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Since Donald Trump's election, some civil rights groups have called for a reassessment of local police participation in the FBI's counterterrorism investigations, especially since the president has promoted controversial policies, including racial profiling and travel bans based on nationality. Last year, San Francisco pulled out of the JTTF. And Oakland officials voted to conduct a public review of their police department's involvement in the task force — although the city has decided to remain in the JTTF, at least for now.
By all accounts, Matthew Llaneza suffered from a serious mental illness his entire life. In the fourth grade, he complained to his mother, Dora Tune, that his head "felt funny." His teachers said he was constantly disruptive. His problems extended to a lack of functional motor skills. For example, after a year of trying unsuccessfully to teach Matthew how to change a bicycle tire, his father, Steve Llaneza, gave up. His stepfather once observed him hopelessly trying to drill a hole in wood. Llaneza couldn't grasp the fact that the drill was in reverse.
He hardly fit the profile of a sophisticated terrorist. Yet despite the fact that Llaneza had no criminal record, the FBI put him under surveillance in 2010 after he made statements online about "engaging in violent jihad." It's unclear how the FBI intercepted these statements — the bureau has a large number of analysts, agents, and informants dedicated to ferreting out information from social media and other open sources that don't require a search warrant — but, according to court records, a confidential informant later told the bureau that Llaneza expressed support for the Taliban.
In 2011, while he was living in a trailer in front of his father's San Jose home, Llaneza had a mental health crisis. Concerned, his father convinced police and paramedics to put Llaneza under an involuntary psychiatric hold. During this hold, Llaneza's father recovered an assault rifle from the trailer and turned it over to the San Jose Police Department, which is part of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force.
The weapon — which Llaneza legally acquired while living in Arizona and brought to California — increased the FBI's interest. FBI agents monitored his probation check-ins. They also began paying Llaneza's employer, a plumber, to work for them as a confidential informant. The plumber's updates on Llaneza's mental condition filled many pages of FBI reports, most of which remain sealed.
Some of these reports — excerpts of which were disclosed during his federal criminal case — detailed Llaneza's mental disabilities. The informant "noted that Matthew had the 'mind of a little child' and was 'slow and drooled, while his body often shook uncontrollably.'"
"Later on, in the course of their employment, the [informant] noted that Matthew had been medicated to the point that he could not hold a shovel," an agent wrote in another report.
The plumber told the FBI that Llaneza "was no longer interested in collecting weapons and wanted to stay out of trouble," and that while he would boast about being able to build bombs, he "always rebuts his boast by saying he wants to stay away from weapons and explosives in accordance with his probation." By early 2012, the informant told the FBI that Llaneza seemed "harmless."
But FBI agents, after gathering other information through an investigatory process known as an "assessment," determined that Llaneza was a national security threat. What this information was, how it was gathered, and who made this determination remain unknown. Assistant Federal Public Defender Jerome Matthews, who represented Llaneza, was unable to acquire these records. "The defense does not know what factors the FBI considered or how the assessment was performed," Matthews explained in a court filing.
Regardless, the FBI assessment set in motion an undercover sting in which an FBI agent posing as a Taliban leader planned a bank bombing with Llaneza. The FBI purchased a vehicle, provided simulated bomb-making materials, and secured a storage locker. Federal agents assembled the fake bomb, and the undercover agent who gained Llaneza's confidence accompanied him to a Bank of America branch on Hegenberger Road in Oakland where, on February 7, 2013, Llaneza attempted to detonate the bogus weapon.
The following day, the feds issued press releases about Llaneza's arrest. The FBI had foiled a bank bombing, newspapers and TV news reported.
"There's a timeline for how these cases play out," said Zahra Billoo, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations San Francisco Chapter, in a recent interview. "There's an initial flurry of media coverage, and then it goes dark. And in many cases, these suspects are in solitary confinement for long amounts of time."
Llaneza was described in the press as a radicalized Muslim terrorist — he converted to Islam in 2004 at a San Jose mosque. Prosecutors said he wanted to spark a civil war by prompting a government crackdown after the bombing.
Sensing that media was missing crucial parts of the story, Billoo contacted religious leaders in San Jose to figure out what actual ties Llaneza had to the broader Muslim community. She couldn't find much. "No one I reached out to knew who he was," said Billoo. "This wasn't a deeply religious kid who was going to the mosque and was radicalized at the mosque."
Billoo pushed back against the narrative that this was an Islamic terrorist plot. Instead, it appeared to be a case in which a mentally disabled man was recruited by FBI agents posing as the Taliban. The real threat wasn't Llaneza. It would have been the person or organization that had the influence and resources to recruit a person like Llaneza, provide him with a vehicle, a bomb, a storage locker, and other technical and logistical resources.