On Feb. 17, the FBI announced the arrest of Amine El Khalifi on charges that he planned to blow up the U.S. Capitol Building in a suicide attack.
Authorities took El Khalifi into custody as he was leaving a parking garage where he had been dropped off, confiscating a machine pistol and a vest filled with explosives. Officials then announced the arrest, stating the public was never in danger because the pistol and the explosive vest were not functional.
How did they know? They had provided El Khalifi with his materials.
El Khalifi is an undocumented immigrant from Morocco, having overstayed a visitor’s visa that expired in 1999. He had most recently been living in Northern Virginia, where in January 2011 he attended a gathering at which another guest displayed guns, and talked of how the War on Terror is really a War on Muslims. El Khalifi allegedly agreed and expressed interest in joining armed extremists.
The FBI monitored El Khalifi for almost a year, using informants to set him up with an undercover agent posing as a member of an extremist group in December. The agent, identified as Yusuf, positioned himself as an ally, listening to El Khalifi’s changing plans — he originally wanted to bomb a synagogue, and then a restaurant frequented by military officials — and offering him material assistance in the form of rides and the disarmed gun and explosives.
Critics of the FBI’s sting tactics are concerned these cases are manufactured; while the suspects undoubtedly harbor anti-American sentiment, there is debate as to how many would have acted without the “support” of the FBI. According to a Washington Post article on El Khalifi’s arrest, there have been at least 20 terror-related arrests in the last year, many using sting tactics.
It’s good for critics to raise these concerns. Public attention to possible missteps by law enforcement officers is the best way to keep those officers erring on the side of caution when conducting undercover operations. Officers must strike a delicate balance between protecting the public and ensuring that they aren’t inducing suspects to plot an attack they wouldn’t have attempted without FBI “assistance.”
I don’t much care for these tactics — I would strongly prefer to see a counter-terrorism strategy that relied on tracking suspects and waiting until they started plotting independent of undercover agents, so we aren’t turning dissidents into terrorists — but there is no denying that there is violent anti-American sentiment everywhere, including in the United States.
Although the federal government employs aggressive counter-terrorism tactics, our overall policy on terrorism can be characterized as reactive rather than proactive. Despite the fact that George W. Bush has been out of office for over three years and his successor ran on a platform of change — though Osama Bin Laden and other prominent leaders of extremist groups have been assassinated — the United States security establishment still endorses the language of the War on Terror.
Our government continues to conduct domestic and overseas operations meant to find and eliminate anti-American sentiment without seriously considering whether our foreign policy encourages this very sentiment. We no longer have a president who says extremists “hate our freedoms,” but it is still politically toxic to suggest that we consider our own actions to be part of a comprehensive counter-terrorism policy.
Too many countries still have unfavorable views of the United States. In the Pew Research Center’s most recent poll of international public opinion, Israel was the only nation in the Middle East whose citizens held a favorable view of the United States; citizens of Egypt, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Pakistan and Turkey all had less than 20 percent favorable views toward the U.S.
We need to recognize that as long as there is this much dissatisfaction with us as a country, there will be violent extremists targeting us. And as long as our foreign policy involves maintaining military installations around the world and repeated Middle East intervention, citizens of the Middle East will be angry with us.
Unfortunately, we’ve been involved in the Middle East so long that simply pulling up the stakes and coming home wouldn’t erase all the hard feelings overnight, and our slow development of alternatives to oil means that we have a vested interest in seeing economic stability in the region. This does not mean we shouldn’t continue the recent trend of pulling troops back and using diplomacy before force.
There is currently a great deal of instability in Syria, and the Iranian government is stepping up its showmanship to spite the United States. The prudent path is to stay the course, removing ourselves and encouraging greater involvement from international organizations such as the United Nations and the Arab League.
If not, we will continue to have extremists like El Khalifi on our soil. And someday, we may not be as successful in stopping them.
Mike Emery is a fourth-year sociology student. His political columns will appear every Thursday.