Guilty of being Muslim: A review of ‘Entrapped’

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The new documentary “Entrapped,” which was aired as a special report by Democracy Now! on October 6 and is due to be released on DVD by Big Noise Films, is that rare documentary that not only informs us about an issue, but in doing so, actually transforms our understanding of this issue.

“Entrapped” is a thirty-five-minute documentary that encapsulates months of investigations and interviews by the filmmakers — Anjali Kamat, a producer at Democracy Now!, and Jacquie Soohen, a member of the Big Noise Films collective — involving cases of government surveillance aimed at Muslim communities in the U.S. While it draws on and references a much larger body of examples, the film focuses in particular upon three recent cases: the case of the “Fort Dix Five,” in which five men from suburban New Jersey were convicted last year of conspiring to kill American soldiers at the Fort Dix Army base; a 2006 case in Albany, New York, in which a pizzeria owner and the imam of a local mosque were convicted of money laundering and conspiracy to support terrorism; and the ongoing case of the Newburgh Four, in which four men from Newburgh, New York, are charged with plotting to bomb a synagogue and a Jewish community center in the Bronx (at the time I write this, the jury is deliberating in this case).

All three cases were reported by the media, in full-blown fear mode, as examples of “terror plots” (or, to use the more recently-coined and strangely botanical term, “homegrown terror”). However, the three cases have more in common: in all three cases, the men who were arrested (and, in the first two cases, convicted) were Muslim. In all three cases, no terrorist crime was actually committed. Most important, from the point of view of the filmmakers, all three cases rest upon fake plots concocted by the FBI and rely heavily upon hundreds of hours of surveillance video and audio secretly recorded by a paid government informant. In fact, the same informant, Shahed Hussain, who had been central to the case in Albany, was used again by the FBI in the Newburgh case.

This use of paid informants becomes the main focus of “Entrapped,” and the filmmakers make a convincing case that there is a pattern at work here. The narrative put out by law enforcement, and dutifully gobbled up by the media, is that in each of these cases, the government successfully infiltrated “terrorist cells” in order to thwart deadly plots. A closer look at the cases suggests something quite different: paid informants sent purposefully into Muslim communities, seeking out vulnerable individuals, and then working very hard to convince them to take part in fake plots concocted by the FBI — “terror plots” that can then be “broken up” by the same law enforcement agencies that set them in motion. As Alicia McCollum, the aunt of David Williams, one of the Newburgh Four, puts it near the end of the film: “This is entrapment. You’re going to send an informant into an impoverished community, the most impoverished county, to do your trickery. You ain’t stumbled upon a cell. Nobody ain’t tell you that someone was plotting to do anything. You created a crime!” Or, as Columbia University Law Professor Daniel C. Richman put it in another context regarding another recent case of alleged FBI entrapment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn: “Most of these cases, the inducement part is pretty straightforward, there is inducement.”

The questionable nature of the use of informants in alleged terrorism cases is echoed by the two experts interviewed in the film: Karen Greenberg, Executive Director of New York University’s Center on Law and Security, and James Wedick, a former FBI agent who spent thirty-five years in the field. As they both note, the use of paid informants is nothing new, but the FBI’s reliance on them, particularly in terrorism investigations, has grown more pervasive. More disturbing, as Wedick notes, is that the FBI seems to be going against its own long-standing conventions regarding informants: while it is common to employ people who have been accused or convicted of crimes, those whose convictions betrayed a history of lying were considered unfit to serve as informants, for obvious reasons. This basic principle seems to have gone out the window: Shahed Hussain, the informant in the Albany and Newburgh cases, had been brought up on fraud charges for running an illegal driver’s license scheme, and Mahmoud Omar, one of the two informants in the Fort Dix case, had been convicted of bank fraud.

As a result of these and other elements of entrapment and fabrication in recent “counterterrorism” sting operations, Wedick concludes: “I’ll venture to say ninety percent of the cases that you see that have occurred in the last ten years are garbage.”

The most extensive sets of interviews featured in the film are with relatives and friends of the men who have been accused and convicted in these cases. It is impossible not to be moved by these interviews. The strongest impression, however, is a sense of total bewilderment in finding their husbands, sons, and brothers the objects of such situations in the first case. In some cases, the family members seem to be struggling to understand precisely what it is that their loved ones have been accused of doing. This provides further support, if any was needed, for the documentary’s argument that the FBI is targeting vulnerable individuals and fabricating cases, rather than “uncovering” plots: while we would expect the families of the accused men to defend them under any circumstances, it would be impossible to feign this sort of total bewilderment about the very accusations being made against them.

My own reaction to “Entrapped” may suggest something about the way this film might transform our larger understanding of these and similar cases. On a first viewing, I found myself growing impatient a few minutes into the film. The interviews with family members were, as I say, emotionally affecting, and one felt sympathy for the men who had been imprisoned, but something seemed to be missing. Then I realized that I was waiting for what we’ve become accustomed to expect from documentaries such as this one: I was waiting for the film to reveal evidence that would convince us that these men were, in fact, innocent.

Part of the transformative shock of the film is precisely the realization that such evidence will not be forthcoming. This is the difficulty in dealing with these cases, for legal experts and indeed for all of us concerned with the erosion of civil liberties, especially the civil liberties of Muslim Americans, under the “War on Terror.” For in the strict legal sense, the film suggests, crimes were committed, plots were made (although it needs to be reiterated, especially given the severity of the sentences handed out, that in all three cases, no terrorist crime was actually committed — in fact, no one was killed or injured in any of the cases). Thus, the film cannot advocate for the “innocence” of any of the men accused. What it can do — and what it does, chillingly and effectively — is force us to face the very real possibility that our government is literally creating and staging fake terrorist plots which can then be triumphantly foiled, like a firefighter who’s an arsonist on the side.

This is why the argument regarding entrapment becomes so absolutely crucial, both in the legal sense and in the realm of the public sphere as well. What becomes clear, in each of the three cases (and in many similar cases) is that the “plots” involved would never have existed without the instigation of paid informants and the machinations of law enforcement. The motives for staging and then foiling such crimes is obvious: as journalist Petra Bartosiewicz, who has been following these sorts of cases since 2005, puts it, a terrorist conviction “adds to the Justice Department’s statistical scorecard in the war on terrorism.” In the process, however, the very notions of “guilt” and “innocence” are being perverted in new and frightening ways. As Bartosiewicz notes, in the closing arguments of the Newburgh Four case, one of the prosecutors, in trying to establish that the defendants were predisposed to commit these crimes (rather than being induced or entrapped), asked the court to consider the question, “Are these defendants innocent-minded?” This is, in the most literal sense, an Orwellian scenario; the documentary persuades us that this is the territory into which the U.S. government has ventured in these cases.

In the process, the film also gives us some sense of the almost unbearable pressures being brought to bear against Muslim communities in the U.S. There has been some focus, of late, on the general question of Islamophobia in U.S. society, but not enough analysis of what we can only call an official policy of government-enforced Islamophobia, as found in these cases.

In this regard, the most affecting, and infuriating, of the cases covered in the film involves the two Albany men, Mohammed Hossein and Yassin Aref, convicted of money laundering and conspiracy to support terrorism and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Neither man had any previous criminal record. Hossein is a Bangladeshi immigrant whose family owns a pizzeria; Aref, a Kurdish Iraqi who received political asylum after fleeing from Saddam’s regime, is the imam of the local mosque. Hossein was the object of a relentless campaign by the government’s informant; eventually, with his business failing, he was persuaded to accept a loan of $45,000 and a gift of $5,000 from a man who he believed to be a Pakistani businessman (as Kamat notes in her narration, at a few points, the informant told Hossein and Aref that he was a member of the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad, and claimed that the money was related to weaponry — although it is unclear how much the men understood that the money for the loan had been allegedly laundered from weapon sales to a terrorist group). Aref did nothing more than witness the loan, a common role for an imam to play for a member of the community.

Again, the instigation to commit the crime on the part of the government’s informant is clear. As Fatima Hossein, wife of the imprisoned man, says in the film, the informant, who was a frequent visitor to the pizzeria, “was saying, ‘Brother, I am your brother. If you need some money, maybe you can borrow from me and give it to me.’” Hearing the facts of the case, it is impossible to imagine either of the two convicted men voluntarily taking part in any such plot. It seems not unfair to suggest that Mohammed Hossein is in jail for being a poor man with a failing business, and Yassin Aref is in jail for being an imam. Or simply: both men are in jail largely because they are Muslims.

“Entrapped” ends with scenes of family members taking part in protests on behalf of the accused and convicted men in these cases. We are told that this is an example of their ongoing struggle, but we can’t help but notice (and this is clearly intentional on the part of the filmmakers) that these protests are sparsely attended, to say the least. The viewer can only be left with a sense of shame at this sight, since it indicates the isolation being experienced, not just by these families, but by Muslim communities more generally as they find themselves subject to government surveillance and entrapment. This isolation needs to end. This film, and the information and inspiration it provides us, is a crucial step in that direction.

Anthony Alessandrini is an assistant professor of English at Kingsborough Community College-City University of New York in Brooklyn. This review first appeared on Jadaliyya.


16 Responses

  1. Kathleen
    October 19, 2010, 11:33 am

    Saw that at Democracy now. Thanks for reminding

  2. annie
    October 19, 2010, 11:43 am

    i want to see this film. this article reinforces everything i’ve always suspected about these cases, including the hideous set up of Riad Hamad.

    not to mention the opposite approach of the fbi wrt the associates of timothy mcveigh.

    • annie
      October 19, 2010, 12:05 pm

      watching it now. i didn’t realize this video was the documentary itself. highly rec.

  3. Justice Please
    October 19, 2010, 12:56 pm

    Thanks for covering this!

    One thing to add: When the FBI or similar institutions create fake terror plots, it becomes harder for everyone to identify the real terror plots. That is why even the most conservative and islamophobic members of society need to protest against such behavior by law enforcement agencies.

  4. potsherd
    October 19, 2010, 1:15 pm

    The use of informants is yet another way in which the FBI is adopting Shin Bet tactics in the War On Terra.

  5. Sumud
    October 19, 2010, 1:28 pm

    A curious article appeared at Foreign Policy a few days ago:

    Al Qaeda Wants to Be Friends

    It’s not really an article, but 20+ screen captures of various sites waging “electronic jihad”. Most of the sites in the screen caps are in arabic. So much content, so little of it accessible to most FP readers on account of the language barrier. Odd. There’s no way of knowing but it crossed my mind that it was possibly an entrapment scenario.

    The author is one Jarret Brachman, counterterrorism expert, ex-CIA, and founder of a private security firm Cronus Global, who contract to the government.

  6. mig
    October 19, 2010, 2:33 pm

    If anybody is interested / allready knows this but FBI hasnt put warrant so far to Osama Bin Laden of 9/11 attack. Check from FBI most wanted terrorist list. There is Mr. Bin Laden yes, but not wanted from 9/11 attack.

    link to

    Surprise surprise….

  7. eljay
    October 19, 2010, 2:48 pm

    >> If anybody is interested / allready knows this but FBI hasnt put warrant so far to Osama Bin Laden of 9/11 attack.

    This won’t stop the U.S. from expanding the War on Terrrrrrr into Pakistan. There’s increasing noise (accusations) being made that bin Laden is cozily residing there. I guess if Pakistan doesn’t heel when its master says so, master will have to punish Pakistan. Bad dog!

    Why is freedom, democracy and justice so damned hard to ram down peoples’ throats?!

  8. mig
    October 19, 2010, 3:38 pm

    “”Why is freedom, democracy and justice so damned hard to ram down peoples’ throats?!””

    ++++ I have thought that a lot, and only rational ( or non ), explanation is military mighty. After soviet empire collapsed, there was still huge army and weapons cache etc. under control. And since it has needed sooooo much money to build after decades against enemy threat, and lets not forget military industry overall, how much it makes money to certain groups & employment. It would horrible waist to cut that down, so we have to create a new enemy. Muslims !!! And because we need to sell another new enemy to the public, so they start to back up efforts against this new opponent with woman rights, lack of democracy, they are under brutal Islamist regime, no human rights….and so on. ( but if those countrys are our allies and still have similar treatment in this and that country…..shhhhh….they are our allies…..somehow these questions are banned ).

    • chet
      October 19, 2010, 4:32 pm

      Through the 1990’s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was considerable discussion about the “peace dividend” that should have accrued because of the absence of an “enemy”. Even though the president was a Democrat, as was the Congress until 1996, nothing happened.

      After 9/11 all “peace dividend” discussion stopped dead.

      • Antidote
        October 20, 2010, 12:04 am

        One major problem with the collapse of the SU was that it was widely understood and celebrated as a victory for the US, a validation of American freedom, democracy and capitalism: “We won the Cold War, so let’s do more of the same, with fewer inhibitions, because we are now the only remaining super-power.” Not a recipe for peace, and what do you do with a huge MIC and military budget once the enemy is gone? Answer: Operation Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, next to other military adventures.

        Freedom, the favorite American buzz-word in the Pentagon and the US, and the antithesis to justice. Freedom, especially in the American definition, abhors the limits and regulations justice can’t do without. Limits on corporate profits and CEO salaries, for instance. Limits on greed, consumption and energy use. No sane car company comes up with a Hummer at the end of the 20th century, and no sane government not only has no regulations against marketing it in the first place, but bails out the company when it heads for bankruptcy. The American dream is that you can have whatever you want, and that getting it equals success and that God loves you. That’s Calvinism for you. It’s not surprising that the rise of religious fundamentalism and the Christian right, arguably the most nationalistic and militaristic Christian movement since the Crusades, took off after the collapse of the SU: We won the Cold War means God loves America, so lets make more weapons and make more war to get whatever we want. Similar effects as the miracle of the Six Day War had in Israel. Gorbachev said the US (and one might add Israel) suffers from a fatal disease, the ‘winner’s complex’: “We had 10 years after the Cold War to build a new world order and yet we squandered them. The United States cannot tolerate anyone acting independently. Every US president has to have a war.”

        Adam Smith in “The Wealth of Nations” (1776):

        “The discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind. Their consequences have already been very great: but, in the short period of between two to three centuries which have elapsed since these discoveries were made, it is impossible that the whole extent of their consequences can have been seen. What benefits, or what misfortunes to mankind may hereafter result from those great events, no human wisdom can foresee. By uniting, in some measure, the most distant parts of the world, by enabling them to relieve one another’s wants, to increase one another’s enjoyments, and to encourage one another’s industry, their general tendency would seem to be beneficial. To the natives, however, both of the East and West Indies, all the commercial benefits which can have resulted from those events have been sunk and lost in the dreadful misfortunes which they have occasioned. … At the particular time when these discoveries were made, the superiority of force happened to be so great on the side of the Europeans, that they were enabled to commit with impunity every sort of injustice in those remote countries. Hereafter, perhaps, the natives of those countries may grow stronger, or those of Europe may grow weaker, and the inhabitants of all different quarters of the world may arrive at the equality of courage and force which, by inspiring mutual fear, can alone overawe independent nations into some respect for the rights of one another.”

      • Shingo
        October 20, 2010, 12:24 am

        Great post Antidote,

        It’s interesting that you should bring up the ’67 war and how this went to Israel’s head. Finkelstein made an interesting observation that it affirmed, in the minds of many Zionists and Jews, that this was a sign from God that Israel was part of his divine plan. The fact that it lasted 6 days (as in 6 the 6 days God took to create the world), only reinforced this belief.

      • Antidote
        October 20, 2010, 8:38 am

        Thanks Shingo – hadn’t thought of the number symbolism and creation. But how about 666?

  9. RoHa
    October 19, 2010, 8:14 pm

    Why aren’t these Muslims wearing yellow star-and crescents sewn onto their clothes?

  10. JBL
    October 19, 2010, 11:36 pm

    I thought there were laws against entrapment?
    Anyway, these cases demonstrate that the line between fact and fantasy is getting very fuzzy. Another example is the recent “Couple Accused of Passing [Nuclear] Secrets to Venezuela” case. The New York Times told us, on 20 September:

    [first paragraph]
    ALBUQUERQUE (AP) — A physicist and his wife who are accused of trying to help Venezuela develop a nuclear weapon pleaded not guilty on Monday.
    [10th and final paragraph]
    In a 22-count indictment issued Friday, the couple were accused of offering to help develop a nuclear weapon for Venezuela through dealings with an undercover F.B.I. agent who was posing as a representative of Venezuela. The government is not making the accusation that Venezuela or anyone working for it sought American secrets.
    link to

    What can you say?

    • Antidote
      October 20, 2010, 12:36 am

      Unbelievable! In the NYT, not some trashy supermarket tabloid where this would belong. So what’s taking so long in Iran and OBL’s cave? Can’t the mullahs and jihadists abduct some retired physicist who, on a modest income, works on nuclear fusion in his basement?

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