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As Ohio Man Pleads Not Guilty to Plotting Terrorism, More Questions About the FBI’s Sting Operation

Christopher Cornell mugshot

A twenty year-old man in Ohio, who was the target of an FBI sting operation, pled not guilty to charges on January 22. He is accused of plotting an attack on the US Capitol and faces charges of “attempted killing of a government official,” “possession of a firearm in furtherance of an attempted crime of violence” and “solicitation to commit a crime of violence.”

The “solicitation” charge was recently added to the indictment and may stem from allegations that Cornell “solicited” the informant to participate in the plot. The indictment does not make clear who the government believes was “solicited.” [PDF]

Christopher Cornell, who is being held without bond, was arrested on January 14 in the parking lot of the Colerain Township Point Blank Range & Gun Shop. Authorities say he bought “two rifles and 600 rounds of ammunition.” He allegedly had plans to travel to the nation’s Capitol.

The FBI maintains he was inspired by the Islamic State to commit terrorism, but, once again, here is a case involving a very vulnerable individual.

Journalists Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman have already raised serious questions with their coverage at The Intercept. They both contend the latest FBI claims about disrupting a “terror plot” deserve more scrutiny and skepticism—and they’re correct.

According to an affidavit [PDF] by Special Agent TA Staderman, who is assigned to the FBI’s Cincinnati-Dayton Joint Terrorism Task Force, an FBI informant—”in order to obtain favorable treatment with respect to his criminal exposure on an unrelated case”—provided information to the FBI about Raheel Marhus Ubaydah (the name Cornell adopted after converting to Islam).

The informant apparently notified the FBI that Cornell had “posted comments and information supportive” of the Islamic State “through Twitter accounts.” He then contacted Cornell over Twitter in August 2014 and communicated with him over an “instant messaging platform separate from Twitter.”

It is not evident from Staderman’s affidavit that Cornell had openly indicated he would engage in “violent jihad” or “violent attacks” in the United States. What the affidavit states is that he “voiced his support for violent jihad, as well as support for violent attacks committed by others in North America and elsewhere.”

If Cornell had not actually participated in any acts of terrorism or intentionally incited any persons to commit terrorism, as despicable as it may be for a person to support “violent jihad,” he was exercising his freedom of expression. Putting an informant on him criminalized that expression and then began the process of potentially inducing him to transform his regular freedom of expression into violent action directed at the United States.

The UN Human Rights Committee has said, “The criminalization of expression relating to terrorism should be restricted to actual participation in terrorist acts or instances of intentional incitement to terrorism.”

A key question that should be considered is whether society can tolerate this expression in the same manner that society mostly tolerates white supremacists advocating or supporting, for example, the bombing of an NAACP office.

Law enforcement handles the threat posed by militia-types or anti-government individuals all the time with less intrusive methods, but nobody worries that if the FBI does not have an informant induce outspoken militia-types to commit violence that they will be further radicalized and go on some killing spree.

Mike German, a former special agent for the FBI and fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice, declined to comment specifically on aspects of Cornell’s case. However, in an interview, he generally described a criteria he uses to determine whether an undercover operation was unethical.

The first element German looks for is “whether there was actually direct action with a terrorist group.”

Next, he assesses whether the person targeted did anything to obtain weapons prior to government intervention. He considers the type of weapons obtained beforehand too.

German then considers whether the individual had the “resources or capabilities to act on their own without government assistance.”

The final element he searches for is whether the informant that was involved formulated the plan or whether the planning was formed by the targeted individual(s) before a government agent was introduced.

One of the few details we know, because Staderman includes it in his affidavit, is that the FBI informant was facing criminal jeopardy. If Cornell did not follow through with a plan, the informant likely worried he would not get help with whatever legal trouble he faced.

The Associated Press reported that the FBI indicated in “court papers” the informant was working with the FBI to obtain “favorable treatment” in an “unrelated case.” The pressure was on to deliver a terrorist to the FBI.

Another detail in the affidavit is that, during a meeting on November 10 and 11, Cornell “specifically planned that he and the [informant] would build, plant and detonate pipe bombs at and near the US Capitol then use firearms to shoot and kill employees and officials in the US Capitol.”

Staderman alleges Cornell researched the ingredients for pipe bombs, however, the indictment against Cornell includes nothing about pipe bombs. None of the charges have anything to do with attempting to blow up the US Capitol. It would appear Cornell never really intended to set off pipe bombs or the informant could not induce Cornell to build any pipe bombs so the FBI settled for arresting him after he purchased a gun and ammunition for an alleged trip to Washington, DC. Yet, go back and look at the first 24-hours of reporting and notice that most of the headlines included the word “bomb.”]

Additionally, Staderman’s affidavit reads:

…Defendant CHRISTOPHER CORNELL and the CHS [informant] met in Cincinnati, Ohio on October 17-18, 2014. During the meeting, Defendant CHRISTOPHER CORNELL discussed his support of ISIL and waging jihad. Defendant CHRISTOPHER CORNELL stated that they needed weapons and wanted to “move” in December 2014, but he did not want to reveal his plans at their first meeting. Defendant CHRISTOPHER CORNELL also showed the CHS jihadist videos and information about the construction of bombs on CORNELL’s laptop computer…

Staderman probably did get all this information from the agency’s informant. All of the above is probably true. What also could be true is that what Cornell actually did was presented in a manner most favorable to charging Cornell.

Possibly, Cornell discussed his support for the Islamic State and waging jihad, especially if the informant told Cornell that he supported the Islamic State and jihad.

Cornell may have said he needed weapons if the informant asked him whether he would ever carry out jihad. His answer may have been, “Yes, but I would have to get weapons first.” Cornell may have said the word “move” in another context, which the informant could later repurpose and claim signaled approval for taking action in December 2014. The part about not wanting to reveal plans could possibly reflect the reality that Cornell had no plans when they met.

He probably did show the informant “jihadist videos and information about the construction of bombs.” But the critical question then is whether the informant said anything like, have you seen this video about using a pressure cooker to make a bomb? Maybe that led to, no, but I did see this video before. And then he showed the informant a video and now the two were watching “jihadist videos” on their computer.

It does not seem likely that the videos were played because they contained information Cornell would need to attack the US Capitol. However, now, the FBI could say Cornell had “expert assistance” or “expert services.” He had the capability. He knows how to make bombs.

Now, as for resources, the FBI can say Cornell had the money from a “seasonal job unloading trucks and stocking items for a store.” He was receiving paychecks right up until the week before he was arrested. The FBI can also argue he got the job so he would have money to attack the US Capitol. That would cover resources.

None of this conduct can individually be said to be criminal until the government needs to convict someone like Cornell as a terrorist to prove they, in fact, did target a person who was a terrorist just waiting for the right moment to attack. Then prosecutors can manipulate just about anything into being evidence of a masterminded conspiracy.

As German suggested, generally there is no problem with law enforcement being “proactive.” The FBI, however, should have a “criminal predicate and individualized evidence for people who are being targeted.”

The way the FBI has handled sting operations, like the operation against the “Newburgh Four” or “Liberty City Seven,” has done great damage to communities.

In numerous instances, German said people are not being targeted individually “because of evidence of their wrongdoing but rather being setup in a kind of honeytrap.” They essentially “succumb to inducement.”

It all “creates cynicism in government that the government is out there lying in order to trick people into committing crimes rather than addressing crime problems by going out and seeking people who are engaged in crimes.”

Cornell had some brushes with law enforcement prior to this arrest, but they all could be said to stem from mental illness or family trouble. None of the arrests involved planned acts of violence.

When his parents learned he was arrested for planning to attack the US Capitol, his father’s reaction was that Cornell, a “mommy’s boy,” had been “taken in by a ‘snitch,’ who was trying to help himself.” That reaction, as well as Cornell’s possible history of mental illness, is likely to fuel cynicism about his case (although the response of members of the local mosque, where he claims to have attended, may help the government prosecute Cornell).

*

It would appear Cornell is another person to have become the target of a preemptive prosecution.

Nearly ninety-five percent of individuals on a Justice Department list of “terrorism and terrorism-related convictions” from 2001-2010 included some elements of preemptive prosecution, according to a recent study by attorneys with the Support and Legal Advocacy for Muslims Project.

“In the way that these cases go through the courts, they are actually damaging the legal protections for all of us,” German asserted. “If you look at one of the most egregious cases, the “Newburgh Four” case, where basically the informant provided all of the weapons. He provided all of the resources. The people involved didn’t even have cars and could not have organized in a way that could have accomplished the plot.”

“The informant offered $250,000 to participate and provided surface-to-air missiles and military-grade C4, things that even a sophisticated criminal organization in the United States would not be able to obtain without millions of dollars.”

“The case went up to appeal and they found there had not been entrapment,” German added. “If a $250,000 inducement is not deemed an illegal inducement, what possibly could be? And that precedent stands for all entrapment cases, not just for entrapment cases involving potential terrorists. So it’s really troubling how it’s damaging the law.”

As Human Rights Watch has further explained, “US law requires that to prove entrapment a defendant show both that the government induced him to commit the act in question and that he was not “predisposed” to commit it. This predisposition inquiry focuses attention on the defendant’s background, opinions, beliefs, and reputation—in other words, not on the crime, but on the nature of the defendant [i.e. “ISIS-inspired,” etc].

“This character inquiry makes it exceptionally difficult for a defendant to succeed in raising the entrapment defense, particularly in the terrorism context, where inflammatory stereotypes and highly charged characterizations of Islam and foreigners often prevail. Indeed, no claim of entrapment has been successful in a US federal terrorism case to date. European human rights law—instructive for interpreting internationally recognized fair trial rights—suggests that the current formulation of the US defense of entrapment may not comport with fair trial standards.”

The government and media have already effectively made Cornell’s case a character inquiry by publishing stories about his “troubled past” and initially denying him a prayer mat and clock so he could know when to pray in jail. The prison also took away his underwear because he was “considered a suicide risk.” Plus, the court will not let him go by his adopted Muslim name.

Could the FBI simply have arrested Cornell for what he was posting on social media? They have done this to individuals before.

While German was not specifically addressing Cornell’s case, he explained, “The FBI has argued that if the government does not provide that initiative [then] some unnamed al Qaeda recruiter might stumble upon this person and provide the resources and the weapons that the government would otherwise be providing and that would be out of the government’s control and chaos would ensue.”

“If there are al Qaeda recruiters wandering around the country, perhaps the government should focus on them rather than the low-hanging fruit of these individuals who are getting roped up in these cases,” German stated. “Any sophisticated terrorist group isn’t going to look for a shut-in with social problems. They’re going to look for somebody a little more talented. The idea that these people would otherwise become a part of al Qaeda—I don’t think that’s true.

Overall, the issue is not that people like Cornell hold despicable beliefs and may express support for violent attacks against Americans. Society can marginalize a person for having such repugnant views without needing government to criminalize or prey upon them. Local mosques that people like Cornell may think would be sympathetic will push back against these individuals’ support for extremism as well.

What is a critical issue is the power the government has to deploy agents or informants to target someone vulnerable like Cornell and manipulate them into plotting some kind of attack that they can then link to terrorist groups the US is fighting overseas.

CommunityThe Dissenter

As Ohio Man Pleads Not Guilty to Plotting Terrorism, More Questions About the FBI’s Sting Operation

Christopher Cornell mugshot

A twenty year-old man in Ohio, who was the target of an FBI sting operation, pled not guilty to charges on January 22. He is accused of plotting an attack on the US Capitol and faces charges of “attempted killing of a government official,” “possession of a firearm in furtherance of an attempted crime of violence” and “solicitation to commit a crime of violence.” [PDF]

The “solicitation” charge was recently added to the indictment and may stem from allegations that Cornell “solicited” the informant to participate in the plot. The indictment does not make clear who the government believes was “solicited.”

Christopher Cornell, who is being held without bond, was arrested on January 14 in the parking lot of the Colerain Township Point Blank Range & Gun Shop. Authorities say he bought “two rifles and 600 rounds of ammunition.” He allegedly had plans to travel to the nation’s Capitol.

The FBI maintains he was inspired by the Islamic State to commit terrorism, but, once again, this is a case involving a very vulnerable individual.

Journalists Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman have already raised serious questions with their coverage at The Intercept. They both contend the latest FBI claims about disrupting a “terror plot” deserve more scrutiny and skepticism—and they’re correct.

According to an affidavit [PDF] by Special Agent TA Staderman, who is assigned to the FBI’s Cincinnati-Dayton Joint Terrorism Task Force, an FBI informant—”in order to obtain favorable treatment with respect to his criminal exposure on an unrelated case”—provided information to the FBI about Raheel Marhus Ubaydah (the name Cornell adopted after converting to Islam).

The informant apparently notified the FBI that Cornell had “posted comments and information supportive” of the Islamic State “through Twitter accounts.” He then contacted Cornell over Twitter in August 2014 and communicated with him over an “instant messaging platform separate from Twitter.”

It is not evident from Staderman’s affidavit that Cornell had openly indicated he would engage in “violent jihad” or “violent attacks” in the United States. What the affidavit states is that he “voiced his support for violent jihad, as well as support for violent attacks committed by others in North America and elsewhere.”

If Cornell had not actually participated in any acts of terrorism or intentionally incited any persons to commit terrorism, as despicable as it may be for a person to support “violent jihad,” he was exercising his freedom of expression. Putting an informant on him criminalized that expression and then began the process of potentially inducing him to transform his regular freedom of expression into violent action directed at the United States.

The UN Human Rights Committee has said, “The criminalization of expression relating to terrorism should be restricted to actual participation in terrorist acts or instances of intentional incitement to terrorism.”

A key question that should be considered is whether society can tolerate this expression in the same manner that society mostly tolerates white supremacists advocating or supporting, for example, the bombing of an NAACP office.

Law enforcement handles the threat posed by militia-types or anti-government individuals all the time with less intrusive methods, but nobody worries that if the FBI does not have an informant induce outspoken militia-types to commit violence that they will be further radicalized and go on some killing spree.

Mike German, a former special agent for the FBI and fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice, declined to comment specifically on aspects of Cornell’s case. However, in an interview, he generally described a criteria he uses to determine whether an undercover operation was unethical.

The first element German looks for is “whether there was actually direct action with a terrorist group.”

Next, he assesses whether the person targeted did anything to obtain weapons prior to government intervention. He considers the type of weapons obtained beforehand too.

German then considers whether the individual had the “resources or capabilities to act on their own without government assistance.”

The final element he searches for is whether the informant that was involved formulated the plan or whether the planning was formed by the targeted individual(s) before a government agent was introduced.

One of the few details we know, because Staderman includes it in his affidavit, is that the FBI informant was facing criminal jeopardy. If Cornell did not follow through with a plan, the informant likely worried he would not get help with whatever legal trouble he faced.

The Associated Press reported that the FBI indicated in “court papers” the informant was working with the FBI to obtain “favorable treatment” in an “unrelated case.” The pressure was on to deliver a terrorist to the FBI.

Another detail in the affidavit is that, during a meeting on November 10 and 11, Cornell “specifically planned that he and the [informant] would build, plant and detonate pipe bombs at and near the US Capitol then use firearms to shoot and kill employees and officials in the US Capitol.” (more…)

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."