It wasn’t long after he met the man called Shareef that Khalifa Al-Akili began to sense he was being set up. Within days of their seemingly chance meeting, Shareef was offering to drive Akili, a 34-year-old Muslim living in East Liberty, Pennsylvania, to the local mosque for prayers. Shareef told Akili he was “all about fighting” and “had a lot of resources at his disposal.” But when Shareef began to probe Akili about his views on jihad and asked him if he could obtain a gun, Akili grew nervous. “I begin to try to avoid him, but would still see him due to the fact that he lived two minutes’ walking distance from my apartment,” Akili said later. In January of this year, Shareef showed up with a “brother” who called himself Mohammed and was keen to meet Akili. Mohammed told Akili that he was a businessman from Pakistan involved in jihad. “He kept attempting to talk about the fighting going on in Afghanistan, which I clearly felt was an attempt to get me to talk about my views,” Akili recalled. “I had a feeling that I had just played out a part in some Hollywood movie where I had just been introduced to the leader of a terrorist sleeper cell.”
Out of curiosity, Akili did an Internet search on the cellphone number he’d received from Mohammed. Much to his surprise, he discovered that the man was, in fact, an FBI informant named Shahed Hussain, who had played a pivotal role in at least two major terrorism-related sting operations in recent years. In a lengthy posting on his Facebook page recounting these events, Akili wrote, “I would like to pursue a legal action against the FBI due to their continuous harassment.” He also set up a press conference in Washington with Muslim civil liberties groups to publicize his fear that he was being entrapped. But it was too late. In mid-March, Akili was arrested and charged with being in possession of a .22-caliber rifle at a shooting range several years earlier, an act deemed illegal because of a decade-old drug conviction. Though his arrest was on nonterrorism-related charges, at his bond hearing FBI agents and US Attorneys told the judge they’d seen unspecified “jihadist literature” at his apartment and also alleged that he’d told one of the informants of his desire to go to Pakistan and join the Taliban. The judge ordered Akili held without bail.
“The government is basically saying [the charges have] nothing to do with the informant,” Akili’s attorney, Markéta Sims, told me. “But I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve never heard of someone being charged with felony possession for handling a gun at a shooting range.”
The FBI has employed informants ever since its inception as the Bureau of Investigation in 1908. In 1961 director J. Edgar Hoover established the Top Echelon Criminal Informant Program, in which FBI field offices were instructed to develop live sources in the “organized hoodlum element.” By 1975 the Church Committee found that the bureau was employing more than 1,500 domestic informants. But while the FBI has long used undercover informants to infiltrate criminal networks and build cases against potential suspects, in the domestic front of the “war on terror,” informants have come to play a far more proactive role in surveilling communities deemed suspect by the bureau.
According to the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, there have been 138 terrorism or national security prosecutions involving informants since 2001, and more than a third of those have occurred in the past three years. Nearly every major post-9/11 terrorism-related prosecution has involved a sting operation, at the center of which is a government informant. In these cases, the informants—who work for money or are seeking leniency on criminal charges of their own—have crossed the line from merely observing potential criminal behavior to encouraging and assisting people to participate in plots that are largely scripted by the FBI itself. Under the FBI’s guiding hand, the informants provide the weapons, suggest the targets and even initiate the inflammatory political rhetoric that later elevates the charges to the level of terrorism.