Opinion: Predator or prey? Undercover federal agents target vulnerable teens

A disturbing trend of undercover federal agents engaging minors online to plan acts related to terrorism abroad, then arresting them shortly after they turn 18, ought to raise eyebrows as well as outrage, given that many of these targets are teens who have significant cognitive and intellectual disabilities.

The most recent case in Colorado involves Humzah Mashkoor, an 18-year-old from Westminster charged with “attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization,” according to a U.S. Department of Justice December 2023 press release.

Months earlier, in July last year, FBI agents arrested Davin Daniel Meyer, 18, of Castle Rock, charged with the same crime, which can carry a stiff penalty of decades in prison.

And in June, 18-year-old Mateo Ventura of Massachusetts was charged with a similar crime of intention after being in contact not with terrorists but with undercover FBI agents. A fourth case occurred last year in Philadelphia.

When you look at the striking similarities of these cases, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that federal agents are failing morally and ethically by seemingly coaxing and cajoling minors – including two Colorado children with limited intellectual capacity and no history of harming anyone — to cross a line. The FBI agents then “get their man” – even before these individuals are in fact men.

In both Colorado cases, the 18-year-olds were arrested at Denver International Airport as they each were trying to travel to dark places where terrorists thrive. Mainstream media, including The Denver Post, reported on these arrests using only FBI sources and FBI perspectives.

Enough time has gone by to show the human element to this story, but no reporters seem to be interested. The FBI paints Meyer as a future terrorist bomber, but if you listen to his mom, who I interviewed over the phone last year, Meyer is a kid who saves bugs in his home by taking them outdoors; he wouldn’t even kill a chicken on the ranch for dinner.

It’s critical to know that Meyer has autism, a learning disorder, and intellectual impairments, all documented in the FBI reports. He tests at the lowest level for executive function, which means the parts of his brain that should allow him to plan, process, organize and analyze the world, don’t work for him as they do for a neurotypical person.

Typically, children with autism find an interest and dig into it, be it architecture, recycling, or, yes, religious identity. A much more likely narrative to this story is that Meyer’s fascination with becoming Muslim led him to people and to places online that were extremist and far afield from the sense of friendship and belonging he was seeking.

But for several months, paid FBI informants posed as Meyer’s newfound friends, traveling three times to meet him in person, according to an affidavit in the case.  Meyer was arrested for attempting fly to Turkey, where undercover agents said he would have tried to be a fighter with ISIS. They engaged with him over minute details, such as what shoes to wear and what kind of toothbrush to bring, as well as how to get a Visa.

For Mashkoor, he didn’t find a new religion because he was already part of a large Muslim faith community with people who love and support him. Yet both he and Meyer were the subject of stealthy operations by FBI employees that went on for many months without knowledge from parents or grandparents.

Mashkoor was reading “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” a book for elementary school children, at the time of his arrest, a relative said in court.

Reporter Murtaza Hussain with The Intercept reported on Jan. 10 that Mashkoor had been diagnosed with autism, and that several undercover FBI agents knew this but engaged with him anyway. The 16-year-old was flagged initially for a social media post in support of ISIS . The agents then continued to string him along without contacting the family. This is a common pattern, says Sahar Aziz, a national security expert and law professor at Rutgers University.

This is an important point: Government agents at all levels were well aware that Meyer has significant intellectual deficits, plus a loving and involved mother willing to do anything to help her son.  Meyer’s mom had even gone so far as to reach out to local authorities for help setting her son on the safe path out of trouble and for his mental health, but instead of being given help and resources, two confidential FBI informants helped him plan a trip to join the Islamic State.

FBI investigators also knew that Mashkoor has a strong and supportive multigenerational faith community ready to support his emotional and spiritual growth. So why did these agents fail to see or even consider another path forward? Why did they coax and cajole these teens toward stepping over a line they had never crossed before when there were other choices to be made in partnership with family and community to keep everyone safe?

Hopefully, we will find out more details in the coming months, and the FBI will share their classified recordings so the courts can hear what exactly was said and done to entice these teens. Meanwhile, it’s a sad fact today that not only do parents have to look out for bad influencers online, but they could possibly be the FBI.

Julie Marshall is a public relations director for animal rights organizations and is the former opinion editor of the Daily Camera.

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