The FBI Wanted a Propagandist to Become an “Informant”

In a post focusing on the First Amendment problems with Tarek Mehanna’s conviction for serving as an al Qaeda propagandist, Glenn Greenwald posted the speech Mehanna made at sentencing. Most of the attention paid to the speech has focused on the American icons Mehanna used to situate his own extremism, including Superman, Paul Revere, and Malcom X.

I’m far more interested in this bit:

In the name of God the most gracious the most merciful Exactly four years ago this month I was finishing my work shift at a local hospital. As I was walking to my car I was approached by two federal agents. They said that I had a choice to make: I could do things the easy way, or I could do them the hard way. The “easy ” way, as they explained, was that I would become an informant for the government, and if I did so I would never see the inside of a courtroom or a prison cell. As for the hard way, this is it. Here I am, having spent the majority of the four years since then in a solitary cell the size of a small closet, in which I am locked down for 23 hours each day. The FBI and these prosecutors worked very hard-and the government spent millions of tax dollars – to put me in that cell, keep me there, put me on trial, and finally to have me stand here before you today to be sentenced to even more time in a cell.

In April 2008, Mehanna alleged, the FBI approached him to become an informant.

That they asked a young Muslim against whom they had collected evidence of False Statements to become an informant is no big surprise. We know the government has actually used FISA to find evidence of criminality they can use to persuade someone to turn informant.

What’s interesting is that they spent over a year (they had abundant evidence of Mehanna’s false statements by February 25, 2007) working on setting up Mehanna to be an informant rather than preparing to arrest him.

What’s interesting is that they made that kind of effort with a propagandist.

There is precedent, of course. We know the FBI used Hal Turner as an “informant” for five years, in an effort to entice right wingers to violence. We know there have been questions raised about Inspire, the AQAP magazine that Samir Khan edited (after having been watched by the NC FBI but then allowed to leave the country, unlike Mehanna).

But if Mehanna is to be believed, the FBI recruited him in 2008. When Mehanna said no, the FBI prosecuted him for First Amendment activities.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

19 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    there’s something else here that’s notable – he has been kept for four years in a tiny cell, locked up for 23 hours a day. that is a form of psychological torture for which there is probably no justification.

    notable also is that tarek meehana is an american citizen with first amendment rights that should have allowed him to make the political arguments he made without government hindrance. those rights, it turns out, belong only to those our government allows to have them.

  2. orionATL says:

    the case of american citizen tarek meehana is the other side of the coin of the al-awlaki case.

    where the american government can’t reach an opposing political thinker and writer, it will assassinate that person with a drone missile or kidnap you in order to silence you.

    where the american gov’t can reach an opposing political thinker and writer, it will prosecute and imprison that person in order to silence him.

  3. Jeff Kaye says:

    The US government has shown that it is approaching East German levels of pathology in its quest to find and recruit informers. As I have not been lax in pointing out, it was a primary function of the “exploitation” plan that was the EITs and Guantanamo/Bagram to recruit informants.

    As for the FBI, I recall all too bitterly the same kind of set-up used against Syed Farad Hashmi (from my article almost one year ago (bold emphases added):

    In the first months of detention, family members could visit him together and talk about their visits with friends and family. Fahad had a radio and could receive and read newspapers and magazines. He could shower outside of the view of the camera. His lawyer could talk freely with him and with others.

    … there had been no complaint about his behavior in his first five months at the correctional center.

    But he was not cooperating with American authorities. The U.S. attorney had made it clear that this could all go away if he would. As Fahad explained at his sentencing three years later, “And in all reality, I had nothing to cooperate about.” Much like other forms of torture, his treatment was a coercive punishment for not doing what the government wanted.

    Someone who did “cooperate” was his friend, Junaid Babar, the man with the suitcase full of rain gear. Babar, who was, as the UK Guardian reported, an “American jihadist who set up the terrorist training camp where the leader of the 2005 London suicide bombers learned how to manufacture explosives”, was “quietly released” from prison after serving less than five years of his 70-year sentence.

    The early release was because Babar agreed to become a government informer — or “Supergrass” as the British media puts it. Just last month, a Guardian investigation revealed that Babar’s release came despite the fact that he “still supported the killing of US soldiers and civilians in ‘occupied’ Muslim countries.”

    How do these people sleep at night? Do they really believe they saved lives jailing in extremis people like Hashmi or Mehanna?

    America beware, for these kinds of techniques may be used on Muslims now, but they have been used in the past on the left. Once upon a time, the memberships of both the CPUSA and the SWP were riddled with FBI informants. Sometimes meetings were mostly of informants. We already know in recent times the same kinds of things are happening to peace activist groups.

  4. thatvisionthing says:

    @Jeff Kaye: Ha! Reading a tweet:!/prodnose/status/190721771006205952
    Danny Baker ‏ @prodnose

    Film Idea. N. Korean rocket goes into sea, hits Titanic wreckage, powers it up & it arrives in NY 100 yrs late. Body of Bin Laden is aboard.

    Long way of saying I’m trying to write a reply to your xlnt comment by going through the tons of open windows I have up… looking for something… hopefully I’ll get there… but meanwhile doncha love the postcard? (Thx for all you do.)

  5. ondelette says:

    The day after they arrested Tarek Mehanna, I posted a comment about it on Glenn Greenwald’s site. At the time, I wasn’t sure it was safe to do so, so the comment was prefaced with an “I’m not sure this is the right thing to do” and such, but here is what happened as it was at the time (when he was arrested):

    He lived in Sudbury and had a rather well known fairly abrasively radical Muslim blog online, which was regularly catcalled and yelled about by Jawa Report, who’s probably having a field day with the conviction now. When he finished a doctorate at pharmaceutical school, he got a job in Saudi Arabia, and as he boarded a plane to Saudi Arabia, he was arrested.

    What they had on him at the time was that he had lied to an FBI agent about knowing that a guy named Danny Maldonado had gone to Somalia to fight with the Islamic Courts there and they found out about it both because Maldonado had been driven out by the Ethiopians with the IC into Kenya, and because they tapped his phone and he had told a friend he was worried because he thought he might have lied to the FBI and it might be a crime.

    That was the reason why they originally told him he had better turn informant or he would be in big trouble. The bust wasn’t originally thought to be something his family thought would stick because he was leaving the country for a job, not to do some kind of jihadi stuff.

    At the time, there was no plot of any kind about shopping malls or any other thing.

    Here is one of the articles I saved at the time.

  6. ondelette says:


    Oh, and he wasn’t an al Qaeda propagandist at the time, either. Just a guy who published radical stuff. Nobody had accused anyone of being an “al Qaeda propagandist” yet. Plenty of wingnuts had accused him of being a “jihadi blogger” or a “terrorist blogger” though.

    I knew about his site from collecting information about Aafia Siddiqui, which is probably why I knew about his arrest the night it happened.

    I’m more than a little consterned by the way the charges multiply during the time they are in captivity, with Mehanna, with Majid Khan, and others. For every year in captivity, there are five or six new plots they were integral to, and informants come out of the woodwork.

    I think the government is being lied to, is lying to itself, and is drowning in paranoia. If there are real plots out there, they haven’t got a clue and are going to be surprised by them, while they listen to absolute bullshit about people they have in jail for nothing at all. All this guy did was lie about a phone call and rant on a website. I’d be willing to bet dollars to donuts on that.

  7. Jeff Kaye says:

    @thatvisionthing: Damn if that wasn’t the plot for my long-delayed first novel (so long delayed that instead of the North Koreans, it was the Chinese, and instead of Bin Laden aboard the Titanic, it was Judge Crater).

    You could look it up (as another old-timer used to say).

  8. orionATL says:

    the fbi, or is it the doj, has a new, congressionally created “national security _____” – the translation to german is almost identical to the german meaning of the east german acronym “stassi”.

    our stassi, i would guess, has been the institution within the doj which has produced the great majority of informant-based charges and prosecutions of american-based “terrorists”.

    it occurs to me that this is a dept that can cause a lot of grief in our society without offering many positive solutions.

    the “grief” comes from doj/fbi bureaucrats trying to find, indeed, instructed to find by their superiors, individuals who can be charged as terrorists and then put away.

    the individuals who have been “found” by these fbi teams number now, i would guess, in the hundreds.

    is the nation safer? no it is not, because random individuals with true intent to harm do not respond to either the fbi’s or its informant’s enticements.

    the national security section of the fbi seems to me to be best described as a huge, expensive, bureaucracy which understands full well that it carries these two attributes, and therefore feels obliged to justify its existence by entrapping or intimidating pseudo-terrorists, including intellectuals like mehanna, and young, dumb muslim males enacting aspirational fantasies.

    in short, the stassi section of the fbi is engaged in the business of finding muslims to arrest or use in order to justify its existence and expense.

  9. harpie says:

    Tarek Mehanna’s Powerful Statement As He Received a 17-Year Sentence Despite Having Harmed No One; Andy Worthington; 4/14/12

    It’s official. There is a Muslim exemption to the First Amendment.; Carol Rose; 4/12/12

    David Stone and members of his Hutaree anti-government militia amassed a huge arsenal of weapons, including the ingredients for explosives, and allegedly plotted to kill a police officer and bomb his funeral. A federal judge in Michigan said they were just venting and exercising their First Amendment rights.
    Mehanna, a 29-year-old pharmacist from Sudbury, Massachusetts, emailed friends, downloaded videos, translated and posted documents on the web, and traveled to and from Yemen in 2004.[…]

  10. harpie says:

    @orionATL: I was thinking the same thing, but I made a stupid mistake:

    ACLU of Massachusetts Education Director Nancy Murray contributed the following guest post


    The NYT has only one mention of Tarek Mehanna since 1851:

    Massachusetts: Qaeda Conspirator Is Sentenced

    An American citizen convicted of conspiring to help Al Qaeda was sentenced Thursday in Boston to 17 and a half years in prison. Tarek Mehanna, 29, of Sudbury, was found guilty in December of traveling to Yemen in 2004 to seek terrorism training with the aim of going to Iraq to fight Americans. When that failed, Mr. Mehanna returned to the United States and promoted violent jihad online. He was sentenced on four terror-related charges and three counts of lying to the authorities.

    That’s all they wrote.

  11. Jeff Kaye says:

    One more quote from Mehenna’s statement, apropos of this post, worth further commentary:

    Further, when I was free, the government sent an undercover agent to prod me into one of their little “terror plots,” but I refused to participate. Mysteriously, however, the jury never heard this.

  12. Jeff Kaye says:

    @Jeff Kaye: FYI, for those interested, I’ve turned Mehanna’s comment re the “undercover agent” into a new post:

    Did NYPD “Undercover Agent” Try to Suborn Tarek Mehanna into a “Terrorist Plot”?

    In summary, Mehanna claims he was approached by a stranger in late 2005. This individual on numerous occasions tried to get him to “find American soldiers returning from Iraq (whose addresses he supposedly had) and kill them.” Mehanna subsequently cut off contact with this person because he would not let up on trying to seduce Mehanna into some kind of crime.

    Mehanna wrote that in early summer 2011, his attorney was contacted by an AP reporter who had heard that “two sources within the NYPD had contacted her and confirmed to her that the NYPD had sent an undercover agent up to Boston to ‘befriend’ me, and try to prod me into carrying out a ‘terrorist attack,’ and that I had refused to go along (bingo!).” Mehanna’s attorneys filed a “motion asking the judge to compel the government to disclose these details so that they could be mentioned at trial.” The motion was denied after Judge O’Toole met with prosecutors in a closed hearing (closed to the defense).

  13. orionATL says:


    i’m not surprised at this, just dismayed.

    when i was looking across the internet for stories about the afghan massacre by the american soldier, i was astonished to search nytimes and discover that they had apparently dropped the story after several articles in the initial days (of one of which i am deeply suspicious of its veracity).

    the wall street journal on the other hand kept pursuing the story into the third week.

  14. orionATL says:

    @Jeff Kaye:

    good for you, jeff (and good for mehanna).

    if you haven’t yet, do read carol rose’s article cited by harpie above.

    the nypd’s “radicalization” dogma, which i’d put lots of money on is pure home-brewed social psychology, apparently lies behind the cancellation of first amendment rights for muslims in america after 2004.

    it has all the smell of bad science -pseudo-science employed to reach a foreordained conclusion, lysenko is invited to the land of the free.

    attacking that dogma, attacks the foundation of absurd convictions like mehanna’s, and lays the foundation for appeals and a more robust defense of future attempted extortion of cooperation by our so-slimey u.s. dept of injustice.

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