Was Usaama Rahim entrapped by the FBI?

The question of FBI entrapment of young Muslims.

A funeral service for Usaama Rahim, at a mosque on Shawmut Avenue [Getty]
A funeral service for Usaama Rahim at a mosque in Boston [Getty]

On June 2, several police officers and FBI agents approached and then killed Usaama Rahim, a 26-year-old Black Muslim man, in Boston.

Rahim posed an imminent threat to public safety, the FBI claimed, pointing out he was brandishing a large knife at the time he was shot. Rahim was allegedly involved in an ISIL-inspired violent campaign to decapitate police officers. A federal affidavit alleges that Rahim made a telephone call, recorded by the FBI counterterrorism task force, in which he discussed his deadly plan.

This is at least the fourth dramatic FBI counterterrorism operation in just the past two months.

In April, the FBI accused two Brooklyn women of working with ISIL, two Kansas men of plotting a suicide attack at an army base, and a Philadelphia woman of trying to join ISIL.

The future of mass surveillance – The Listening Post

Now the FBI says, Usaama Rahim represented yet another dangerous ISIL operative that their counterterrorism task force stopped just in the nick of time.

Utterly shocked

Rahim’s family says they were utterly shocked by the accusation that their relative was a “radicalised” fighter, and they have demanded a thorough explanation.

The violent end to young Rahim’s life has drawn new attention to the FBI’s controversial counterterrorism operations.

Some critics say the FBI is out to entrap young Muslim Americans into fake “terrorism plots”. For the past decade, the FBI has sought to actively disrupt violent plots before they happen. This has led the FBI to employ thousands of nefarious confidential informants across the country. These informants are paid large sums of money to “discover” violent plots.

Nearly all of the incipient plots allegedly uncovered by FBI informants have involved young, Muslim American men, like Rahim.

Even though study after study shows that Muslim Americans are less dangerous than the average American, the FBI and its local law enforcement partners continue to single out Muslim communities for unwarranted scrutiny.

Nearly all of the incipient plots allegedly uncovered by FBI informants have involved young, Muslim American men, like Rahim.


Indeed, over the past 10 years right-wing activists have proved to be far more dangerous than Muslim Americans.

Still, the FBI seems to reason that the places where informants are most likely to overhear chatter about “terrorism” are places where Muslim Americans gather for coffee, to share a meal, or to pray.

After befriending a dangerous would-be attacker, the FBI informant will usually “observe” as the violent plot develops.

Meanwhile, the FBI can provide money, even fake bombs, and guns to support the violent campaign.

To establish intent, the informant surreptitiously records conversations where the alleged fighters express a clear desire to go through with an attack.

Dramatic arrest

Then, after the suspect takes a final action, like pressing a fake detonation button, FBI agents swoop in and make a dramatic arrest.

The press conferences that typically announce the arrest, often feature public officials who expand on the carnage that would have resulted if the fake plot had been real.

In news reports, we see photos of the young Muslim man next to the word “terrorist”. Naturally, the FBI downplays the role of their informants. In short, all we usually hear reported in the media is the simple story that the FBI successfully prevented another horrific attack.

Undated self portrait of Usaama Rahim [AP]
Undated self portrait of Usaama Rahim [AP]

Last year, Human Rights Watch called this FBI programme “abusive”, and in a 214-page report found that the FBI is “alienating” Muslim American communities.

Similarly, a 2012 study from New York University found that more than 100 people have been ensnared in FBI sting operations, where the FBI creates their own attacks and “foils” them to justify its $3bn annual counterterrorism budget.

Investigative journalist Trevor Aaronson, who wrote a book about the FBI “terror factory”, found that the vast majority of suspected American fighters since 9/11 came out of this FBI programme.

Terrorism plots

In his recent TED talk, Aaronson shows how “the FBI is responsible for more terrorism plots in the United States than any other organisation”.

In addition to these studies, documentary film-makers have begun to turn their attention to this FBI programme as well. HBO’s The Newburg Sting and independent film (T)ERROR each show the disturbing ways that the FBI has endangered US civil liberties.

Despite these criticisms, the FBI programme shows no signs of slowing down. The Department of Justice has been fully supportive.

In 2012, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking to stop FBI informants from entering mosques because sometimes, he reasoned, it is necessary to “sacrifice individual liberties for the sake of national security”.

None of the small number of defendants who argued that they were entrapped by the FBI has successfully convinced a jury.

In short, despite the controversy surrounding Rahim’s death, this FBI programme seems set to continue indefinitely. As the investigation continues, it is worth remembering that Rahim’s encounter with the FBI is not unique.

There is little evidence to support the claim that ISIL was involved in setting up Rahim’s violent plot. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the FBI was involved in setting up Rahim. 

Erik Love studies civil rights advocacy in the United States, and is the author of ‘Islamophobia and Civil Rights’. He is assistant professor of sociology at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.