The New York Times displayed the kind of headline that sadly enough does not stand out any more in 2011: “Man Is Held in a Plan to Bomb Washington”. What does stand out are the means by which this was going to happen, which lead to suspect that this individual has been locked up in a shed together with the Jihadist brother of MacGyver and the A-Team (where A stands for Allah).
The 26-year-old Mr Ferdaus, an American citizen from a town west of Boston, has been charged with plotting to attack the Pentagon and the Capitol using remote-controlled aircrafts filled with explosives. But not only that, according to the FBI the man was to use the “aerial assault” to “eliminate key locations”, at which point attackers would herd survivors into a tight corner and “open up on them” and “keep firing”. The shopping list of the generation-Y religious fundamentalist: three remote-controlled planes, C4 explosives, a couple of Kalashnikovs and, why not, some grenades. Luckily the would-be terrorist only managed to obtain one remote-controlled plane, C4 explosives, and small arms before he was apprehended by the FBI.
I suppose it wouldn’t be difficult to obtain a remote-controlled plane in most countries, and neither would it be difficult to obtain small firearms in the United States. The difficult item on the list to obtain seems to be the C4. Where did he manage to get these explosives? After all Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI in Boston, mentioned the suspect as having “no direct connections to […] an international terrorist organisation”. All becomes clear when it is revealed that, during the alleged plot, undercover FBI agents posed as accomplices who supplied Ferdaus with one remote-controlled plane, C4 explosives, and small arms, as one typically does when dealing with a would-be terrorist. Prior to this he was falsely told that the modified mobile phones he provided, for use as electrical switches in bombs, killed three US soldiers in Iraq.
Now, I am very much in favour of dismantling any kind of terrorist plot, big or small, motivated by religion or not, but some parts of this story needs to be examined and highlighted in their specific context.
Ferdaus modified mobile phones to use as switches in bombs, and he delivered these to the FBI posing as accomplices. This smells like, but does not constitute, the act of entrapment: the idea of committing the criminal act came from Ferdaus and not from the FBI agents, he wasn’t talked into committing the crime, and Ferdaus was ready and willing to commit the crime before engaging with his fake accomplices. However, events were then taken a step further: the same ‘accomplices’ delivered to him the items on his diabolical shopping list.
Let’s draw a parallel between a drug deal. Suppose Ferdaus wanted to buy ecstasy and did so from a government agent. This in itself would be punishable and warrant arrest. However, suppose that Ferdaus wasn’t arrested for buying the ecstasy straight away, and say that he wanted to buy some ecstasy and cocaine the next time around. Should Ferdaus have been facilitated in committing the second crime? The fact is that, in both the real case and the hypothetical case, the first crime ‘enabled’ the follow-up crime. Thoughts about attacking the Pentagon or the Capitol, or thoughts about buying ecstasy or cocaine are in themselves not punishable, but were in these cases elevated to a stage of action due to the previous successful ‘deals’. If this is permissible, during which of the successive stages of criminal acts does one draw the line? Shouldn’t the perpetrator also be protected from himself?
It could be argued that, would Ferdaus have been arrested for modifying mobile phones alone, his sentence would have been significantly lower and it would have never been known to what extreme extend he was willing to commit terrorist attacks. On the other hand however, it might as well be said that his extremist fantasies of terrorist attacks would not have been successfully fostered would he have been arrested immediately after supplying the modified phone. Another argument, be it a very practical one, would revolve around costs involved. Would the US government have to keep an eye on Ferdaus would he be released after serving a relatively short sentence for supplying the modified mobile phone? Yes. But they would also have to do so after serving a longer sentence, in addition to the costs of the incarceration alone.
It is stated that if convicted, Ferdaus faces up to 15 years in prison for supporting a foreign terrorist organisation, up to 20 years for attempting to destroy national defence sites, and the same again for attempting to use explosives against buildings owned by the United States. But hold on, wasn’t it just said that he had no direct connections to any international terrorist organisation? As despicable as it is to morally support any international terrorist organisation, that in itself is not a crime, or perhaps this is regarded as an Orwellian thought crime of some sort.
The argument at hand is twofold. Firstly, although Ferdaus can be convicted for supplying the modified mobile devices, it is questionable whether he should have been enabled to commit the second crime. Secondly, the reasoning of the prosecutor goes one conceptional step further: Ferdaus did not actually contribute to any international terrorist network, as he was merely dealing with FBI ‘accomplices’, but would Ferdaus have had proper connections, he would have surely contributed to terrorist activities and would even have carried them out. Hence, and here we find the conceptual leap, he did support a foreign terrorist organisation.
I doubt whether the verdict will get the same kind of media attention as the foiling of the plot.
UPDATE 30 September 11.45am
Interestingly, a day after New York Times reported on the foiled plot, The Huffington Post cited a number of experts. These men agree that the envisioned undertaking by Ferdaus was doomed to fail. The technical director of the Academy of Model Aeronautics said that “it’s almost impossible for him to get this done”, to which an explosives and anti-terrorism expert added: “Basically, I think he’s suffering from delusions of grandeur”. Not only did the FBI ‘enable’ Ferdaus to ‘commit’ the second crime, it was a crime that he could have never committed successfully. But what about his malicious intentions, isn’t the fact he was willing to fly a remote-controlled aircraft into the Pentagon, however small the odds of ‘success’ might have been, a punishable offence?
Taken on face-value, yes. However, it is again a question of where one draws the line, in facilitating a ‘follow-up’ crime, as well as in the he-was-willing and would-have reasoning. Let’s say that Ferdaus daydreamed of building a dirty bomb. Unquestionably building such a bomb would be less difficult than building a ‘proper’ atomic bomb, but the odds of Ferdaus successfully completing such a task are unmistakeably stacked against him, if he would be able to get the items on his dirty bomb shopping list in the first place, that is. But what if the FBI had supplied him with some of the components necessary? Should he be prosecuted? After all, Ferdaus would have never been able to obtain the items necessary, and additionally would have never been able to successfully build a dirty bomb.
In any case model airplanes are suddenly on the American public’s radar as potential terrorist weapons. Good old politics of fear.
UPDATE 30 September 12.15pm
Even more interesting: The Guardian mentions the FBI as facing entrapment questions over Rezwan Ferdaus bomb plot arrest.