Saturday, August 27, 2005

Whack A Mole

The federal terror probe in Lodi, CA has taken an odd turn.

In the days after federal agents arrested five residents of Lodi in a terror investigation in June, a clean-cut young man who had befriended the suspects and had spent nights at their homes vanished.

He hasn't been seen in town since, and now members of Lodi's Muslim community suspect they know why: The man, who called himself Nasim Khan, was a government mole, they believe, an informer whose surreptitious tape recordings of one of the suspects are at the heart of the federal probe.

Community members said Khan, who is in his early 30s, sometimes spoke of "jihad" in what they now believe was an attempt to get others to express radical sentiments.

If this sort of entrapment is a genuine attempt to ferret out actual cells that are actually up to something, fine. Having seen for several years now the sheer ineptitude with which these little "sting" operations have gone down -- with little or nothing to show for it all -- color me skeptical. Getting a couple of cranky Muslims to speak clearly into a nutsack microphone, trying to get a couple of inflammatory phrases out of them, doesn't make me feel a hell of a lot safer.

Federal prosecutors last week revealed they had a "cooperating witness" in Lodi. Without naming him, they said he had recorded scores of conversations with Hamid Hayat, a 22-year-old man accused of lying when he denied participating in a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. His father, 47-year- old Umer Hayat, is charged with lying about the same thing.

Hamid Hayat's attorney, Wazhma Mojaddidi, earlier this month received 47 audiotapes made by the "witness" that go back as far as August 2002.

By all accounts, Hamid Hayat and the "witness" were close friends. Several members of Lodi's Muslim community now say that friend was Nasim Khan, and a relative of the Hayats said Hamid Hayat identified the "witness" as Khan after learning of the content of the recordings.

The "witness" appears to be critical to the case. Prosecutors are using him in an attempt to connect Hamid Hayat to terrorism, while defense attorneys and some community members -- who say he was an aggressive provocateur in conversations -- are trying to find out more about him. Whether he is a civilian informant or an undercover agent could affect what information the defense is entitled to receive.

Moreover, his actions provide a look at one of the ways the government has been searching out Islamic extremists since Sept. 11, 2001. Some experts say such surveillance is critical to the war on terror, while critics say it violates people's freedom to practice their religion.

Obviously, it just comes down to whether the Hayats really did participate in the terrorist training camp. But if this is a put-up job, the government is really going to have to rethink their strategy. Putting 100% of American Muslims on edge because you suspect a tiny fraction of a fraction of 1% of them is just counter-productive, especially if they got nothing to show for it.

The 23-year-old mosque member said he saw Nasim Khan a few days after the arrests at a Sacramento mosque that was hosting a lecture on raising children. After the lecture, Khan approached him, shared a plate of meat and rice with him and talked about the federal terror probe.

"He said, 'We should all be on the same page -- we should have the same story,' " the 23-year-old said. "I said, 'I don't have anything to hide.' "

Weird. If this sort of thing is the best weapon in the counter-terrorism arsenal, I sure as hell don't feel safer.


Happenstance said...

Given that the headlines coming out of Lodi started with "charges of anti-American terrorist activities," and that those charges have since dwindled to "uh, er, um, lying to authorities, that's it," ...color me suspicious.

...Say, aren't there any pot-smoking cancer-fighters they can go after?

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