When Ahmed Abassi arrived in the United States for the first time in March 2013, the Tunisian student settled into a historic, neo-Gothic apartment building in Manhattan’s Financial District.
Unknown to him, the apartment was wired with audio recording devices, and Abassi’s American host was an undercover FBI agent. Abassi, then 26 and suspected of terrorism ties, had landed in an FBI sting, part of an elaborate operation that stretched from New York to Quebec City to a small town in Tunisia.
Abassi was caught on tape discussing “the principle that America should be wiped off the face of the earth,” with people he believed to be co-conspirators, one of whom was the FBI agent, according to court records. At one point, Abassi suggested “putting bacteria in the air or in a water supply.”
But last month, Abassi, who declined to be interviewed, pleaded guilty to relatively minor charges that did not include any terrorism enhancements that could have sent him to prison for years, and he is not contesting a deportation order.
The case was a rare setback for the FBI and federal prosecutors, which have successfully targeted suspected terrorists using sting operations, typically ending with the defendants about to embark on what they believe is a terrorist attack with fake weapons or bombs supplied by the bureau. Guilty verdicts and long prison sentences follow.
According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, nearly 50 percent of the more than 500 federal counterterrorism convictions since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have “resulted from informant-based cases; almost 30 percent of those cases were sting operations in which the informant played an active role in the underlying plot.”
Among the more prominent prosecutions, a Moroccan man was convicted for planning a suicide bombing at the Capitol. Amine Mohamed El Khalifi, an illegal immigrant who lived in Alexandria, was arrested wearing a suicide vest that he believed to be real and had been provided by undercover FBI agents. In Portland, a Somali-American was convicted of planning to remotely detonate an 1,800 pound bomb at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony. The device was, in fact, inert and had been supplied by the bureau. In one 2009 case, the FBI arrested a group of men in New York state — the “Newburgh Four” — and charged them with plotting to blow up a pair of synagogues in the Bronx with fake bombs provided by an informant.
Human rights groups allege that the government is making terrorists out of people who otherwise would not have the ability or the will to move forward with an attack. “The government pursues people with mental or intellectual disabilities or people who are desperately poor with an aggressive informant or undercover agent to get them to agree to commit terrorist acts,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Washington office.
And the use of sting operations has also drawn some criticism from the bench. In the Newburgh case, the federal judge said the government “made them terrorists” and said the “buffoonery” of one of the defendants was “positively Shakespearean in scope.”
But no defendant, including in the Newburgh case, has successfully claimed in court that he was entrapped by overzealous investigators.
At a recent security forum in Aspen, Colo., former FBI director Robert Mueller defended the bureau’s tactics against charges of entrapment. Mueller said agents and prosecutors go to great lengths to make sure they do not cross that line.
“We know at the outset that anytime we do this that the defense is going to be entrapment and there has to be substantial predication to get over that hurdle,” he said. “It’s been the defense in probably dozens of terrorism cases that have been tried since Sept. 11. And I challenge you to find one of those cases in which the defendant has been acquitted asserting that defense. I don’t believe there is one out there.”
Abassi was arrested last year and charged with two counts of fraud and misuse of visas to facilitate an act of international terrorism. Federal prosectuors in the Southern District of New York withdrew the terrorism enhancements against Abassi before they could be adjudicated, and some activists said an entrapment defense might have tested the government’s winning record.
An FBI spokesman in New York declined to comment.
Abassi was more talker than terrorist and resisted attempts to move beyond words to direct action, according to his attorney, Sabrina P. Shroff, a federal public defender. She described the case against her client as a failed entrapment in which the government attempted to prey on Abassi’s “bad thoughts and bad speech.”
Abassi first came to the attention of the FBI in Canada, where he was studying for an engineering degree at Laval University in Quebec City, according to court records. His family said his sister followed him to Canada, where he also met and married a Tunisian woman.
Among Abassi’s new circle of friends was Chiheb Esseghaier, a doctoral student. The FBI and Canadian authorities began to suspect that Esseghaier and Abassi were part of a terrorist cell, according to court records.
Esseghaier introduced Abassi to a man from New York, Tamer El Noury, who said he was born in Egypt and had immigrated to the United States when he was a child. He looked like one of Abassi’s favorite performers, a Syrian singer named George Wassouf. The two got along famously. When in Quebec, Noury came to Abassi’s house to eat.
Neither Abassi nor his wife, Yousra, ever suspected that Noury was an FBI agent.
“We had no idea,” his wife said in an interview.
The New Yorker appeared wealthy and said he ran a successful real estate company in the city. As a wedding gift, he said he would pay for Abassi and Yousra to visit Manhattan, she said.
Abassi declined the invitation, and instead he and his wife flew to Tunisia in December 2012 to renew their wedding vows. “We danced, we invited all our relatives and friends and we enjoyed together,” his wife said.
The euphoria didn’t last. That month, the Canadians revoked Abassi’s visa without explanation. Officials decided to test Abassi’s willingness to conduct an act of terrorism.
Noury began what Abassi’s attorney described as an aggressive campaign to get her client to come to New York from Tunisia. Cut off from his wife, who was able to return to Canada to finish her education, Abassi seemed determined to secure a new visa so he could return to her side. He wanted to finish his master’s degree, and he had a job offer with a major mining company. But no Canadian visa was forthcoming.
Noury called Abassi’s wife in February 2013.