Case spotlights anti-terror efforts

New York police use informers, undercover agents to spy on Muslim community

May 28, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- On an unusually warm day in December 2003, three dozen men filed into the Islamic Center of Bay Ridge on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, kneeling on the moss-green carpet for midday prayer.

To anyone watching, the service would have appeared unremarkable. But several police reports, when taken together with testimony at the recent federal trial of a Pakistani immigrant in the plot to bomb the Herald Square subway station, revealed something extraordinary about the gathering: Among the kneeling men were at least three who were working undercover for the New York Police Department.

The intense level of scrutiny in the mosque that day was, by all accounts, exceptional. But it suggests the depth of the Police Intelligence Division's clandestine programs, developed since the Sept. 11 attacks, to infiltrate mosques and Muslim gatherings around New York City to try to prevent another strike.

The defendant's lawyers and civil liberties groups have criticized the use of informers and an undercover officer at the mosque, contending that the department violated limits placed on the division by a court's 1985 consent decree, which restricted its investigation of political and religious groups. But the department rejects that claim, saying that the procedures were lawful and necessary.

After Sept. 11, intelligence and law enforcement agencies were criticized for not recruiting Muslims who could move within circles where they could gather information to learn about terrorist threats. "Now it's five years after 9/11, and nothing has blown up, and people are saying, `Why do they have the gall to attempt to penetrate?'" said one law enforcement official who has worked closely with the department and the FBI.

The outcome of the terror trial in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, the first since 2001 based on an investigation by the Police Intelligence Division rather than the FBI, has been hailed by police officials. The defendant, Shahawar Matin Siraj, 24, was convicted Wednesday of conspiring to bomb the subway station. Some of his conversations leading up to the plot occurred in the Islamic bookstore where he had worked, next door to the Bay Ridge mosque.

Two witnesses at the trial - a 50-year-old paid police informer code-named Woody and a young undercover officer - were in the mosque that December day. At that point, the bombing plot had not been hatched, and Siraj was not under investigation. The two men, and an informer code-named Mario who was in the mosque that day for unknown reasons and played no role in the trial, were not aware of one another.

Details of the clandestine programs have emerged in large measure through their accounts and, to a lesser degree, in the police reports.

One section of the Intelligence Division, the Terrorist Interdiction Unit, is devoted to using informers as "listening posts" in Muslim communities. The detectives in the unit cultivate the informers, place them in various communities, oversee their work and collect and compile the information they generate.

Despite the Police Department's broad publicity campaign to highlight its counterterrorism efforts since 9/11, the unit has seldom if ever been mentioned in news accounts. Its name does not appear in the department's roster.

The department would provide no details about the unitbeyond what came out at the trial. But one paid informer - the man who testified against Siraj - attended 575 prayer services at the Bay Ridge mosque and another mosque in Staten Island over 13 months. He provided information almost daily, to his detective handler, who prepared more than 350 reports based largely on the visits.

Documents referring to numbered cases that appear to be focused on mosques suggest there could be two dozen such investigations, but it could not be learned whether any others bore fruit.

Another section, the Special Services Unit, oversaw the undercover Muslim detective, who moved into the Bay Ridge neighborhood in late 2002 to investigate terrorism and other crimes.

He testified that while he occasionally saw paid informer Osama Eldawoody in the area and greeted him with a handshake, he did not know Eldawoody was working for the police until after Siraj's arrest Aug. 27, 2004.

The detective came from Bangladesh when he was 7 and was recruited from the Police Academy to work undercover among Muslims when he was 23. He testified under a pseudonym because, prosecutors said, he was still involved in undercover investigations.

He testified that his instructions were "to be a member of the community," hang out with the young men there and collect information. He was to focus, he said, in part on the Bay Ridge mosque.

At the trial, defense lawyers said Siraj was entrapped by Eldawoody, contending that the older man cajoled and enflamed him to lure him into the conspiracy. Moreover, they suggested throughout the trial that the department's tactics were improper.

On Friday, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said that the verdict "validates so much of what we've done to protect the city."

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