How the FBI's Network of Informants
Actually Created Most of the Terrorist Plots 'Foiled' in the US Since
The FBI has built a massive network
of spies to prevent another domestic attack. But are they busting terrorist
plots - or leading them?
by Trevor Aaronson
JAMES CROMITIE WAS A MAN of bluster and bigotry. He made up wild stories
about his supposed exploits, like the one about firing gas bombs into police
precincts using a flare gun, and he ranted about Jews. "The worst brother in
the whole Islamic world is better than 10 billion Yahudi," he once said.
A 45-year-old Walmart stocker who'd adopted the name Abdul Rahman after
converting to Islam during a prison stint for selling cocaine, Cromitie had
lots of worries - convincing his wife he wasn't sleeping around, keeping up
with the rent, finding a decent job despite his felony record. But he
dreamed of making his mark. He confided as much in a middle-aged Pakistani
he knew as Maqsood.
"I'm gonna run into something real big," he'd say. "I just feel it, I'm
telling you. I feel it."
Maqsood and Cromitie had met at a mosque in Newburgh, a struggling former
Air Force town about an hour north of New York City. They struck up a
friendship, talking for hours about the world's problems and how the Jews
were to blame.
It was all talk until November 2008, when Maqsood pressed his new friend.
"Do you think you are a better recruiter or a better action man?" Maqsood
"I'm both," Cromitie bragged.
"My people would be very happy to know that, brother. Honestly."
"Who's your people?" Cromitie asked.
Maqsood said he was an agent for the Pakistani terror group, tasked with
assembling a team to wage jihad in the United States. He asked Cromitie what
he would attack if he had the means. A bridge, Cromitie said.
"But bridges are too hard to be hit," Maqsood pleaded, "because they're made
"Of course they're made of steel," Cromitie replied. "But the same way they
can be put up, they can be brought down."
Maqsood coaxed Cromitie toward a more realistic plan. The Mumbai attacks
were all over the news, and he pointed out how those gunmen targeted hotels,
cafes, and a Jewish community center.
"With your intelligence, I know you can manipulate someone," Cromitie told
his friend. "But not me, because I'm intelligent." The pair settled on a
plot to bomb synagogues in the Bronx, and then fire Stinger missiles at
airplanes taking off from Stewart International Airport in the southern
Hudson Valley. Maqsood would provide all the explosives and weapons, even
the vehicles. "We have two missiles, okay?" he offered. "Two Stingers,
Maqsood was an undercover operative; that much was true. But not for
Jaish-e-Mohammad. His real name was Shahed Hussain, and he was a paid
informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Ever since 9/11, counterterrorism has been the FBI's No. 1 priority,
consuming the lion's share of its budget - $3.3 billion, compared to $2.6
billion for organized crime - and much of the attention of field agents and a
massive, nationwide network of informants. After years of emphasizing
informant recruiting as a key task for its agents, the bureau now maintains
a roster of 15,000 spies - many of them tasked, as Hussain was, with
infiltrating Muslim communities in the United States. In addition, for every
informant officially listed in the bureau's records, there are as many as
three unofficial ones, according to one former high-level FBI official,
known in bureau parlance as "hip pockets."
The informants could be doctors, clerks, imams. Some might not even consider
themselves informants. But the FBI regularly taps all of them as part of a
domestic intelligence apparatus whose only historical peer might be COINTELPRO, the program
the bureau ran from the '50s to the '70s to discredit and marginalize
organizations ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to civil-rights and protest
groups. . . .
Here's how it works: Informants report to their handlers on people who have,
say, made statements sympathizing with terrorists. Those names are then
cross-referenced with existing intelligence data, such as immigration and
criminal records. FBI agents may then assign an undercover operative to
approach the target by posing as a radical. Sometimes the operative will
propose a plot, provide explosives, even lead the target in a fake oath to
Al Qaeda. Once enough incriminating information has been gathered, there's
an arrest - and a press conference announcing another foiled plot. . . .