens, a third are converts to Islam and a third live with their parents. Nearly 90 percent are active on social media. Only a handful had any link to Islamic State members overseas.
“If you take away the undercover cases to see what are the real organized terrorism cases, we’re not seeing it,” Greenberg said. “What do we have? The threat is different from what we’re being told.”