By Rachel Roberts
As details emerge about Matthew Aaron Llenaza, the San Jose man arrested for plotting terrorism at the behest of an undercover FBI agent, we have learned that Mr. Llenaza had a history of bipolar disorder and psychosis. This newly publicized information about Mr. Llenaza casts doubt on the portrait the FBI has drawn of its suspect, whom they characterize as a shrewd and calculating Taliban sympathizer intent on doing harm to the United States. It also raises concerns about the FBI using public resources to thwart plots that it is, in fact, concocting on its own.
But these new details about Mr. Llenaza highlight something not often talked about in the mainstream discourse about counterterrorism efforts: its effects on the mentally ill.
Our organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has offered legal representation and advice to hundreds of American Muslims who were approached by FBI and other law enforcement agents purportedly for terrorism-related investigations in recent years.
Our California offices have received several complaints from family members of mentally ill Muslims that the FBI or a cooperating agency expressed a need to question their disabled loved one as part of a terrorism investigation. The reason given was that the subject had exhibited some “suspicious behavior.” In several such cases, law enforcement agents conducted multiple interviews with mentally ill individuals without an attorney present.
Family members reported that law enforcement agents asked questions about religion and geopolitics, which were met with answers that, although wild and often incoherent, could be misconstrued as support for violence against the U.S and be used as a basis to further target that subject.
These interviews, when coupled with the generally pervasive fear American Muslims have of terrorism accusations, have also resulted in exacerbating the illnesses of the Muslims approached. We know of cases in which mentally ill Muslims have suffered psychotic episodes and have even attempted suicide after interactions with law enforcement.
Because mental disabilities often result in an inability to control physical behavior and speech, interviews that take place in this context have the potential not only to unfairly incriminate an innocent suffering person, but to mislead law enforcement and waste public resources on those who need treatment, not criminal penalties for crimes they would never have the capacity to commit.
In many of the prominent terrorism trials of the past decade, the Muslim defendants who worked with FBI and law enforcement agents to plan or attempt to carry out attacks on the U.S. also had histories of mental illness.
For example in the trial of the Newburgh Four, a group of Muslim men were lured by an informant bearing expensive gifts into plotting to blow up synagogues in the Bronx, NY and shoot down a military jet. One of the defendants, Laguerre Payen, who suffered from schizophrenia, was repeatedly disruptive during his trial and engaged the judge in a rambling dialogue about his conviction at the time of his sentencing.
In another case, Ahmad Ferhani, unemployed and in and out of mental institutions for many years, was convicted of plotting to blow up synagogues after being approached by an informant linked to the New York City Police Department.
The pressure on law enforcement to produce results for counterterrorism efforts, especially when combined with anti-Muslim training that characterizes Muslims as unhinged and bent on destroying the U.S., has the potential to criminalize those members of the community most in need of the system’s protections.
That the entrapment defense has failed in every terrorism trial in the past dozen years despite clear government overreach highlights how our criminal laws have not been able to overcome the climate of fear that permeates our post-9/11 world.
Law enforcement agencies must take steps to implement ethical standards when they interact with members of the public, Muslim or not, who have been diagnosed with or who exhibit signs of mental illness.
Law enforcement should also focus their efforts on those who have already taken an affirmative step toward committing a terrorism-related crime. According to a recent article in Mother Jones, an FBI informant led one of every three terrorist plots foiled, and also provided all the necessary weapons, money, and transportation to people who ordinarily would not have the resources, intellectual or material, to carry out attacks.
As a society, we have much to learn about how we care for and treat the mentally ill. Scapegoating them for crimes or subjecting them to heightened scrutiny simply for being members of their religious community is a step backward.
Rachel Roberts is an attorney and the civil rights coordinator for CAIR’s Northern California offices.