How the government turned five stoner misfits into the world's most hapless terrorist cell.
Thunder rumbled and rain pattered on the leaves as Connor Stevens tramped through the darkness down a wooded path to the base of the Brecksville-Northfield High Level Bridge. A sad-eyed 20-year-old poet from the Cleveland suburbs, Stevens was crouched in the foliage, his baby face obscured by a bushy lumberjack's beard. Beside him ducked two friends from Occupy Cleveland – the group that had come to define Stevens and his place in the world – both as gaunt and grungy as Stevens himself. Farther up the trail, Stevens knew, three other comrades were acting as lookouts. Gingerly, the young men opened the two black toolboxes they'd carried down from their van. Inside were eight pounds of C4 explosives.
They were actually going through with it. The six of them were going to blow up a bridge.
That they were on the brink of something so epic was surprising, even to the crew, a hodgepodge of drifters plus a pair of middle-class seekers: quiet Stevens and puppyishly excitable Brandon Baxter, also 20. Anarchists who had grown disenchanted with the Occupy movement, which they considered too conservative, they yearned to make a radical statement of their own – to send a message to corporate America, its corrupt government and that invisible grid underlying it all, the System. They'd joined Occupy Cleveland in the fall, but over the winter they'd waited in vain for the group to pick a direction before finally taking matters into their own hands. For weeks they'd fantasized about the mayhem they'd wreak, puerile talk of stink bombs and spray paint that had anted up to discussion of all the shit they'd blow up if only they could. But the grandiosity of their hopes stood in stark contrast to their mundane routine. They spent their days getting stoned at their Occupysubsidized commune in a downtown warehouse, squabbling over dish duty and barely making their shifts at the Occupy Cleveland info tent; when they managed to scrounge up a couple of cans of Spaghettios for dinner, it was celebrated as an accomplishment. If not for the help of their levelheaded comrade Shaquille Azir, who at this critical moment stood as lookout, hissing, "How much longer is this gonna take?" the plot might never have come together.
The boys anxiously fiddled with the safety switch on one of the IEDs. Even on this April night, as they planted two bombs, the plan felt slapdash. No one knew how to handle the explosives. They had no getaway plan. At one point they'd discussed closing the bridge with traffic cones to minimize casualties – 13,000 vehicles crossed the bridge daily – but there was no mention of that now. Some of the accomplices weren't even clear on the evening's basic agenda. "Do we plant tonight and go boom tomorrow?" Baxter had asked in the van. "No, we're going to detonate these tonight," someone had clarified.
The red light on the other IED winked on, signaling it was armed. "One is good to go," Stevens announced. "We just gotta do this one." A night-vision camera mounted nearby captured the boys' movements as they hunched around the second IED until its light shone. Then all six jogged back to the van, relief in their voices. "We just committed the biggest act of terrorism that I know of since the 1960s," Stevens said, as a recording device memorialized every word. All that was left now was for the boys to pick a location from which to push the detonators and go boom. They were feeling pretty good. They decided to go to Applebee's.
Nothing was destined to blow up that night, as it turns out, because the entire plot was actually an elaborate federal sting operation. The case against the Cleveland Five, in fact, exposes not just a deeply misguided element of the Occupy movement, but also a shadowy side of the federal government. It's hardly surprising that the FBI decided to infiltrate Occupy; given the movement's challenge of the status quo and its hectic patchwork of factions – including ones touting subversive agendas – the feds worried it could become a terrorist breeding ground. Since 9/11, the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force has been charged with preventing further terrorist attacks. But anticipating and disrupting terrorist plots require both aggressive investigative techniques and a staggering level of collaboration and resources; to pull together the Cleveland case alone, the FBI coordinated with 23 different agencies. The hope, of course, is that the results make it all worthwhile: The plot is detected and heroically foiled, the evildoers arrested, and the American public sleeps easier. The problem is that in many cases, the government has determined that the best way to capture terrorists is simply to invent them in the first place.
"The government has a responsibility to prevent harm," says former FBI counterterrorism agent Michael German, now the senior policy counsel for the ACLU. "What they're doing instead is manufacturing threatening events."
That's just how it went down in Cleveland, where the defendants started out as disoriented young men wrestling with alienation, identity issues and your typical bucket of adolescent angst. They were malleable, ripe for some outside influence to coax them onto a new path. That catalyst could have come in the form of a friend, a family member or a cause. Instead, the government sent an informant.
And not just any informant, but a smooth-talking ex-con – an incorrigible lawbreaker who racked up even more criminal charges while on the federal payroll. From the start, the government snitch nurtured the boys' destructive daydreams, egging them on every step of the way, giving them the encouragement and tools to turn their Fight Club-tinged tough talk into reality. To follow the evolution of the bombing plot under the informant's tutelage is to watch five young men get a giant federal-assisted upgrade from rebellious idealists to terrorist boogeymen. This process looks a lot like what used to be called entrapment.
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