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Podcast: Government Doesn’t Want Anyone to Know FBI Agents Can See They’re Creating Terrorists

Trevor Aaronson

On this week’s episode of the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast, the guest is Trevor Aaronson, contributing writer to The Intercept and executive director of the Florida Center of Investigative Reporting at the University of Miami.

Aaronson wrote a feature on Sami Osmakac, a mentally ill Muslim man who was the target of an FBI sting operation in Tampa Bay, Florida, in 2012. The FBI gave Osmakac the means, the opportunity and the desire to carry out an attack. They orchestrated this plot, which Osmakac was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison for committing, and that is abundant because of recorded conversations the undercover FBI agent was having about Osmakac.

During a thirty-minute interview, Aaronson comprehensively details how the FBI orchestrated this terrorism plot. He compares the case of Osmakac to other FBI sting operations. Aaronson addresses the secrecy surrounding this operation and how he was only able to publish this report because a confidential source provided him sealed transcripts. Plus, Aaronson addresses whether he thinks there has been a shift in how the media covers or how the public reacts to the FBI manufacuturing their own terrorism plots, which they can thwart and then act as if they had no decisive role in creating.

A discussion portion follows the interview. Co-host and journalist Rania Khalek provides a rundown on the re-election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We talk about the outrage at a New York high school over the Pledge of Allegiance being recited in Arabic. The discussion concludes with some climate disruption headlines and talk about the Obama administration censoring and rejecting public records requests at a greater rate than ever.

To listen to the interview, go here. The link will open an audio file and the podcast episode with the interview will automatically start playing. (You can also find the podcast on iTunes and listen to it there.)

There is also a player conveniently located right here, and you can click “play” to listen to the interview:

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*The following is a partial transcript of the 30-minute interview.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: This involves a young Muslim, Sami Osmakac. It’s a 2012 case, and he recorded what the government calls a “martyrdom video.” This all took place in Tampa, Florida. Would you introduce Sami and how he came to be targeted?

TREVOR AARONSON: Sami Osmakac came to the United States when he was a young teenager. I believe he was thirteen years-old, and he and his family had fled the war in Kosovo—first settling for a few years in Germany and then coming to the Tampa Bay area where Sami’s family had opened a bakery in the city of St. Petersburg, which was actually quite popular.

Sami, as began to get into his early twenties, began to show a number of signs of mental illness. A psychologist and a psychiatrist, who were hired by the court and the defense, would both later diagnose him with schizoaffective disorder. Of course, as these symptoms were beginning to manifest, Sami’s family didn’t know that at the time. They just knew that he was heavily troubled. He had trouble sleeping. He was growing physically different. He was pale.

At the same time, he had this turn toward extremism and got really involved in Islam and he was introduced to a red-bearded man named Russell Dennison, who was an American-born convert. Russell himself is a pretty mysterious guy, and we can get into that, as part of this, but the most important role that Russell Dennison played was that when Sami was twenty-five years-old Russell introduced him to a man named Abdul Dabus, who was an FBI informant who ran a Middle Eastern market in Tampa. And Abdul Dabus, according to the government’s story, met Sami on that first day that Russell Dennison introduced him and Sami asked for al Qaeda flags or black banners. That was the FBI’s story. Dabus then says he called the FBI, told them about this interaction with Sami and they, in turn, instructed him to start a sting operation.

Dabus gave Sami a job. Sami, it’s worth noting, had absolutely no money and didn’t have any sort of employment so Dabus gave him a job. Introduced him to an undercover agent, who went by the name Amir, who offered to sell Sami some weapons. And, in turn, Sami and Amir came up with this very elaborate plot to bomb and Irish bar called MacDinton’s and then have Sami go to the local Native American casino, take hostages and then finally when police would arrive detonate an explosive vest.

Like all of these sting operations that the FBI runs, everything was provided by the FBI. All of the weapons, all of the logistical planning was provided by the FBI.

What’s interesting about my story is that it leverages these sealed and basically secret transcripts of overheard transcripts. Amir Jones would go back to the field office in Tampa with his recording equipment on and that recording equipment captured seemingly accidentally the private conversations among the FBI agents as they were working the sting. And what’s so revelatory about these transcripts is that it shows that groups like Human Rights Watch that have criticized these sting operations for targeting mentally ill and economically desperate people, the FBI seems to agree with that assessment. Behind closed doors, the FBI agent was calling Sami Osmakac a retarded fool who didn’t have a pot to piss in. They said his plans were wishy-washy and basically made clear that were it not for the FBI making everything possible Sami himself was not much of a danger.

Even more concerning, I think, is that that central piece of evidence that was used against Sami at trial was the fact that he had provided $500 to the undercover agent as a down payment for weapons. And these transcripts show that was a problem for the FBI. That Sami was so broke and didn’t have any money or any capacity to really make much money. That they had to orchestrate a pretty elaborate scheme through which they gave money to the FBI informant Dabus, who gave a job to Sami for doing little to no work and then Dabus paid Sami $500, which Sami then used to purchase these weapons. So, basically, through these transcripts, we’re able to see very clearly that Sami was using government-provided money to purchase government-provided weapons in a conspiracy that was portrayed by the government as if this was a truly dangerous terrorist or lone wolf terrorist, who on his own would have struck and would have done terrible damage to property and loss of life in the Tampa Bay area.

GOSZTOLA: So, as you’re saying and as you describe in great detail in your feature, there are two informants. What are the back stories and even potentially criminal backgrounds you could talk about with Amir Jones and then Dabus?

AARONSON: Amir Jones was the undercover FBI agent, as far as we know. That’s how the FBI has identified him. It’s not unusual for the FBI to have agents like Amir, who move from case to case. And so, Amir Jones’ name was never revealed and to this day I don’t know what it is. He went by the pseudonym Amir Jones. I suspect he is one of the FBI operators, who moves from case to case, state to state. So, it’s probably unlikely that he is in Tampa any longer. They bring in someone like Amir Jones when they need someone to play the terrorist role for the FBI as an agent.

But Amir Jones was introduced to Sami through Abdul Dabus, and Dabus is a pretty interesting guy because he was well-known in the Tampa Muslim community, was a business owner and also was friendly with Sami Al-Arian, who you’re listeners may remember was the University of South Florida professor who was prosecuted under the PATRIOT Act and battled prosecutors for a decade before just this year agreeing to a deal where he accepted deportation to Turkey. Abdul Dabus actually testified in Sami al-Arian’s trial in 2003 and, in fact, was a damaging witness for the government’s case against Sami al-Arian. Somehow between al-Arian’s case and Sami Osmakac’s sting operation, Abdul Dabus became an informant for the FBI.

Dabus claims that this was the only time he worked for the FBI. One of the court records, an FBI affidavit, describes Abdul Dabus as having provided reliable information in the past certainly suggesting that he was an ongoing informant for the FBI. Although, Dabus, as I said in my interview, disputed that.

Dabus was paid $20,000 for his role in the plot. That’s not unusual. Informants can actually make much more in these types of operations. There are cases where informants have made $100,000 or more for working these types of stings, but Dabus was paid $20,000 for about three to four months of work off and on. While he says he wasn’t motivated by the money, as I noted in my story, there was certainly evidence to suggest he was in really rough financial straits when he came in contact with Sami Osmakac. Dabus’ home was facing foreclosure proceedings. His business was also under foreclosure. He owed $800,000 on that note, and, according to civil filings, he had debts all around town.

So, it’s clear just from the record that this was a man who was in pretty rough financial shape and so the idea that he wasn’t at all incentivized by money—It could be true but also the public record suggests that seems unlikely. Dabus then is paid by the FBI and then is taking orders from an FBI agent named Jacob Collins. And Jacob Collins is the one who instructs Dabus to introduce him to the undercover agent Amir Jones but also more importantly is the one instructing Dabus to pay Sami Osmakac money so that in turn Sami Osmakac can give the money to Amir Jones for these weapons, allowing prosecutors to announce the public and show to a jury, hey, this guy was really serious. He gave $500 for these weapons. But, as these transcripts show, that capacity was made possible only because the FBI had orchestrated it.

And I say that very deliberately because orchestrated was their term for this process, where they would orchestrate the money going to Dabus and then Sami Osmakac so he could purchase these weapons.

GOSZTOLA: I think most people know about the most major high-profile case of going after economically desperate people, like the Newburgh Sting. But another aspect I wanted to see if you could shed some light on is it seems in going through your story that Sami fits one of these characteristics, where he’s paranoid about the United States government, where he has these beliefs and views about the US government. And, maybe somewhat similar to the recent case of Christopher Cornell in Ohio, this is something FBI agents are taking advantage of in the process of orchestrating this sting.

AARONSON: Right, it’s not unusual in these sting operations for the targets of the sting operation to either have diagnosed mental illness or to exhibit behavior that certainly suggests they were having mental problems. In fact, Sami Osmakac isn’t the only person targeted in a sting operation who was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. There was a case out in Seattle, Washington, involving a man named Walid Mujahidh, who also had schizoaffective disorder. So, as a result of the trawling of Muslim communities that the FBI is doing in the name of counterterrorism, the targeting of more than 15,000 informants in these communities, they’re looking for people, who want to get involved in some kind of violence. And they’re not finding truly capable people. They’re finding people who are willing to mouth off at the mosque and these tend to be mentally ill.

At the same time, it’s worth noting—and this is where we get into various shades of gray and what makes telling these stories difficult—is that someone like Sami Osmakac isn’t an angel. He’s not the type of guy you’d want to have around your children, the type you’d want to invite to dinner. He says things that are really horrible. He says things that are odious. He says things that just seem to justify violence against innocent people. And so, this is someone who has a lot of problems and he’s not an angel but at the same time he is not capable of committing an act of terror the way that he is portrayed to the public and to juries.

That is to say that Sami Osmakac, like the dozens of other people that have been caught in these terrorism sting operations, doesn’t have any weapons. He’d have a kitchen knife certainly, but he doesn’t have any guns, any bombs. He doesn’t have any money. Even if he had money, he doesn’t know anyone he could purchase these weapons from. Most importantly, he doesn’t have any connections to any international terrorist groups. So, while the FBI is really, really good at finding these types of would-be terrorists, the types that don’t have connections, that don’t have capacity, the track record of the FBI finding the ones that do have capacity and do have connections—Faisal Shahzad, who tried to bomb Times Square in 2010 or even more recently, the Boston Marathon bombers, these were the type of people who were not identified through these really aggressive sting operations.

More commonly, and I think this is the strongest criticism you can make of these types of sting operations, is that while they are missing the truly dangerous threats, like the Faisal Shahzads or the Boston Marathon bombings, they are instead finding these easily manipulated, mentally ill and economically desperate people who are easy to move along in a sting operation. I think the truth is that the truly dangerous ones, the Shahzads and the Tamerlan Tsarnaevs, are not the likely ones to be caught in these sting operations. To put it bluntly, they’re just not that stupid.

So the ones we’re finding in these sting operations are the ones who are kind of awful in a way. They are awful people. They say terrible things, but they are not terrorists. And, certainly, saying terrible things is not a crime and it’s only a crime if you commit an act of terrorism based on those ideas. It’s only the FBI through these stings that are making it possible for people like that to turn their very misguided and hateful ideas into some sort of act of terrorism.

GOSZTOLA: Now, I want to ask you about the fact that we’re having this conversation because there was somebody who was willing to provide this to material confidentially, to you or The Intercept, in order for this to become public, and the fact that the government did not want any of this material to be available for anyone in the public to read. So, if you could, just address the secrecy issue around this material in the case.

AARONSON: Right, so this was a sealed transcript that was placed under a protective order. These transcripts were then provided to me by a source after the trial. What’s significant is that a federal magistrate judge and later a district judge would not allow the jury to hear about these transcripts. The government argued that the release of these transcripts would damage their investigative strategy and law enforcement techniques.

And, in fact, after the trial, US District Judge Mary Scriven agreed to release a part of the transcripts but gave the government the ability to redact anything it felt would damage law enforcement strategy and investigative techniques. And so, if you go into the court file today, what you will find are some of the transcripts that we released but those transcripts are heavily redacted. What we’ve released are the full transcripts to our knowledge and with the only redactions being the initial ones, which the FBI always redacts, which have to do with the model and make of recording equipment which for some reason is really sensitive to the FBI.

What I think is significant is really twofold. I mean, one, these transcripts reveal the extent to which the FBI went after Sami Osmakac knowing that he wasn’t dangerous and the FBI’s willingness to essentially manufacture a plot so detailed that they had to provide the actual money that Sami Osmakac needed. They even had to give him taxi cab money so he could get to where they needed to go. They talk about him as if they know he is not in any way dangerous. They know calling someone a retarded fools certainly suggests you don’t think he is going to do anything significantly dangerous or significantly sophisticated.

At the same time, I think the larger question, which I don’t raise in my story, and I hope that maybe a conversation will come out in response to it, is what in these transcripts is so secret and so revelatory for the US government that it needs to shield them under claims that these transcripts would damage investigative techniques and strategy. The only investigative techniques and strategy these transcripts seem to show is that they took a man, who on his own had no capacity, someone that they knew had mental problems, someone they also knew had no connections to international terrorist groups, and through conversation after conversation orchestrated scenarios using a paid informant and an undercover agent that allowed them to portray Sami Osmakac as having $500, having the ability and willingness to go forward in a sting operation.

There was no sensitive information in the transcripts related to sources being exposed or put in danger. There was no kind of proprietary information about how they’re using intelligence in creative ways that you could maybe make an argument the government can’t have this released. My finding in reading this is more than anything these transcripts are an embarrassment to the US government and they did not want that released and so they claimed investigative techniques and strategy. And something that this very uncommon in these cases, a federal judge was willing to go with them on that and say, sure, we’ll seal that and place this under a protective order. She did and were it not for a confidential source providing this information to me this information likely would not have ever gotten out.

Listen to the full interview here.

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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."