Former President George W. Bush used to argue that the reason the U.S. invaded Iraq after 9/11 was that “we need to fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here.” In his new book, The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism, investigative reporter Trevor Aaronson challenges that premise with evidence to back up his claim.
Aaronson, the co-director of the Miami-based nonprofit Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, previously toiled for CL back in 2002 (when we were the Weekly Planet). Here are excerpts from my recent interview with him:
CL: When I heard about your book, I thought about the Miami case that broke in 2006 about a group of reported terrorists who seemed straight out of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (“the Liberty 6 case”) — a lot of people questioned the government on those arrests. Was there a single incident that compelled you to say, “I need to start documenting this stuff?”
Trevor Aaronson: Ironically it was that Miami case. I was working with Miami New Times in 2006 and they announced that case, and so I was doing some research on it, and from the beginning it just didn’t smell good. It was clear that these guys had no contact with Al Qaeda. They just didn’t have any capacity on their own. The evidence suggested that when the FBI informant said to them, “What do you need to pull off a terrorist attack?” the first thing they asked for was work boots. It was clear that these guys were inept and not capable of any crimes on their own, and so that got me interested in it, and that kind of percolated after that. And then in 2009… I was working on a project that was looking at how Homeland Security money was being used in ways it wasn’t intended, and during that research I met this imam down in Miami who was being coerced into becoming an FBI informant. They basically learned he had a minor immigration violation and said, “If you don’t leave the country, we’re going to deport you. But if you observe as an informant, we’ll make sure you’re not deported.” And that’s when I began to put those two things together, like the Liberty City case, where you have these cases that are really driven by informants who are either making a lot of money by being informants or they’re working off some kind of immigration or criminal violations, so they have incentive to facilitate a plot, to create a crime — and then what the FBI was doing in recruiting all of these informants in the Muslim community — that this was all tied together.
Once you realized you had this idea for the book and you needed some assistance, you ended up working with famed journalist Lowell Bergman. How did that evolve?
At the time I was freelancing and I realized that to do this story well, you couldn’t do it with anecdotal evidence… So I said, “Look: The DOJ says there [have been] 500 terrorists prosecuted since 9/11, let’s look at every case and see how many involved informants, what the role of the informants were… ”
But I couldn’t do that and put food on my table. Lowell Bergman’s investigative reporting program funds mid-career journalists who have an ambitious project but otherwise don’t have the ability to do it on their own… So he ended up funding the project. I went to Berkeley for a year in residence, and through that program I had a research assistant who worked with me. And over the course of a month in the office we just tore through every case — thousands of pages of court records, and built this database that put this together in a systematic way… and were able to break down by percentages how many cases involved informants and what the type of role was. This type of research had never been done before that I know of and had never been done in any way that was made public.
You write: “To date, there has not been a single would-be terrorist in the US who has become operational through a chance meeting with someone able to provide the means for a terrorist attack. In addition, no evidence suggests that Al Qaeda-affiliated operatives are within the US today, willing and able to provide weapons to terrorist wannabes.”
Absolutely. So many people see these press conferences, and it’s a dangerous plot, and they assume that people have access to weapons and they’re part of Al Qaeda, but the truth is that really isn’t the case. There’s never been a case yet where there’s some guy who says, “I want to get involved with jihad, I want to bomb a building, I want to kill a bunch of people in a shopping mall. I just don’t have the guns or weapons to be able to do it.” There’s never been a case where someone like that meets an Al Qaeda operative who says, “Hey, here’s the weapons, go commit this act of terrorism.” The truth is that the only people providing that means are the FBI through these sting operations. So the real question is, if that’s not the case, if there aren’t any cases where there are these Al-Qaeda operatives out there handing out these weapons — and there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that is the case — then what good is the FBI doing stirring up people who are on the fringes on society who want to do bad things, but otherwise don’t have the ability to do those things if it were not for the FBI? These cases are as much about terrorism to me as they are about justice. And the administration of justice in the U.S.
The Terror Factory will be released by IG Publishing on Jan. 15, 2013.