Including new chapter, “Mistakes to avoid”
An actor allegedly staged an assault as a publicity stunt to enhance his career. The alleged attack did raise his profile, but the blowback included being charged with filing a false police report. Something of a mixed review then. The actor, Jussie Smollett, scripted, blocked and directed the attack for maximum appeal in the polarized culture of the US. Unfortunately he apparently invested fewer resources on security planning than on wardrobe.
This story is an OOPSEC onion, there are layers upon layers of fail…and it makes you want to cry.
Due to the sheer quantity of security lessons to learn, I have serialized my analysis across several posts. To support more content like this, feed my book addiction.
- Jussie Smollett: a gay black actor in the TV show “Empire.” Motivated by dissatisfaction with his salary, and desire for additional publicity.
- Abimbola “Abel” and Olabinjo “Ola” Osundairo: black American brothers who emphatically are not racist homophobic white thugs, they just play them in real life pretend hate crimes.
- Chicago Police: the fuzz out to keep a working actor down. They fight for justice and clearing Chicago’s name of any hint of racism. Now that the guy who faked a racist punch up is being charged, the only clouds left are: the cops who murder black men; tortured black suspects; use entrapment bait trucks; and operated secret black sites to disappear and interrogate black men.
The two primary players are Jussie (the actor) and Abel (faux-thug). They became friends in 2017, socializing and working out together. In addition, Abel is a stand-in for Jussie’s love interest on the TV show “Empire.” Abel is young (25), big, and allegedly supplied Jussie with Molly (MDMA) a number of times since 2018. Ola is Abel’s older brother, two years older (27) and bulkier.
How (not) to Fake a Racist Homophobic Attack
What follows is a timeline of the assault on Jussie Smollett. Despite the casualness of the planning and the very basic security procedures the ruse would most probably have succeeded except for the massive investigation. The team implemented “good enough” basic security measures, such as:
- primarily face to face communication,
- ambiguous pickup and drop off points for transportation,
- ski masks to limit recognition, and
- leaving mobile phones at home when engaged in the assault.
These simple denial and deception procedures would work against adversaries with little capability, capacity or interest in pursuing the investigation. I suspect that if this case was not high profile, it likely never would have resolved. Unfortunately for Jussie, the operational necessity of a high profile case required an equally high level of operational security.
You just can’t get the help these days
All secret conspiracies require a level of trust between members. When assembling a conspiracy from scratch, or recruiting new members into a conspiracy, the safest and most reliable way of finding trustworthy people is via an existing social relationships. This rule remains true across space and time. Strong social links support the growth and regeneration of ancient African secret societies, World War Two French resistance groups, modern day banned political parties, terrorist organizations and criminal groups. Social links enable secret groups, but they also break the compartments so vital for security. Diagrams of networks of cells are almost always more aspirational than realistic.
Strong social links are a necessary precursor to a secret society. The team of Jussie, Abel and Ola are just another practical demonstration of this rule. If Jussie wanted a truly anonymous and secure “assault” cell then the formation would require a significantly more money and time.
Recruiting both a safe (i.e. not real homophobic racists who would do the attack for real), and a secret preserving (not revealing the ruse to anyone, ever) team was probably an impossible task. Given the purpose of the assault was to garner national attention I believe it would have been extremely difficult to find agents capable of both restraint and discretion. Two body building brothers is probably the best case scenario!
Jan 22, 2019. Setting the Scene
The scene is set and the assault foreshadowed by a threatening letter sent to Jussie Smollett at the studio where Empire is filmed. The letter is composed in classic movie ransom note style — words cut and pasted out of magazines. Increasing the threat level to CHILDISH CRIMSON, a stick figure scrabbles up one side.
OPSEC FAIL: The Laughable Letter
- Physical objects like letters have a tendency to pick up fingerprints, DNA, and other forensic evidence. A sticky substance — like glue to hold down bits of magazine, the gummy seal on an envelope, and the stamps— trap skin flakes, hairs, fibres, and is essentially a counter forensic nightmare. The letter would have to be assembled in a clean room² environment to mitigate the forensic risk.
- Few people send letters, keep stamps, or cut up magazines into letters and words. There are pieces of forensic evidence that have no cover¹ to explain them.
Modern American cities and government systems are fairly well monitored. Tracing a letter back to the point of entry is far from impossible. That info combined with CCTV footage, cell tower dumps, etc. could reveal the sender, or at least a short list of suspects.
¹ Cover: a legitimate, and/or legal, reason for an activity, action, or object. In this case, if people still sent letters then having stamps and envelopes would not be sufficiently inculpatory evidence.
² Clean room: [Ed: This section has been removed because apparently I need to: “stop teaching people how to crime better!”]
January 25, 2019. The Preliminaries
On the morning of Jan 25th, Jussie texts Abel to ask when he is leaving on his upcoming trip to Nigeria. Abel informs him that he and Ola will be leaving on the 29th. Now Jussie knows that Abel and Ola will be out of the country and unavailable for a decent amount of time, making them good secret society candidates. Criminal mastermind Jussie commits the first fatal OPSEC mistake by sending Abel a text message — “I need your help to do a crimes, it is a secret though, lets talk about crimes in person.”
That is seriously the message he sends— “Might need your help on the low. You around to meet face to face?” Having created the paper trail before they even discuss the secret work, they arrange to meet at the studio, then Jussie drives Abel home. On the drive, Jussie explains his plan.
Once the opposition knows there is a secret, the first battle is lost.
As soon as Jussie creates a log saying that there is secret work to conduct, there is risk of exposure. The safer approach would be to invite Abel to an innocuous social activity (dinner, coffee, gym, etc.) and then raise and discuss the secret work exclusively face to face. No paper trail.
To his credit, Jussie does use secure face to face meetings while discussing the plan with his assault team. This is excellent security practice as long as there are no informants or snitches to expose the discussion. In this comedy of OPSEC errors, all members of the assault team confess and provide a complete summary of the plan. Their summaries match, and they match the facts.