The FBI has been accused of encouraging and assisting a Michigan militia with their alleged plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer, with court documents showing the remarkable depth of involvement of multiple informants.
Fourteen people have been charged so far after an October 2020 sting operation on the ‘Wolverine Watchmen’ militia.
Many of those were arrested at a warehouse in Michigan where they had met to hand over cash for the purchase of explosives, which they allegedly planned to use in the kidnapping plot.
In December one key player in the case, Ty Garbin, entered a guilty plea to kidnap conspiracy charges and faces up to life in prison. A trial date for the rest has been set for October 12.
But their lawyers are arguing that the FBI informants – at least 12 of them, according to a BuzzFeed investigation – went way beyond simply listening and infiltrating, and instead actively recruited others to the plot, funded and directed it. They have claimed that without the FBI informants’ involvement, there would have been no plot at all.
And lawyers for the Capitol rioters will be watching very closely, amid claims by Tucker Carlson and others that the FBI spurred on the January 6 insurrection in a similar vein.
Paul Bellar is seen with a stars and stripes face mask inside the Michigan state capitol in Lansing on April 30. Bellar is one of three founders of the Wolverine Watchmen
Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, is seen on July 12. In October 14 people were arrested and accused of a plot to kidnap her, after she enraged the anti-authority ‘Patriot’ militia with her lockdown rules during the height of the pandemic
HOW THE WATCHMEN EMERGED
Michigan has long been a hotbed of self-described militia activity.
In May, Dana Nessel, Michigan’s attorney general, said that her state was ‘the original home of the militia movement,’ and the Southern Poverty Law Center currently identifies 22 ‘extreme antigovernment groups’ active in the state.
Timothy McVeigh trained with a group called the Michigan Militia Corps prior to carrying out the Oklahoma City bombing.
The Wolverine Watchmen was founded in November 2019 by Joe Morrison, 25, four days after he had appeared in court on a minor gun possession charge.
Initially the group focused on discussing police abuse and fantasizing about fighting back, nurturing what an FBI agent in the case later described as ‘a grievance and hatred towards law enforcement,’ BuzzFeed reported.
They were angered by the police killing of black people such as Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner, and white people like LaVoy Finicum, a rancher killed by law enforcement during a standoff in Oregon in 2016.
They described the FBI as domestic terrorists and the Michigan state police the ‘Gestapo,’ while calling for attacks on the ATF and other federal law enforcement agencies.
The group’s three founding members were Morrison; his father-in-law Pete Musico, 42, who lived with him; and Paul Bellar, 21, who dreamed of being a paramedic.
The group’s founding members included Joe Morrison (left); his father-in-law Pete Musico (right) who lived with him; and Paul Bellar, 21, who dreamed of being a paramedic
HOW THE FBI LEARNT OF THE WATCHMEN
A 33-year-old Iraq war veteran, named by BuzzFeed only as Dan, was attracted by their rhetoric as ‘Patriots’, and interested in their military drills.
He found the group on Facebook, while searching for fellow Second Amendment devotees.
But when Musico talked of hunting police down and killing them, Dan showed the exchange to a friend.
Soon the FBI were knocking at his door, and Dan became an informant – initially, without being paid.
His work was supervised by Special Agent Jayson Chambers and his partner, Henrik Impola – both members of the bureau’s counterterrorism unit.
A federal grand jury brought additional charges in April against Barry Croft Jr (left ), 45, and Daniel Harris (right), 23, accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer
Ty Garbin (left), broke ranks with his co-defendants in January and pleaded guilty to a federal kidnapping conspiracy charge. Brandon Caserta (right) is also a defendant in the case
INFORMANT CODENAMED ‘THOR’ INFILTRATES THE GROUP
On March 17, 2020, Dan officially went on the FBI’s books under the code name Thor.
Impola told Dan that he could deceive the Wolverine Watchmen or other suspects, BuzzFeed reported, but he had to be truthful with the FBI.
He could participate in the group’s activities, but had to stop short of anything illegal.
For the next seven months, Dan would constantly update the FBI as to the group’s activities.
He first wore a wire on April 30, 2020 – when the group attended an anti COVID lockdown protest at the Michigan state Capitol, in Lansing.
The men wore ballistic body armor and held pistols and AR-15 assault rifles.
He heard chatter about storming the building, and, panicked, surreptitiously informed the FBI who were listening.
To his astonishment, the Capitol guards then stood aside to let the group inside the building, where they were photographed, fully armed, outside the offices.
Hundreds of people descended on Michigan’s Capitol building on April 30 to protest against Whitmer extending a statewide stay-at-home order. Pictured are Joe Morrison (far right), Paul Bellar (second right) and Pete Musico (red checked shirt)
A protester carries his rifle at the State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan from April’s protest
Protesters tried to enter the Michigan House of Representative chamber and were kept out by the Michigan State Police on April 30 (file image)
At the protest they met a 37-year-old man living beneath a vacuum repair shop in Grand Rapids, named Adam Fox.
Fox, unemployed, spending his time bodybuilding and smoking weed, according to BuzzFeed, was angry at a government that he believed had failed him.
The lockdowns imposed by Whitmer, a Democrat, enraged the group and spurred them on.
In early June, Morrison decided that Fox should join the Watchmen.
Dan, who had been promoted to second in command of the group, spoke to Fox on the phone – inside an FBI office – and asked Fox for his specific aims.
Adam Fox spent his time bodybuilding and smoking weed, and according to BuzzFeed, was angry at a government that he believed had failed him.
He said his dream was to ‘have the governor hogtied down on a table’ for public display.
‘We take the building and then take f****** hostages,’ Fox told Dan. ‘It’s f****** wartime.’
He told Dan: ‘I can’t do nothing with less than 200 men.’ He thought he could get ‘maybe 15 to 20’ men to join him.
Dan invited him to Morrison’s home for training.
On June 18, the Watchmen met Fox as a group for the first time at another rally outside the Capitol in Lansing.
Fox patted everyone down to check for recording devices, without finding Dan’s, and BuzzFeed reported that he seemed prepared to storm the building that very day.
According to court documents and testimony, Fox told the group Plan A was to storm the building and execute all the politicians on live television. Plan B was to lock the doors and burn the building to the ground, with everyone in it.
On June 20 the group met at Fox’s apartment beneath the vacuum cleaner shop – a basement home that had to be accessed via a trapdoor, and in which Fox made all the group leave their phones in a centralized place to prevent anyone recording. He failed again to notice Dan’s wire.
One of the founding Watchman, Bellar, became convinced that Fox was out of his mind, BuzzFeed reported, and repeatedly shared those concerns with Dan, court testimony shows.
Morrison, the group’s commanding officer, also expressed reservations about Fox.
But Dan was sure to include Fox in group meetings and to develop his own personal relationship with him.
Fox began referring to Dan as his ‘brother,’ according to Fox’s former fiancé.
TRAINING BEGINS FOR THE KIDNAPPING
Dan drove five Watchmen and 6,000 rounds of ammunition to Cambria, Wisconsin, for a national training exercise organized by Stephen Robeson (pictured)
On June 28, the group met at Morrison’s property in Munith for training, and to discuss plans.
Fox had until that point been focused on attacking the Capitol in Lansing. They began to shift their attention to kidnapping the governor, Whitmer.
‘Who’s down for kidnapping tyrants?’ Fox allegedly asked the others.
A few weeks later, Dan drove five Watchmen and 6,000 rounds of ammunition to Cambria, Wisconsin, for a national training exercise organized by Stephen Robeson – another person working for the FBI, who had organized in June 2020 a ‘national militia meeting’ in Dublin, Ohio.
Dan rented a Suburban for the weekend, paid for gas, and subsidized food and lodging for the group – all with money from the FBI.
Militia men from five states traveled to the event, and even tried – and failed – to detonate bombs they had made from balloons, black powder, and ball bearings.
Dan spoke to two of those there about how they could ‘manufacture’ weapons – all the time, with the FBI listening in.
By the end of July, Bellar told his fellow Watchmen he was buried in debt and leaving Michigan to move in with his father in South Carolina.
A confederate flag hangs on the property in Munith, Michigan, where the group trained
The militia training ground in rural Michigan where at least some of the men charged with plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer practiced shooting and blew up homemade explosives
The site is mostly baron aside from a small trailer. It’s unclear if anyone lives in it or if was just used by Garbin for the training camp
Among shooting targets were metal signs that were riddled with bullet holes
Governor Gretchen Whitmer knew about the plot to kidnap her and had to be moved around with her family
Morrison told the group that he too was temporarily stepping away from the Watchmen, owing to marital issues.
Dan was then left in charge.
The FBI then asked Dan to bring in as many people as possible to the kidnap plot.
On August 28 Dan’s handler, Impola, texted Dan to say he had ‘a few goals for today’ including getting the informant to invite three Watchmen — Daniel Harris, Garbin, and Brandon Caserta — to accompany him on a surveillance of Whitmer’s home.
‘I default to getting as many other guys as possible, so whatever works to maximize attendance,’ the FBI agent wrote.
Dan brought in two more FBI informants – ‘Red,’ a supposed explosives expert, and a man known as Mark.
The group surveilled Whitmer’s home again, with Red talking to the group about the explosives they’d need to pull off the kidnapping.
On October 7, Dan drove a group of four of the Watchmen to a meeting with the others at a warehouse in Ypsilanti, where they planned to hand over cash so Red could buy the explosives.
On arrival, as planned, they were all arrested.
The group would only learn later of Dan’s role.
DAN MOVES HOME AS THE WATCHMEN FACE CHARGES
Dan has not been charged with any offense, and in December moved house, Buzzfeed reports.
Although the deal to become an informant was not initially about money, his handlers eventually gave him envelopes of cash, covered his mortgage and car payment, and also bought him a phone, computer, and new vehicle.
The FBI in total paid him $54,793. He has testified extensively against the others.
All have pleaded not guilty, except Garbin.
One defendant has formally accused the government of entrapment, arguing that the FBI assembled the key plotters, encouraged the group’s anti-government feelings, and even gave its members military-style training.
Additional defendants are intending to make similar claims, BuzzFeed reported.
One attorney is requesting all texts sent and received by Dan, and other attorneys are now considering motions that accuse the government of intentionally withholding evidence of entrapment.
HOW FBI USE NETWORK OF INFORMANTS IN NAME OF COUNTERTERRORISM
The Michigan case is widely seen as one of the most important domestic terrorism investigations in a generation.
It is a critical test for how the Biden administration approaches the growing threat of homegrown anti-government groups.
Yet it is also raising important questions about the influence of FBI infiltrators – in particular with reference to the Capitol riot on January 6.
On June 15, Congressman Matt Gaetz wrote a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray, asking three questions regarding the ‘extent … [to which] the three primary militia groups … [were] infiltrated by agencies of the federal government.’
He wanted to know ‘how many federal undercover agents or confidential informants were present at the Capitol or in the Capitol during the “siege”,’ and ‘how many [of the unindicted Jan. 6 co-conspirators] worked as a confidential informant or as an undercover operative for the federal government.’
He has asked for a response by August 1.
Tucker Carlson has also asked whether the FBI had incited the January 6 insurrectionists.
He said that the FBI’s strategy of ‘encouraging people and assisting people to participate and plot, largely scripted by the FBI itself,’ also appeared in an Islamic terror attack in Garland, Texas, where ‘it turns out that an FBI employee played an active role in that shooting.’
The Fox News host then played a clip from CNN where an official told Anderson Cooper that an undercover FBI agent ‘had been texting with [suspect Elton] Simpson less than three weeks before the attack … which, to me, was an encouragement to Simpson.’
FBI informants are told that they must be very careful to avoid enticing someone to commit acts which they otherwise wouldn’t do.
Many people end up becoming informants because they want to score points with the prosecution, such as reducing a sentence or having charges dismissed.
Yassin Aref is seen in August 2004. He was deported to Iraq in 2019 after almost 14 years in prison, having been caught in an FBI sting
Between 2012 and 2018, the FBI spent an average of $42 million a year on payments to confidential informants, which it officially calls confidential human sources, according to a recent audit of the program by the Justice Department’s inspector general.
Nearly 50 per cent of international-terrorism-related prosecutions since 2001 have involved informants, The New York Times reported in April.
They told the story of Shahawar Matin Siraj, now 38, who was accused in August 2004 of trying to blow up Herald Square in New York City.
Siraj was sentenced to 30 years in 2007.
Hamid Hayat, who was accused of visiting a terror training camp. He had his conviction overturned in 2019
The New York Times reported that Siraj became close to a much older man at his local mosque in Brooklyn, who would talk to him about outrages committed against Muslims.
Osama Eldawoody told Siraj that the FBI was harassing him, maybe because he was a Muslim who knew about nuclear engineering. They discussed the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and online images of Muslims being tortured and killed in the wars overseas, and Eldawoody and Siraj agreed that an attack that would hurt the United States economically would help save Muslim lives.
A third man, James Elshafay, suffering from schizophrenia and battling addiction, was introduced by Siraj to Eldawoody.
The trio began discussing a terrorist attack, but Siraj began to have doubts and told Eldawoody he was not interested.
Eldawoody was an FBI informant, and both Siraj and Elshafay were arrested and convicted – Elshafay receiving a five year sentence.
One of Siraj’s friends inside the Terre Haute prison in Indiana was a 25-year-old from Lodi, California, named Hamid Hayat.
Soon after the September 11 attacks, an FBI informant befriended Hayat, and the two discussed Islamist extremist groups and jihadist training camps.
While Hayat was on a family trip to Pakistan, the informant called and pressured him to visit a camp. Hayat made excuses, but the informant would not relent; finally, annoyed, he said he might go.
Hayat returned to the United States and was arrested by the FBI within days.
After hours of interrogation and sleep deprivation, he confessed to attending the training camp, though there is no evidence that he did, and he later recanted his confession.
Prosecutors, charging Hayat with providing material support, claimed that they had broken up a Qaeda sleeper cell in California, The New York Times reported. His conviction was overturned in late 2019 and Hayat was released.
Another man, Yassin Aref, an imam at an Albany mosque, was also convicted of terrorism in a post-9/11 FBI sting.
He had arrived in the city in 1999, as a U.N. refugee with his wife and children, fleeing Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
During his three-week trial in 2006, he learned that he was the target of a controversial FBI sting, which involved a Pakistani informant with a history of crime. In the end, he was convicted of, among other things, conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
‘I’m not only surprised that the jury convicted him, but I’m sure the judge was surprised too,’ said Stephen Gottlieb, a professor at Albany Law School.
He told New York Magazine: ‘They basically turned two decent men into criminals.’
Aref, who is Kurdish, spent 13 years in federal prison and eight months in immigration detention in Pennsylvania, and was deported to Iraq in 2019.
The same FBI informant who secured Aref’s conviction would then recruit four black Muslims from Newburgh, New York, to carry out terror attacks.
The four were all in desperate need of money: the informant had promised them $250,000 and a luxury car if they agreed to carry out the attacks.
One of the men, David Williams, needed money to pay for his younger brother’s cancer treatment, and another, Laguerre Payen, had a history of mental-health issues.
‘You’re trying to get people before they commit a crime,’ said David Cole, the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
He told The New York Times: ‘And if you’re doing that, you’re going to end up locking up a lot of people who probably would have never ended up committing a real crime. Who knows whether any of these people would have engaged in a terrorist act? I don’t know, you don’t know, the courts don’t know, the government doesn’t know.
‘But as a result, the courts tend to be very deferential, because they buy into the notion ‘Better safe than sorry.’