Boston-area man Rezwan Ferdaus, 26, has been arrested and indicted on charges of plotting a terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol Building and the Pentagon. Ferdaus, an American citizen — born in America, no less — is alleged to have intended to fly remote control airplanes, purchased from hobby shops, into the targets. It was his apparent hope that the remote control toys — the poor man’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, in this case — would carry explosive devices into the targets, setting them ablaze. As the buildings were evacuated, Ferdaus allegedly hoped to fire into the crowds with assault rifles and grenades.
Should these charges be proven in court, it will be a major victory for U.S. counter-terrorism efforts. But those very same efforts are under attack by those who see closet Islamophobes behind every wiretap and sting operation. The arrest of Ferdaus could prove to be not only a win for the United States in the war on terror, but for America’s peaceful Muslims.
From what is known so far, the detection and arrest of Ferdaus is a major achievement for U.S. law enforcement. Prior to his arrest on terrorism charges, Ferdaus’s only brush with the law had been for a high-school prank where he and friends cemented doors to their school shut. When he radicalized is not yet known. But, apparently after Ferdaus began seeking fellow jihadists online, the FBI began to monitor him.
Indeed, it has been reported that over the last several months, Ferdaus had dealings with FBI agents that he believed were Islamists set on attacking America. Ferdaus, a physics graduate, designed detonators that he provided the agents, and was told these had been smuggled to Iraq and used to kill U.S. soldiers, much to Ferdaus’s delight. Ferdaus then began to request weapons and supplies from his FBI “allies.” He received six AK-47s, several grenades and 25 lbs. of what he believed was C4 plastic explosive. It was then that he was arrested.
This is classic police work. A suspect is identified, contacted, and allowed to incriminate himself before an arrest is made and without public safety being threatened. This is how child pornographers, drug smugglers and gun runners are identified and caught. It’s how stolen goods are traced. Don’t let the modern tools fool you — cellphones, Internet cafes and social media notwithstanding, any 19th-century detective worth their salt would recognize and applaud the kind of work that the FBI put into this case.
Such methods are still controversial for some, but absolutely necessary. Not every terrorism case will benefit from a major break such as the one that benefited Canadian police in 2006. In that case, a home-grown cell of Canadian Islamists were planning a series of bomb and gun attacks on the financial centre of Toronto and the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. A patriotic Canadian Muslim, who became aware of the plan and was appalled, gave up the group. A police sting operation very similar to the one that captured Ferdaus was initiated after the plot came to light, and the attack was averted.
Much of the time, however, the race against terror plots at home will involve determined, focused police work, using every legal and technical resource available to law enforcement agencies. We cannot assume that terror plots will destroy themselves from within. Groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations will call such investigations illegal or Islamophobic. Indeed, CAIR's director of communications, Ibrahim Hooper, suggested that the Massachusetts bust itself was untoward because it was "initiated by the FBI." If illegality is evident, it will surely be brought up before the court and duly considered. As far as the Islamphobic argument goes, it holds no water. Actively seeking out and neutralizing threats to national security before they strike protects America’s peaceful Muslims.
Admittedly, it might not always seem that way — it’s not surprising that 52% of Muslim-Americans feel singled out by the terror programs of law-enforcement agencies. But the same Pew Center poll that reported that figure also reported that 21% of American-Muslims felt there was support for extremism within their community, and a large plurality — 48% — felt that the Muslim-American community leaders were not doing enough to combat that problem.
Into that vacuum, law enforcement must step. It is always regrettable when a citizen is tainted by the radical actions of a member of their community, but it is preferable to the alternative. Ferdaus is allegedly part of a worrying trend, where homegrown threats seek to conduct jihad in the West in support of global aims. On top of the Boston and Toronto plots discussed above, there was also last year’s Portland, Oregon bomb plot, where American citizen Mohamed Osman Mohamud sought to strike the city’s annual Christmas-tree lighting. There is also the case of U.S. Army private Naser Jason Abdo, who sought to follow in the footsteps of Major Nidal Hasan and murder American troops at or near Fort Hood, Texas.
Good police work and a little luck helped prevent all these attacks. It wasn’t just lives that were spared in each case. It was the reputation of America’s Muslim community, who inevitably (and largely unfairly) would take the blame in the aftermath of any homegrown attack. That is something America’s Muslim leaders should consider before decrying successful police operations that weed out the dangerous extremists in their midst.