There are countless stereotypes and tropes found throughout popular culture, movie productions and social media. One of those is that of undercover police or intelligence agents who famously tend to consist of well-built white men donned in disguises that are overly civilian with a tactical hint – usually with similar crew cut hairstyles, shorts, sunglasses, a baseball cap or blue jeans with the outline of handcuffs seen through the back pocket – and who were especially spotted and publicised at both left and right-wing protests in the US in recent years.
Infiltrating protests and rallies seem to be a prominent part of their job description and, in movies, they are famously portrayed as provocateurs offering to sell drugs to or buy drugs from people they suspect are either consuming or dealing in the illegal underground narcotics trade. In that process, they are also known to have the effect of luring hapless civilians into a world they may not have thought of entering into, otherwise. Here enters the phenomenon that is entrapment.
Much of the discourse around secret or undercover agents – whether law enforcement or intelligence – remains wrapped in fiction, and is littered with popularised concepts, such as innovative gadgets and Bond villain intrigues, but the phenomenon of entrapment is one of those that are verifiably and undeniably true.
The infiltration of groups and movements is what allows a domestic or foreign intelligence agency to gain intelligence, as it were, and is far from being a mystery or conspiracy theory. Informants will be planted, inside information will be gained, handlers will be tasked to deal with their assets and operatives will likely try to entrap. It is not a question of if it happens, but of how far it extends, for what reasons and whether it is justifiable or not.
Entrapping an unsuspecting civilian while trying to catch narcotics dealers and suppliers in a drug-ridden western metropolis is one thing, but possibly entrapping a minor into joining a terror group and definitely providing assistance in trafficking them across international borders while covering it up with full awareness, is at a whole other level. And that is exactly what seems to have happened over the past few decades of the 'war on terror'.
The Begum connection
The fleeing of the outcast Briton, Shamima Begum, and her friends to Syria and their eventual joining of Daesh was one such case, in which a watershed moment was the revelation, in August, that Canadian intelligence had a primary role in the trafficking of the schoolgirls and other Britons to Syria, all those years ago.
In his book 'The Secret History of the Five Eyes', former security correspondent of The Sunday Times, Richard Kerbaj, revealed that a human trafficker named Mohammed Al-Rashed – recruited by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) when he applied for asylum at the Canadian embassy in Jordan – had arranged transport for the girls in Turkiye to make their way into Syria.
He also photographed the passports of Begum and her friends, claiming that he needed proof of identity to buy transport tickets, before forwarding those images to the CSIS.
Despite the UK's Metropolitan Police Service having issued an urgent appeal asking anyone who had seen the teenagers after they went to Gatwick Airport, Canada remained silent. It was only when Turkish authorities arrested Rashed and discovered the travel documents and bus tickets belonging to the teenagers in his possession, did they find the link. Ankara informed London, which was then convinced by Ottawa to conceal its role, according to the book.
In reports earlier this month, it was further confirmed that British intelligence also knew of its Canadian counterpart's role in the girls' fleeing to Syria. The BBC has also revealed that it had obtained files proving that the agent shared Begum's passport details with Canada, and that he had smuggled other Britons to Syria to fight for Daesh or marry the group's militants.
What the book and its findings reveal is not only that the girls, other Britons, and very likely scores of other westerners had assistance throughout their journeys to Syria and they did not go it alone, but that the clear and blatant role of western intelligence agencies in the recruitment, growth and operational reach of terror groups is now further able to be confirmed.
Even if the CSIS and its British counterparts' involvement in the case are misreported or exaggerated – which is highly unlikely as a former Canadian agent has acknowledged her agency's role and called for it to be corrected – this is not the only case which serves as an example of those agencies' very active role in the movement of individuals wanting to join such groups.
In 2015, the US's Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) rented a villa in Istanbul as a safe house for alleged members of Daesh, with an undercover operative of the agency himself signing the tenancy agreement.
The FBI then turned on those assets, tipping off Turkish security forces by claiming the villa's inhabitants were plotting a terror attack within the city. Reports this year revealed that prosecutors found no evidence of such a plot, but cited court papers which showed the Bureau's role in informing Turkish authorities of the Daesh member's presence.
Throughout the 'war on terror' decades, too, the FBI has handled as many as 15,000 informants – with as many as three unofficial ones for every one officially recorded – to infiltrate the Muslim community in the US, search for individuals who may lean towards militant viewpoints, and groom them into accepting a plot to attack a site or reading supposed Al-Qaeda oaths.
Those individuals targeted by the Bureau usually did not have enough money or resources, let alone even the initial intention needed to commit any attacks prior to their relationship built up with the informants. The FBI and the US government, however, made sure they were provided with them, with the informant – who usually posed as a member of a transnational terror group – guaranteeing to give the target the means necessary to carry out the plot.
Moreover, the subjects are often investigated by the FBI and security agencies multiple times before actual attacks do take place, which tends to make such agencies look useless in identifying and preventing attacks from happing. Rather than ignorance or incompetence, though, it would not be far-fetched to suspect deliberate and calculated intent on the part of intelligence.
That same pattern of infiltration, investigation, approach, incitement and provision has not only been used on Muslim communities, but on any community or movement deemed a potential threat or nuisance by the 'establishment', for lack of a better term.
In October 2020, the FBI and the US Justice Department announced the arrest of six militia members in Michigan State known as the Wolverine Watchmen, with the Bureau having supposedly thwarted a plot to kidnap State Governor, Gretchen Whitmer. Numerous undercover agents and at least a dozen informants were part of that group, including a senior member and an explosives expert who were supposed to have prominent roles in that alleged plot.
There we see the use of such tactics of entrapment against right-wing individuals, stemming significantly from those used against civil rights and protest groups over the previous decades during the FBI's COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program). The Bureau and other agencies' operations within Muslim communities were – and are – not new, but they have likely been further honed and perfected to a higher degree and level not previously seen.
The targeting of Muslim communities and their vulnerable or impressionable individuals by western intelligence agencies is still ongoing, without a doubt. Operatives will continue to lure, manipulate and entrap such individuals, and if they are not killed and disposed of in the attacks or warzones they are led – or trafficked – to, they will languish in a western prison or Syrian detention camp for the unforeseeable future.
Shamima Begum, her fellow schoolgirls, and other Britons were the victims that we know of. Their cases have been revealed, and they are undoubtedly just the tip of the iceberg floating in the dark depths of a world of as-yet-unknown undercover operations conducted by Western intelligence agencies and their vast web of informants. How many more victims are there, and how many attacks or militant groups have been the creation of these agencies?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.