The four men arrested in the Bronx Wednesday night “wanted to commit jihad,” New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told reporters. Certainly that appears to be the case. The unarmed men, taken into custody after a dramatic scene during which police blocked their escape with a 18-wheeler and smashed the windows of their SUV, stand accused of plotting to blow up two religious centers and using stinger missiles to down US military aircraft at an Air National Guard base. The arrests came after the would-be terrorists placed what they believed to be 37 pounds of C4 in the trunk of a car outside Riverdale Temple and planting two other bombs at the Riverdale Jewish Center. But as it turns out, the bombs were fakes, given to the plotters by an FBI informant, as were the stinger missiles they obtained from the same source.
The case calls to mind earlier foiled plots. Remember the Lackawanna Six? The Fort Dix Six? In both instances, as in many others, the men arrested appear to have been lured in by FBI informants feigning outrage at the US foreign policy and offering to obtain weapons for terror attacks on American soil. In all cases, there’s little question that those arrested ultimately plotted (however ineffectively) to commit acts of terrorism. But would they have done so without encouragement from FBI informants? In other words, is this an instance of effective policing? Or maybe entrapment by an imaginative, but overzealous FBI? Too little is known about Wednesday’s arrests to say one way or the other. But it may be worth your while to read a Eric Urmansky’s February 2008 piece in Mother Jones, in which he explores the concept of “material support” for terrorism, and wonders if we are in effect criminalizing thought by leading disaffected young men along a path they might not otherwise have chosen.