Spooking the Terrorists—and Ourselves

Mohamed Osman Mohamud. Click to view our photos of Al Qaeda America. Mauthnomah County Sheriff's Office-AP

Every time FBI undercover operatives seduce a dim-witted wannabe terrorist with promises of jihadi glory, there's a tendency among the civil liberties crowd and the hate-all-government contingent to see the aspiring bomber as a victim. So the Feds took no chances with the court of public opinion when they put their case together against Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the 19-year-old Somali-American who planned to blow up a car bomb in the middle of a crowded Christmas tree-lighting celebration in Portland, Ore., on Friday night.

In the lead-up to the event the undercover operatives kept asking Mohamud if it bothered him that he'd be killing a whole lot of little kids and they kept telling him it would be okay to back away from the plot. According to the FBI affidavit filed with the court, Mohamud said he just wanted a "huge mass that will...be attacked in their own element with their families celebrating the holidays."

The Feds didn't make the arrest until the bomb was in place (a dud they'd built themselves), and Mohamud had actually made the call on his cell phone that he apparently believed would set it off. So, if we can judge from the FBI version of the case, it looks like Mohamud is facing life imprisonment, and he'll probably get it. But does that really make us safer?

In this instance, yes. When it comes to "home-grown terror" plots and FBI stings, there is a great divide between those would-be jihadis who think they can do everything they want to do with a few local buddies and those who make contact with the pros in Pakistan, Yemen or elsewhere overseas. The second category is much more dangerous. Mohamud was somewhere in between.

He also comes from a subset of angry young men – disaffected Somalis in the West – that Al Qaeda and its affiliates are known to be targeting for recruitment. A Taliban source who spent time in the wilds of Waziristan with several Qaeda figures last year tells NEWSWEEK's Sami Yousafzai that his Qaeda friends have vowed that their efforts to bring their war back to Western soil will never end and pledged that "there will be a successful attack very soon." The same source told Yousafzai "the large numbers of Somalis living in the West have caught the recruiting masters' eye."

What sting operations like this do, at a minimum, is send a psychological message to would-be jihadis that anyone they contact to join holy war abroad, and anyone they work with to bring terror back to America, may be a double agent, and that communications are so heavily monitored that any e-mail they send looking for jihadi advice is likely to attract the attention of the Feds.

So far so good. Sowing distrust among the bad guys is a vital element in the disruption of terrorist plots and organizations. But one risk as the FBI cranks out these sting operations (there have been dozens in the last few years), is that the cases will create a false impression of what these would-be terrorists really want to do, and thus distort the way we analyze the enemy's thinking.

A case in point is the arrest last month of a Pakistani-born suburbanite in northern Virginia who allegedly participated in a plan to bomb the Washington, D.C. Metro. What the 34-year-old computer-science graduate, husband and father, Farooque Ahmed, really fantasized about doing was joining Taliban-allied fighters in Afghanistan. He didn't get far. From start to finish, the guys he thought were his co-conspirators were actually undercover agents. It appears from the available court documents that the Metro plot could have been the undercover operatives' idea as much as Ahmed's, and if that's true, then are terrorists really planning to bomb the subway in Washington, or is that just a fantasy of the Feds? The Farooque Ahmed case doesn't get us much closer to an answer, and probably doesn't make us much safer.

In this new Oregon plot, Mohamud managed to e-mail people in Pakistan who are, indeed, suspected terror trainers – and whose communications clearly have been tapped. The Feds watched Mohamud's e-mails as he was handed off from one Pakistani contact to another. Then he was dropped by the real bad guys. Presumably, they didn't trust him. That's when the Feds moved in, masquerading as new terrorist contacts, and looking to see if Mohamud would go all the way with a domestic bombing, which he did.

Mohamud sounds like a mad dog, and putting him out of action is probably a good thing any way you cut it. But the real impact of this case is to tell anyone thinking of carrying out violent jihad, abroad or at home, that Big Brother, er, Uncle Sam is watching. Like so much in the shadow land of terror-counterterror, that message is at once comforting and discomfiting.

Christopher Dickey, Newsweek's Mideast Editor and Paris Bureau chief, is the author most recently of Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force—The NYPD.