Very few events make me want to chant “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi,” but the revelation that the American internet troll Joshua Goldberg was obsessed with Australia because our left is so “unspeakably stupid” has lit a patriotic fire in my heart and soul. Well done, men and women of Australia.
According to The Sydney Morning Herald report by Elise Potaka and Luke McMahon, Goldberg adopted a dizzying array of online personas in order to smear the reputations of those he regarded as threats to free speech (step forward, Australian supporters of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act), alongside feminists, white supremacists and critics of the state of Israel. However, it was his persona as the Australian Islamic State supporter “Australi witness” that bought the FBI to his family’s doorstep when he provided a “confidential human source (CHS)” (essentially an FBI informant) with instructions for building a bomb along with a suggested target to mark the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
Potaka and McMahon report that they began their investigation into Goldberg’s trolling after he set up fake Facebook pages under the identities of both Potaka and Junaid Thorne, the Australian Muslim preacher who was sentenced to nine months’ jail (reduced to eight) for taking a domestic flight under a false name. However, Potaka and Thorne were already in conversation and soon realised that both had been targeted by the same troll. Potaka and McMahon investigated further, discovering the troll’s multiple online personas and connecting them to the young man in Florida. McMahon eventually contacted Goldberg, identifying himself as a journalist and asking about his intentions and motives. With Goldberg’s identity confirmed, Fairfax went to the Australian Federal Police, who in turn notified the FBI.
However, the FBI’s 32-page affidavit on the case states that by the time the AFP notified them about their interview with “an individual who worked in Australia with the initials L.M.” (presumably Luke McMahon), their investigation into Goldberg was already well underway. “This information is provided to the Court out of an abundance of caution and the aforementioned information regarding the hoax was not known to the FBI at the beginning of the investigation.”
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Goldberg certainly appears to be a highly unpleasant and possibly dangerous personality. My friend Mariam Veiszadeh has become a prominent target for racist cyberbullying since she began campaigning against Islamophobia in Australia. She has received a tidal wave of online abuse from around the world, a Queensland woman has been charged with using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence to her — and she also attracted the attention of Joshua Goldberg. His “Australi Witness” persona claimed that she was a personal friend and fellow IS supporter, while Goldberg himself described her as a “Muslim whore”.
Yet as noxious as Goldberg’s behaviour has been, it is also possible that an Islamophobic troll has fallen victim to the FBI’s notoriously Islamophobic entrapment practices. The FBI’s record of sting operations against disaffected Muslims has been analysed in a 2014 Human Rights Watch report as well as The Muslims Are Coming!, a book by US academic Arun Kundnani.
Both Human Rights Watch and Kundnani describe the case of the “Newburgh Four”, a group of poverty-stricken Muslim men from New York who were arrested after planting what they believed to be explosives outside a synagogue at the behest of an FBI informant. The informant had carefully groomed his targets for months, handing out cash, badgering them whenever they attempted to back out, and promising a payout of US$250,000 once the terrorist act was actually committed. One of the Newburgh Four was helping to care for a brother with liver cancer at the time; the informant offered to pay for a liver transplant in return for his participation in the terrorist plot. At their trial, the judge noted: “I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except that the government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition.”
However, as the Human Rights Watch report points out, “US law requires that to prove entrapment a defendant show both that the government induced him to commit the act in question and that he was not ‘predisposed’ to commit it.” The Newburgh Four’s religious and political opinions were regarded as enough to establish predisposition. They were sentenced to 25 years in prison by the same judge who had criticised the FBI for its role in instigating and facilitating the crime.
Goldberg may well be able to prove government inducement, but based on his reported interaction with journalists as well his prior online behaviour, he would have a much more difficult time establishing a lack of predisposition. “Australi Witness” had a long record of threatening online behaviour, including calling upon Muslims to attack the Islamophobic “Draw Muhammad” event in Texas and then praising the two men who were shot dead attempting to undertake such an attack. Yet whether or not he would have crossed the line into “distributing information relating to explosives, destructive devices, and weapons of mass destruction” without the encouragement of the FBI’s “confidential human source” remains an open question.
Goldberg has now been sent for a psychiatric assessment to determine his competence to stand trial. A large proportion of Muslims charged in similar circumstances have also had records of mental illness but have nonetheless been convicted and sentenced. Like them, Goldberg is an easy target for entrapment. It will be interesting to see whether or not he suffers the same fate.
Should he be found competent, I would be delighted to see Goldberg held legally accountable for his racist and misogynist harassment of Mariam Veiszadeh and others to whom he took exception. But these are not the crimes for which he has been charged. And as sinister as trolls like Goldberg may be, FBI sting operations are more sinister still.