TAMPA — Months after Sami Osmakac started serving a 40-year sentence for terrorism, debate continues over the FBI sting operation that landed him in prison.
Was Osmakac a mentally ill, penniless radical incapable of causing serious harm or a dangerous would-be terrorist stopped before he could strike?
Newly disclosed transcripts of private conversations among FBI investigators provide fuel for both scenarios while highlighting the dual challenge law enforcement faces in taking the time to build a legal case while protecting the public.
The transcripts show, for example, that the FBI agents talked about how to help the destitute Osmakac pay an undercover agent for weapons.
“The money represents he’s willing to do it,” agent Taylor Reed said during one meeting, “because we can’t show him killing. We can show him giving money.”
Ultimately, the sting worked.
Osmakac was arrested in January 2012 as he left a meeting with an undercover agent who had provided him a fake car bomb, a disabled AK-47 assault rifle and a phony suicide vest.
He was stopped on his way to unleash mayhem on Tampa, authorities said, by blowing up a car bomb outside a busy nightclub then taking a cab to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, where he planned to spray gamblers with the AK-47 then detonate a suicide vest as law enforcement tried to arrest him.
During the investigation, FBI agents inadvertently recorded themselves on equipment that had been used to capture Osmakac’s conversations with the undercover agent. Osmakac’s defense was permitted during the trial to tell jurors a few segments of the agents’ conversations, but the transcripts were sealed by the court at the request of the prosecution.
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The transcripts provide a rare window into the secretive inner workings of the law enforcement system tasked with protecting the country from terrorist attacks.
They also serve as sort of a Rorschach test: Viewed one way, they show agents well aware of Osmakac’s mental instability and maneuvering to compensate for his lack of money, suggesting to some that the FBI created a would-be terrorist in a man who could pose no real threat.
From another perspective, they show agents doggedly working to build a case while keeping a determined killer from hurting innocent people.
As part of the investigation, Osmakac was being tracked through a number of means, including wiretaps and airplanes, according to evidence in his trial.
In one bit of irony, the agents who were tracking Osmakac’s movements also were concerned that Osmakac was, as one said, “so paranoid ... he’ll think he’s gonna be caught if we practice. He’ll think the (expletive) spy satellite will see.”
As was the case in the trial, the agent’s statement illustrates a blurry line between paranoia and awareness, imagination and truth.
And it shows the challenge of a suspect like Osmakac: how to distinguish between violent ideas that are merely symptoms of mental illness and those that are plans for action.
Aaronson, who lives in St. Petersburg, authored “The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism,” a book critical of the agency’s tactics. He also is the executive director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
He maintains that the transcripts show that the FBI manipulated Osmakac, part of a pattern that he says shows the FBI misses actual terrorists such as the Boston Marathon bombers while going after people who are incapable of causing serious harm.
In the Osmakac investigation, Aaronson said, agents went to “great lengths to put $500 in his hand knowing he was broke.”
Osmakac’s defense team made much the same argument in his trial — that he was mentally ill and that the FBI took advantage of his radical Islamic beliefs to entrap him into trying to commit a spectacular crime. Evidence in the trial showed the FBI paid an informant who gave Osmakac money for working in his shop, providing Osmakac the money he passed on to an undercover agent for what he thought were working weapons.
“The jury never got to hear how engineered the $500 was, as these transcripts show,” Aaronson said.
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Former U.S. Attorney Robert O’Neill, who helped oversee the Osmakac investigation, said even though Osmakac didn’t have money and contacts with terrorist organizations, he could have done a lot of damage.
It doesn’t take much, O’Neill said, to create a homemade bomb using instructions from the Internet. Osmakac also could have found money to buy a gun on the street and use it to shoot a lot of people in a crowded place, O’Neill said.
“Clearly he’s unstable,” O’Neill said. “He wanted to blow up a whole bunch of people that he had no knowledge about, didn’t know anything about and had never met. Of course he’s unstable.”
That doesn’t mean Osmakac isn’t accountable for what he tried to do, O’Neill said.
“There’s a difference between being unstable and legally insane and thus not responsible for your actions,” O’Neill said. “That was completely examined and looked in to during trial, and he was found not to be not legally insane. The fact that he had some sort of mental disease. I’m sure he does.”
O’Neill said the FBI had the responsibility of investigating Osmakac after being told he posed a threat.
“Look at it from the other end,” O’Neill said. “You’ve got an informant who tells the FBI that this guy’s looking to kill people and become a martyr. They then are able to introduce an undercover agent, because you never can trust an informant totally.
“The FBI meets him, and that’s exactly what he’s trying to do.”
During the trial, the defense was allowed to present snippets from the FBI transcripts that showed the agents suggesting prosecutors “want this Hollywood ending.”
Defense attorney George Tragos argued this was a reference to the so-called “martyrdom video” that Osmakac filmed before his arrest. Tragos maintained that the video was suggested and urged by the undercover investigator and informant.
The prosecution countered that it had been Osmakac’s idea to make the video just before he left to launch the attack.
In it, Osmakac talks about “payback for Sheik Osama Bin Laden” and says, “We are people that love to drink blood, and we’ve heard that you kafir (infidels) Americans and Romans have the sweetest blood on the Earth, and we’re coming for your blood, and we’re coming for your women’s blood, and we’re coming for your children’s blood.”
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In the FBI transcripts, agent Steve Dixon is quoted about two weeks before the video was made talking about someone giving Osmakac a video camera stolen from a Best Buy store.
“And now Sami’s going to use it,” Dixon says.
“To make his martyrdom video? agent Chris Franck asks.
“Yeah, and he’s already planning on what he’s going to say,” Dixon says, “because he and (the informant) talked about it today and the (informant) said Sami is going to start out about the Jews.”
“Dude, I can’t wait to see that,” Franck responds. “So what great evidence is that (expletive), too.”
“Holy (expletive),” Franck added, “when he shows up talking about how he can’t wait to die and commit this attack and (expletive) like that.”
“Yeah,” Dixon says, “we’ll make sure the (informant) asks about it before.”
Retired FBI agent Kerry Myers supervised the bureau’s technical operations squad and, among other things, provided the fake bomb used in the Osmakac investigation.
Careful not to directly comment on the case, which is under appeal, Myers said entrapment is a difficult defense to prove.
“For entrapment to work, it requires more than the government merely providing the defendant with an opportunity to commit the crime,” Myers said. “It’s not just providing the opportunity. For an entrapment defense to work, they have to show the government pressured or induced or actually created the actual intent to commit the crime.
“If the defendant already has the intent to commit the crime and the defendant says, ‘I am looking to purchase weapons,’ and the government says, ‘I have a guy who will sell you the weapons,’ who had the actual intent to commit the crime?”
Myers said the FBI and the CIA are focused on protecting the country from another 9/11 attack.
“Should that be the right goal?” he asked. “I think it should. ... I think they all deserve medals and commendations for the work they do protecting the American public.
“And if the American public knew the efforts the FBI puts into protecting the American public, I think they would be in awe.”
The transcripts show the FBI agents were well aware of Osmakac’s mental issues.
Dixon is quoted as calling Osmakac “an irrational guy,” adding, “It’s not like us where you have an objective and do all the planning toward it. I mean, I don’t think he cares.”
And FBI squad supervisor Richard Worms used harsher language, trying to put himself into Osmakac’s mind-set: “If I’m a retarded fool who is hard up for money and I don’t have a pot to piss in, another $500 looks pretty good.”
Talking about legal strategies, agent Reed said, “We can’t convict him based on the fact that he’s got stupid ideas.”
The transcripts also showed agents feared that the money they were having their paid informant give Osmakac could be used to buy real weapons.
They talked about the need for Osmakac to be paid for working in the informant’s store in time for the undercover agent to sell him the phony weapons.
“We want to get the cash out of Sami’s pocket so he can’t go to that drug dealer, if he’s met one, and purchase a handgun because you didn’t provide him one timely enough,” said Christopher Hileman, who’s identified in the transcript as giving “investigative assistance.”
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Not surprisingly, many of the FBI conversations centered on legal strategies and whether the agents had gathered enough evidence to prove a case in court.
Osmakac’s mental state and finances also were factors in that calculation.
“The other thing we could play with, and I don’t know if he’ll go for this,” Reed said. “One of our thoughts was ... he clearly, ... with the gun, he wants to see people die. ... And these guns are so expensive. ... We can make explosives.”
They also discussed how Osmakac kept changing where he wanted to carry out an attack and whether they could steer him toward a government operation.
They talked about having the informant offer to help fund an attack while insisting to Osmakac he won’t pay for hurting civilians.
“I don’t think Sami is going to care when he starts spraying the crowd with bullets,” Franck says.
This was part of the investigators’ strategy over how and when to arrest Osmakac. On the one hand, they wanted enough evidence to prove he actually would launch an attack, but on the other, they didn’t want to endanger the public.
Even though the weapons Osmakac was given were incapable of exploding or firing, agents feared that if Osmakac were allowed to enter the Hard Rock casino brandishing the disabled machine gun, for instance, a stampeding crowd would result in injuries.
And because Osmakac kept changing his identified targets, they worried that if he were allowed to drive off with the fake weapons, he might decide to stop and launch an attack at a location the agents would not be able to control.
“I mean, he keeps talking about paradise,” Dixon says. “This is his way into paradise. So if he sees on his way to gay nightclubs in Ybor and he drives by it, you know, some gathering of like 6,000 kafir or something,” a reference to non-Muslims, “he’s had no idea about. I mean, that’s your way into paradise.”
Reed notes that knowing the target is important for determining charges.
“To charge him with attempted use of a destructive device, we have to know what his target was,” the agent says. “We have to absolutely, positively know.”
In the end, agents arrested Osmakac a short distance from where he drove off with a fake car bomb and the other weapons, well before he arrived at any target.