Costs & Benefits of FBI’s Counter-Terror Operations

Last week, in the Metro section, The Washington Post ran a fascinating article about the nuts and bolts of an FBI counter-terror operation.  The story focuses on the FBI’s arrest of Amine El Khalifi, a Moroccan immigrant who was arrested “wearing what he thought was a suicide coat” as he walked towards the U.S. Capitol.

Khalifi first came to the attention of the FBI for responding to a Facebook post by a terrorist in Afghanistan.  Later a confidential informant mentioned El Khalifi.  These two incidents were sufficient to put Khalifi on the FBI’s radar screen.  He was investigated further and the FBI decided to target him with an undercover operation.  In these operations (and there have been many) FBI agents pose as al-Qaeda operatives and test the individual’s commitment to jihad.  The article states:

At nearly every meeting, FBI agents said, [the FBI undercover agent] asked Khalifi whether he was sure he wanted to launch an attack and whether there was a more peaceful way to engage in jihad than killing people.  In past investigations, other suspects have walked away from similar plots and not been charged, FBI officials said.

At one point, Khalifi became so frustrated by the questions that he told the undercover agent to “stop asking him if he wanted to do this,” the case’s lead agent said.

There are of course legal and moral questions to be raised about these tactics.  Would any of the FBI’s terrorists really have become threats without the FBI egging them on?  I for one will take the FBI’s word that they are approaching this carefully, and not simply trying to rack up arrests.  However, the knowledge that the FBI is running a major domestic intelligence program is uncomfortable (Americans don’t tend to like domestic intelligence as a matter of principle.)

There is also the question of whether or not this is an effective counter-terror policy.  The capability of a small group without training or access to external resources to carry out a major terror operation is limited (not impossible – as the Norwegians learned. but also as Nidal Hassan demonstrated.)  But the lone wolf terrorist is extremely hard to predict, and even increasingly the likelihood slightly would undoubtedly require a vast increase in domestic intelligence.

A basic uncomfortable reality of the relatively open criminal justice system in the United States is that operations like this reveal an enormous amount of information about how the FBI operates.  Eventually, whether through the press or the trial, these details will be exposed.  Clever enemies could make use of this information to improve their internal security and avoid law enforcement attention.

On the other hand, revealing this information – which shows a truly extensive and deep FBI capability – might deter terrorists from even trying.  Still, the danger that focusing on these less capable actors may actually help forge a stronger adversary is not inconceivable.  The terrorist groups that survive and thrive are those that are most capable of analyzing information and incorporating the lessons learned.  These operations provide plenty of data.

Of course it is an open question as to whether or not such a sophisticated opponent is operating within the United States (there is little question that such opponents are operating abroad targeting Americans and their allies.)  But the concern that the FBI, in focusing so heavily on these relative small fry might be missing some major new shift and be blind-sided.  It is an unfortunate truism that bureaucracies tend to keep doing whatever they have been doing until some new phenomenon occurs that confounds standard operating procedures.


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