Chapter 65: The Pinsetters

Americans know what a pinsetter is.
Sherlock Holmes rang for Mrs. Hudson and asked her to bring up another pot of coffee. I refilled my pipe and sat quietly, waiting for my friend to resume speaking.

"Fred used the term 'pinsetter,'" said Holmes, "and I had to ask him what he meant. We're too English, he says, Watson! Americans know what a pinsetter is."

"Do tell," I said.

"The word comes from the game they call 'bowling,' which has nothing to do with cricket, unfortunately. An American 'bowler' rolls a large, heavy ball down a long, narrow strip of hardwood called a 'lane' with the intention of knocking down the pins standing at the far end. And a pinsetter is a machine at the far end of the lane, which collects the pins that have been knocked down and sets them up for the next shot."

"It sounds very complicated," I said.

"The Americans say the same about cricket," said Holmes.

"Fair enough," I nodded, wondering where Holmes was leading me with this.

"Fred says the terror-sting entrapment program being run in the US is so obvious it reminds him of bowling: he called it 'Bowling For Terrorists.' In his view, the FBI and local police forces seem to be recruiting 'pinsetters,' agents provocateurs whose job is to set up the terrorist 'pins' so that the government can 'knock them down.'

Osama Eldawoody
"Quite often, he says, the 'pins' are assigned 'attack plans' that are either physically impossible, or at any rate infinitely beyond their capabilities. This is done deliberately, he says, so they can never make any progress, and they can never really hurt anybody. Once set up, these harmless 'terror cells' can then be knocked down at times which promise the most political advantage."

"It appears the 'Easter Bombers' were arrested solely for the political advantage inherent in the timing," I remarked.

"Quite so," said Holmes. "Fred told me about a case with similarly political timing, from 2004 in New York City. A pinsetter named Osama Eldawoody set up two pins: a doe-eyed innocent named Shahawar Matin Siraj, who, according to his parents, never had a violent thought in his life until Eldawoody started coming around, and a mental patient named James Elshafay, who was strung out on a combination of psycho-therapeutic medications and had no idea what was happening.

"The latter two are known as the 'Herald Square Bombers' or the 'Subway Bombers' because the police claimed they were plotting to attack the tube station near New York's famous Herald Square. Fred says it's obvious that the police are lying and it's equally obvious that the 'Subway Bombers' were entrapped."

"How so?" I asked.

"Siraj and Elshafay were arrested, charged, tried, and convicted," replied my friend, "even though they had no bombs, no access to bombs, no way to make bombs, and -- aside from the claims of Eldawoody -- no apparent ill intent. When he was arrested, Siraj was carrying a hand-drawn map of the tube station, allegedly marked with the location where he thought a bomb could be placed to do the most damage."

"Is that proof of anything?" I asked.

"The prosecution also played recordings," said Holmes, "in which Siraj tells Eldawoody he can't participate in anything without permission from his mother!"

Shahawar Matin Siraj
"These are serious terrorists?" I asked, and Holmes shook his head from side to side.

"The arrests were timed," he said, "to preempt protests against the Republican Party's National Convention, at which George W. Bush was to be nominated to run for a second term as President. Bush had been campaigning on the mantra, 'We've Kept America Safe,' and the people of New York, where enormous damage had been done, allegedly by foreign terrorists, early in Bush's first term, were not especially receptive to the message.

"Many of them were unhappy that this President was in their city at all, much less that he had come there -- of all places -- to celebrate the prospect of 'Four More Years.' They were even less happy about his using the ruins of their skyline as a backdrop for what they called outrageous political propaganda. And they were preparing a show of numbers against him.

"And then, guess what? Just before the Convention was to begin, there was news of a major terror arrest! Those who intended to protest now faced claims that they were terrorist sympathizers, and heard cries of, 'How can you protest against us when we're doing so much to keep you safe?' And the momentum of events swung quickly in favour of the government.

"It was only much later, after those who still dared to protest had been viciously attacked by the police, that the Siraj case came to trial and it emerged that no bombs or any other weapons were found in the possession of either defendant. This single fact demonstrated quite clearly that the government's pre-Convention claims of having broken up an imminent plot were false. But had they broken up any plot at all?

"The Siraj family sat quietly through the trial, thinking their son and brother would be found not guilty because of the many signs that he had been set up. But after he was convicted and sentenced to thirty years, his father finally spoke up, and dared to use the 'E' word! He told the local press he believed his son had been entrapped, and the very next morning the police knocked down the entire family! Siraj's mother, father, and sister were all arrested and taken away, held incommunicado on what appeared to be bogus immigration charges."

James Elshafay
"Shades of the 'Easter Bombers' again," I said.

"Are you starting to see patterns?" asked Holmes. "It took me a bit of time to begin doing that, too, and mostly, I think, it was because the stories Fred told me were so 'American.' We truly are two cultures divided by a common language, Watson. We try so hard to be unlike them, and they try so hard to be unlike us, that we all find it easier to note the differences than to grasp the similarities. That's my hypothesis, anyway."

"It sounds reasonable enough," I admitted.

"But the longer Fred talked," said the detective, "the more I began to see connections between the tales he was telling and the stories you have been reading about, until it was obvious to me that the theoretical framework he was using, homely though it may seem with its talk of 'pins' and 'pinsetters,' could be very useful to us as well.

"Remember the 'Liquid Bombers' case?" Holmes continued. "The six men who made martyrdom videos were all convicted and sentenced to long prison terms. But Mohammed Gulzar, who kept the videos, didn't make one himself -- allegedly because he was so valuable to al Q'aeda. And Gulzar was acquitted of all charges. I think it's fair to ask the question: was Mohammed Gulzar a pinsetter?"

"It has occurred to me," I added, "that in the 'Easter Bombers' case, the man known only as 'XC' may also have been a pinsetter. He was apparently the only suspect who was in email contact with Pakistan, and the government has kept his identity secret. We don't even know whether he was the one suspect of the twelve who was released immediately, but would you be surprised if he was?"

"Would you?" asked Holmes. "In the American terror-entrapment cases, according to Fred, the pinsetters always seem to be taking their direction from the FBI, or else local police. But in the bogus-terror cells we've seen here, and which you have been reading about for most of the past week, the pinsetters seem to be controlled remotely, via email, from Pakistan."

"And, if Slate is correct," I said, "Gareth Williams was reading all that email."

The detective sat quietly, and I paused to consider the implications before I spoke again. "Holmes, do you think Gareth might have seen something in the email which led him to suspect there might be something fishy about the 'terrorist cells' he was busting?"

"No," said Sherlock Holmes. "That is not what I think."