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'The Newburgh Sting' Has Us Wondering, Is the FBI Thwarting or Conjuring Terrorism?

The plot these would-be terrorists conjure is as preposterous as any you'd find in a bad action movie.

The Newburgh Sting

Director: Kate Davis, David Heilbroner
Cast: Bryant Baker, Liz McWilliams, Alicia McWillliams, Imam Salhauddin Muhammad, Sam Braverman
Rated: NR
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-07-21 (HBO)

"I did tell different individuals, 'Stay the hell away from him, something ain't right about him.'" On his first meeting with Shahed Hussain, Hamin Rashada says, he was alarmed when he asked the newcomer how he might help him and received a question in response: would the imam be able to tell him about jihad? "That, of all the things for him to be concerned about, he would ask about jihad? He would ask about holy war?"

It turns out that Rashada, the assistant imam at the Masjid al-lklas mosque in Newburgh, New York, was right to be alarmed. Hussain was not a "businessman", as he claimed (and ostensibly demonstrated by driving a BMW and a Mercedes to the mosque) and he wasn't seeking knowledge or even community membership. He was, in fact, an FBI informant, installed by the agency as part of a post-9/11 push to prevent attacks on the homeland. Since his arrival from Pakistan and his legal troubles over crimes he'd committed while working as a translator at the DMV, Hussain was recruited by the agency to participate in the Newburgh Sting, the 2009 FBI adventure that gives Kate Davis and David Heilbroner's documentary its title.

This participation began with Hussain's pursuit of a terrorist plot. While it's debatable whether that pursuit revealed terrorists or a plot, it did produce a number of videotapes, which form the bulk of the film. That these tapes also served as evidence in the 2009 trial and conviction of four men fuels the film's palpable outrage. And here -- between the tapes and the outrage -- the documentary, premiering this month on HBO, lays out a particular problem and finds creative answers. That problem is lack of access to what would seem its primary subjects, meaning the four men convicted and Hussain. These subjects al do speak on the tapes. They also act out, for each other and, in the case of Hussain, the only player aware of the taping at the time, for an eventual federal agents audience.

Again and again, their acting is bad, in the sense that it's unconvincing. And the plot they conjure is as preposterous as any you'd find in a bad action movie. When the imams at Masjid al-lklas are disinclined to help Hussain in the way he asked, he pursues James Cromitie, a Walmart worker who claims also to deal drugs and stolen merchandise, mostly lies, as it turns out. In need of a conspiracy, Hussain asks Cromitie to bring in other men who might be committed to the cause of jihad ("Good Muslim brothers would be nice"). When Cromitie is unable to produce such men, Hussain settles for three more guys in need of money.

The tapes reveal that Hussain's promises Cromitie $250,000. This is a lot of money for a poor man in Newburgh, a point underlined by interviewees like Newburgh resident Bryant Baker ("It's a small city just soaking and drowning in poverty," he observes, "Kids are struggling, you're in debt up to your ass. Somebody offers you a large chunk a change, you're interested") and the family of one of the Newburgh Four, David Williams.

Though he took a wrong turn, selling drugs and going to prison (where he met Cromitie), Williams is, according to his mother, aunt, and younger brother, a "sweetie", who only did his best to support his family. That his options to do so were limited doesn't excuse his decision to go along with a plot to fire a Stinger missile at US military planes or to bomb Jewish targets in Riverdale. But, the film contends, Williams and his fellows might have been better convicted of different crime.

This question -- how to define their crime -- leads directly to the film's broader concern, which is the FBI's zealousness and illicit activities. Famously horrified and embarrassed by 9/11, the agency (like many others) made a never-again pledge. The approach to thwarting future plots, however, took illogical turns, according to former agent Mike German, including the targeting of mosques and Muslims in America, despite the fact that exactly zero have been involved in such a plot. As German puts it, "This operation was designed to turn them into terrorists," and moreover, wasted time and resources that might have been put into pursuing other plots in the making (say, the Boston Marathon attack).

The design is visible in the video, which is, of course, at least partly orchestrated by Hussain, who turned the camera in his car or apartment on and off according to what he wanted to have recorded. What is recorded suggests performances on all sides, from Hussain's solicitous lies to Cromitie's self-puffery, telling elaborate fictions about crimes he never committed.

The background to all this performing is at once complex and frighteningly simple. As US Representative Keith Ellison summaries, the nation has a miserable history with regard to scapegoating populations, a history that in turn creates the conditions for problems to come. "We used to go after people we said were Communists, then we went after gang members, you know, during the war on drugs." he says, "That literally led to the incarceration of a whole generation of African American men." Now, as today's targets include Muslims in a generic sense, that generation and their children too remain at risk.

Four of these African American men are now imprisoned, awaiting appeals. As The Newburgh Sting makes a convincing case that they were victims of entrapment, but beyond that, it makes the case that the FBI agents (and Hussain) may not have been quite aware of what they were doing, only doing their best to demonstrate for TV cameras that they are fighting terrorism. It's hard to know what is worse, the lies they told themselves or the lies they continue to tell us. Maybe they're just all bad.


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