Last Friday, the FBI announced another harrowing, 11th-hour capture of Americans plotting to join “ISIS” and launch attack within the United States. The case of two Illinois men, Army National Guard Specialist Hasan Edmonds and his cousin Jonas Edmonds, ostensibly involved the former going to Syria to join ISIS there while the latter stayed in the US, plotting to attack “scores” at a military base.
Right on cue, the American media publish dressed-up FBI press releases about the “disrupted” plot, complete with balaclava-wearing stock photos: “FBI Disrupts Plot to Kill Scores at Military Base on Behalf of Islamic State” was the Washington Post‘s headline (3/26/15).
These outlets, as usual, omitted the rather awkward fact that this “ISIS plot” did not actually involve anyone in ISIS: At no point was there any material contact between anyone in ISIS and the Edmond cousins. There was, as the criminal complaint lays out, lots of contact between the Edmond cousins and what they thought was ISIS, but at no point was there any contact with ISIS–the designated terror organization that the US is currently launching airstrikes against.
This distinction may seem like semantics, but it’s actually quite important when trying to accurately inform the public–only 40 percent of whom read past the headlines–about the reality of the ISIS threat vs. the fear-inducing media spectacle that so often inflates it.
While less sensational press like the Washington Post and the New York Times are careful to avoid calling the sting operations “ISIS plots,” many outlets turn misdirection to explicit misrepresentation: This MSNBC headline (3/26/15) is fairly typical of how the reader is misled into thinking ISIS is actually involved in these arrests:
National Guard Soldier, Cousin Charged With ISIS Plot
The Edmond cousins weren’t actually charged with an ISIS plot. They were charged with attempting to hatch an ISIS plot, but they are not accused of having any contact with ISIS whatsoever.
In a political environment where only a slight majority (54 percent) currently support the ongoing war effort against ISIS in Iraq and Syria–and soon potentially dozens of other countries–this sleight-of-hand has subtle but tremendous propaganda value. The specter of ISIS constantly trying to enlist dozens of Americans, often for attacks on US soil, is a crucial element in maintaining the current war effort. The media’s inability to point out that these “plots” are almost always entirely of the FBI’s making helps perpetuate the illusion and inflate perceived risk.
The likelihood of Al Qaeda or ISIS launching a massive attack inside the United States is “infinitesimal,” according to the Washington Post, yet a recent poll found 86 percent of Americans now see ISIS as a threat to U.S. security.
That perception, however, is based largely on a myth. The Triangle Center’s report states that publicly available information does “not indicate widespread recruitment of Muslim-Americans by transnational terrorist organizations to engage in attacks in the United States, or sophisticated planning by the handful of individuals who have self-radicalized.”
This trope is also present when reporting on the much-hyped “ISIS social media” army. In a piece headlined “The Lure of ISIS,” Fox News (12/16/14) used two cases, that of Abdella Tounisi and Basit Javed Sheikh, as evidence of Syrian jihadists’ social media appeal–without mentioning that fact that both men, according to the FBI’s own complaints, interfaced almost entirely with FBI-created “jihadi” social media:
The cases involve individuals from all across the country, from Florida to Minnesota to Colorado. They underscore the challenge US law enforcement continue to face, as well as the global reach of recruiters and propagandists from ISIS and other groups.
But the case of Tounisi and Sheikh cannot “underscore the global reach of ISIS recruiters and propagandists,” since the only recruiters and propagandists these men met online were the FBI’s “OCE”–Online Covert Employees. In the case of Abdella Tounisi, the FBI went so far as to create an entire fake Al-Nusra website, complete with a fake Al-Nusra training video and a fake Al-Nusra email list, as the DOJ’s complaint explained.
Basit Javed Sheikh, the 29-year-old North Carolina man, was duped using an FBI-created “Al-Nusra” Facebook page set up by a female FBI employee posing as an “Al-Nusra nurse” in Syria. The “nurse” persona would have other social media accounts, as well as an “Al-Nusra” Facebook page complete with extremist messages, videos, pictures and content–all created by the FBI.
Would Tounisi and Sheikh have sought other “recruiters” online? It’s impossible to say. (Also important to note that Sheikh had fallen in love with the “Al-Nusra nurse” FBI persona, who allegedly promised him marriage in Syria.) But what is clear is that FBI-created extremist social media isn’t evidence that extremist social media is helping recruit Americans for ISIS or Al-Nusra. But media treat FBI ruses that simulate terrorist activities as evidence that the crimes the FBI is ostensibly seeking to prevent are actually happening.
The New York Daily News (3/9/15) would take this perverse logic to a comical extreme last month with this goofy headline:
Adam Johnson, a freelance journalist, was a founder of the hardware startup Brightbox. You can follow him on Twitter at @adamjohnsonnyc.