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“ISIS Bush Assassination” Story Has All the Markers of Overhyped FBI-Manufactured Narrative
20 Years On—and dozens of examples of dubious entrapment schemes later—why does our media still mindlessly repeat FBI claims of "foiled terror plots"?
As I’ve written about for over seven years, there is no wider gap in reality versus headlines in U.S. media than the lightyears chasm between splashy headlines involving “thwarted terror attacks” and the actual details of the case. Well over 20 years into our War on Terror, so-called “terror plots thwarted by the FBI,” with rare exception, are pushed along by, funded by, and materially supported by the FBI—which, more often than not, is simply stepping in at the eleventh hour to stop Potemkin plots of its own making.
Important qualifier here, so there’s no confusion: Very often with these “terror plot” cases, whether they be “ISIS” or “domestic terror,” the person at the core of the plot very much has dangerous ideological beliefs, and their interaction with law enforcement is often preceded by threats or extremist online chatter. The degree of responsibility exists in a spectrum. Sometimes they are mentally unwell dupes who would have otherwise posed no real threat, and the plot is almost entirely of the FBI’s creation. Sometimes they play a more central role, and while the plot may not have happened without FBI assistance, it very well may have. It’s difficult to know at first blush—and without access to the actual affidavit or response from the accused legal counsel—where the latest “foiled FBI” plot falls on the spectrum. But given history and the details we do know, our media, as a rule, ought to be much more skeptical before announcing scary FBI-curated headlines about dastardly plots.
Earlier today, Forbes broke a story about the FBI stepping in to “break up” an assassination plot by Iraqi national Shihab Ahmed Shihab Shihab to take out former President George W. Bush, supposedly as revenge for the Iraq War. Scanning the scary headlines, the average media consumer would come away thinking there was a real, material “ISIS plot” to kill Bush that was foiled at the last minute by heroic FBI agents:
EXCLUSIVE: ISIS Plotting To Assassinate George W. Bush In Dallas - Forbes Magazine
ISIS operative planned to assassinate George W. Bush, Forbes report - Dallas Morning News
Further inspection of the details, however, reveal that the “plot,” like most “ISIS/al Qaeda” plots the FBI “thwarts,” was likely moved along by and facilitated by FBI agents and well-paid FBI informants. (Forbes doesn’t say how much these informants were paid, but in some previous thwarted plots it has been as high as six figures.) The only actionable thing the suspect did other than supposedly trying to recruit people in WhatsApp was surveil George Bush’s Dallas residence. An FBI informant paid for the flight, picked up Shihab, and ushered him to the residence, according to NBC News. “After traveling to Dallas with the informant to take video of Bush’s residence,” Forbes writes,” the accused took more footage at the George W. Bush Institute.”
Buried under the typical sensationalist headlines and FBI press releases, NBC’s Pete Williams broke the fourth wall a bit and noted “[the suspect] never had any means to carry out the plot. Never had any weapons himself. There’s no indication that any of the people he was trying to smuggle into the U.S. ever got here.”
This is consistent with years of “War on Terror” foiled plots. According to one 2013 study by researcher Trevor Aaronson, less than one percent of terror plots foiled by the FBI are real plots, in the sense that they would have occurred whether the FBI was “monitoring” them or not.
It’s also possible, though not mentioned in the uncritical Forbes report (the actual warrant has not been made available by the FBI), that the idea itself was that of the FBI’s. This is not unusual. In high-profile “thwarted terror plots” like Rochester News Years eve attack or the Newburgh Four, the sexy headline-grabbing premise of the attack was cooked up by the FBI itself or one of its informants. Now, the person under surveillance goes along with it, but the actual materialization of idle ranting or social media posts into actionable “plot” is pushed along by the FBI itself.
For the most suspect of all these plots, we have to look no further than the Dallas metropolitan area. Recall the 2015 “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest attack in Garland, Texas. The plot was pushed along by FBI agents (not even informants, but actually undercover FBI agents). But instead of being stopped at the eleventh hour, the plot actually happened, resulting in a security guard being shot and injured. Indeed, the night before the attack, one of the undercover FBI agents told the suspect, Elton Simpson, to “Tear up Texas.”
An FBI agent, as 60 Minutes reported two years later, was actually present at the time of the attack. One even stood a few feet from the suspect as shots were fired.
At the time the public was, of course, given none of this information. No skeptical reporting about potential FBI involvement, just mindless stenography about the lurking dangers of ISIS.
Garland, Texas, shooting suspect linked himself to ISIS in tweets - CNN (5/4/2015)
Gunman in Texas Shooting Was F.B.I. Suspect in Jihad Inquiry - New York Times (5/5/2015)
Indeed, now-discredited former New York Times “ISIS expert reporter” Rukmini Callimachi worked overtime to link Simpson to actual ISIS recruiters overseas, with her piece “Clues on Twitter Show Ties Between Texas Gunman and ISIS Network.” She raised no questions about “FBI links” to the suspect.
Given the dicey history of these FBI “eleventh hour plots,” especially such high-profile, botched plots in the Dallas area, perhaps an ounce of skepticism or context is long overdue from our national security reporters when it comes to simply repeating FBI claims at face value. It’s very possible the FBI stopped a real, material, well connected ISIS plot to kill Bush. But given what we know about the essential role informants played in this plot and the long, two-decade history of these sensationalist headlines falling apart under closer scrutiny, perhaps a bit of sobriety, skepticism, and nuance is in order.