What Happens When the Enemy of Our Enemy Is a Terrorist?

A Chicago teen is facing terrorism charges after trying to join an al-Qaeda-affiliated group to fight President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
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A destroyed car is pictured near the former Interior Ministry building after a blast at Marjeh Square in Damascus on April 30, 2013. The bomb in central Damascus killed 13 people on Tuesday, state television said. (Reuters)

Patrons described Cal's, a Chicago liquor store and bar, as a filthy dive with a laid-back bartender, drinks as strong as they are cheap, and decor including a "random" fish tank, a stack of CDs, and a "What Would Neil Young Do?" poster. Chicagoans who hated hanging out at other downtown bars wouldn't mind going to Cal's. A Yelp reviewer avowed that the clientele was free of "douchebags, frat boys, or anyone who ever drinks Yaegermeister or cocktails from one of those date-rapey slushee machines."

Roughly 20 people were inside the night a Chicago-area teenager allegedly tried to blow the place up, having avowed that the establishment would be filled with "the evilest people." Being a bar, there wouldn't be any Muslims there, he allegedly reasoned (and if there were, their deaths would be their own faults). The FBI's criminal complaint says Adel Daoud picked up a Jeep that he believed to be equipped with explosives, parked outside a downtown bar, walked a block, and tried to detonate the vehicle with a remote control. In reality, the FBI had supplied the vehicle, the bomb was fake, and Daoud's scheme to terrorize Americans -- he hoped to send the message that the U.S. should stop its abuses abroad -- never put Cal's in danger.

Daoud is now awaiting trial on terrorism charges.

But this isn't a story about Daoud. It's a story about Ahmad Tounisi, another Chicago teen who knew him. Despite encouragement from Daoud, Tounisi decided against carrying out the attack on a downtown bar or any other target within the United States. But he stands accused of trying to join an al-Qaeda affiliate so that he could go abroad to fight with jihadists in the uprising against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. is currently deciding whether to arm some of the rebels in Syria. If an American citizen tries to join an anti-American group in order to fight a repressive dictator that the U.S. would like to see killed or deposed, does that change anything?

****

Almost everything we think we know about Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, 18, of Aurora, Illinois, comes from FBI filings, which shouldn't be taken as statements of unimpeachable fact. These are allegations, and some of the information supporting them comes from Daoud, who may or may not be accurately remembering and rendering conversations he had with his radicalized friend.

Here's the FBI account of what happened:
  • During Daoud's unwitting interactions with an undercover FBI agent, he was also in regular contact with Ahmad Tounisi, at first believing Tounisi would help him to carry out an attack in the U.S. They discussed the subject of violent jihad, exchanged email about Muslims going to join al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and strategized about the best places to target in a domestic terrorist attack. Then two important things happened. An elder from a mosque that the teens attended, having heard about their growing extremism, sought out and yelled at the young men; and Tounisi began to suspect that his friend might be getting duped.
  • After the imam's intervention, a month prior to his arrest, Daoud told the undercover agent that he didn't believe his friend would participate in an attack on American civilians anymore, implying Tounisi didn't believe a good Muslim could righteously attack any random American, but that Tounisi remained committed to the cause of violent jihad abroad.
  • The day after the would-be bombing of Cal's, federal agents sought out Tounisi at home and interviewed him with his parents. At first, the teen feigned ignorance about Daoud, but became more cooperative when agents emphasized the importance of his telling them the truth. He then admitted that he'd discussed, with Daoud, the subject of bombing nightclubs and concerts; that he'd helped Daoud to search for fitting concert venues and nightclubs, even knowing they'd be potential targets of a terrorist attack; that he even recommended a specific nightclub as a target; that he changed his mind about an attack on a nightclub or bar in the United States after a religious leader told him it was wrong; but that, despite changing his mind, he knew his friend was planning to carry out a terrorist attack and did nothing to stop it. He also admitted that he contemplated traveling to Yemen to engage in jihad.

Why didn't the FBI arrest him right then? I don't know the answer. There may well be a good explanation; as you'll see, they subsequently kept on the young man's trail. But insofar as I have doubts about the FBI's account, the decision to let him walk is the biggest reason. In no apparent trouble, Tounisi went about his life, and a few months was busy trying to find a way to go fight abroad.

As the FBI tells it, he did a bunch of research on how a would-be fighter would make his way to Syria, began raising money to get there, and started corresponding with someone at a website he found online that purported to connect motivated Muslims with jihadist elements in Syria.

It was a site that the FBI was running. Commenting on the case, Marcy Wheeler says, "There's a lot that's stark raving insane about the FBI's latest entrapment scheme," but I don't really see why anyone would regard the treatment of Tounisi as illegitimate entrapment. Who should the FBI be spying on and stinging if not 18-year-olds who acknowledge (1) their sympathy for violent jihad, (2) their having helped a friend to pick possible targets for a domestic terror attack, and (3) their not doing nothing to stop the attack even after deciding to pull out? It's possible the FBI's account is misleading; but if it is, in fact, accurate, it seems that deploying undercover assets as Tounisi sought to become a violent jihadist was prudent, not objectionable.

Tentative kudos to the FBI.

On March 28, 2013, Tounisi contacted an individual he believed to be a recruiter for the Syrian Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusrah, but who in fact was an FBI employee, according to the FBI's criminal complaint in the case. In subsequent weeks, he allegedly made detailed plans to fly through Turkey, rendezvous with members of Jabhat al-Nusrah, attend religious training, and join the fight against the Syrian government. All along, however, he was actually corresponding with FBI agents posing as militants. The FBI states that "Jabhat al-Nusrah has claimed nearly 600 terrorist attacks -- ranging from more than 40 suicide attacks to small arms and improvised explosive device operations -- in major city centers in Syria, leading to the death of 'numerous innocent Syrians.'"

If the FBI is telling the truth, it's hard to feel any sympathy for Tounisi, who was willing for a while to help blow up innocent Americans, never cared enough to affirmatively stop a plot he had reason to believe would happen, and tried to join a terrorist group that has targeted civilians. But Wheeler does make a thought-provoking observation. "Remember, had Tounisi succeeded," she writes (judging that prospect unlikely), "he would have joined the Jabhat al-Nusrah in Syria and fought against Bashar al-Assad.The guy we're trying to kill, too. Or at least chase into exile."

She's right.

Reports the New York Times, "Israel aircraft bombed a target in Syria overnight Thursday, an Obama administration official said Friday night, as United States officials said they were considering military options, including carrying out their own airstrikes." Meanwhile, "Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed Thursday that the Obama administration was rethinking its opposition to arming the rebels in Syria's civil war, although he said that no decisions had been made."

Arming the rebels would inevitably result in the violent jihadists among them getting some of the arms. Had Tounisi succeeded in getting to Syria, it's conceivable that he himself would've ended up fighting in part with weapons supplied by the United States! Meanwhile, any U.S. military intervention in Syria would presumably result in inadvertent casualties among innocent Syrians.

Targeting Syrian civilians in attacks and inadvertently killing them amid a war aren't morally equivalent. But given the number of civilians that the U.S. has killed as "collateral damage" to advance its aims in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, I can't help but looking at the possibility of American intervention and observing that its likely consequences are in some ways similar to  what Tounisi allegedly attempted.

The accused terrorist's alleged aim: overthrowing Assad in Syria, an outcome the United States shares. He's being prosecuted for his willingness to join a group that kills civilians. Americans who are hawkish on Syrian intervention don't favor deliberately targeting Syrian civilians, as a terrorist group would, but are willing to tolerate inevitable civilian casualties that happen in the course of U.S. military operations. The hawks that want to stop short of outright intervention favor arming Syrian rebel groups, ideally preventing arms from flowing to violent jihadist elements among the insurgency, but with no real way to ensure that isn't the outcome.

Tounisi and Syria hawks aren't moral equivalents. But the real world consequences of their desired actions are similar. Non-interventionists argue that the U.S. should stay out of Syria because it would be imprudent for us to join forces with elements on both sides of the fight; because Syria poses no threat to our national security; because the consequences of  intervention are, as ever, far less predictable than most interventionists understand or acknowledge; because a country ought to avoid war whenever possible; and because of blowback.

Hawks point out that Assad is a monster whose continued reign guarantees misery and death. Some hawks argue that using our power to minimize that misery is a moral imperative; others say our regional interests demand our involvement. If you favor aiding the "less ugly, less bad guys in the Syrian resistance" as a matter of conscience, helping rebels "we don't like and who don't like us," you're Walter Russell Mead. If you actually try to join the "ugly" part of the resistance to the same dictator? The FBI says you pose a potential threat to "the entire world community."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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