October 9, 2011
Mother Jones

How the FBI's Network of Informants Actually Created Most of the Terrorist Plots 'Foiled' in the US Since 9/11

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 asked.

"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 steel."

"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, rocket missiles."

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. . . .


Trevor Aaronson is the executive director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and a contributing writer at First Look Media's The Intercept. He is also author of The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War on Terrorism.

Realpolitik and Terrorism

What Really Happened on 9/11

National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms

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Enver Masud, "'Deadly Deception, Pretexts for War," The Wisdom Fund, July 30, 2001

David Cole, "Enemy Aliens and American Freedoms, November 10, 2003

Julian Borger, "White Terrorism Is Not A Concept The US Takes Seriously," Guardian, January 8, 2004

VIDEO 1, VIDEO 2, VIDEO 3: "The Power of Nightmares,", January 14, 2005

The Great Conspiracy: The 9/11 News Special You Never Saw (2005)

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Robert Dreyfuss, "Yet Another Bogus 'Terror' Plot," Nation, May 22, 2009

"Enemy Aliens and American Freedoms," The Wisdom Fund, July 4, 2009

Enver Masud, "Hearings on Islamic Radicalization," The Wisdom Fund, March 6, 2011

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Robert Steinback, "Jihad Against Islam," Southern Poverty Law Center, Intelligence Report, Summer 2011, Issue Number: 142

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[colonialism and imperialism are two most deadly forms of terrorism--Andre Vltchek, "How the West Creates Terrorism,", January 22, 2016]

Max Blumenthal and Sarah Lazare, "Before Omar Mateen Committed Mass Murder, The FBI Tried To 'Lure' Him Into A Terror Plot,", June 19, 2016

[Of 126 Islamic State-related cases prosecuted by federal authorities across the country since 2014, nearly two-thirds involved undercover agents or informants, according to the Center on National Security--Ian Cummings, "FBI undercover stings foil terrorist plots - but how many are agency-created?,", March 2, 2017]

OPERATION FLEX: The ACLU is attempting to hold the government accountable for what it views as an unconstitutional spying program that targeted a religious minority--Trevor Aaronson, "An FBI Informant's Unlikely Role in Upcoming Supreme Court Case on Surveillance of Muslims,", September 12 2021

"US Peace Index," The Institute for Economics and Peace

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