"The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War on Terrorism" by Trevor Aaronson, former senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Photo | John Andrew Carlton 

The Terror Factory by Trevor Aaronson

In the News

Inside the Terror Factory, Trevor Aaronson, 1/11, Mother Jones.

FBI Sting Operations: Fair or Entrapment, interview with Trevor Aaronson, 1/11, CBS This Morning.

MoJo cover

Cover of the September/October 2011 issue of Mother Jones in which Aaronson's story, "The Informants" was featured. 

Catching or Creating Terrorists?

The Terror Factory by Trevor Aaronson

Are We Catching Terrorists?
  Or Creating Them?


In "The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism" (Ig Publishing, January 15, 2013), Schuster Institute Senior Fellow Trevor Aaronson analyzed more than 500 federal terrorism prosecutions over ten years and found reason to question whether U.S. law enforcement is actually creating the very enemy we fear.

Aaronson found that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has, "under the guise of engaging in counterterrorism since 9/11, built a network of more than 15,000 informants to infiltrate Muslim communities and ferret out would-be terrorists. The Bureau then provides the means necessary for these would-be terrorists to move forward with a terrorist plot—in some cases even planting specific ideas for attacks."

Few Americans, Aaronson says, realize that “since 9/11 just one organization—the FBI—has been responsible for hatching and financing more terrorist plots in the United States than any other. Not  Al Qaeda, the terrorist network founded by Osama bin Laden and responsible for the 2001 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Not Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Al-Shabaab, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Not any of the other more than 40 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations.”

"The FBI spends $3 billion every year on counterterrorism, more than it spends on organized crime," says Aaronson. "Some of their counterterrorism activities involve years-long sting operations, and informants working them can receive $100,000 or more for their work."

Aaronson reports that through these elaborate and expensive sting operations involving informants and undercover agents posing as terrorists, the FBI has arrested—and the U.S. Justice Department has prosecuted—dozens of men who government officials say posed terrorist threats. He says evidence suggests, however, that some of those under FBI scrutiny did not have the capacity for terrorism were it not for FBI undercover agents providing the means, including weapons and logistical support.

During his period of investigation, Aaronson says he "gained extraordinary access to the high-ranking FBI officials who were in charge of transforming the FBI from a law enforcement organization into an intelligence agency focused on ferreting out who they thought were would-be terrorists."

CBS This Morning with Trevor Aaronson
In advance of the launch of his new book, Aaronson was interviewed with former FBI Assistant Director John Miller on CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose, January 11, 2013.

Aaronson’s other findings include:

  • In the 10 years following 9/11, the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department indicted more than 150 people following sting operations involving alleged connections to international terrorism. Few of these defendants had any connection to terrorists, publicly available evidence shows, and those who did have connections, however tangential, did not have the capacity to launch attacks on their own.
  • Of these defendants caught up in FBI terrorism sting operations, an FBI informant was the person who led one of every three terrorist plots, and the FBI also provided all of the necessary weapons, money, and transportation.
  • Following a post-9/11 presidential mandate to increase human intelligence, the number of FBI informants swelled to 15,000, according to FBI sources. The increase in informants was so dramatic that the FBI created a new software package to help track and manage its army of snitches.
  • Some of the FBI’s informants have strong financial incentives to find alleged terrorists, with the FBI rewarding them with $100,000 or more per case. Other informants are coerced into cooperating with the FBI for fear of deportation or criminal prosecution, records show.

On January 15 in a Portland, Oregon federal courthouse, a trial begins against Mohamed Osman Mohamud who the FBI accuses of trying to detonate a car bomb at the Pioneer Courthouse Square Christmas-tree lighting ceremony in 2010. Mohamud is one of more than 150 defendants caught in recent FBI terrorism sting operations.

In pre-trial coverage, the Willamette Week, a Portland weekly newspaper, says authorities “will portray Mohamud’s arrest as yet another victory in their fight against terrorism” while his “defense will argue that it was the FBI that put a phony detonator in his hands, gave him cash to buy materials (and even paid his rent) while nudging him toward the actions he would have never taken on his own.”

The Willamette Week article includes an excerpt of “The Terror Factory” in which Aaronson explains how the FBI approached Mohamud, some of which is reproduced here:

“The FBI believed that Mohamud had tried, but failed, to contact terrorists in Pakistan by email. An FBI informant then emailed Mohamud, pretending to be part of the terrorist group he’d reportedly been trying to reach, claiming to have received Mohamud’s email address from the man he was trying to contact in Pakistan. The email read, in part and in all lowercase letters: ’sorry for the delay in our communication, we’ve been on the move… are you still able to help the brothers?

“Mohamud replied to the email, but was skeptical. Mohamud wanted ‘to make sure you are not a spy yourself,’ he wrote, and asked how the email’s author knew the man he’d been emailing. The undercover agent said he’d heard about Mohamud and received his email address from a mutual acquaintance, explaining cryptically that ‘a brother from Oregon who is now far away vouched for you.’ Mohamud agreed to meet with the man he believed was a terrorist in Portland on July 30, 2010.” 

“The Terror Factory” is an outgrowth of work Aaronson did while an Investigative Reporting Fellow at University of California Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism in 2010-11. There, he researched and reported on this topic; those efforts culminated in the publication of “The Informants,” his September/October 2011 cover story in Mother Jones for which the magazine received an international Data Journalism Award for the investigation. (Here are the story’s interactive database and accompanying data graphic displays.) In “Behind the Story: MoJo’s Investigation of Terrorism Informants,” Aaronson describes how he did his reporting.

Aaronson earned four individual awards for this story—the Molly Prize, a John Jay Criminal Justice Reporting Award, a Western Publications Association Maggie Award, and an award from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter. He was also named as a finalist for the Livingston Awards, which recognize journalists under the age of 35.

Reviews of Aaronson’s book include those from former FBI supervisory agent James J. Wedick, who said Aaronson “explains just how misguided and often deceptive FBI terrorism sting operations have become.” Lowell Bergman, former “60 Minutes” producer and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who mentored Aaronson as he began reporting on the FBI, calls "The Terror Factory" “investigative reporting at its best.” In a starred review, Publishers Weekly described the book as “compelling, shocking, and gritty with intrigue.”

Since his first article, Aaronson has discussed the Bureau’s controversial counterterrorism tactics on a wide array of news programs, including NPR’s All Things Considered, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, This American Life, Democracy Now!, RT America, and Al Jazeera Americas, among others.

Upcoming Events: Trevor Aaronson talks about "The Terror Factory"

January 21, 2013, 7:30 p.m.
Powell’s City of Books
1005 West Burnside Street
Portland, OR

January 23, 2013, 7 p.m.
City Lights Books
261 Columbus Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94133
A conversation with Monika Bauerlein, co-editor of Mother Jones magazine. C-SPAN’s Book TV will film this event.

January 30, 2013, 7 p.m.
Politics and Prose
5015 Connecticut Avenue Northwest
Washington, DC 20008

January 31, 2013, 6:15 p.m.
Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute
435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10025
Book launch event hosted by Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, Council on American-Islamic Relations-New York, and National Lawyers Guild-New York.

February 4, 2013, 7 p.m.
The Half King
505 West 23rd Street
New York, NY 10011

February 6, 2013, 6:30 p.m.
St. Joseph’s College
245 Clinton Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11205
A conversation with Betsy Reed, executive editor of The Nation magazine.

Visit Aaronson's website for additional appearances.