The Informer: Behind the Scenes, or Setting the Stage?
Thursday, June 14,2007 00:00
By Robin Shulman, Washington Post

With tired eyes and mussed hair, Osama Eldawoody opens his door to an unexpected guest.

He doesn’t get many visitors these days. He is in hiding for his own safety. He has received no direct threats, he says, but has heard through friends of friends that there are those who want to kill him. Nobody likes a snitch.

The 51-year-old Egyptian immigrant chain-smokes Marlboros in a corner of the comfortable apartment that he now calls home, far away from his previous life in New York, in a location he wants to keep secret. This place is his hideaway but also his trap. Here, he grants his first interview since moving cross-country.

For 13 months, he was a paid informer for the New York Police Department. His work in 2003 and 2004 helped convict Shahawar Matin Siraj, a Pakistani immigrant, of conspiracy to bomb Manhattan’s 34th Street subway station. Siraj, 24, was sentenced in January to 30 years in prison, but for Eldawoody the case, now under appeal, still feels raw.

"It’s been hurting me. Everybody believes that I am a cheater," he says.

"By Islam, by my feeling toward my country . . . it’s something that had to be done," he says.

Siraj’s family and supporters say he was simply an angry, foolish young man with no connection to actual terrorists or capacity to obtain bombs, playing along -- for a while -- with a man who he believed was his closest friend. They say Eldawoody effectively goaded Siraj into plotting to plant explosives -- to be supplied by Eldawoody -- in the subway station, just below the Macy’s store in midtown Manhattan, and then recorded those conversations.

Police and prosecutors say Siraj was already a violent terrorist just looking for an opportunity to strike. Eldawoody says had he not intercepted Siraj, the younger man eventually would have joined a real terrorist sleeper cell.

The world of domestic Muslim informants remains fogged in secrecy and national security laws. But defense lawyers in a number of court cases paint a picture of an industry in which informants seeking personal gain create the very terrorists they are supposed to be exposing.

Listening In

The case in New York isn’t the only one. Two informers played a role in the recent case of the young Muslim men accused of plotting to kill soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J. One of the young men was recorded telling the informer he was at his service. Later the informer volunteered to obtain machine guns and heavier arms.

In Miami, an FBI informer posing as a member of al-Qaeda gave a group of men military boots and cellphones, promised weapons and suggested their first target be a Miami FBI office. In Lodi, Calif., a federal informer who lied about seeing an al-Qaeda leader in the area helped to convict a 23-year-old of training at a terrorism camp.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the New York Police Department quietly formed the Terrorist Interdiction Unit with the goal of tracking threats by placing informant "listening posts" in Muslim communities citywide, according to police testimony from the Siraj trial.

Eldawoody -- who has small, pale eyes, badly yellowed teeth and a tendency to gesture wildly and wander conversationally -- participated energetically in the new program. While an informer, he attended 575 prayer services in New York mosques, sometimes four or five a day.

His police department handler wrote more than 350 reports based on their often twice-a-day calls. Eldawoody wrote down license plate numbers in a mosque parking lot and reported on the tone of religious services and internal debates. The department paid him about $25,000 for work over the 13 months, and $75,000, including relocation costs, over 20 more months leading up to the trial. Now the department covers his rent, plus he collects $3,200 a month, he says, and a police spokesman says the direct payments will likely continue indefinitely.

Of course informers are often critical to terrorism probes, but even the Justice Department acknowledges that problems arise. A 2005 department study of confidential informers in the FBI found violations of the agency’s guidelines for handlers keeping track of them in 87 percent of the files examined.

"There’s this idea that we just sort of willy-nilly have put informants out there because it’s a Muslim community," said Paul J. Browne, the chief spokesman for the New York police. He said the department places informers in response to threats, and that it was not Eldawoody who first alerted the NYPD to Siraj.

Indeed, it later emerged that at least three men were working undercover at one time in the Bay Ridge mosque where Siraj prayed, including a young Bangladesh-born detective who first reported Siraj’s anti-American rants.

A civil rights group suggested this amounts to surveillance of protected religious activity. Says Christopher Dunn, the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, "I don’t think when Catholics are going to St. Patrick’s, they’re worried about undercover police officers."

Life After Testifying

Last fall, CBS News aired a report on Eldawoody. On camera, he traipsed through Manhattan streets near the 34th Street subway station, talking about the potential bombing he helped avert and his need for support from the police. Soon after, the police helped arrange his move and escorted him to his current home. The episode taught him the power of media attention.

"I am so honored that you are here," Eldawoody says to his visitor .

In truth, he has retreated into a kind of suburban depression. He wears the same black shirt two days in a row, with dark marks of perspiration under the arms. He can’t stop smoking and says he has gained weight. At night, while his wife, Fotna, and daughter Marwa sleep in the master bedroom, he stays up late using the Internet in the second bedroom, trawling for real estate deals or writing to defend himself on a Muslim-themed Web site that calls him an agent provocateur.

He hasn’t been to any mosques since he moved, he says, and prays only a few times a month.

He drives what he laughingly calls "the historic car" -- the small Toyota in which he recorded Siraj -- but rarely goes farther than to pick up 10-year-old Marwa from school, or to shop for groceries at the nearby Wal-Mart.

The police helped him look for a job. He remains unemployed, but says he plans to buy a house, with the down payment coming from Fotna’s savings. He wants to put down roots, start fresh -- even if he has only vague ideas of what that life will be.

The Bay Ridge Mosque

He came to Brooklyn in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering from Egypt, and worked various jobs -- from ice cream vendor to taxi driver -- while applying for engineering work. Then he gave up and tried his hand at real estate in New Jersey.

There he played a pivotal role in helping to convict a building inspector after the man demanded bribes and Eldawoody got him to discuss them while being recorded. He concluded he had a talent for such work.

"I’m no dummy," he says. "I know how to get people to the point."

After 9/11, first the FBI, then local police came knocking on Eldawoody’s door in Staten Island because someone had reported suspicions of him. The second time, Eldawoody accused the police of discrimination -- then he volunteered to help them. He signed up as an NYPD confidential informer in July 2003.

Eldawoody was dispatched to several mosques before he was asked to infiltrate the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, a storefront mosque in the city’s largest Arab community. He became known for praying so fervently he would weep. Once, he objected to the presence of two non-Muslims in the mosque in order to seem fanatical about religion, he told his handler, Detective Stephen Andrews.

For months he turned up little. Then he met 21-year-old Siraj.

Recently arrived from Pakistan, Siraj was spending his days working at his uncle’s Islamic bookstore in Bay Ridge and his nights playing video games at his family’s apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens.

Back home in Karachi, his religiously moderate family had been attacked by politically radical Sunni Muslims. But in New York, Siraj began to make his way in this new world of Muslim men. His uncle, Saleem Noorali, encouraged him to embrace Sunni beliefs and pray next to the bookstore at the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge. "He started reading books, then asking questions of the imam and people praying here," says Noorali. "He was confused, learning."

Immigration officials were trying to deport Siraj’s family for overstaying their visas, and the family had requested asylum on grounds of religious persecution. Meanwhile, Siraj was upset by the wars raging in the Mideast, and by the reports of abuses of Muslims at Abu Ghraib. He was haunted and angered by a story he had heard about the sexual abuse of a 13-year-old Muslim girl by U.S. troops, according to recordings of his conversations.

His impassioned talk gained the attention of the undercover detective from Bangladesh who surveyed the Bay Ridge mosque before Eldawoody. He later testified that he saw Siraj 72 times and reported that he called Osama bin Laden "a talented brother" and "hoped bin Laden planned something big for America."

Eldawoody met Siraj in September 2003 at the Islamic bookstore. There are no recordings of their early conversations. Only the barest sketch of the early relationship is preserved in the files of the NYPD’s Terrorist Interdiction Unit.

"The very beginning started when he asked me if I could design a nuclear bomb," Eldawoody says in an interview. "I told him yes." But Martin R. Stolar, Siraj’s lawyer, referring in court to police notes from Dec. 23, 2003, suggested that Siraj had simply asked why Eldawoody didn’t work as a nuclear engineer -- and Eldawoody told Siraj that he was capable of creating a dirty bomb.

Soon Eldawoody began to drive Siraj home from work nearly every day. At some point, talk turned toward the idea of planting a bomb, and by spring, Eldawoody said, "I told them, ’I believe it’s time to record.’ "

"You are my brother," Siraj said at one point in more than 30 hours of digital recordings. At another, Eldawoody refers to Siraj as his "son."

Andrews, Eldawoody’s handler, wrote in his notes that the informer found Siraj to be "impressionable."

As they discussed possible attacks, it was Eldawoody who suggested getting uranium-235 and using a remote-controlled detonation. It was Eldawoody who suggested obtaining nuclear materials from the Russian mafia. "Oh, we can’t find it over here, like in Florida?" asks Siraj, who then suggested looking for nuclear materials near the Rocky Mountains, or calling Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan for advice.

Sometimes the conversations, recorded mostly in Eldawoody’s car, included James Elshafay, a 19-year-old diagnosed schizophrenic who later pleaded guilty and testified against Siraj.

Eldawoody concocted a fictitious group, the Brotherhood, in Upstate New York, that he promised would supply explosives. But the Brothers needed Siraj’s knowledge of the subway to place the bombs. In the last recording, a video, inside Eldawoody’s Toyota on Aug. 23, 2004, Siraj said he didn’t want to place the bomb himself, and said he would have to ask his mother for permission.

Later, his mother, Shahina Parveen, a nurse, said he never asked. Still, Siraj went with diagrams to the 34th Street subway station to point out to Elshafay and Eldawoody optimal places for explosives.

Three days before the Republican National Convention in New York, Siraj was arrested outside his uncle’s bookstore. News of Eldawoody’s role in the case left a wake of fear and suspicion in Muslim communities. (He had advance notice of the arrest and fled with his family to Pennsylvania.)

"If Matin [Siraj] had really been a criminal, and had really been planning on carrying out a bombing operation and Osama [Eldawoody] had discovered it, I would consider Osama a hero," says Imam Reda Shata, who served in the Bay Ridge mosque and believed at one point Eldawoody may have tried to set a trap for him. "But he was a young, ignorant, emotional kid."

Last May, the jury convicted Siraj, and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly hailed the decision as a victory for the department’s fight against terrorism.

Worry and Tension

Lately, Eldawoody tends to talk less about Siraj and more about his life circumstances. He cruises the wide aisles of his neighborhood Wal-Mart with Fotna and Marwa, repeatedly mentioning his need for a job.

Fotna, 52, who had a career as a dentist before her marriage, has dark eyes, a lively, humorous way and a take-charge attitude. She tells how last summer the lease on the family’s Pennsylvania apartment was about to run out, and they feared becoming homeless.

"Marwa needs to go to school; I will do any job to protect her," Fotna says. She moved with Marwa back to Staten Island and left Eldawoody to his own devices. "He can be homeless -- he is a man alone."

Now, at the checkout line, she talks openly about divorce, but dismisses it.

"What can we do? I want my daughter to live with her father."

Eldawoody offers no reaction as he pays for the groceries.

Fotna eventually took it upon herself to negotiate with her husband’s police contacts on the family’s behalf, and returned to live with him and go with him cross-country. She leaves issues of security to her husband and does not tell even her closest family where she is. When her sister on the phone asks where she lives, she answers: "In the world."

Marwa, with long wavy black hair, black eyes and pale skin, has not been allowed to contact any of her old friends. Instead, she writes a book of letters she never mails.

Eldawoody says he is sorry for the pain and dislocation he’s caused Marwa, but he did the right thing for the United States.

And he has his dreams. He wonders if he might sell the film rights to his story. And someday he wants to start his own organization, take off on a national speaking tour of mosques and train other Muslims to become informers, like him.