A court issued a harsh verdict last month, saying that the FBI had employed a “villain” of an informant to trick a group of Muslim men into helping with a fake plot to blow up military jets and synagogues in the New York suburbs. When asked who the “real lead conspirator was,” she said, “the United States.” She then issued an order to get three inmates released.
A guy who was convicted in another sting orchestrated by the same FBI agent now says he believes the ruling would cause prosecutors in the United States to reevaluate the legality of similar counterterrorism operations implemented in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Former imam Yassin Aref spent 14 years in federal custody for a case involving a business loan made to an Albany pizza shop owner and a made-up story about a Stinger missile. “Hopefully this will be the first step for the Justice Department to review all those cases of conspiracy and entrapment,” Aref said.
In 2004, the FBI snagged Aref and the store’s owner in one of several sting operations led by a paid civilian operative named Shahed Hussain, whose tactics have been roundly criticized by civil liberties groups for years. After being wrongfully convicted of murder in his native Pakistan, Hussain immigrated to the United States in the 1990s with his wife and two sons.
The tweet below verifies the news:
In a scathing ruling last month, a judge said the FBI had used a “villain” of an informant to manipulate a group of Muslim men into going along with a fictitious plot to destroy military planes and synagogues in New York City’s suburbs. https://t.co/U4H1UYAv0Z
— Stars and Stripes (@starsandstripes) August 8, 2023
After relocating to the Albany region, he began working as a translator before being busted for aiding an illegal driver. He agreed to cooperate for the FBI in exchange for a lighter sentence. At the time, law enforcement agencies across the United States were conducting a huge search for terrorist “sleeper cells” plotting attacks within the country.
Hussain collaborated with the FBI to try to persuade those who were thought to be sympathetic to Islamic militant groups to commit a crime. Four men from Newburgh, New York were caught in 2009 and ultimately convicted of planning deadly antisemitic attacks for which they were each given 25-year prison terms.
Their convictions have been upheld by the courts because of evidence showing they actively participated in a scheme to plant explosives at a synagogue in the Bronx. U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon granted compassionate release to three of the four defendants because she believed the FBI had dispatched a master manipulator
“to troll among the poorest and weakest of men for ‘terrorists’ who might prove susceptible to an offer of much-needed cash in exchange for committing a faux crime.”
With no ties to any terrorist organization and having “never remotely contemplated” violent extremism before to meeting Hussain, McMahon described them as “hapless, easily manipulated and penurious petty criminals” in a decision issued on July 28.
In 2004, Hussain assisted in building a case against two persons connected to an Albany mosque: Aref and former pizza restaurant owner Mohammed Hossain. The verdict resounded with the defendants and their attorneys. Hussain befriended Hossain under the guise of a wealthy businessman and offered to lend him $50,000 to help save the latter’s failing enterprise.
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A shoulder-fired missile purchased from China was to be sold to a group that planned to assassinate a Pakistani official in New York City, he said the pizzeria owner. Hossain later said he was shown a missile but assumed it was a tool for fixing leaky faucets. He requested that his imam, Aref, act as a notary public to witness the business deal on religious grounds.
Aref and Hossain claim they are innocent despite having served lengthy prison terms for crimes including money laundering, concealing material support for a weapon of mass destruction attack, and providing material support to a terrorist organization. “I was a businessman taking care of my children,” Hossain told The Associated Press.
The defense attorneys said they were coerced into an agreement they didn’t fully comprehend. “The government wanted to make me something big, to make me look like danger,” Aref told the AP from his home country of Iraq. He claimed that when the FBI failed to locate any actual terrorists, “then they created one.”
The FBI said they had no comment. U.S. Attorney’s Office and Department of Justice were contacted via email for comment. When the arrests were made, then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey declared, “we are working very, very hard to infiltrate the enemy.” U.S. Attorney at the time, Glenn Suddaby, stated after their convictions that they were “prone to support terrorism.”
However, after 9/11, the Albany case became a rallying cry for those who thought the government had overreacted. They thought Hussain was encouraging criminal behavior rather than helping authorities identify possible terrorists. Hussain was “most unsavory,” according to Judge McMahon, who said that the man encouraged his naive victims with hyperbole and a hefty cash reward.
“Exactly the argument we were making,” Terence Kindlon, Aref’s attorney, said of McMahon’s critique of a government-led plot. According to Kindlon, the trial was a “contrived case” motivated by post-9/11 anger. Hussain may have relocated back to Pakistan, but his son still runs the limousine service he founded there.
Twenty people were killed when one of the company’s vans crashed in 2018 while transporting a birthday party. Prosecutors provided evidence that the company had circumvented safety requirements, leading to Hussain’s son being convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to at least five years in jail.
In a prepared statement, the FBI said that “neither did we take action to interfere with the prosecution of the case” or allow the limousine company to continue operations. There was no way to get in touch with Hussain in Pakistan. The 53-year-old deportee Aref claims he harbors no ill will toward his former country.
His lawyer, Kathy Manley, has indicated that they have exhausted all legal options for appeal. Hossain, 68, will be free in 2020 and will settle in Albany. He has given up on the pizza business but still manages a small portfolio of rental homes. He claims he still experiences anxiety attacks after the ordeal. “If I look back and I’m thinking about what has happened,” he said, “it just makes me numb.”