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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Trevor Aaronson, The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism

Welcome Trevor Aaronson (Florida Center for Investigative Reporting) (Brandeis Univ – Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism) and Host Marcy Wheeler (

The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism

In the days before Thursday’s start to the trial for alleged Portland Christmas Tree bomber Mohamed Osman Mohamud, pre-trial hearings revealed two new details. First, the government failed to reveal to the defense an effort to “pitch” Mohamud on October 27, 2009, 13 months before they arrested him in an FBI-created plot. This comes on top of earlier revelations about a key meeting the FBI failed to tape, another failure to reveal FBI contacts, and Abu Zubaydah’s brother’s claim that, as an FBI informant, he was asked to track the then-16 year old Mohamud as early as 2008.

In addition, the defense revealed that,

… banter between FBI employees (when Mohamud was not present) includes comments about whether superiors at FBI headquarters will find the case “sexy enough”; mention of a possible book deal; and what [Mohamud’s lawyer] described as a gleeful statement that their suspect was “done for.”

The FBI’s efforts to hide its years-long cultivation of Mohamud as a “terrorist,” juxtaposed with its banter about looking for “sexy” cases to please FBI superiors, demonstrates the importance of Trevor Aaronson’s The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism.

As Aaronson explains, the book arose out of his effort to categorize all of DOJ’s self-claimed terrorist prosecutions, to figure out how many involved real terrorists.

How many so-called terrorists prosecuted in U.S. courts since 9/11 were real terrorists?

That effort–first published as a database as part of a larger Mother Jones project–provided real numbers to what close watchers know anecdotally. The overwhelming majority of the people being prosecuted as terrorists are vulnerable young men set up by the FBI.

The FBI’s thousands of informants and billions of dollars have not resulted in the capture of dozens of killers ready and able to bomb a crowded building or gun down people in a suburban shopping mall. Instead, the FBI’s trawling in Muslim communities has resulted largely in sting operations that target easily susceptible men on the margins of society…

While we have captured a few terrorists since 9/11, we have manufactured many more.

Aaronson’s book collects these young men’s troubling stories, including Mohamud’s, in one volume. He describes the problems with the way the FBI uses informants to manufacture terrorist plots. He documents the frequency with which the FBI “mistakenly” fails to record key conversations.

And he adds a critical component to it: a description of the bureaucratic imperative within the FBI that has led it to go into the terrorist-creation business.

With $3 billion directed at counterterrorism, the FBI can’t come back to Congress and say, “We spent all the money, and the good news is that we didn’t find any terrorists.” Having a well-financed counterterrorism program means that the FBI must find terrorists to justify the program’s existence, and terrorism sting prosecutions provide a convenient and efficient means to show that a threat exists.

There’s a dangerous flip side to FBI’s focus on creating terrorists, of course. As an FBI agent’s email he quotes explains, it means finding public corruption or money laundering is not rewarded.

The truth is, they could waterboard me and I still would not say that … the whole intel-based model of how the Bureau is expected to operate is anything more than smoke and poorly aligned mirrors. Yet another irony is that after struggling for twenty years to develop quality sources, I finally succeeded, only to be told that I’m still a failure, because although my sources provide timely, pertinent, actionable information about ongoing public corruption and money laundering, they know nothing of Somali pirates or Chinese hackers.

Or, as the last story Aaronson recounts warns, the disproportionate focus on creating Muslim “terrorists” leads the FBI to ignore domestic terrorists who may be far more dangerous.

Muslim community and human rights groups have been complaining about these tactics for years. Aaronson’s book provides an important addition, both because the meticulous data analysis that went into his book validates their complaints, and because his interviews with FBI sources provides the bureaucratic understanding we need to try to change this.


[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]

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Marcy Wheeler aka Emptywheel is an American journalist whose reporting specializes in security and civil liberties.