Some question FBI tactics against suspect in terror-bank plot
By ROBERT SALONGA, MARK EMMONS AND MATT O'BRIEN | San Jose Mercury News | Published: February 13, 2013
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- When Matthew Aaron Llaneza's ploy to blow up an Oakland, Calif., bank failed Friday after he unwittingly partnered with an undercover FBI agent, authorities painted him as a calculating Taliban sympathizer hell bent on a sensational act of terrorism to spark civil unrest.
But as the 28-year-old San Jose man is set to appear in an Oakland federal courtroom Wednesday, civil-rights advocates and Llaneza's former attorney are asking whether he was a genuine terrorist threat or a delusional wannabe whose documented mental illness made him incapable of plotting a terrorist act without the government's help.
"My question is whether or not the FBI stopped a crime in this case or had created one," said Cameron Bowman, who represented Llaneza for a 2011 weapons charge. "Is this a guy who planned the crime and the FBI stopped him, or is he susceptible to being sucked into whatever is suggested to him, getting set up and not fully understanding the consequences?"
The federal criminal complaint alleges a clear-cut case of Llaneza scheming to destroy a bank and intending to then flee to Afghanistan to train members of the Taliban. The plan was foiled by the South Bay Joint Terrorism Task Force led by an undercover FBI agent who posed as a Taliban associate and helped Llaneza build a bomb that was inoperable, but incriminating.
Santa Clara County court documents from the earlier case portray Llaneza as a deeply troubled man whose diagnosed psychosis and bipolar condition raise questions about whether he could concoct -- and carry out -- such an intricate plot on his own.
Mike German, a senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and former FBI undercover agent, believes there is a troubling trend in counterterrorism where federal authorities essentially enable the commission of crimes to take credit for solving them.
"The FBI not only supplies all the methodology and the weapons, but the undercover FBI agent is the only link to the purported terrorist plot," German said. "They're aggrandizing the threat in a way that's completely beyond the ability of the individual to carry out."
Resources devoted to these cases, German added, make it "more difficult for the search for real terrorists."
The Llaneza case illustrates the precarious balance between civil liberties and public safety in the exhaustive battle against domestic terrorism that often occurs in the shadows.
A spokesman for the Department of Justice's national security division said there are strict guidelines governing undercover sting operations and that the government must take all threats seriously.
"When an individual concocts a plan to commit violence _ and is determined to follow through _ law enforcement has an obligation to take action to protect the public," Dean Boyd wrote in an email. "Allowing individuals intent on committing violence to proceed without a response is not an option, given that they may take action on their own or find others willing to assist them."
Robert Weisberg, a Stanford Law School criminal justice professor, called Llaneza's arrest contrived _ referring to it as picking "low-hanging fruit" _ but said the government is on solid ground.
"It's a troubling case politically and morally, but not legally," Weisberg said. "He doesn't have a prayer of an entrapment defense."
What is known about Llaneza comes from county court documents. While he had stayed an indeterminate amount of time in San Jose with his father, Llaneza was born and raised in Arizona, living with his mother, Dora Tune, and maternal grandfather. After graduating from high school there, he briefly served in the Marine Corps. The Pentagon has not responded to inquiries about his discharge.
Llaneza at some point converted to the Islamic faith and, records show, adopted the aliases of Tarq Khan and Tariq Solamin.
In March 2011, he arrived at the North San Jose home of his estranged father, Steven Llaneza. He was living in a Winnebago parked in front of the house when, on April 17, 2011, the younger Llaneza went on a drinking binge and threatened to kill himself.
Llaneza's father told San Jose police that his son likely suffered from untreated mental illness. His concern also led him to reveal to police the AK-47 assault rifle and three high-capacity, 30-round magazines his son kept in the RV _ weapons purchased legally in Arizona but that are illegal to possess in California.
In interviews with police, Llaneza claimed he returned to San Jose because he believed drug cartels and secret government police were after him. He spoke of previously trying to kill himself by jumping off a freeway overpass before backing out. But Llaneza also said he would never use a gun to take his life because of the possibility of harming others.
"You would not have to spend more than a few minutes with him without it being painfully obvious that there were some severe psychological issues with him," Bowman said.
Still, the attorney said Llaneza was "in a much clearer mental state" during his sentencing after six months in county jail because he was receiving counseling and was taking his medications. Llaneza received a suspended sentence and court-ordered psychological treatment.
How Llaneza went from the verge of grappling with his mental illness to an alleged terrorist is unclear.
Federal authorities have not detailed Llaneza's arrest beyond the thumbnail sketch of events contained in a six-page criminal complaint. Llaneza's relatives also have been unavailable for comment.
What little has been revealed by the FBI is that Llaneza supported the Taliban with plans of blowing up a bank and triggering "a governmental crackdown, which he expected would trigger a right-wing counter-response against the government followed by, he hoped, civil war."
The FBI has not said how Llaneza came to the agency's attention. But he met Nov. 30 with an undercover agent who led Llaneza to believe he was connected with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Llaneza proposed a car-bomb attack on a Bank of America branch.
The plot culminated in the early morning hours on Friday when Llaneza parked beneath a bank overhang an SUV filled with a dozen 5-gallon buckets containing chemicals prepared by the FBI to simulate an explosive mixture. When Llaneza tried to detonate the fake bomb with a cellphone from a safe distance, he was arrested.
San Francisco Bay Area civil-rights groups, including the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Asian Law Caucus, are dismayed over how Llaneza was targeted. They say documents they've obtained in recent years show the extent to which FBI agents track the identities, opinions and ethnic origins of Muslims met at outreach events at local mosques and community centers.
"The FBI goes about creating this plot _ not facilitating it, but truly creating it, then very publicly pats itself on the back for thwarting it," said Glenn Katon, a lawyer for San Francisco-based Muslim Advocates. "... If you do enough surveillance, and do enough to build a fake situation to create harm, you'll find a lot of people willing to do stupid, crazy things if you enable it."