Over the past several months, grassroots jihadists launched an unusually high number of attacks against Western targets. Most of these attacks were in response to the Islamic State's repeated requests for individuals to carry out strikes abroad, though it is worth noting that the perpetrators of the shooting at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were grassroots supporters of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
While most of these attacks were comparatively limited in impact, their frequency and ability to generate heavy media coverage have put Western security and police agencies on edge. In response, security forces have stepped up their efforts to identify, locate and, if possible, arrest grassroots jihadists before they can emigrate to join the Islamic State on the battlefield or conduct domestic attacks at the group's behest. Security and police agencies are increasingly relying on the sting operation to mitigate these threats.
Sting operations are a long-standing law enforcement tool. They often play out in what is known as a "buy-bust scenario," in which a suspect engages an undercover law enforcement officer in an attempt to buy or sell contraband. Such operations deal with many prohibited or regulated items, including drugs, small arms and, in some extreme cases, more dangerous weapons such as man portable surface-to-air missile systems. Sting operations are also used to crack down on illegal or illicit services such as prostitution, money laundering and murder-for-hire schemes.
For agents already working undercover as drug dealers or contract killers, posing as jihadist operatives and pursuing would-be grassroots terrorists is a relatively straightforward step.
The first phase of a sting operation is identifying a person who poses a potential threat. Leads may come from an informant, a member of the community or even close family. In many cases, the subject will make inflammatory or threatening statements on social media, or they may even have reached out to a known terrorist entity. If the individual is deemed a potential threat, the law enforcement body conducting the operation may choose to proceed with a preliminary inquiry.
Should this preliminary inquiry indicate that the individual in question does indeed pose a threat, the authorities will open a formal investigation utilizing more resources. Investigators assigned to the case will also begin discussing the matter at hand with a prosecutor who, in the United States, would most likely be an assistant U.S. attorney. The involvement of a legal professional ensures that the operation is conducted lawfully and avoids entrapment while guaranteeing that the criteria required to successfully take the case to trial are met.
Under the prosecutor's direction, the informant or law enforcement officer will attempt to make contact with the subject, if they have not already. This initial contact can be made in person, through an informant or via an agent inserted into the community. Contact can also be made through social media. Recently, law enforcement has increasingly relied on electronic approaches, whereby an informant poses as a jihadist living overseas. The "overseas" contact will often put the subject in touch with a second party who is posing as a local jihadist operative.
The informant will attempt to document all contact with the subject, either by recording conversations or logging emails and electronic chats. During interactions, the informant will frame the discussion in a manner that ensures he or she can demonstrate that the subject knowingly intends to break the law. The informant will often ask the subject to take an oath of allegiance, then get them to clearly identify the target they want to attack and explain why. Documenting the subject's intent and motivation will make claims of entrapment during the trial more difficult for defense attorneys. Through experience in questioning arrested jihadist recruiters and planners, law enforcement and security officers have obtained a solid understanding of how real terrorist recruitment happens. The approaches informants take most often are not unlike what a real terrorist operative would do.
In addition to an oath of allegiance and a statement of intent to conduct an attack, the prosecutor will normally want to see one or more overt acts to prove the subject is not all talk. Such actions can include conducting pre-operational surveillance of a target, acquiring weapons or bomb-making components, or purchasing an airline ticket to a conflict zone. When the prosecutor is satisfied that the investigators have the elements required for a prosecution, the subject is arrested and charged.
The March 25 arrests of Hasan and Jonas Edmonds provide a good case study of how a sting operation works. Hasan Edmonds drew attention after posting pro-Islamic State material on his Facebook account. After an informant posing as an overseas Islamic State member sent him a friend request, the two began talking using another, more secure method. Later the informant introduced the Edmonds cousins to a second informant purporting to be a U.S.-based Islamic State operative. The second informant was able to record the two as they elaborated on their plans for Hasan to travel overseas to fight with the Islamic State while Jonas carried out an attack in Illinois.
Interrupting the Cycle
Critics of sting operations often assert that those targeted are inept or mentally disturbed. While it is true that jihadist groups have a long history of attracting and recruiting such people, it does not mean the risks are less. Indeed, past incidents have demonstrated that people who may appear to be bumbling, naive or inept, such as Richard Reid or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, can pose a very serious threat if they are recruited by a terrorist operative who directs them and provides them with the means to conduct an attack.
One goal of sting operations is to intercept the target during the recruitment cycle and ensure the aspiring terrorist makes contact with a law enforcement officer or informant instead of a real terrorist operative. A second, related goal is deterring people from trying to conduct attacks or reaching out to terrorist groups in the first place. Obviously, dissuading people from conducting attacks is a better outcome overall, but if this is impossible, having them attempt to conduct an attack using their own limited skills is better than allowing them to be equipped by a professional terrorist. As Stratfor has previously written, grassroots operatives who have been trained and equipped by professional terrorists are more dangerous than those who have received little or no training or support.
Grassroots terrorist attacks will continue to be a persistent, low-level threat, and as long as that threat endures, law enforcement and security agencies will continue to employ sting operations as a tool to help mitigate and abate it.