Paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim poses with the footprint of a predatory dinosaur in southeastern Morocco, near the Algerian border. Photo: Robert Loveridge
Like many kids, German-Moroccan paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim nursed a fascination for dinosaurs from a young age. The difference is, he grew up and actually found one.
Ibrahim vividly remembers learning about Spinosaurus, a massive aquatic dinosaur whose only known bones were destroyed during World War II. As a kid, Ibrahim dreamed of finding new fossils of this giant — and in his mid-20s, he succeeded. (Watch his talk, “How we unearthed the spinosaurus.”) He tells the TED Blog the story of how sheer determination and a bit of magic led him to find the world’s most complete specimen of spinosaurus, and how he’s reconstructing the ancient ecosystem it inhabited.
Can you actually say, “I have discovered a dinosaur”?
I can. I led the team that re-discovered Spinosaurus, a 50-foot-long carnivore who hunted its prey in rivers 97 million years ago. I also discovered a big flying reptile with a 20-foot wingspan — the largest flying creature that lived in Africa, that we know of. We call it Alanqa saharica. “Alanqa” is an Arabic/Persian name for the phoenix. You know how the phoenix dies and then rises from the ashes? Well, our flying reptile disappeared seemingly forever, but by finding the fossils, we allowed it to rise from the ashes so we could reconstruct it. “Saharica” means “desert,” so the name means “the phoenix from the desert.” We also have found remains of giant plant-eating dinosaurs, crocodile-like predators and many other prehistoric creatures.
Being a paleontologist is, for me, about more than just discovering dinosaurs. They are only small pieces in a much bigger picture. Since I was five, I’ve had a deep-seated fascination not only with dinosaurs but with animals of all kinds — with their anatomy and diversity. At the same time, my imagination was captured by the idea of traveling to places with exotic, magical names like “Timbuktu” or the “Gobi Desert.” So with paleontology, I get to combine all these passions.
A rendering of alanqa saharica, one of Ibrahim’s discoveries. This flying reptile had a 20-foot wingspan — and its name means “phoenix of the desert.” Artwork: Davide Bonadonna, advised by Nizar Ibrahim
In the Sahara Desert, I dig for fossils of the Cretaceous period, of creatures that lived there 100 million years ago, when the Sahara was a massive river system. I collect fossils of fish, turtles, flying reptiles, crocodile-like hunters, little amphibians. I also get to study the geology to understand what a river system looked like. With all the data I find, I reconstruct prehistoric ecosystems.
Ecosystems from the mid-Cretaceous of Africa are different from any we know of now. It was a time of extremes — extreme climates, extreme global warming and high sea levels, and a preponderance of giant predators on land, in the water and in the air. It was a very important — and unusual — period in the evolution of life.
It’s mind-boggling to think that the Sahara Desert was once an incredibly lush environment.
People sometimes forget about the deep time perspective. We’re so focused and obsessed with our tiny slice in time — our gadgets, Wall Street, what-have-you seem very important to us. But these might not even be visible in the future geological record. Really, we only inhabit a tiny episode of this incredible, epic story — the history of life on our planet. The greatest story out there.
Above: Watch Nizar Ibrahim’s TED Talk: “How we unearthed the Spinosaurus.”
What does a day in the life of a dinosaur hunter look like?
Well, it’s not a typical workday. We work under very interesting — and often difficult — conditions, mostly in the border region between Morocco and Algeria. When in the field, we go out to the desert with Land Rovers. Early explorers had camels — but that’s pretty much the only difference. We still have to work in scorching heat, with sandstorms and smugglers, bandits and snakes. We’ll stay in the desert for anywhere from a week to over a month, typically in tents.
Sometimes there are places in the middle of nowhere where you can get a meal and a place to sleep. But the Sahara is a lawless place. All the norms and infrastructure we take for granted often don’t exist. But it is also a pristine place, in many ways. It’s timeless. Camel caravans follow the same routes they did for hundreds of years.
For various geological reasons, fossils in the Moroccan-Algerian border region are often exposed along steep edges, so there’s a lot of climbing on sharp rocks involved. We spend a lot of time walking around, looking for ghosts from deep time: fossils. That’s the best way. You can’t really spot things out of a moving car.
What do you look for when you’re walking?
We’re looking for bone that’s weathering at the surface, so there’s a chance that there is more underground, where it’s been protected from erosion, rain and so on. We’re talking about hundreds of kilometers, so you really need to develop a pretty good eye. We do have geological maps, so we know roughly where rocks of the right age are cropping up. It’s difficult, though, especially in the Sahara. It’s much easier to look for fossils in Wyoming or Montana, or in famous fossil localities in Canada. There are parts of Canada where dinosaur skeletons are just lying around. Finding things in the Sahara is much, much harder. You’ll find bits and pieces, teeth, enough clues to reconstruct part of the ecosystem. But finding exceptionally well-preserved fossils or partial skeletons is like looking for a needle not in a haystack, but in a desert.
Laura Boykin, right, and fellow researcher Donald Kachigamba, at left, inspect African whiteflies feeding on cassava leaves at a farm near Namulonge, Uganda. While scientists once assumed there was only one species of whitefly worldwide, Boykin’s work has identified at least 34. Photo courtesy of Laura Boykin
For decades, the farmers of East Africa have battled the African whitefly, a tiny insect that infests the cassava crop. Cassava, also called manioc, arrowroot or tapioca, is an important food all over the world — more than half a billion people (yes, billion with a b) rely on cassava for their daily meals. For East African farmers, a whitefly infestation can completely destroy the year’s crop, and with it the food security for their families.
Yet surprisingly little is known about the whitefly itself. It’s only in the past few years, in fact, that scientists even knew whether there was more than one species — and now, it turns out, there are at least 34. Who’s counting? Computational biologist Laura Boykin, who studies the Bemisia tabaci whiteflies that plague East Africa, using genomics, supercomputing and evolutionary history. With the data she’s gathering, now publicly available via WhiteFlyBase , she hopes to help researchers breed new strains of cassava that resist the whitefly.
We asked Boykin to tell us more about her work, how she discovered this problem … and how she realized she had the right skills to help solve it.
Tell us about the whitefly and cassava. Why is this problem crucial to solve?
700 million people around the world depend on cassava for their daily calories. Without it, for many families, there’s no food and there’s no income. To understand the importance of cassava in a farmer’s life, read The Last Hunger Season, by Roger Thurow. Depending on the country, farmers typically have a one-acre plot, which might include beans and other crops. In Kenya, for example, they’ll grow maize and sweet potatoes, and cassava is a backup. It’s planted and takes a while to grow, so when all the other crops are gone, the family thinks, “Okay, the cassava will get us through the hunger season.” But if it’s rotten due to whitefly, there’s absolutely no food.
Whiteflies transmit two viruses that kill cassava: cassava mosaic disease and cassava brown streak disease. In tandem, these cause 100 percent loss of the crop. It’s a massive problem, especially in East Africa. I’m one of 15 principal investigators working on a new project whose mission is to give farmers a cassava plant that’s resistant to the viruses and the whiteflies. How do we get there? Whiteflies are a global problem, creating havoc on every continent. So first, it’s identifying what whiteflies and viruses are present in East Africa.
Where did the problem originate?
Cassava originates from South America, and was taken to Africa in the 1700s. But these viruses aren’t found in South America. The hypothesis is that they’d been lying dormant in African native vegetation. We think that the whiteflies feed on native shrubs, then go feed on cassava, transmitting the virus from the shrubs to the cassava plants.
Fortunately, the viruses haven’t yet spread to West Africa, the biggest cassava-producing place in the world. Right now, the virus is concentrated in a pocket of East Africa: Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The hope is that we can control the whiteflies enough so that they don’t spread.
The African cassava whitefly feeds on the underside of cassava leaves. The viruses that these whiteflies transmit destroy cassava plants and render their roots inedible. Photo courtesy of Laura Boykin
When did whitefly infestation start becoming a noticeable problem?
In the 1990s, researchers were attempting to control cassava mosaic disease that was breaking out in East Africa. They thought they had a control for it via traditional breeding. Then the cassava brown streak virus emerged; it turned out that whiteflies loved the new varieties that the researchers rolled out to control the first virus. In essence, the researchers had been trying to breed for virus resistance without taking into account that there might be different species of whiteflies.
We’ve done modeling based on genetic data indicating that Africa is the origin of the species, so it makes sense there will be the most diversity there. With that information, we are working to ensure that the people who are doing the plant breeding get the resistance right for all the whitefly species that the plant might encounter.
How did scientists not know that there was more than one species of whitefly?
This is the interesting part. The idea that there was only one species of whitefly worldwide was held for so long and became so ingrained that no one seems to care what the data says now. Meanwhile, the funding to do work on whiteflies — especially in sub-Saharan Africa — has been so scarce that no one was able to even look to see what’s there. It’s only been in the last seven years or so that people have started to do sampling of the region. The more we sample, the more we realize there are tons more species of whitefly in Africa than we ever thought.
One of the difficult things about identifying new species is that scientists are under pressure to not change their names, because then all the names within the governmental regulations have to be changed. There’s also pressure from chemical companies, who market their products for specific species. If we say there are 34 species — and not one — they have to test their products on all 34. We are creating more work for people, and there’s enormous resistance. But the science is the science. We need our solutions customized to the right enemy. It’s a non-negotiable point.
By the way, the whitefly is highly regulated around the world. Countries have massive regulations on whitefly moving across borders. It can transmit viruses to tomatoes, sweet potatoes and ornamental plants. They are dreaded worldwide.
Cassava root infested with cassava brown streak virus, transmitted by the whitefly. A healthy cassava root has a center that is a solid, creamy white. Photo courtesy of Laura Boykin
Above, watch Tal Danino’s TED Talk, “We can use bacteria to detect cancer (and maybe treat it).”
Did you know that bacteria can be programmed as though they were computers? Bioengineer and artist Tal Danino is working out how to instruct bacteria to enter cancerous tumors — where it can detect and treat the disease noninvasively. And when Danino isn’t tinkering with bacteria’s healing potential, he makes artwork with it.
With Danino’s TED talk recently posted, he tells the TED Blog more about bacteria and how the artistic process drives his scientific research.
Tell us about your work in studying and programming bacteria.
There are two really interesting aspects to this. The first is that there’s this entire universe of bacteria inside of you, and in the last five to ten years, there’s been a revolution in figuring out what your microbiome does. It’s a really big part of your identity as well as a part of how you respond to and digest foods, how you develop certain diseases, allergies, and so on. Historically, we’ve thought of bacteria in a negative light and have and worked to maintain sterile environments. Now a lot of the recent research suggests we’ve been too sterile — and that disorders such as allergies, diabetes and obesity are connected to our microbiome. We’ve realized that basically the bacteria in our bodies are usually good, and that they’re a very important part of our health.
Do we know exactly why bacteria are so important to our health?
We don’t yet. We know a lot, and every week we find out a new fact. For example, we now know that the way that you were delivered when you were born — whether it was by caesarian section or traditionally — affects frequency of allergies, or that if you take antibiotics often in the early years of your life it can affect health processes down the road, such as development of asthma. If you grew up with a dog, for example, studies have shown you are less likely to develop allergies or asthma, because dogs can spread bacteria around that develop the immune system and help it to mature when you’re younger.
In my work, we are not only recognizing the importance of bacteria, but we are changing them. There’s this whole other revolution in which we are learning how to program life, similar to how we program computers.
Our technology has reached a point where we can write DNA like we would computer code. As a grad student, I started genetically programming bacteria to talk to each other, and to produce synchronized patterns. Then, as a postdoc, as this bacterial revolution was happening, I began to think about how we can program bacteria in our bodies. That’s when I started to develop bacteria to detect and treat cancer.
Above, watch “Supernova” — a video of bacteria growing a microfluidic device. Through a genetic program, Danino has created synchronized oscillations that you can see because of fluorescent proteins. Taken from Danino et al. Nature 2010
How does one program bacteria? What does this mean?
What we’re doing is modifying the DNA of bacteria. Without getting into technical detail, we have machines that can print out the letters of DNA, like A-T-G-C, and we’ve studied what sequences produce what function for quite some time. So for instance, there is a specific string of 500 letters or so that produces a purple-colored molecule. I print and cut-and-paste these DNA sequences, and put them into bacteria to instruct them to do certain things. In this case, I instruct the bacteria to make a purple molecule if they come into contact and grow within cancer cells, and the color is visible in urine, creating a noninvasive way to detect the disease. We’ve also been using this technique to program bacteria to make molecules that treat cancer, causing the tumors to shrink or slow in growth. Researchers like me are thinking, “What can we program bacteria to do if they find a tumor?” We’ve been working on these ideas in mice with liver cancer.
What bacteria do you use to detect and treat cancer? Are there cancer-causing bacteria that you target?
Except for a few really specific cases, there’s not really a bacterium that causes cancer, so whatever bacteria we use simply need to be able to colonize the body’s tumors — we can use E. coli, Salmonella, and so on, bacteria that will thrive in anyone’s body. In fact, we’ve also been using probiotic bacteria, or ‘good’ bacteria — like those in yogurt — for these tasks. So imagine in the future eating a programmed probiotic that could detect and treat cancer, or even other diseases. That’s the goal of my research.
A pattern made of liver cells. From the Colonies series, a collaboration with Vik Muniz. Image: Vik Munoz
How do the programmed bacteria find the tumors?
If you deliver bacteria orally or via the blood, they land in all of the various organs in your body, as well as in tumors. Normally your immune system is really good at clearing out bacteria, but in cancerous tumors, there’s a weird area called the necrotic core where bacteria can hide because the immune system can’t get in there, and so the bacteria will just happily grow in these tumors.
This was something that people observed maybe 150 years ago, a random interesting fact. The story behind it was that a woman who had a tumor in her neck came into the hospital, and when she got a bacterial infection, her tumor stopped growing. It was the very first time it was observed that bacteria and tumors have this cool interaction.
But it wasn’t really considered safe to treat tumors with bacteria, and we didn’t know how to manipulate bacteria at the time. Today, we are able to program bacteria to be safe — so you won’t actually become infected with E. coli — and program them to do things they don’t normally do.
Why do you use bacteria to make art?
The art I do highlights the science I do in a very different way. I recently did a collaboration with an artist named Anicka Yi. It came out of a conversation where I was telling her about how there are 10 times more bacterial cells in the body than human cells — that’s interesting fact number one. Interesting fact number two is that there are 100 times more bacterial genes. So really, in terms of genetic material, we’re 1% human. The bacteria in your body are a really large and unique part of your identity.
Anicka was interested in doing a piece on how art and bacteria relate to feminism in expressing a woman as a female pathogen or a viral concept. In the project that evolved, she collected bacterial samples from 100 women, and I grew them on petri dishes for a month or two. The exhibit consisted of these petri dishes — bacterial portraits, in a way — as well as a giant petri dish that was 7 feet long, made entirely out of bacteria from all these women, spelling out the name of the show. As bacteria are also responsible for scents, you could smell it as you walked in.
A 7-foot-long petri dish spelling out the name of exhibition You Can Call Me F, a collboration between Tal Danino and Anicka Yi. Photo: Tal Danino
Social entrepreneur Trang Tran is teaching Vietnamese farmers how to use rice straw as a material in which to grow profitable mushrooms, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve livelihoods. Photo: Fargreen
In agricultural entrepreneur Trang Tran’s native Vietnam, farmers traditionally burn the straw and husks that remain after the rice harvest. This practice happens at least twice a year for two months at a time, releasing noxious smoke and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Tran’s solution: using rice straw to cultivate mushrooms. Her social enterprise Fargreen is standardizing the process and teaching farmers how to recycle their own agricultural waste and improve their livelihoods. We asked Tran to tell us about how the idea evolved.
How did you become interested in the burning of rice straw as an environmental problem? Did you come from a farming community?
I’m from a little province called Hà Nam, two hours south of Hanoi, the capital city. My parents are not farmers, but Vietnam is an agricultural country, so everyone is surrounded by rice farms. Even if you live in Hanoi, the nearest farm is only a half an hour away.
Rice straw burning is something that happens every harvest season, and it happens all around us. It’s been done for many years, and it’s considered the most convenient way of getting rid of waste. Straw is perceived as having no value — farmers just want to get it out of the way as soon as possible in order to prepare for the next crop. In Vietnam, 20 to 50 million tons of rice straw are burned annually, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Obviously this contributes to climate change, but the more immediate problem is that local people inhale the matter, causing serious health problems in communities — particularly in babies. Poor communities are most affected, and of course they have the least money for health care.
When rice straw is being burned, it’s very smoggy, and it’s hard to breathe. It also blocks visibility. A lot of car accidents happen during harvest season. It’s crazy — whenever I have to travel from my home to Hanoi for work, or come home during harvest season, rice straw is being burned along both sides of the road and it is very dangerous for drivers.
In rice-producing countries, rice straw is often burned on the field in preparation for new crops. Photo: Scott Gable
Why is straw burned on roads? Why not just on the field?
The part of the rice plant left in the ground after the harvest is burnt right on the field. But the part left over after threshing is piled by the side of the road. There isn’t much space to store the agricultural waste once it’s been threshed, especially in Northern Vietnam, and roadsides are typically far enough away from houses that the straw can be safely burned. Some people also believe burning straw on the field helps the soil, but it’s actually really damaging because the soil gets drier and drier, and it just gets harder to farm it every year. The straw can’t just be buried because there is too much of it; composting rice straw requires a special technique and takes time. There’s a real need for the farmers to clear the field for the next round of rice cultivation — we plant two crops in Northern Vietnam and three in Southern Vietnam.
How did you come up with the idea to use rice straw to grow mushrooms?
My background is in international development. When I went to get my MBA in Colorado State, I kept thinking about this problem of rice straw waste back home. I had always seen this as an environmental problem, but getting my MBA gave me a way to see the problem differently and find a new way to approach it. My friend Thuy Dao, who was a fellow undergraduate back in Vietnam but in the biotechnology department, shared my fascination. Once I joked with her, “Oh, maybe someday we’ll work together on this problem.” Later, when I was talking to people to find a collaborator, her name popped into my head. So I contacted her and we started doing research.
Of course, we were not the first to tackle this problem. We looked into the various ways other researchers have considered to deal with rice straw. But because we grew up in the community as well as working in development, we could see from the local perspective that the problem is far more complex than just the act of burning. You have to ask, “What is the motivation for farmers? What’s in it for them not to burn?” If there’s nothing in it for them, and burning saves time so they can prepare for their next crop, then you can’t blame them for wanting to continue.
Mushrooms grown on rice straw are sorted and weighed before being sold to restaurants and grocery stores. Being able to stay home to cultivate profitable mushrooms between rice seasons prevents farmers from traveling to the city to find work. Photo: Fargreen
So we tried to think a bit differently — what can we offer the farmers that would make it worth it for them not to burn? In between rice seasons, most of the farmers we work with — many of them women — have to travel to the city to find employment. They don’t have skills to compete in the job market, so all they can get in cities are low-level jobs — picking up trash for recycling and so on. If they can stay on their land and cultivate a profitable crop between rice seasons, it would alleviate a lot of hardship.
One day, we discovered in our research that rice straw can be used to grow mushrooms. We saw that it wasn’t very complex, so we bought some spawn, collected some straw to the back of the house and grew a crop.
What were the varieties of mushrooms that you grew?
We grew paddy straw, oysters and white button. Our first harvest was only a few kilograms, but they were so good! At first we hadn’t even realized that the used straw could then be recycled back to the field. But we saw that the straw had turned into really good compost, because the fungi had helped break it down. Nearby farmers said, “Well, if you want to get rid of it, we’d love to get that to the field for you.” We said OK. We also started to experiment with planting potatoes with the used straw — you put the potatoes in soil, and layer the straw over it to provide more nutrients. We got a really good crop.
We all want to invent that game-changing product, launch that successful company, write that best-selling book. Yet so few of us actually do it. In this recently released talk — which has already almost hit a million views — Brazilian entrepreneur Bel Pesce breaks down five easy-to-believe myths that ensure your dream projects will never come to fruition.
Photographer Boniface Mwangi wanted to protest against corruption in his home country of Kenya. So he made a plan: He and some friends would stand up and heckle during a public mass meeting. But when the moment came, he stood alone. What happened next, he says, showed him who he truly was. As he says, “There are two most powerful days in your life. The day you are born, and the day you discover why.” Warning: this talk contains graphic images.
In this short, provocative talk, architect Alison Killing looks at buildings where death and dying happen — cemeteries, hospitals, homes. The way we die is changing, and, she argues, maybe the way we build for dying should too. Listen to this fascinating take on a hidden aspect of our cities and lives, and to learn more about Killing and her work, read “Design for dying: Alison Killing on the architecture of death” on the TED Blog.
Trevor Aaronson speaks during Fellows Session 2, TED2015 – Truth and Dare, March 16-20, 2015, Kay Meek Center, West Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED
On Monday, investigative journalist Trevor Aaronson made a rather startling allegation from the TED Fellows stage: that the FBI is responsible for more terrorism plots in the United States than Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab and ISIS combined. (Read a full recap of his talk on the TED Blog.)
Incited by the post-9/11 mandate to find terrorists before they strike, said Aaronson, the FBI orchestrates terror plots, framing mentally ill and economically desperate Muslim-Americans as would-be terrorists, helping them to create — then foiling — the plot in a sting operation and scoring points in the War on Terror. On Monday, he published a report in The Intercept releasing leaked sealed records, offering evidence that the FBI knows what it’s up to. We sat down with Aaronson after his talk to find out more.
What is the significance of the leaked documents published Monday in The Intercept?
This story gives access to sealed transcripts of conversations the FBI had in private when they were working the sting operation that targeted Sami Osmakac, who was accused of planning terrorist attacks. In the recorded conversation, FBI agents themselves suggest that they didn’t think Osmakac was dangerous. They call him a “retarded fool” who doesn’t have “a pot to piss in.” They say his plans are “wishy-washy.” This is in stark contrast to the government portrayal of Osmakac after his arrest as a truly dangerous terrorist.
The greater significance is that Osmakac’s is not a unique case. These types of sting operations have targeted more than 175 people in the United States. What this offers is a rare, if not first-ever, look into such a sting operation as it unfolded.
So you’re saying the FBI knows exactly what it’s doing.
Yes. The greatest piece of evidence that the government had on Sami Osmakac was that he had provided $500 to an undercover agent posing as a weapons supplier, and the government used that to say he had the commitment and capacity to commit an act of terrorism. From the sealed transcripts, it’s clear that the FBI agents knew Sami didn’t have any money. He didn’t have the ability to raise any money, and the FBI gave him a job through an informant, paid that informant, then through that informant gave Sami Osmakac $500. So the money that is ultimately being used as incriminating evidence against Sami has its origin in the US government.
An excerpt from the leaked transcript published Monday in The Intercept, in which FBI squad supervisor Richard Worms refers to the hoped-for “Hollywood ending” to their undercover sting operation. Image courtesy of Trevor Aaronson
How does one identify an event that appears staged versus something that really seems like a threat?
Take, for example, someone like Faisal Shahzad, who delivered a bomb to Times Square that thankfully didn’t go off. He was in contact with terrorist organizations. He went to Pakistan to train, came back, worked on his bomb, delivered it to Times Square, and the government had no idea who he was until that bomb was in New York City.
The difference between Faisal Shahzad and someone like Sami Osmakac is that Faisal Shahzad got his capacity by training overseas and had his own weapons. Sami Osmakac and these 175 others never had connections overseas, never had weapons of their own and often didn’t even have two nickels to rub together. It was the FBI agent or undercover informant who gave them the opportunity or money to move forward in the attack.
The FBI is really great at finding those types of terrorists, who on their own can’t do much. Maybe say they want to, and the FBI empowers them. The record of the FBI catching people before they strike, people who are actually dangerous like Faisal Shahzad, or the Boston Marathon bombers, is not very good.
What is the FBI’s motivation for staging terror plots?
I think it’s a bureaucratic evil. Congress sets the FBI’s budget, and gives them $3.3 billion for counterterrorism. They can’t go back to Congress every year and say, “Hey, we spent your $3 billion and we didn’t find any terrorists.” These sting operations are a very convenient mechanism for the FBI to say, “Hey, look at us keeping you safe.” I think there are true believers in the FBI who think that someone like Sami Osmakac could become a terrorist if, say, he one day met a real Al Qaeda operative, or an Islamic State operative, who’d provide the bomb.
It’s a reasonable argument, but in the 14 years since 9/11, there hasn’t been a case yet that a wannabe terrorist like Sami Osmakac meets a true international terrorist who provides the means and opportunity.
As an FBI agent, once you get one of these cases, you can get promoted, so there is incentive for agents themselves to find these types of cases. In turn, the FBI agents incentivize informants, many of whom are hardened criminals, to find people who are interested in committing acts of terrorism. So instead of finding the Faisal Shahzads, they are finding the mentally ill guy who is mouthing off at the mosque, and they get him to move along in a sting operation.
Photo from the Sami Osmakac sting operation. Image courtesy of Trevor Aaronson
So are people like Osmakac simply innocent people being targeted for money by corrupt informants?
You can’t paint it that starkly, because the truth is, Sami says things in the undercover recordings that make him an unlikeable, even odious, person. He does, in these recordings, condone violence. He does say various things justifying violence against the American public because of the government’s policies overseas. But how much of this came from him, and how much of this is the result of manipulating a mentally ill man?
I think you can make a solid argument that Sami had some very misguided ideas and that he was also mentally ill. He’s been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. His misguided ideas were encouraged by the FBI agent and the informant. When Sami was left on his own, he said he wasn’t interested in violence — he only wanted to go overseas and marry a Muslim woman. But when he talked to the informant, he was more like, “Hey, how can we get involved in a terrorist attack?”
It’s difficult. If someone came up to you or me and said, “Want to place a bomb somewhere?” We’d say, “No way!” Most people would say that, but the FBI is finding people who are willing to say yes. But having bad thoughts isn’t a crime. It’s a crime if you commit an act of terrorism. The people in these 175 cases, like Sami’s, never would have had the capacity to get involved in a crime of that caliber were it not for the FBI providing the means and opportunity — and in many cases the idea for the act itself.
Where did you find the evidence for the 175 cases? How long has this all been known?
I was an investigative reporting fellow at UC Berkeley in 2011, and my project then — which became a Mother Jones story and later a book, The Terror Factory — was to look at all of the terrorism cases in the 10 years after 9/11. We were able to break down, of the 508 terrorism cases we looked at, there were 149 people caught in stings. I’ve kept that running tally going since then, as more cases are announced, and now we’re up to more than 175. Whenever the government announces a case, it goes in my database of cases. My data has been used by Human Rights Watch in their recent report. It also went to the FBI, and they have never challenged it.
Given that the FBI stop the would-be terrorists just in time, and it’s all staged, surely one could make the argument that there was no harm done?
The key phrase you’ll hear when the FBI announces a sting is, “The public was never in harm’s way.” Of course they weren’t — the FBI is staging the whole thing. They have a very specific formula for how they do this. In Sam Osmakac’s case, he loaded an inert in his car, and started to deliver it. As soon as he started to back out, FBI agents arrested him. In other cases, the FBI has had people deliver a bomb and dial a cell phone, and when the bomb doesn’t detonate, they are arrested. They take the target all the way to the end of the operation so that prosecutors can say to the jury, “This guy intended to do it — he went all the way.” But of course the plot is under the FBI’s control the entire time. FBI agents are monitoring them, and the only weapons these people have are fake ones provided by the undercover government agents.
Photo of Sami Osmakac taken during the sting operation. Image courtesy of Trevor Aaronson
Of course, Osmakac thinks he is working with real terrorists.
Exactly. Then he’s busted, having no idea that the FBI was with him the entire way.
Based on jury verdicts, this is not something that the US public is uncomfortable with. Federal prosecutors have a near-perfect record of conviction on cases like this. Sami Osmakac was the 12th person to argue entrapment as a result of these sting operations, and he wasn’t successful, None has been successful. I think that it raises questions about whether a Muslim charged with terrorism in the United States right now can really get a fair trial. These counterterrorism sting operations have been criticised by a number of organizations, including Human Rights Watch.
Is Osmakac really the only victim in all of this?
He’s going to spend 40 years in prison. I think you could make a strong argument that Sami Osmakac deserved to go to a mental hospital and spend some time there, and sort out what’s going on. It’s a harder argument to make that he’s a terrorist and should be in federal prison under maximum security. A lot of these guys are mentally ill, and I think if we perhaps had a better-funded mental health system in the United States, these are the type of people who would be swept into that system. Instead, they are swept into an FBI dragnet, portrayed to the public as terrorists, and spend the majority of their lives in federal prison, charged as terrorists, under laws that were written, and with mandatory sentencing guidelines that intended, for the Osama bin Ladens of the world.
Now that the Intercept story is out, what do you think the response will be?
I’ve been writing about this topic for five years now and the FBI policy hasn’t changed. Positive things have happened. Human Rights Watch coming out with a report last summer that supported my reporting was certainly nice. But there has yet to be a congressional committee that looks at these issues; there has yet to be significant congressional oversight of these issues.
I think this most recent story about Sami Osmakac advances the narrative on FBI counterterrorism stings. From the transcripts, It is clear that the FBI agents were cynical and even at times mean-spirited in their private jokes about Osmakac. It’s also clear from the transcripts that they didn’t think he was dangerous — but was simply a patsy, someone they could prosecute.
Boniface Mwangi stands in front of one of the murals he helped create. The main character is “the Vulture” — a stand-in for Kenya’s corrupt politicians. Photo: Allan Gichingi
Award-winning photojournalist Boniface Mwangi captured the 2007-2008 post-election violence in Kenya unflinchingly through the lens of his camera. But the horrors he witnessed propelled him into a new career as an activist and artist. Here, Mwangi talks to the TED Blog about the events that led him to stand up against injustice, literally, rather than simply document it.
Tell us about your experience on the front lines of the post-election violence in Kenya.
At the time, I was a photographer working for The Standard, one of the largest newspapers in Kenya. It was a routine election, though hotly contested. There were two contenders: Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki won — at least he claimed that he won — while Raila claimed that he was the rightful winner and that Kibaki had rigged the election. So the supporters of the two politicians erupted into fighting over the results. What followed was ugly, bloody, terrible violence. More than a thousand people were killed, and more than half a million displaced. My job was just to document this violence as a photographer.
Why do you think this particular event created such a violent response?
During the build-up of the election, there was a lot of terrible tribal rhetoric. The politicians were inciting people, slowly. Whatever the outcome was, the losing side would not be ready to accept the results. There were a lot of underlying, unresolved issues; a violent response was inevitable. It didn’t just happen. It was very deliberate.
Boniface Mwangi was assigned to photograph the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007. His photos are unflinching, capturing violence from both civilians and soldiers. Photo: Boniface Mwangi
Did you see it coming?
No. No one saw it coming. You see, we’d had elections before in 1992 and 1997 where people died — maybe 10, 20, 50, 100 — but it was a scattered number and relatively few. The sheer brutality of 2007’s events — this level of orchestrated violence — had never been seen before in Kenya.
Did other Kenyans try to stop it?
The violence was in low-income neighborhoods, and most Kenyans did not know the extent of what was going on. If you are extremely poor, you only get your news on the radio. All those communities heard about were numbers of the dead and displaced, and they couldn’t relate. If you’re middle class, you might get the paper or watch TV, but graphic pictures were not shown because TV content is classified for family audiences. Most Kenyans did not see what really happened.
What were the police doing while this was happening?
By and large, the monstrosity of the violence overwhelmed them. Unfortunately, the police were perpetrators as well. I took pictures of women who had been raped by the policemen who were meant to protect them. I saw innocent kids being killed by police. During the violence, I only broke down once — when a girl was killed. She was about 12 years old, and she looked like my younger sister. That made me wail like a baby.
How do you take pictures in the face of such violence? Are you concerned about your personal safety?
When I’m taking pictures, I’m not thinking about the person. I’m thinking about lighting, framing, composition. There is so much adrenaline in your body that you’re not thinking about death. You’re not careless — you’re careful while you’re doing your work — but at the same time you realize that you have to do a job. If you’re a news photographer, or any photographer, and you get a chance to cover hard news like war, it’s stimulating and also humbling. It’s every news photographer’s dream to cover war. So at that particular time, I wasn’t really thinking about safety.
In some parts of the world, half of the women lack basic reading and writing skills. The reasons vary, but in many cases, literacy isn’t valued by fathers, husbands, even mothers. Kuwaiti-born photographer and TED Fellow Laura Boushnak traveled to countries including Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia to document some of the women — schoolgirls, political activists, 60-year-old moms — who are fighting cultural odds for the sake of education. Listen to Boushnak’s talk, then see a gallery of her images on the TED Ideas Blog >>>