The Informer: Behind the Scenes, or Setting the Stage?

"It's something that had to be done," says Osama Eldawoody, an NYPD informer whose work helped convict Shahawar Matin Siraj. (By Robin Shulman -- The Washington Post)
By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 29, 2007

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.

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