Liars for Hire: The Alchemy of Provocation

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For reasons the FBI has yet to disclose, in 2009 the Bureau became interested in a young man named Sami Samir Hassoun, who had immigrated to the United States from Lebanon.

Although his family came from a Shia-dominated region of that country, Hassoun was never particularly religious. He was, according to friends, exceptionally intelligent (he attended an elite school, studied medicine briefly, and is fluent in English and French as well as Arabic) and given to boasting.

Chicago restaurant owner Joseph Abraham recalls that Hassoun “wanted to make fast money” and lusted after personal fame. He succeeded in becoming a global celebrity of sorts on September 19 when he was arrested by a throng of FBI agents and Chicago cops after he deposited what he thought was a powerful bomb outside a bar near Wrigley Field.

The device had been manufactured at an FBI counter-terrorism lab in Quantico, Virginia, and supplied to Hassoun by two undercover FBI agents posing as terrorism financiers. The agents paid the young man $2,700 to quit his day job — and promised him a great deal more — to work full-time brainstorming various terrorist plots against targets in Chicago.

“My client didn’t bring anything of his own making to the incident,” maintains Hassoun’s defense attorney Myron Auerbach. “Things were given to him.” Hassoun, according to his friend Joseph Abraham (who knew him as a delivery man for a nearby bakery), had a fertile imagination, a gift for self-dramatization, and occasional difficulty in telling the unadorned truth. All of those traits appear to have worked in unfortunate synergy to get the young man into trouble. There is little in Hassoun’s background to suggest a future career in terrorism, absent the FBI’s intervention. Why did the FBI approach him in the first place?

Hassoun had no criminal record or background in violent or radical groups. According to FBI Special Agent Samuel Hartman, who swore out the criminal complaint against Hassoun, the decision to pair him up with an undercover provocateur was based on "information relating to Hassoun that is unrelated to this matter.” This suggests, at least to hardened cynics like me, that the Bureau was trolling for patsies and learned something about Hassoun that they considered an exploitable vulnerability.

Although he was never particularly religious, Hassoun’s family came from a Shia-dominated region of Lebanon. Seeking to escape the political violence afflicting their home country, Hassoun’s family migrated to the Ivory Coast, only to return after that country experienced one of its frequent military coups before eventually immigrating to the U.S.

Perhaps the FBI’s talent scouts learned of Hassoun’s background and believed it would make him receptive to the Bureau’s standard terrorist recruitment pitch, which lures Muslims into “sting” operations by playing on their understandable resentment toward Washington’s foreign policy.

After Hassoun had been prepped by the FBI’s paid provocateur, he was approached by two undercover agents (identified in the complaint as “UC-1″ and “UC-2″). According to the FBI affidavit, "UC-2 state[d] his purported purpose: ‘want[ing] to change how our country [i.e., the United States] treats our people back home.’ In response, Hassoun stated that he was differently motivated: ‘Mine is a kind of different concept than this.’ Hassoun explained he saw attacking Chicago as a means of creating chaos to gain political control of the city and its sources of revenue."

For about a year, the FBI team of alchemist provocateurs worked to transmute the impulsive musings of an immature college-age man into a “terrorist plot.” At first, he didn’t give them much to work with.

Hassoun’s original ideas, reports footnote 15 on page 10 of the FBI’s affidavit, included the use of a "device that appeared as a toy that when activated would cause a minor explosion that would not cause injury, but would expel tiny notes containing ominous warnings." He also suggested that he and his supposed friends "could design a bomb that would not explode, but be deployed in a manner that it would appear that it was discovered prior to a planned detonation."

While spit-balling proposed "plots" with the FBI’s undercover provocateur, Hassoun repeatedly emphasized his opposition to bloodshed: "No killing. There is no killing." His insistence on avoiding lethal violence extended beyond "civilians" to include the police, as well: "When you hit the police, you don’t kill the police." He was willing to "harm" the police — most likely through humiliation, rather than actual violence — as a way of discrediting them, but he appears to have been resolutely opposed to actual violence. Until, that is, the undercover Feds showed up and started gently guiding him in a more militant direction.

Hassoun’s arrest triggered the predictable headlines and commentary describing yet another daring interdiction of a Jihadist plot by the Homeland’s valiant defenders, oh may they be praised forever. In fact, the criminal complaint specifies (for the most part in footnotes) that Hassoun was not motivated by Islam or any other religion.

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William Norman Grigg [send him mail] publishes the Pro Libertate blog and hosts the Pro Libertate radio program.

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