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Crime & Courts

FBI tactics questioned in terror arrests

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Published:   |   Updated: October 6, 2013 at 08:37 AM

TAMPA — The case against Sami Osmakac is one of scores built by FBI undercover sting operations orchestrated across the country after the Sept. 11 attacks changed the agency's focus to terrorism prevention.

Osmakac is scheduled to go on trial Oct. 21, although the defense has asked for a postponement, on charges he planned to blow up a Tampa nightspot, then take hostages and demand the release of Muslim prisoners.

Osmakac's lawyer told a judge last week he probably will use an entrapment defense, arguing the FBI targeted him because he is a financially destitute, radical Muslim.

If so, Osmakac will join a host of other post-Sept. 11 terrorism suspects who have accused the FBI of entrapment.

Eleven others have used that defense — and all failed, according to Trevor Aaronson, a former St. Petersburg resident who authored “The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War on Terrorism,” a book critical of the agency's tactics.

“The odds are pretty high against him,” said Aaronson, who noted most defendants in these cases wind up pleading guilty, recognizing that's their only chance of reducing their potential prison sentences.

The FBI is well prepared to confront accusations of entrapment. The agency even features an article on its website, “Avoiding the Entrapment Defense in a Post-9/11 World.”

“Law enforcement officers play a critical role in preventing a successful entrapment defense,” the piece says. “Recognizing that this role starts at the inception of the operation, not in the courtroom, is essential.”

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Federal authorities say Osmakac tried to buy grenades, Uzi submachine guns and an AK-47 assault rifle. He also is accused of trying to create — and detonate — a bomb made of diesel fuel and fertilizer. All the weapons and the homemade bomb were provided and purchased from an undercover FBI agent.

The FBI has had a near-perfect record of convictions in more than 175 such cases, Aaronson said. He contends the FBI has targeted “low-hanging fruit” — individuals with no means to actually launch a terrorist attack — while missing those who pose a real threat, such as the Boston Marathon bombers and the would-be Times Square attacker.

The Osmakac case, Aaronson said, is “typical in the sense that most of these FBI sting operations involve Muslims who have neither the opportunity nor the capacity to commit any sort of terrorism, and the FBI provides what they need.”

Aaaronson said the evidence made public demonstrates that Osmakac on his own could never have fulfilled any terror plans.

“To date, there hasn't been a case yet where you have this kind of hapless want-to-be who meets an al-Qaida operative who provides the means. … Only the FBI provides the means.”

Retired Tampa FBI Agent Joe Navarro said Aaron's criticism is flawed.

“That really riles me up because if you get an individual that has the will and the passion, you don't need much money and you can do the equivalent damage that could be done by nation states,” said Navarro, whose books include “Hunting Terrorists: A Look at the Psychopathology of Terror.”

“Most of the terrorism we see is really done by low-level individuals acting alone or by themselves in concert with others,” Navarro added. “To think that all terrorism has to come from one high source, that's really ridiculous.”

Navarro said the FBI has been using undercover stings to catch violent radicals since the 1960s.

“All I can say is this has been a proven technique that has been utilized, which is basically designed to see who is interested in doing harm to the United States and intercepting them before they do.”

Local law enforcement, he added, does the same thing, usually in cases in which someone is looking for a hit man to kill a spouse.

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The FBI stings have been extremely effective at building cases, many following a similar script.

Informants introduce defendants to undercover agents posing as firearms or bomb brokers who record conversations with the suspects about their plans, making sure to give them chances to back out along the way. The idea is to show that even though law enforcement may have participated in the plot, the suspect was predisposed to act.

The complaint against Osmakac summarizes at least three opportunities he was given to withdraw:

The agent asked Osmakac if he was sure “this is what you want,” and Osmakac said it was.

Another time, the agent told Osmakac that because none of the weapons had been delivered, he could still change his mind. According to the complaint, Osmakac “immediately shook his head in the negative and stated, 'We all have to die, so why not die the Islamic way?'”

Later that day, the agent told Osmakac, “You haven't lived half your life, bro. ... You don't want to have kids, take a wife, have children?” Osmakac responded that Allah allows people to have children in Jannah, or paradise.

Aaronson said Osmakac was also one of a number of suspects targeted by the FBI who showed signs of mental illness. “This isn't a man who had a firm grasp of reality,” Aaronson said. “Certainly his actions and behaviors suggest he had issues.”

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There has been evidence that Osmakac may have suffered from mental illness, although a court-appointed psychologist determined he was competent to stand trial.

His former defense lawyer has said Osmakac experienced hallucinations, and prosecutors asked that his mental state be evaluated because of concerns he might be suffering from a mental disease. On Thursday, his lawyer, George Tragos, filed a motion asking that the trial be postponed until March because Osmakac's family and a psychologist said they had seen a “deterioration in the defendant's mental status.”

Tragos asked for time, in part, for the family to raise money for a full mental evaluation. On Friday, U.S, District Judge Mary Scriven ordered another examination to determine whether Osmakac is competent to stand trial.

Well before the January 2012 arrest, local Muslims told authorities of concerns about Osmakac, who would confront people at local mosques accusing them of being infidels and threatening one civic activist for encouraging people to vote and participate in democracy.

Aaronson conceded Osmakac's mental issues don't render him harmless.

“Terrorists are crazy,” he said. “You can't make the argument that because someone has a mental illness they couldn't become a terrorist.”

But, he added, “unlike those crazy guys who commit an act of violence,” Osmakac and the other 175-plus terrorism sting defendants “don't have weapons on their own or ability to acquire” them. These suspects are “lucky if they have two nickels to rub together.”

Navarro said people with limited intelligence can be extremely dangerous, even if they have no resources on their own.

“The high-intellect one will figure out how to do things on their own,” he said. “There are those of lower intellect who have the will. Those can be led by a nefarious organization or leader to do even greater harm than they originally planned on.”

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Aaronson said the fear that a mentally unstable person with access to the Internet could figure out how to inflict terror is a rational argument. But, he said, “There hasn't been yet a Sami Osmakac who's gotten online” and made the necessary contacts. The truly dangerous terrorists, he said, had connections and were trained overseas.

The Associated Press has reported that Osmakac, a naturalized U.S. citizen who lived with his parents in Pinellas Park, met with radical Islamists during visits to his native Kosovo.

If Osmakac did travel overseas in hopes of receiving training, Aaronson said, that would “make him unlike the others.”

Aaronson said there are two reasons the FBI uses elaborate sting operations to target people like Osmakac on the fringes of Muslim society.

First, he said, the agency has transformed its focus from law enforcement to intelligence, but still measures its success through law enforcement metrics, like the number of cases it is able to bring. Also, he said, the agency is under pressure to justify its multibillion-dollar terrorism budget.

“I can understand kind of the human dilemma of an FBI agent,” Aaronson said. “They need to show this is an effective policy that this is preventing terrorism. The best way to do that is parade people out who have been convicted of terrorism charges.”

Navarro agrees the FBI's focus has switched to preventing terrorism.

“There's no doubt the No. 1 priority now by the FBI is terrorism,” Navarro said. “On 9/11 it was No. 6.”

But the pressure isn't about creating cases to justify budgets, he said. “It's the pressure of not allowing anything to happen again.”

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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