Rezwan Ferdaus is a 26-year-old US citizen of Bangladeshi descent. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison after pleading guilty to attempting to blow up the Pentagon and the US Capitol. This plot was devised with the direct guidance of a federal agent who infiltrated Ferdaus‘ mosque and even provided the fake explosives. An FBI agent said of Ferdaus to the convict’s father that he “obviously” is mentally ill.Ferdaus, who also suffered from severe depression, seizures, and had to wear adult diapers for bladder control problems, was the victim of the sort of FBI sting that crosses the fine line into entrapment. And these operations are no rarity.

In everyday parlance, the difference between a sting and an act of entrapment seems minimal. They carry the same gist: influencing an individual to carry out an act, in which they are then caught.

By the letter of the law, however, the difference between a sting and entrapment is significant. Sting operations are legal. A cursory glance at popular culture’s imagining of FBI work would suggest that stings are in fact the bread and butter of federal policing. It makes for entertainment — the unfolding of elaborate investigative schemes; an agent with a hunch and a five o’clock shadow catches dastardly criminals doing what they invariably would do anyway. Entrapment, meanwhile, is when law enforcement induces a person or group to commit a crime that they would otherwise have been unlikely to commit.

In the fanciful world of television policing, cops are the goodies, criminals are the baddies, stings are stings and stings are legal. In reality, sting operations regularly cross the line into entrapment. The line in US law is purportedly clear: entrapment is illegal, stings are legal. How this line is actually walked by law enforcement is, however, fuzzy at best.

A report released this week from Human Rights Watch highlights how, consistently, FBI sting operations are over aggressive and premised on the racist profiling of Muslim communities — that old building block of our contemporary national security state. Based on 215 interviews and focusing on 27 post-9/11 cases of alleged terror plot thwarting, HRW’s findings call into question the very legitimacy of the FBI’s counterterror work. The authors go as far as to call a number of stings “government-created” terror plots.

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