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“The whole thing was a clinic in how to cover your butt,”

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In the Wall Street Journal, Brett Forrest writes about a young man named Billy Reilly. Mr. Reilly was recruited by the FBI to do counterterrorism work.

Over the years, Billy had delved into the Boston Marathon bombers, cultivated alleged Islamic State recruiters, analyzed Syria’s civil war and conversed with Russian-backed separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine. He used online aliases to penetrate terror groups over computers from the family home in Oxford, Mich.

After 9/11, Congress mandated the transformation of the FBI from a domestic law-enforcement agency into a global policing and intelligence body. The number of FBI confidential sources subsequently ballooned, a former senior bureau official said.

The FBI’s counterterrorism work grew to preventing attacks. To help, the agency recruited workers like Billy Reilly, part-timers with the right skills to infiltrate terror or criminal networks, either in person or through online chat rooms and social media.

Forrest interviewed Billy’s parents, who told him,

…over the course of four years, the Reillys would learn that no one in government wanted to take responsibility for their son’s work or for his safety, and that the families of confidential sources have little recourse when the FBI severs ties with their loved ones.

Billy disappeared.

Alarmed that Agent Reintjes was hiding information about their son’s disappearance, Mr. Reilly, a retired Teamsters driver for Coca-Cola, and Mrs. Reilly, for years a stay-at-home mom, began a quest to find Billy themselves.

The Journal posed more than 100 questions to the FBI. Brian P. Hale, a spokesman, responded in an email: “The FBI never directed William Reilly to travel overseas to perform any work for the FBI.”

…Billy Reilly entered a Catholic high school months before the September 11 terrorist attacks changed the world. Taken by the nation’s patriotic mood, several of his school friends later enlisted in the military. Billy’s curiosity stirred him to study Islam and begin teaching himself Arabic and Russian.

His parents watched as he developed an unconventional view of the world. Billy’s sympathies settled on those he saw as disenfranchised, and he hung the flags of Chechnya and Palestine in his bedroom. He also wandered the radical edges of the internet. “Wherever he was getting his information,” a school friend said, “it was different than the rest of us.”

Billy told friends he had converted to Islam. During Ramadan, he fasted in the school lunchroom. In class, he read the Quran. While it wasn’t clear how serious Billy was about Islam, his younger sister made a firm commitment, converting to the religion and later marrying a Muslim man.

Mr. and Mrs. Reilly struggled to understand their two children. Mr. Reilly had Irish ancestry, and Mrs. Reilly’s family was from Poland. They shared Detroit roots and since 1980 had lived in Oxford, a township of about 22,000.

…From the family home, Billy set to work, snooping in digital networks and social-media groups, exploring places where terror connections formed. He monitored Islamic fundamentalist sites and filed translations to Agent Reintjes via Dropbox and email. He passed on the names of Americans who joined jihad groups.

The work gave structure and meaning to Billy’s interests and made him feel important. The Reillys were relieved to see their son find a calling with an organization they respected.

But later when talking to the WSJ reporter, Mr. Reilly summarized their contacts with the FBI:

“The whole thing was a clinic in how to cover your butt,” Mr. Reilly said.

…Last fall, the Journal contacted Valery Prikhodko, head of the Center for Assistance to the State in Countering Extremist Activities. The group, based in the Rostov region, helped Russian authorities in such tasks as capturing fugitives hiding in the chaos of the war in Donbas, he said.

Mr. Prikhodko asked if there were fingerprints, and, by chance, there were. Billy had provided prints when he applied for his gun license. The state of Michigan made them available, and the Journal sent them to Mr. Prikhodko.

At 6:33 a.m. on Nov. 21, the Journal received a message over WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging service. It was a single word, in Russian: “found.”

An email from Mr. Prikhodko followed: “We found Reilly. Unfortunately, he has been killed.”

Read more here.

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