28 November 2010

FBI stops jihadist from killing (but will they get much thanks?)

I feel for Americans, I sincerely do. They’re caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place – between potential terrorist attacks on unsuspecting targets and illiberal laws aimed at preventing such attacks from occurring. Their executive, legislative, judiciary and law-enforcement institutions are committed to protecting citizens from being wantonly murdered by ideological fanatics, yet their often difficult decisions are routinely savaged by cynics, conspiracy theorists, PC zealots and bleeding-heart liberals.

Mohamed Osman Mohamud
Last Friday the FBI arrested an American Somali-born teenager who had planned to detonate a bomb at a Christmas tree-lighting event in Portland, Oregon. The tricky bit is this: it was all a set-up, a sting operation almost from the start. When the FBI were tipped off by a Portland citizen several months ago about 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud’s jihadist inclinations, they sent undercover agents to contact him. What followed was an elaborate play with the actors trying to tease out Mohamud’s homicidal intentions, discourage him from carrying them out, and if that failed, ‘assist’ him in his deluded attempt at glory and vengeance against Muslim-hating infidels. On Friday the drama climaxed with Mohamud pressing the button for the (FBI planted fake) bomb to go 'boom', then wondering why it didn’t as the cops swooped in on him.

Despite the fact that the FBI had thwarted a terrorist attack and saved hundreds of lives, they weren’t exactly inundated with praise. Critics voiced uncomfortable questions. Did the FBI commit entrapment? Weren’t they partly responsible for the whole charade by abetting Mohamud’s plan to indiscriminately kill his fellow Americans? Was this whole thing just the latest in a long line of government sponsored scare-mongering and bigot-baiting?

Unimpressed observers will perhaps see this as a case of FBI chest-beating for a non-success, since the bureau practically led a young, angry, impressionable man by the hand through what could be construed as a manufactured crime (“The FBI planted the ‘bomb’, fer cryin’ out loud!”). But the FBI affidavit clearly shows that while the bureau was indeed shepherding Mohamud’s jihadist agenda – mainly to gather more evidence against him – the motive and poisonous convictions behind it were all entirely his.

No one cheers the pilots who prevent a plane crash, or the park rangers who prevent a forest fire, or the presidents who prevent a total economic collapse. All applause goes to the ones who clean up the shit after it’s hit the fan. Or their names are cursed and persons spat on if they are perceived to be responsible for the shit hitting the fan due to their negligence or incompetence. Their heroism – or infamy – is founded upon the visibility of the event in which they perform their brave deed or stupid cockup. But since it’s impossible for anyone to see the non-occurrence of an event – for example a terrorist bombing – because it was successfully prevented and thus didn’t happen, the people who enacted those preventative measures remain unsung. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan (2007), calls these unnoticed and therefore unappreciated factors ‘silent evidence’.

In 2004 President Bush memorably said, "Terrorists only need to be right once; we need to be right every single time." Without denying the excessiveness of his administration’s pursuit after national security, it’s fair to say that Bush spoke a grim truth. There is no way to tell what path Mohamed Osman Mohamud would have taken if the FBI hadn’t intervened. He may or may not have carried out his hateful mass murder of innocents. But with Thanksgiving Day in America just passed, Portland citizens – and all Americans – should give retroactive thanks to their federal protectors now that Mohamud and the FBI’s interception of his dark plot are no longer silent evidence.


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