by Michel Seibriger
In June 2011, four men from Newburgh, New York State were convicted on 7 counts to plot a terror attack on a synagogue and a US military base with Stinger missiles, and subsequently jailed for 25 years. The men remain in jail to the present day. However, the act of terror that sealed the men’s fate never took place . Theirs was the most prominent example of , in which the four men were entrapped into committing the act of terror by an FBI informant.
Sting operations feature an informant (oftentimes an ex-convict himself) that approaches individuals he deems to be vulnerable to radicalization. This informant then actively fabricates and promotes a specific terror attack before trying the would-be-perpetrator on precisely those terrorist charges. In doing so, the informant not only provides the brainpower of plotting a terrorist attack but frequently also the logistical and organizational support such as artificial weapons and material to build a bomb.
This new counterterrorist technique emerged in the wake of 9/11 when pressure was mounting on the FBI to justify its increased budget with a higher conviction rate of potential terrorists. As such, the Bureau tried to counteract and combat comprehensively what Donald Rumsfeld infamously dubbed the “unknown unknowns”- that is, terror threats the government did not even know existed. The FBI attempted to imagine a catastrophic terror attack in the future before “[making] sure […] that future never happens”, and thereby working toward the desired, albeit unrealistic.
Crucially, stings carry with them substantial moral and legal pitfalls, only some of which have been discussed in popular discourse. In the case of the Newburgh Four, the defendants were consistently instrumentalised, degraded and entrapped.
Instrumentalisation and degradation go against human dignity and, by extension, constitute a fundamental violation of human rights. The concept of entrapment has substantial legal and moral implications. Its common definition is the manipulation of an individual to commit an act he or she would otherwise have been unlikely to commit. the legal definition is more concerned with proving the defendants’ lack of predisposition to carrying out the attack. Both will be applied to make the case that not only moral standards have been violated here.
To start, the initiation of contact alone warrants scrutiny since it demonstrates the instrumentalisation of the sting subjects. The eleven-month-long operation commenced when Shahed Hussain, a Pakistani migrant with a lengthy criminal history of his own, phished outside of a mosque in Newburgh, a poverty-stricken city just north of New York City. Posing as an outwardly wealthy businessman, the FBI informant got the attention of James Cromitie, a local ex-convict who worked at Walmart. Notably, Hussein later stated that he selected Cromitie as the subject of the operation due to his Arab accent alone. Hong and Szpunar have considered this to be a “weak link” due to the constitutional protection of speech.
The arbitrariness of the phishing methods employed by Hussein is testament to the manner in which Cromitie was instrumentalized for his operation. Moreover, the informant selected a mosque to phish for suspects, indicating a general suspicion towards Muslims that he had already displayed in a previous sting operation. This spatial selection, taken together with the choice of the impoverished Newburgh, clearly demonstrates Hussain’s aim: to find any individual vulnerable to exploitation, increasing the chances of radicalisation into a would-be terrorist. Since Kaufmann defines such ‘instrumentalisation’ as one way to violate human dignity, it seems very fitting to span the conceptual link between the would-be terror attack by a Muslim-American and Hussein’s phishing in front of the mosque. Therefore, Cromitie’s human dignity was violated by his random selection and instrumentalisation for the sting operation.
Next, it is important to consider the defendants’ grave financial dependence on Hussain. This dependence consistently degraded them. As per Webster, the taking away of agency and personal autonomy is tantamount to the degradation of an individual, which in turn violates his or her human dignity. As will be shown, the financial dependence of the men on Hussain qualified for precisely this degradation. Throughout the course of the operation, Hussain exploited Cromitie’s financial hardship on numerous occasions in order to expedite his radicalisation . Having served time before, the promise of some $250,000 in cash seemingly trumped the knowledge of the severity of the crime that Hussein suggested for Cromitie.
That being said, the local man used every chance he had to stall: at one point, he cut all contact with Hussain when his finances would allow him, and only re-established contact after losing his job. This stalling, combined with the fact that he explicitly refused a leading position in plotting the attack, points to the fact that while the man was keen on earning the rewards for his cooperation, he was at the very least hesitant to the proposed plan of blowing up a synagogue. Therefore, by making financial benefits contingent on the carrying out of the terrorist act, Hussein consistently degraded Cromitie because the latter knew he had to, at least incrementally, deliver on promises of radicalisation and jihadism vis-á-vis his “supplier”. The other members were also highly vulnerable and dependent on Hussein. David Williams claimed that the informant promised money to pay for his uncle’s liver transplant and Laguerre Payen was a schizophrenic residing in a crack-house. Hussein was well-aware of the defendants’ hardships and psychological state, yet continued to exploit their vulnerabilities with the lure of financial rewards.
Finally, the case of the “Newburgh Four” provides a textbook example of entrapment. Despite the stalling tactics used by Cromitie, Hussein was adamant about the organisation of the attack and even provided the alleged material to conduct it. The informant even taught the men about jihad and radical Islam in spite of the fact that the Newburgh men (Cromitie had “recruited” the three others) were anything but zealous. Hussain conceived of the plan to attack the synagogue and US military planes alone. At one point, Cromitie explicitly tried to back out, but Hussain responded by falsely claiming that he himself could be killed by fellow jihadists should the attack fail. Even the presiding judge stated that without Hussain’s instigation and planning of the attack, “there would have been no crime here”. Conversely, Cromitie’s actions demonstrate his striking disinclination to carry out a terrorist attack; he would never have done so were it not for Hussain’s coercion to ensure his compliance. Hussain’s tactics thereby fulfill the previously mentioned common definition of entrapment as the manipulation of individuals into committing attacks they would otherwise not have considered, and arguably even the legal definition of a lack of predisposition. As a result, both the violations of human dignity and the way the defendants were entrapped allow for the claim that sting operations are not justifiable as a counterterrorism measure.
Counterterrorism operations are anything but an exact science. Decisions must be made based on incomplete information and the envisioned society of zero risk is arguably still a utopian one. However, in the wake of 9/11, the FBI has consistently attempted to fabricate future crimes by means of so-called sting operations. Preventing a terror attack seems a noble cause prima. Yet, as the case of the Newburgh Four has demonstrated, stings often violate the individuals’ human dignity by instrumentalising, degrading, and entrapping them. In so doing, they run contrary to the stated goal of a more secure country. While this analysis is by no means exhaustive, it aims to provide an important moral discussion of stings that has been astonishingly sidelined in academia. Due to the human rights and legal objections outlined above, it can be said that premeditating future acts by means of sting operations cannot be justified.
 Harris, 2011a
 Hay, 2005: 390.
 Mariani, 2018,
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 See, for instance, Harris, 2011a or Greenberg 2011.
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 Ismail, Shah & Prasow, 2014: 23 & 38.
 Hong & Szpunar, 2019: 319.
 Bartosiewicz et al., 2011: 40; Laguardia, 2013: 193.
 Hong & Szpunar, 2019:
 Webster, 2011: 79.
 Shipler, 2012.
 Harris, 2011b.
 Laguardia, 2013: 197;
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 Harris, 2011b.
 Ismail, Shah & Prasow, 2014: 31.
 Bartosiewicz et al., 2011: 44.
 Ismail, Shah & Prasow, 2014: 31.
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 Laguardia, 2013: 195.
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Michel Seibriger holds a degree in International Relations & International Organisation at the University of Groningen and has completed the Honours College at the same university. Funded by the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation in Germany, he is currently studying an MA in International Peace & Security at King’s College London’s Department of War Studies. His research focus is on Radicalization, Counterterrorism and Human Rights, particularly with a normative lens to it.