What a Targeted Killing in the US Would Look Like

Warning: Several minutes into this video, graphic images of a corpse appear. Also, the government may start tracking your online viewing if you view this YouTube, as someone started following my mostly defunct YouTube account after I watched it.

On October 28, 2009, the FBI set out to arrest a man they claimed, in the complaint justifying the arrest, was “a highly placed leader of a … radical fundamentalist Sunni group [the primary purpose of which] is to establish a separate, sovereign Islamic state.” The leader of the group “calls his followers to an offensive jihad.” The complaint states the group trained in the use of firearms and martial arts and explains that “Abdullah is advocating and encouraging his followers to commit violent acts against the United States.”

The arrest was staged at a warehouse controlled by the FBI, outfitted with 5 closed circuit video cameras that gave the FBI full visibility into anyone entering and leaving the warehouse, as well as pallets loaded with sandbags to provide cover. Altogether 66 FBI Agents participated in the arrest, with 29 Agents, including a K-9 team and snipers, inside the warehouse itself, along with helicopter cover, another K-9 team, and a control room nearby. Members of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue and SWAT teams participated, with Agents flying in from Columbia, South Carolina and DC via a previous operation in Los Angeles. The team had practiced the arrest scenario up to 10 times before the actual arrest.

The arrest started when the FBI detonated 3 pre-positioned diversionary explosives in the room in which the leader, 4 accomplices, two undercover officers and an informant had been moving boxes (the FBI insiders had already left the scene). That allowed the FBI team, wearing bullet proof gear and helmets, to move into place.

On orders, “FBI, show me your hands, on the ground!” the leader’s four accomplices put their hands up and got down on the ground (for a variety of reasons, the FBI doesn’t have recordings of the audio of the event). The leader hesitated, but then got face down on the ground, though the FBI claims his hands were not visible.

At that point, 62 seconds after the diversionary explosions, the K-9 handler, who had been briefed that the leader was the main target of the investigation, released the dog and gave the “bite” command, the first time he had ever done so in the year he had been a K-9 handler; the dog lunged at the leader’s arm or face. The FBI claims the leader raised a gun and shot the dog three times. One accomplice disagrees, describing that the leader had both hands on the dog, trying to keep him away from his face. Two FBI Agents who admitted shooting their rifles also had Glocks, though of a different caliber than the one allegedly used by the leader. There was no gunpowder residue found on the leader and no fingerprints found on the Glock.

In the next 4 seconds, 4 different FBI officers shot the leader with their Colt M4 rifles (3 were from the Hostage Rescue Team that had flown in for this arrest), set on semiautomatic. He was hit a total of 21 times. He died within a minute.

This was the culmination of a 3-year counterterrorism investigation into Imam Luqman Abdullah, a black Muslim who led a mosque in Detroit. The investigation intensified in 2007 as Abdullah and his associates reacted against the transfer of H. Rap Brown (now Jamil Abdullah al-Amin), who had been convicted of killing two police officers in Georgia in 2002, to Florence SuperMax Prison.

In December 2007, Abdullah appears to have refused an informant’s incitement to violence, saying he would not be involved in injuring innocent people (though in the same conversation, he referred to his followers as “soldiers”).

Then, starting in 2008, a third informant started collecting examples of Abdullah’s violent rhetoric — his disdain for non-Muslims and his call for revolution, his preaching about “being with the Taliban, Hizballah, and Sheikh bin Laden.” That included a lot of promises of specific violence — strapping a bomb on to blow up the FBI — and vaguer plans — bombing Washington. It included a lot of references to having shot people in the past (though Abdullah had only one assault and concealed weapon conviction, dating to 1981, and a prior 1979 arrest for resisting arrest and assault on a police officer). It also included a lot of language that was obviously metaphor and bluster. In a conversation the informant didn’t manage to tape, Abdullah discussed having the informant swear bay’at to his group.

Abdullah repeatedly talked about using violence with the cops. But in March 2008, Abdullah told the informant of being pulled over and not using his guns — because he was at a tactical disadvantage, he said. And in January 2009, the informant was pulled over with Abdullah in the car, and contrary to prior boasts he would shoot cops in such a situation, Abdullah did no more than glare and call the cops Kaffir dogs.

Throughout this period, Abdullah or his followers committed several small-time crimes on their own: arson to collect $20,000 in insurance money, attempting to swap the VIN number on a stolen pickup truck, helping a mosque member who had been involved in a shooting incident (it’s not clear whether there were any injuries) leave town, and possessing and selling guns as felons.

In June 2008, the informant started proposing Abdullah and his followers sell stolen goods he would provide them. In January, 2009, in the first of these incidents, an undercover FBI Agent had the men help him move a shipment of purportedly stolen energy drinks. This was followed by fur coats, laptops, cigarettes, and ultimately by flatscreen TVs, all purportedly stolen but actually provided by the FBI. Over the course of these deals, the FBI provided at least $8,450 to Abdullah and his men for their help (after which Abdullah and his men started buying purportedly stolen goods to sell and profiting that way).

13 days after the arrest and killing of Imam Luqman Abdullah, the surviving 10 followers were charged with firearms charges, VIN tampering, and a conspiracy tied to the FBI sting. They have since plead guilty and been sentenced to a range of sentences, from probation to time served plus one day to 79 months. The indictment made no mention of their alleged Muslim radicalism, though at least two of their presentencing memos mentioned those violent comments and/or their support for H. Rap Brown. Here’s the response of Mohammed Abdul Bassir to his sentencing memorandum.

The Government‘s attempt to use these conversations to taint the reputation of the Defendant is without merit. These conversations have no bearing or relationship to what the Defendant has pled guilty to in this matter. Additionally, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the Defendant the right to engage in private conversations. The Government is suggesting that because the Defendant holds certain beliefs about the American criminal justice system and the Democratic political process, that he is somehow a threat to the national security. What the Government is suggesting contradicts our core Constitutional rights. In effect the Government is arguing that because the Defendant disagrees with certain things in our society then his personal views and beliefs should be used against him for sentencing purposes.

Not once did the Defendant advocate any violence against the United States, nor did the Defendant incite anyone to commit a violent act.

[snip]

Moreover, within the offense conduct, the Government included conversations about the Defendant‘s support for Imam Jamil. The Defendant‘s support for Imam Jamil is irrelevant to the case at hand. The Defendant‘s support for Imam Jamil has no bearing on what he has pled guilty to and should not be considered. The Defendant‘s support for Imam Jamil is Constitutional. It is not against the law for one to raise funds for the legal defense of an incarcerated individual. The inclusion of the Defendant‘s support for Imam Jamil within the offense conduct illustrates just how meritless the Government‘s memorandum is.

The memos also claim the proceeds of the crimes were intended to fund Luqman’s violent mission, effectively attempting to turn theft into material support for terrorism.

In short, to disrupt a group of men the government claims were espousing jihad, that it suggests were criminal because they believed H. Rap Brown had been targeted by the FBI for 40 years, the FBI set up a sting involving selling stolen goods that they would go on to suggest amounted to funding Islamic extremism. At the elaborately orchestrated arrest for that sting, the FBI first mauled, then shot and killed the leader of the group.

Abdullah’s family has sued for wrongful death and the FBI has effectively defaulted by not responding at all, but without knowing the FBI Agents’ identities, the suit remains meaningless.

This is what a targeted killing in the US would look like. Not a drone shooting down a target driving across the desert. But an elite tactical team flown in for the occasion, only to find capture wasn’t possible and lethal force was necessary, with the after-incident report finding the Agents (whose identities and therefore actions will remain classified) genuinely believed they were at risk when they fired.

Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying that Imam Luqman Abdullah’s killing was a targeted killing. But if the Administration does believe targeted killing is permissible within the US, given their overwrought claims about Abdullah, he would qualify. He was a senior operational leader of a militant Islamist group that the government claims had terrorist aspirations (remember, John Brennan has made it clear that imminence is a measure of future threat, not past crimes). The FBI chose to carry out the arrest in the warehouse precisely to avoid civilian casualties. And, MI’s Attorney General found, when they were unable to capture Abdullah without endangering themselves, they shot him. Abdullah would fit the three criteria in the white paper.

This is why the drone and AUMF fallacies are so distracting. If, indeed, the Administration believes it is authorized to conduct the targeted killing of Americans within the US, if indeed they ever carried out a targeted killing, it would look like an aggressive counterterrorism (or counternarcotics) raid; it would look nothing like the Anwar al-Awlaki killing. We, likely, would never in fact know it was a targeted killing rather than a counterterrorism raid gone haywire.

And the Administration refuses to answer direct questions about whether it believes it can conduct targeted killings in the US.

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.

29 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    Based on that, I would describe the FBI as a criminal organization. How is it different from how a drug cartel would treat its rivals?

  2. emptywheel says:

    @Lucas: Not watched, per se. But immediately after I watched this video, someone followed my YouTube account. There’s nothing there to follow.

  3. orionATL says:

    i watched the video. it’s hard to see all that happened.

    66 fbi agents and a helicopter? to arrest four guys they had been following and entrapping for months and months? are you telling me that the fbi did not understand these guys were unlikely to put up a fight?

    siccing the dog on ameen seems a clear, intentional provocation.

    and “fear for their lives”? with full combat gear? a stunning set of explosions? and more firepower than gettysburg? that’s just typical police bullshit.

    and they ended up shooting their own dog in orddr to provide them with an excuse to murder ameen?

    now there a sorry sack of american heroes!

    i’d love to know how many of these guys had been in combat before they joined the fbi.

    this killing can be seen as an easily anticipated consequence of training tens of thousands of americans to be professional killers.

    and of an american anti-terrorism bureaucracy entirely out of control and scraping the bottom of the barrel for terrorist to target (in a manner of speaking).

    you could say this is overkill (in a manner of speaking).

  4. emptywheel says:

    @orionATL: 3 of the FBI agents who shot Abdullah joined in the mid 2000s. I think the veterans end up in SWAT and HRT type positions. So it is definitely possible that 3 were Iraq or Afghan vets.

    The other two had far more experience.[

  5. peasantparty says:

    Thank You SO MUCH, EW!

    Those scarey, horrible, Muslims!(snark) Who hates Muslims more than the US does right now and why has the US come to hate them so?

    The FBI really needs to step up it’s game and be serious. This is not what they are being paid to do. How did they get all their information in the first place without doing the actual leg work to PROVE their suspicions to be true? Take a look at this cause it is being directed at each and everyone of us:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2013/feb/10/raytheon-software-tracks-online-video

  6. x174 says:

    thanks for the video, the background information and for speculating on what the targeted killing of an American (“a highly placed leader”) may look like.

    considering how much the good ol’ usa has changed over the past ten or twelve years, i would be hard pressed to be able to guess what it’s gonna be like in the next ten or twelve years (e.g., 2025).

    the present obsessive fascination with drone technology, cyber-espionage and cyber-sabotage, leads me to imagine the skies filled with drones of every imaginable size and function. i can easily see local police fixated on using drones. hell, the pentagon now gives medals to drone computer jockeys. if armed drones are used inside the good ol’ usa, i would imagine that it would begin with some war on drugs/immigration borderland issue, where the armed drones pursue the “suspected targets” into the heartland of the usa.

    how the military will be used for domestic population control issues over the next decade or so is anyone’s guess. yet some military control of the population seems probable following some catastrophe or staged false flag-type operation.

    however the law enforcement/war on terra landscape unfolds, it seems pretty likely that the situation in the good ol’ usa will deteriorate and become increasingly unstable over the next ten to twelve years–justifying harsh population control measures.

    the wheels seem to be coming off the Constitution pretty fast these days.

  7. Nick Hentoff says:

    “Abdullah’s family has sued for wrongful death and the FBI has effectively defaulted by not responding at all, but without knowing the FBI Agents’ identities, the suit remains meaningless.”

    Could you please provide more information about the lawsuit. I’ve never heard of the FBI defaulting on a FTCA suit. Typically, a lawyer will file a FTCA lawsuit and name the individual FBI agents as John Does. A supervisor might also be named. The DOJ usually does respond and then the judge compels disclosure of the Agents’ identities (confidentiality restrictions can be imposed). There is also a mechanism under the FRCP to conduct limited pre-filing discovery. Why weren’t the agents identities revealed in the trials of the co-defendants. Their identities would have been relevant to voluntariness issues, etc. etc. How was the video obtained?

  8. orionATL says:

    @Nick Hentoff:

    i can’t answers your questions (though they did apparently plead guilty), but your comment does give me an opening to observe that the sentences seemed very light for such way bad dudes.

    i wonder if there was some hush-hush bargaining befween doj and defense lawyers to the effect of light sentences if everybody kept their mouths shut and their (defense) attorneys under control.

  9. orionATL says:

    there’s something about this killing that feels like a mafia or mexican drug killing – a vendetta killing.

    if the dearborn police are involved, one wonders if the fbi was returning a favor which dearborn pd had done for them among arab muslims in that area.

  10. emptywheel says:

    @Nick Hentoff: Trying to figure out myself. THey suit did not name Mueller (or even the supervisors named in the Cox report). And there were no trials–everyone plead out. Besides, the FBI officers in question were mostly out of towners, from HRT, plus one local SWAT guy who works child porn and the like.

    Here’s the suit:

    http://www.emptywheel.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/091027-Luqman-Complaint.pdf

    And here’s the notice of default:

    http://www.emptywheel.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/130115-Default-.pdf

  11. emptywheel says:

    @orionATL: You noticed that, huh?

    Actually, there’s a very good argument to be made none of this should have been federal in the first place. Then again, you don’t get the actual crime unless you have the sting. And the crime itself was charged as conspiracy, not selling stolen goods, so it had to be federal.

    I haven’t actually matched up whether the men got the sentences the Feds suggested. I guess I should do that.

  12. Nick Hentoff says:

    @emptywheel: The first document you linked to was the criminal complaint, not the civil complaint. I have never not been able to identify at least one defendant in a FTCA case so I have not researched the issue of not being able to identify any individual defendants. I can’t imagine why the lawyer would seek a default judgment against unidentified parties. It is a big mistake for several reasons. First, you end the case and foreclose seeking a judicial remedy to identify the unknown parties. Second, how could the default possibly be valid – or ever be enforced against anyone that is identified later since there since there hasn’t been any service or notice of the lawsuit. This is all very confusing. Perhaps there’s some case law that says that notice is presumed against a FTCA individual defendant if the FBI is served?

  13. Teddy says:

    All that equipment brought to bear and the FBI’s audio capacity failed?

    I guess America is really lucky that *NEVER* happens!

  14. peasantparty says:

    @Nick Hentoff: I don’t think the issue of civil versus criminal is what the author was going for.

    Why would the FBI not allow names, numbers, etc to a defense attorney?

    The same reason Obama won’t give up his memos on killing. National Security, Baby!

  15. Nick Hentoff says:

    OK, its been a while since I looked at the case law and I was using the wrong terminology. It was the “Bivens” claims against the individual unidentified agents that was defaulted out. So I am now curious what happened to the Federal Tort Claims Act claim against the United States. I did 5 minutes worth of research and found the following Michigan District Court and Sixth Circuit cases which indicate that the statute of limitations is tolled on the FTCA claim until they discover the identity of the FBI agents, assuming they have done due diligence in making demands and trying to identify them.

    Any cause of action under the FTCA accrues only after the plaintiff (a) knows of his or her actual injury and also (b) knows the actual identity of the individual committing the tort See Liuzzo v. United States, 485 F.Supp. 1274, 1281-84 (E.D.Mich.1980) and Bergman v. United States, 551 F.Supp. 407, 420-22 (W.D.Mich.1982). in Liuzzo, the court found that ” ignorance of the “who” element of causation should, like ignorance of the “what” element of causation, postpone accrual of a cause of action, at least in certain circumstances Liuzzo, 485 F.Supp. at 1281. In Diminnie v. United States, 728 F.2d 301 (6th Cir. 1984), the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit narrowed this rule when it held that “before the accrual of a cause of action against the United States under the FTCA may be deferred because of the plaintiff’s inability to identify the party whose conduct triggered the injury, it must be shown that the United States itself played a wrongful role in concealing the culprit’s identity.”

    Based on this case law the lawsuit should have been able to go forward. All they would have had to do is file the lawsuit, serve the U.S. Government and demand the identity of the FBI agents. ‘ld be interested to learn more about the procedural history of the case and why they haven’t been able to proceed. This looks like it should be a very good FTCA case, particularly if it’s heard before a Detroit jury of Arab-Americans and African-Americans.

  16. emptywheel says:

    @Teddy: Yeah, go figure.

    Apparently NONE of the 5 video cameras had audio (yeah, right).

    And the radios weren’t working bc one of the Detroit officers had his radio stuck on transmit.

    But there were Dearborn police radios that picked up the shots, so all’s good, right?

  17. P J Evans says:

    @emptywheel:
    The FBI must have some interesting equipment suppliers, since the stuff they get always seems to fail at a critical moment.

    Did they buy out Acme after Wile E Coyote retired?

  18. orionATL says:

    i looked at the video again. i was looking for where blood was and wasn’t. where ameen had been shot and had died, against a wall with furring strips and rigid insulation, he was face up with blood around him.

    he was pictured face down, hand-cuffed, and dead with blood on the lower half of his shirt. but when he was dragged in to be by the stack of pallets, i didn’t see any trail of blood.

    according to the tv news report provided by nick hentoff, ameen’s body was found in a trailer with his hands still handcuffed behind his back. could this possibly be normal fbi protocol?

    obviously a warning – just as in mexico.

    aside: i wonder if those american heroes in their battle gear, doing their chreographed “house-to-house-search” urban warfare routine, realized what a blood-lusting, slavering pack of hounds they appeared.

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