Manufacturing terrorists: Fabricating domestic threats to justify foreign policy

May 8, 2024
Graphic: Sydney Criminal Lawyers

Domestic terrorism and a mounting scare campaign about it has hit our TV screens recently, as a 16-year-old Muslim boy who stabbed a priest was branded a terrorist by NSW Police and it then located six other teenaged terrorists, including one as young as 14.

An air of dubiousness has pervaded the operation, as Gadigal/Sydney’s Muslim communities reflect on whether their city has been cast back to when the Tony Abbott government was enacting terrorism laws, accompanied by police raids to provide the justification.

To raise suspicions about the validity of terrorism cases has a clear precedence. The Guardian published details about a case in February, which involved charges laid against a 14-year-old being dropped last October when it became clear that AFP agents had been grooming the boy.

The idea that certain AFP officers had been creating terrorism suspects, to be charged and tried, might easily be dismissed as conspiratorial, or put down to certain officers making misguided decisions.

Yet similar, repeated, cases in the United States tell a different tale.

How about killing a cop?

The AFP investigation that raised eyebrows involved a 13-year-old autistic boy’s parents seeking assistance from Victoria Police in 2021 because their son, known as “TC”, had developed an obsession with the Islamic State.

Police provided the boy with countering violent extremism (CVE) support, while the Joint Counter Terrorism Team (JCTT), comprised of AFP, ASIO and VicPol agents, began a covert operation involving two different personae, suggesting the teen become involved in planning a terrorist act.

Greens Senator David Shoebridge grilled AFP deputy commissioner Ian McCartney in February, who authorised the operation, which included his agents suggesting the boy, with an IQ of 71, might consider building a bomb or even killing one of the AFP’s officers.

McCartney told Shoebridge that the decision to pursue the case in this manner “was not taken lightly”, and that “there were a set of exceptional circumstances” given there was an “escalation of threat” which led to a “need to protect the community”.

But Victorian Magistrate Lesley Fleming found the AFP officers’ actions were “profoundly short of the minimum standards”. They included waiting until the boy turned 14 to charge him to make the offences stick.

“The court found that it was the AFP that was radicalising the child,” Shoebridge said, in addressing the deputy.

“The radicalisation was happening as a result of the actions of your own officers. Do you accept the magistrate’s finding?”

McCartney did accept his agency had acted in this manner.

The American way

Murtaza Hussain in the Intercept mid-last year raised a recent US case that is startlingly similar to the AFP fiasco. He pointed out that cases suggesting terrorists are being manufactured are nothing new in the US.

An example in Massachusetts involved an FBI agent befriending a 16-year-old online and suggesting over the course of two years that he make monetary contributions, US$25 each time, to help fund the Islamic State (IS).

The boy, who had developmental issues, twice pulled out of plans that involved him flying overseas to join IS.

And although he has been charged with funding a terror organisation, it was pointed out that he’d only provided funding to the FBI.

Also, the boy had repeatedly contacted the FBI, attempting to dob in the “terrorists” he was in contact with.

“This law enforcement tactic has been criticised by national security researchers, who have scrutinised the FBI’s role in manufacturing terrorism cases using vulnerable people, who would have been unable to commit crimes without prolonged government assistance,” Hussain wrote.

He also reported on a similar case, in 2016, involving an 18-year-old with serious mental health issues, arrested over a terror conspiracy. The FBI had spent years communicating with him.

Like our recent local case, the boy’s parents in this last case initially contacted the FBI for assistance.

The terrorism assembly line

Human Rights Watch (HRW) produced the Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions report, which documents 27 cases involving US agents failing their duty to carry out impartial investigations.

HRW found that, on a number of occasions, US law enforcement had aggressively pursued “terrorism threats before they even materialise”. Agents overstepped the mark to assist in plotting terrorism and, in two cases, even offered suspects money to engage in the planning.

Issues identified included “targeting people with mental or intellectual disabilities in stings”, obtaining evidence via coercion and abusive detention conditions.

Unsurprisingly, as these operations targeted Islamic adherents, they were having an adverse effect on US Muslim communities.

HRW outlines how, in these cases, the defence of entrapment or being tricked into committing a crime, is available for US defendants. However this leads the prosecution to speculate on whether the suspect had a prior disposition to terrorism and the defence had never been successful.

In the case of the AFP’s grooming of a 14-year-old boy to be a terrorist, he would not have been able to argue such a defence if the charges had stuck because, in Australia, the defence of entrapment is not open to the accused.

However, as in this instance, charges can be dropped if a case appears to involve such provocation.

The supposed terror within

The JCTT carried out multiple terror raids across Western Sydney on April 24, which involved 400 officers being deployed to 13 locations.

Those suspects arrested were teenage Muslim boys aged from 14 to 17, with six taken in and charged.

The public is now being asked to consider that, following NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb deeming a teenager who stabbed a priest a terrorist at 1.35am on the same night, the boy and his close friends made up a “terror network”.

Terrorism became a domestic issue following the 9/11 attacks in 2001 in New York and the 2002 Bali Bombings, in which 88 Australians were killed.

This led to the first wave of terror raids in Australia, while the country lent support to the US-led war on terror on Afghanistan and then Iraq.

In the early 2000s, with the rise of the Islamic State, Australia prevented civilians from leaving the country to fight for IS in the Middle East. Anti-terrorist raids became commonplace.

The question for NSW is whether the grassroots pro-Palestinian movement, which is completely at odds with the government’s official position on the Israeli-perpetrated genocide in Gaza, is causing so much of a headache for authorities, that a terror scare is warranted.

[Paul Gregoire writes for Sydney Criminal Lawyers, where this article was first published.]

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