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Terror or Entrapment?

Five recent Bay Area terrorism cases by the FBI raise questions as to whether the bureau has enticed young, troubled Muslim men to attempt acts they wouldn't have otherwise committed.

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The FBI said it changed the community outreach program afterward to establish a clearer line between outreach and investigations.

But with the election of President Donald Trump — whose campaign speeches included the Islamophobic lie that he personally witnessed thousands of New Jersey Muslims cheering the 9/11 attacks and promises to create a "Muslim registry," a travel ban from Muslim-majority nations, and other racially motivated policies — the JTTF's activities came under greater scrutiny in San Francisco. The city's police commission opted last February not to renew the city's agreement with the FBI, and so SFPD officers are no longer members of the terrorism task force. Civil rights groups explained in a letter to the city's police commission that SFPD officers working through the JTTF would be assisting in FBI investigations under the authority of the Trump administration.

Also last year, Oakland's privacy commission recommended, and the city council adopted, oversight measures that will require city officials to review their police department's JTTF participation to ensure OPD officers don't violate state and local privacy and civil rights laws. Oakland, however, didn't move to end its participation in the JTTF.

The FBI didn't oppose either city's actions, but in a nod to how his agency has struggled recently to gain trust in the Bay Area, Fair said, "the national political narrative has not helped us."

During the past decade, the FBI changed its playbook for counterterrorism cases. After 9/11, FBI looked for Al Qaeda-type criminal groups dependent on the finances and direction of foreign leadership. But in the mid-2000s, and especially following the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, FBI agents started targeting people they defined as self-recruited threats who, without direction, are inspired to assist foreign terrorist groups.

Most newer cases involve young Muslim men accused of attempting to join ISIS overseas or attempting to attack a U.S. target, according to a recent report by Karen Greenberg of Fordham University's Center on National Security. The government charged 95 of these ISIS-related cases between March 2014 and June 2016, the report added. "Most were attracted at least in part by social media, and many had expressed some form of social alienation, loneliness, or identity issues," wrote Greenberg.

Two of the Bay Area's recent terrorism cases illustrate this trend in terrorism prosecutions: Islam Natsheh and Adam Shafi.

After Natsheh's parents separated when he was young, he became estranged from his mother, and by age 18, was experiencing severe depression, according to court records. In a letter submitted to a federal judge after Natsheh was arrested in late 2015, a family friend recalled an incident in which Natsheh locked himself inside his bedroom for one week without food and water. The friend called to help. "I can still hear him sobbing over the phone about how depressed and hopeless he was feeling. He didn't want to feel this way and didn't know what to do."

Natsheh medicated himself with marijuana and prescription opioids. "He became dependent on drugs in order to escape the pain of reality," his father wrote in a letter to the court.

His attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Candis Mitchell, wrote in a memo that, in a search for meaning and while despairing over his personal life and the plight of Arab civilians being killed in multiple wars from Syria to the Palestinian territories, Natsheh sought a way to intervene. But Mitchell added, "despite his interest, Mr. Natsheh never took the step to acquire any weapons training or combat skills." She called him an impetuous and vulnerable young man "searching for greater purpose."

The FBI called him a self-recruited terrorist. In August 2015, JTTF agents interviewed Natsheh after they identified him through social media posts in which he shared ISIS propaganda. He voluntarily, and without an attorney, answered their questions. He acknowledged sharing controversial videos, including the execution of a Jordanian bomber pilot by ISIL, but he also "denounced holding any radical beliefs" and "denied having any intention to commit an act of violence against the United States or other government," according to federal prosecutors' summary of the case.

Shortly after, the Spanish Guardia Civil national police provided the FBI with information that allegedly tied Natsheh to a Spanish woman who had been arrested while attempting to travel to Syria to join ISIL. The woman's phone held Natsheh's contact information. A few months later, after Natsheh purchased round-trip tickets from San Francisco to Turkey, the FBI intercepted him at San Francisco International Airport.

According to prosecutors, Natsheh admitted to JTTF agents that he intended to "fight with ISIL to help the people" of Syria. He was arrested the next day and charged with attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

Unlike other Bay Area terrorism cases, Natsheh's arrest and prosecution received little media attention. He pleaded guilty in December 2016 and was sentence to five years in prison.

Adam Shafi, a 24-year-old Fremont resident, was charged in 2015 with attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization after he allegedly made statements praising the Al-Nusra Front, a lesser-known rebel group in the Syrian Civil War. Shafi traveled to Turkey, allegedly in order to cross into Syria. The material he was accused of trying to provide was himself.

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