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Another Hapless American Plotter

28/10/2010

While European security services continue to monitor the networks connected to the recent up-tick in threat warnings from across the spectrum of terrorist groups. Federal agents in the Washington, DC area arrested 34 year-old Pakistani-American Farooque Ahmed on charges of conspiring to carry out multiple terrorist attacks on the Washington Metrorail stations. According to court documents, Ahmed was the target of a six-month sting operation and believed that he was working with individuals connected to al-Qaeda.

According to an affidavit submitted to the courts, Ahmed first came to the FBI’s attention in January 2010 when he was “inquiring about making contact with a terrorist organization in order to participate in jihad by travelling overseas with an unnamed associate” It then took agents until April 2010 to establish some sort of cover story by which to lure Ahmed into meeting someone whom he believed was “a representative of a terrorist organization.” This was the first of a number of meetings in which Ahmed met with individuals whom he believed were members of Al Qaeda and with whom he apparently believed he was conspiring to conduct a multiple bombing on the Washington, DC subway system.

In the process of the investigation, Ahmed is reported to have declared a desire to strike a subway station frequented by U.S. military personnel, to have suggested that they use trolley bags as more effective purveyors of explosive than rucksacks, and to have expressed a desire to go and fight in Afghanistan in January 2011 after going on Hajj to Saudi Arabia. When he was finally arrested on October 25, Ahmed was accused of “attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization; collecting information to assist in planning a terrorist attack on a transit facility; and attempting to provide material support to terrorists.”

While the court documents make for pretty damning reading, it is worth remembering that they remain unproven in a court of law. It also seems as though Ahmed was the only actual plotter in a network of up to four or so people – the others were either not as involved as him or were undercover agents. Which does raise some questions about how much Ahmed was seeking to be a terrorist or how much he was spurred on and entrapped by the team of undercover agents who had deployed against him.

On the one hand, it is hard to know whether this is relevant or not – Ahmed seems to have been caught bang to rights and was apparently seeking to go and fight abroad even before the FBI became involved. But at the same time, would he necessarily have attempted to carry out a terrorist attack if he had not encountered the undercover agents masquerading as Al Qaeda operatives?

This is not the first time that the FBI has seemingly caught such hapless plotters. In other instances, the plotters proceeded much further than Ahmed apparently did – but the fact they are caught in these ways diminishes the sense of threat from them. From an observer’s perspective it seems hard to understand how individuals would be so gullible as to believe that some random person they have encountered is genuinely a terrorist plotter and that they are willing to trust them so completely. One can only assume that the federal agents are very good at their jobs.

It remains to be seen whether Ahmed is guilty or not. In court, he was reported as sporting “a full beard” and “shook his head and let out a deep sigh in apparent disbelief as the charges against him were read. ‘Yes, yes,’ Ahmed said, as the judge told him the charges were serious.” For British observers there is a connection in press reports that indicate that his wife was from Birmingham and a neighbour who recalled that Ahmed might have been brought up in London before he moved to the US at 17 years old.