How Much Rope Do We Give Them?

A flurry of news stories today about the arrest of a 19-year old would-be terrorist in Oregon, of all places.  A Somail-born, naturalized US citizen is charged with attempting to detonate by cell-phone what he believed to be a van packed full of explosives that he parked near a Christmas Tree lighting ceremony in Portland.

The defendant thought he was in contact with terrorists in Pakistan who were providing him with assistance and direction.  In fact, he was in contact the entire time with FBI agents who posed as terrorists.  As such, while the teen may have thought that he was part of a larger terrorist plot and organization, in reality he was acting alone, without aid or direction from anyone other than the FBI.
It’s an awful story that very easily could have turned out tragically, but as is often the case, it got me thinking.
The FBI indicated that they were monitoring the young man already, and when his attempt to contact people in Pakistan failed, they saw the opportunity to jump in and pose as the people he was trying to contact, providing him with support in his plans.  
What would have happened if, instead, the FBI had posed as those same terrorists, but had come up with a way of dissuading Mohamed Osman Mohamud from going further in his plans?  What if they had attempted to tell him that his plan wouldn’t work, that they didn’t have the resources to pursue his idea?  What if Mr. Mohamud had hit a brick wall instead of agents interested in helping him with his plan?
One possibility is that Mr. Mohamud would not have been dissuaded, and would have continued to seek to make contacts or pursue plans of his own to carry out a terrorist attack.  The FBI was already monitoring him, and I’m assuming that they would have continued to do so.  Odds are very good that the ending would have been very similar – they would have foiled his efforts, and he would be in the same custody that he is now.
The other possibility, however, is that Mr. Mohamud might have changed his mind.  He might have interpreted the dissuading comments of his alleged terrorist comments as evidence that he needed to stop.  The NY Times article seems to indicate that he is a man of some level of faith (because he is alleged to have questioned the depth of his faith), as does his repetition of Allahu akbar (‘God is great’ in Aramaic) when he was arrested.  What if his dead-ends had driven him to a spiritual epiphany that this is the wrong course of action?  The NY Times article indicates that FBI officials claim they offered him several non-lethal ways of being involved in a terrorist plot, including prayer.  
I don’t mean to sound Pollyanna-ish.  I am well aware that there are plenty of very mean and violent people out there fully capable of doing what Mr. Mohamud desired – and attempted – to do.  But at least some of those people I also believe never carry out their actions.  They never have the right opportunity.  They may wander through their lives as angry, bitter people.  But there’s nothing illegal about being angry and bitter.  At least not yet.  
Obviously Federal officials believed Mr. Mohamud to be a credible threat, and this belief certainly seems to have been on target.  But it was on target in at least partly if not in large part because Mr. Mohamud received the spiritual, emotional and material support to act on his anger and hatred.  I just wonder if he had been dissuaded more forcefully, if he might have changed his mind and lived out his life in a very different manner.  It would seem that there wouldn’t be any harm in at least attempting this course of action.  This would be very different than talking up plans for a terrorist act with someone and then questioning whether or not they have the guts or desire to go through with them, offering them less fanatical options for dealing with their frustrations or anger or hatred.  
I’m glad either way that Mr. Mohamud did not succeed.  I am thankful for the work of our government in stopping such threats from actualizing themselves.  I just wonder at times if there aren’t more options to choose from in dealing with these threats.

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