Mohamed Alanssi slid the photos of his once-happy life across the table of a Union Station restaurant. The portrait of his wife with two of his six children. The picture showing the living room of the $1 million home he built in his native Yemen when he was a prosperous businessman. The 1970s snapshot of him as a low-level employee at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, shaking hands with the U.S. ambassador.
But that happiness ended after he made the mistake of becoming an FBI terrorism informant, Alanssi said tearfully in an interview three weeks ago. His cooperation had been leaked, and his family in Yemen was angry with him. Some of them called him a traitor. His wife was dying of cancer, he was penniless, and the U.S. residency papers the FBI had promised him had not materialized, he said.
Mohamed Alanssi screams after setting himself afire outside the White House.
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Last week, Alanssi's despondency drove him to attempt suicide by setting himself on fire in front of the White House. In a note faxed to The Washington Post and his FBI handlers hours before, Alanssi said he would not testify at a high-profile terrorism trial in New York in January because his family in Yemen would be killed in revenge and "me too I will be a dead man."
His dramatic act put the murky, secretive world of informants under a rare spotlight. It is a world become doubly important since the 2001 terrorist attacks, as U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies strive to infiltrate al Qaeda and other terrorist networks to prevent attacks. Alanssi's highly publicized suicide attempt may make that task more difficult, some experts said.
"It's not going to be fatal to source development, but there will be agent handlers who will have this thrown up to them," said Skip Brandon, a former deputy assistant FBI director and now an officer of Smith Brandon International, an intelligence consulting firm.
Alanssi is under FBI guard at Washington Hospital Center, where his condition has been upgraded to fair.
The FBI has declined to comment about Alanssi, whom some acquaintances accuse of dishonest business dealings.
Facts, Questions and Lies
Parts of the 52-year-old Yemeni's account of his relationship with the FBI are questionable or difficult to verify. But court records and interviews with law enforcement sources appear to confirm his claims that he has helped the FBI in a number of terrorism cases over the past three years, including the January 2003 arrest of a prominent Yemeni cleric facing trial in New York on charges of financing al Qaeda.
The reasons for Alanssi's estrangement from the FBI and his growing emotional distress are not totally clear, although experts said it is not unusual for such recruits to suffer informant's remorse as the time approaches for them to testify in open court.
"That puts a lot of stress on them," Brandon said. "In theory, if he were an FBI informant and they planned to use him [at] trial, the last thing you'd want to do is mistreat him or abuse him in any way. . . . I find it hard to believe they threw this guy on the trash and hoped to resurrect him in January. It could be that his demands were so outrageous that it simply broke the system."
Alanssi's personal and financial troubles appear to be at least partly his own fault. He said the FBI paid him $100,000 in June 2003, an amount regarded as very generous by some intelligence experts. Yet in May, he was charged with felony bank fraud in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., for writing bad checks, a case the FBI has tried to keep quiet.
According to three people who met Alanssi in the United States, he used the same talents that made him a capable FBI informant for other purposes. The three -- immigrants from Peru, Egypt and Eritrea -- said in interviews that Alanssi exploited their sympathy, bilking them out of several thousand dollars with his teary stories about medical and family problems and his promises of quick repayment.
"He tells everyone different stories. He never tells the truth," said Sayed Mahmoud Aly, a limousine driver at the Holiday Inn on The Hill who said Alanssi owes him $4,000. "He started crying, and when he cry . . . it broke my heart."
An Asset for the FBI
Alanssi described his work for the FBI during three recent meetings with a reporter at Union Station.