The foiled terror plot

February 28, 2012 12:55:21 PM PST
Yes it's great that the feds busted up another terrorist plot. The four men now under arrest - three of them Americans -- have thug-like criminal backgrounds. They spent time in prison for drugs and assault--- not the kinds of crimes that would allow them to put on a political prisoner jacket.

It is hard to imagine the hatred that lies within that would spark someone into wanting to blow up a synagogue and a Jewish community center, and then shoot down a military plane at an Air Force Base.

Three of these suspects' recent conversion to Islam clearly carried a convert's fanaticism. And tonight there are many sighs of relief that their weapons were "inert" and that the 37 pounds of material that they thought was explosive was in fact a dud.

But the flip side of this dramatic terror threat thwarted is the very real question of whether these guys were really capable of pulling this off. To read the complaint filed by the feds, and to hear the anecdotes about this quartet, it's hard to imagine them blowing up a paper bag, let alone two buildings and a military plane.

Which begs the question: Was all this the brainchild of the suspects, or did the FBI informant who infiltrated the gang and coordinated the sting operation actually mastermind the entire plot?

We don't know for sure, but there are plenty of bread crumbs along the trail that lead to the latter conclusion.

Our N.J. Burkett, who is in Newburgh up in Orange County, where the plot was allegedly hatched, has talked to the folks who belong to a mosque. Both the Imam and the assistant Imam told N.J. that the FBI informant had been "working" the mosque for two years, asking worshippers if they "had any interest in Jihad."

Is he an informant or an organizer? It's a fair question, and it's not meant to defend for a nanosecond the integrity of intentions of the four men arrested. I'm just sayin'.

Oh, one other thing N.J. uncovered. "When I asked the Imam whether it occurred to any of them to call the FBI," wrote N.J. in a briefing note, "he chuckled and said, 'No.' When I asked why, he said, 'We all thought he WAS the FBI.'"

I've been in organizations that have been infiltrated -- police and the FBI made it routine practice to infiltrate anti-war groups back in the 1960s and early 1970s -- and I understand how sometimes the informants are so crude, so obvious, that people are suspicious from the get-go. Often times, the Capt. Obvious informant is rendered useless by his behavior. Clearly he wasn't in this case, which perhaps says much about the four brainiacs he set up for the sting.

So who is this FBI informant? According to the Justice Department's criminal complaint, the "cooperating witness" (that's what they call the informant) is an ex-con who has helped authorities in this and other cases for at least the past six years.

Turns out he pleaded guilty to some kind of fraud, and was then granted probation in exchange for entering into a "cooperation agreement" with authorities.

Not exactly a guy you'd want your daughter to marry. Or your son, depending on the state where you live.

It's all a dirty business - the people who are busted, the people doing the busting. But you can bet your mortgage the defense will raise this entrapment issue. Of course, if this "cooperating witness" had approached me, or 99.9% of the population, most of us would have told him to jump in a lake and then a large percentage would have called the FBI. I wonder how the feds would have responded? I doubt they would have blown his cover.

We're covering just about every angle of this story tonight at 11 - a story we first reported last night, a story that has now expanded and raised all sorts of fascinating questions about homegrown terrorists (or would-be terrorists, as the case may be), about entrapment, about how many fanatical and hateful people there are out there, and about how difficult it is to infiltrate a real terrorist group, like Al Qaeda.

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We're also following the latest developments in the swine flu outbreak. Several schools are scheduled to re-open tomorrow. Are they ready? Should they NOT have closed?

We'll also have any breaking news of the night, plus Scott Clark with the night's sports, and Lee Goldberg's AccuWeather forecast.

I hope you can join Liz Cho and me, tonight at 11.