San Francisco Chronicle
9/11: FIVE YEARS LATER
INFORMANTS TELL TERRORIST TALES
They have exerted unusual power
Demian Bulwa, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2006
From Lodi to New York, many terrorism investigations since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have shared a similar plot line.
An informant posing as an Islamic radical gets close to one or more Muslim men. The informant spouts anti-American rhetoric, speaks favorably of terrorism or even offers to provide supplies or weapons. If he is successful in drawing out his targets, arrests are made, even if the suspects lack a firm plan or the means to carry out an attack.
Other steps that authorities have taken since 2001 to head off terrorist strikes — such as airport screenings and stepped-up surveillance of landmarks, ports and public transportation — have garnered plenty of attention. But the use of informants has figured more prominently in arrests of suspected plotters.
The scenario has placed informants in an important and contentious role. Though informants have long been central to infiltrating organized crime, they have exerted unusual power in terror probes, according to experts who have followed the investigations. Many of the resulting criminal cases have rested heavily on conversations, not overt actions.
Defense attorneys say informants are often under intense pressure to deliver a case because they are either being paid or have agreed to cooperate to avoid punishment for their own crimes. Some plots wouldn't have hatched at all without an informant's provocation, say the attorneys, though they concede that such saber-rattling is not illegal.
"In order to open a dialogue with radicals, to a certain extent (the informant) has to share their rhetoric," said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert and senior official at the Rand Corp. think tank in Santa Monica. "The fact that an informant engages in radical rhetoric is not evidence that he is a provocateur — it's a prerequisite to establishing his credentials."
However, Jenkins said, "the difficulty is that a lot of these angry young men who are susceptible to this ideology are constantly fantasizing about operations. They may even engage in planning attacks that in all probability are going to remain in the realm of fantasy."
The use of informants is a sore subject among many Muslims in the Bay Area. Some say the whole community should not be targeted because of the actions of a few extremists, and they worry that such scrutiny could alienate ordinary Muslims and make them reluctant to volunteer information to law enforcement.
"That's probably not the best way to do it," said Irfan Rydhan, a board member for the South Bay Islamic Association in San Jose, who compared the use of informants in mosques to the government's infiltration of activist groups in the 1960s.
"I can understand why they're thinking like that — the main stereotype is that Muslims are causing all the problems," Rydhan said. "But we Muslims in America are the bridge to the greater Muslim community in the world. Law enforcement should be openly talking to us."
Rydhan stressed that his mosque and its imam had a strong relationship with authorities. FBI agents recently had dinner at the mosque during a monthly "family night" and took questions from members.
U.S. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, addressing the American Enterprise Institute in May, said the Justice Department had charged 435 people and had won 253 convictions in cases related to international terrorism since September 2001.
Citing a computer-aided review of data, the Washington Post reported that most of the defendants were charged with minor crimes unrelated to terrorism. But McNulty said his agency had used "the full arsenal of tools Congress has given us," including immigration charges.
Informants are a recurring theme in high-profile terrorism prosecutions. In Portland, Ore., a man posing as a Taliban supporter helped convict six Portland residents of conspiring to join the radical group in Afghanistan. In Detroit, questions about an informant's credibility helped overturn convictions of Muslims accused of being members of a suspected terror cell.
Reports indicate that informants were central to the arrests in Canada in June of 17 people suspected of planning to use fertilizer to make truck bombs.
At a federal trial earlier this year, defense attorneys argued that 24-year-old Pakistani immigrant Shahawar Matin Siraj had been radicalized over the course of a year by a 50-year-old informant before Siraj suggested blowing up a New York subway station in 2004.
The older man, posing as the son of an Islamic scholar and as a determined terrorist, showed photos to Siraj of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and offered to provide explosives, defense attorney Martin Stolar said.
"My client was very easily manipulated. The idea of doing something violent had been drilled into him by the informant," Stolar said in an interview. "His response was to say, 'How about this idea?' But it was never going to happen."
However, prosecutors showed that Siraj had a history of espousing violence, including in tape-recorded talks with the informant. A federal jury rejected Stolar's claim that Siraj had been entrapped and convicted him.
In Lodi, the FBI assigned 33-year-old informant Naseem Khan to infiltrate the city's only mosque, even after discovering that he had falsely told agents that he had seen three of the world's most notorious terrorists there, including al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Khan, posing as a man interested in holy war, focused on two Pakistani clerics who were in Lodi on religious visas. Then in the summer of 2002, he came across Hamid Hayat, 23, who displayed enthusiasm for militant groups and kept what prosecutors called a "jihadi scrapbook" of news clippings. The men became best friends, at least in Hayat's mind.
At one point, Khan berated Hayat for not going to a terrorist training camp in Pakistan, and told him to "be a man" and "do something." Khan testified later that he had scolded Hayat "as a way to make him talk."
Hayat was convicted of providing material support to terrorists by allegedly attending a camp in Pakistan. He faces up to 39 years in prison at a sentencing later this year.
Hayat's attorney, Wazhma Mojaddidi, argued that Hayat had not been to the camp and said the FBI had not kept a tight enough leash on Khan. She said the informant had a financial incentive to incriminate Hayat. The FBI paid Khan more than $225,000.
"The informants in these cases are being trusted more than traditional informants," Mojaddidi said. "I guess the FBI considers them to have more specialized knowledge about the culture. But what that does is give them more power than they should have in these investigations."
McGregor Scott, the U.S. attorney for California's eastern district, which includes Lodi, said agents had handled Khan legally and properly.
"Oftentimes, the best evidence is what comes from the mouth of a suspect in an unguarded moment," Scott said in a recent interview.
"In the terrorism context, typically the people we are investigating are Muslim males, and those can be self-contained communities," Scott said. "The use of an informant who fits into that self-contained community can be a very effective law enforcement tool in these investigations."
E-mail Demian Bulwa at firstname.lastname@example.org.