The FBI now has more than 100 task forces devoted exclusively to fighting terrorism. But is the government manufacturing ghosts?
“So, what you wanna do?” the friend asked. “A target?” the wanna-be jihadi replied. “I want some type of city-hall-type stuff, federal courthouses.”
It was late November 2006, and twenty-two-year-old Derrick Shareef and his friend Jameel were hanging out in Rockford, Illinois, dreaming about staging a terrorist attack on America. The two men weren’t sure what kind of assault they could pull off. All Shareef knew was that he wanted to cause major damage, to wreak vengeance on the country he held responsible for oppressing Muslims worldwide. “Smoke a judge,” Shareef said. Maybe firebomb a government building.
But while Shareef harbored violent fantasies, he was hardly a serious threat as a jihadi. An American-born convert to Islam, he had no military training and no weapons. He had less than $100 in the bank. He worked in a dead-end job as a clerk in a video-game store. He didn’t own a car. So dire were his circumstances, Shareef had no place to live. Then one day, Jameel, a fellow Muslim, had shown up at EB Games and offered him shelter. Within hours of meeting his new brother, Shareef had moved in with Jameel and his three wives and nine children. Living together, the pair fantasized about targets in Rockford, a Midwestern city of 150,000, with a minuscule Muslim population and the lone claim to fame of being the hometown of Cheap Trick.
The fact that Shareef was a loser with no means of living out his imagination didn’t stop his friend from encouraging his delusions of grandeur. On the contrary, Jameel continually pushed Shareef to escalate his plans. “When you wanna plan on doing this?” he asked Shareef, talking about the plot to go after a government building. “Because we have to make specific plans and dates.”
For all his bluster, Shareef was, by any objective measure, a pathetic and hapless jihadist — one of a new breed of domestic terrorists the federal government has paraded before the media since 9/11. The FBI, in a sense, elevated Shareef, working to transform him from a boastful store clerk into a suicidal mall-bomber. Like many other alleged extremists who have been targeted by the authorities, Shareef didn’t know that his brand-new friend —the eager co-conspirator drawing him ever further into a terror plot —was actually an informant for the FBI.
As Shareef cursed America and Jews, he was under almost constant surveillance by the Joint Terrorism Task Force for the Northern District of Illinois. Since 9/11, the number of such outfits across the country has tripled. With more than 2,000 FBI agents now assigned to 102 task forces, the JTTFs have effectively become a vast, quasi-secret arm of the federal government, granted sweeping new powers that outstrip those of any other law-enforcement agency. The JTTFs consist not only of local police, FBI special agents and federal investigators from Immigration and the IRS, but covert operatives from the CIA. The task forces have thus effectively destroyed the “wall” that historically existed between law enforcement and intelligence-gathering. Under the Bush administration, the JTTFs have been turned into a domestic spy agency, like Britain’s MI5 —one with the powers of arrest.
The expenditure of such massive resources to find would-be terrorists inevitably requires results. Plots must be uncovered. Sleeper cells must be infiltrated. Another attack must be prevented —or, at least, be seen to be prevented. But in backwaters like Rockford, the JTTFs don’t have much to do. To find threats to thwart, the task forces have increasingly taken to using paid informants to cajole and inveigle targets like Shareef into pursuing their harebrained schemes. In the affidavit sworn by an FBI special agent in support of Shareef’s indictment, the co-conspirator who called himself Jameel is known only as “CS” (Cooperating Source). In fact, CS was William Chrisman, a former crack dealer with a conviction for attempted robbery who was paid $8,500 by the JTTF and dispatched specifically to set up Shareef. Like other informants in terrorism cases, Chrisman had been “tasked” by federal agents to indulge and escalate Shareef’s fantasies — while carefully ensuring that Shareef incriminated himself.
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