Anatomy of a Foiled Plot
from New York magazine
On a rain-soaked Saturday morning, nine days before the start of the Republican convention at Madison Square Garden, an Egyptian known as Dawadi left his house on Staten Island to pick up two friends. They had plans to spend the day together and to take care of a little business.
Dawadi wore a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. He looked as if he were heading out to do some weekend errands. He drove to Rossville, a middle-class Staten Island neighborhood, where he picked up James Elshafay, an unemployed nineteen-year-old Tottenville High School dropout. The two men greeted each other warmly. Though they had known each other for less than a year, Dawadi had become a mentor to the naive, sometimes confused younger man. Mature, well-educated, and religious, Dawadi was, some would say, even a father figure for Elshafay, who had grown up in a house with just his mother and an aunt.
Driving cautiously toward Queens in the heavy rain, the two men passed the time discussing the best way to handle the day's primary activity-a careful examination of the Herald Square subway station in preparation for planting a bomb.
After considering a variety of targets, they had decided on the subway station. Now they needed detailed information to put together a plan. They wanted to know the number and location of cops on the platforms at different times of the day. Which areas were covered by video cameras? Since the likeliest place to hide a bomb was a garbage can, they needed to know how many there were, where they were located, and when they got emptied. And they needed to find the best path to go in and then get out quickly after planting the device.
When they reached Thirty-fourth Avenue in Astoria, Shahawar Matin Siraj, a twenty-two-year-old Pakistani national, came down from his apartment and got in the car. Siraj, who entered the United States illegally nearly six years ago, was wearing a do-rag and baggy jeans. He had said when they planned their recon maneuvers that he wanted to disguise himself. He didn't want to "look Arabic." In English so thickly accented it can make him difficult to understand, he said he wanted to "look hip-hop, like a Puerto Rican."
On the way to midtown, the three men made small talk, and then the conversation shifted to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Though they had already decided that blowing up the Verrazano would be better left for some time in the future-it would be very difficult, they believed, to put a bomb on the bridge without being seen-they nevertheless passed the time in a lively back-and-forth about the best place to plant explosives on the bridge to ensure the destruction of the entire span.
Finally, the trio parked on Madison Avenue and Thirtieth Street. To make sure they didn't attract attention, they decided to split up, do what they needed to do, and meet back near the car when they finished. They went their separate ways, and each man descended into the Thirty-fourth Street subway station using a different entrance.
Six days later, two of the three were arrested for plotting to blow up the Thirty-fourth Street subway station. Siraj was quietly picked up a couple of blocks from Islamic Books and Tapes, the shop on Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge where he worked. Elshafay was sitting on the steps of the Noor Al mosque on Richmond Terrace when he was taken into custody with nary a voice raised.
Dawadi, as it turned out, was a confidential informant working for the NYPD. He had spent more than a year on the case, first building a relationship with Siraj and then with Elshafay. With his identity now revealed, he disappeared from the Arab Muslim community in Bay Ridge (the largest one in the city, with some thirty thousand members) as abruptly as he had become a part of it.
Identifying, getting close to, and ultimately arresting Siraj and Elshafay, two lone terrorists with no connections to Al Qaeda or any other international organization, who were motivated by all of the jihad chatter crackling in the air, was a direct result of much of the work that has been done by the NYPD since 9/11. "These kinds of homegrown, lone-wolf incidents start way below the level the federal government would focus on," says David Cohen, the NYPD's deputy commissioner for intelligence. "If we weren't doing it, nobody would be."
Cohen, who was once the number four spook at the CIA, is sitting with his back to a brick wall in the Half King, a funky, out-of-the-way pub on the far West Side in the twenties. It's afternoon and the place is library-quiet. But Cohen's routine level of suspicion is so highly evolved that when I ask if he'd like to sit out back in the pub's garden, he shakes his head. "Gardens have ears," he says cryptically.
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, Cohen, and other high-ranking members of the department like to talk about the international intelligence-gathering capabilities that have been developed since 9/11. NYPD detectives are now posted in cities around Europe and the Middle East. But the listening posts that have been established in neighborhoods throughout the city, while decidedly less glamorous, are probably of greater value. A crudely planned, locally developed attack-like the one cops believe they thwarted with the arrests of Siraj and Elshafay-could still cause plenty of death, destruction, and panic, and may now be what keeps Kelly and his inner circle awake at night.
Kelly says the arrests of Siraj and Elshafay are proof that the investment made in the NYPD's Intelligence Division has paid off. "Yes, we want to work with other agencies, and yes, we have detectives placed overseas," he says. "But in New York City, we're on our own. We have to protect our own turf."
Global events, he argues, give people like Elshafay and Siraj permission to think the way they think. "We have an overarching concern about the lone wolf, the unaffiliated terrorist," he says. "That's why this case is so important to me."
According to several sources close to the investigation, Elshafay is in the process of pleading guilty and making a deal with the U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn. It is still unclear whether Siraj will plead or fight the charges. (Neither defendant's lawyer responded to repeated requests for comment.)
Shahawar Matin Siraj first came to the attention of the Police Department's Intelligence Division nearly a year and a half ago. Someone in Bay Ridge phoned in a report to a terrorist hotline the NYPD had set up after 9/11 that there was a young man who regularly engaged in virulent anti-American tirades. He worked at a Muslim bookstore located next to the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, which encompasses a thriving community center, a nursery school, and one of the most active mosques in the city. The turnout for Friday-afternoon prayers regularly exceeds one thousand men, filling the mosque and forcing many others to participate, via loudspeakers, out on the street.
Siraj was worth keeping an eye on, intelligence officers believed, because of the tenor of his rhetoric and because he was apparently careful about when he spoke his mind. He wasn't some hothead who shot his mouth off to whoever came into the bookstore; Siraj vented only in front of people he believed he could trust.
After getting reports about Siraj for months, the cops decided, as Cohen puts it, "to send assets to that location." Specifically, they assigned Dawadi, their informant, to develop a relationship with Siraj, to become his friend and gain his confidence.
The odd seduction began last year during Ramadan. Dawadi started going to the bookstore and the mosque, occasionally talking to Siraj but always careful not to push things and scare his target away. Slowly, over four or five months, Siraj began to open up to his new friend.
At the same time, detectives investigated Siraj and his family, and a picture began to emerge. A native of Karachi, Pakistan, Siraj entered the United States illegally in 1999. Though the cops aren't certain, they believe he came across the border from Canada. His mother, father (who also works at the bookstore, which is owned by an uncle), and eighteen-year-old sister were already here legally.
Not long after sneaking across the border, Siraj was arrested for assault. The charges were eventually dropped, but he was arrested again for assault this past June, in a case involving an altercation in front of a store. He worked hard to present himself as a tough guy, telling Dawadi and others that he'd left Pakistan after killing two people. He also claimed that he'd been shot by one of his victims before killing him. Though cops have been unable to verify his story, Siraj was easy to anger and often lost his temper during his months with Dawadi.
"It was critical for us to determine if Siraj was connected to anyone overseas," says one detective who worked the case. "It's an interactive process. We watch who he hangs around with, how he deals with people, and in particular we look at his general level of sophistication. Things like whether he takes his own countersurveillance measures."
During the first six or seven months of the operation, Dawadi would hang around the bookstore, he'd occasionally drive Siraj home after work, and they would have long conversations about Islam. There was some radical talk, but nothing beyond banal, mostly boilerplate hostility. But the urgency of the rhetoric and the momentum for acting on it picked up dramatically when Siraj introduced Dawadi to his friend James Elshafay in April.
Only nineteen, Elshafay is the American-born product of an Irish-American mother and an Egyptian father, who split up when he was very young. Overweight, sloppy-looking, and on medication for anxiety, Elshafay has been treated for psychological problems. (A comic moment on police-surveillance video, taken the day the suspects conducted their reconnaissance of the subway, shows him standing in the rain after emerging from the station, eating a falafel with the filling oozing out the sides and onto his hands.)
Cops describe him as lost: not in school, not working, and in some state of turmoil about his identity. His only friend other than Siraj seemed to be his mother, who, cops say, coddled him and drove him everywhere.
September 11 was a turning point for Elshafay. "After 9/11, there was a lot of anti-Arab sentiment being expressed around the city," one detective says. "James saw people he grew up with and went to school with on Staten Island carrying signs that said on the front god bless America and on the back kill arab BABiES,and he felt the police didn't do anything about it."
When he was introduced to Dawadi in April, he had an extraordinarily ambitious, handwritten wish list of possible targets to attack. In addition to the Thirty-fourth Street subway station, the list included the station at Fifty-ninth and Lexington, a Forty-second Street station, the Verrazano Bridge, a Staten Island jail, and three police precincts on Staten Island-the 123rd in Tottenville, the 120th in St. George, and the 122nd in New Dorp.
Elshafay also had a crudely drawn map of the targets that he gave to Siraj, who then showed it to Dawadi. "Are you crazy?" Dawadi said when Siraj unfolded the map. "You'd better get rid of that." Siraj stuck it between some volumes on a shelf in the bookstore.
Elshafay had begun to develop a vague interest in his Islamic heritage about a year and a half ago, growing a beard and starting to pray regularly. After their meeting, Dawadi nourished his growing piety. It was an easy way for them to bond. They went to the mosque and prayed together. Dawadi took him to a shop on Atlantic Avenue to buy his first kufi. He bought him an English translation of the Koran. He recommended books for Elshafay to read, like those by Abu Hanifah, a seminal Islamic scholar who died in 767 and is considered one of the greatest imams in Muslim history.
Soon Siraj began discussing the merits of various kinds of explosives and showed Dawadi some CDs he had that contained bomb-making instructions. He also talked more heatedly about blowing things up and doing harm to U.S. military personnel and law-enforcement officers.
"I want at least one thousand to two thousand to die in one day," Siraj said at one point.
In June, NYPD intelligence officers decided that the suspects had crossed a boundary. To make sure they got what they needed to make a case, and to prevent an attack, Dawadi began to wear a wire to record his conversations with the two. Detectives also instructed Dawadi to tell Siraj and Elshafay that he was a member of a Muslim brotherhood, which would support them and offer whatever assistance they needed to pull off an attack.
As July approached, Siraj talked about his "willingness to do jihad." "I'm going to fuck this country very bad," he said.
Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge, between Sixty-fifth and Ninety-second Streets, is one of those colorful New York commercial strips that exist as a kind of taken-for-granted testament to the extraordinary diversity of the city. On one short stretch, there is the Chinese
Pagoda, a restaurant whose sign also features large Arabic script. The Killarney Pub is right next to an Arabic boutique, which is down the street from Musab Bin Omayer, a grocery store celebrating a renovation. And in every window recently, not just those of the Cleopatra Restaurant and the Jerusalem Hair Stylist, were signs marking the end of Ramadan.
Across from the Baraka restaurant is a five-story white-brick building that houses the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge. I met Zein Rimawi, one of the society's founders and a current board member, on the street in front of the building. The society is a multipurpose community organization that includes what is now one of four mosques in Bay Ridge.
A Palestinian with six brothers, who comes from a small town about twenty-five miles northwest of Jerusalem, Rimawi has a round, pleasant face covered by a close-cropped beard. He owns an aquarium store and is the only one in his family to have moved to the United States. "Why did I come to America?" he asks, without pausing for an answer. We'd moved inside to a meeting room on the third floor. "Every one of my brothers has his own house, his own car, and he can send his kids to college. I don't have a house. I don't have a car. I came here for justice, for freedom. These were the most important things. But now I don't see it. So what did I accomplish? What do I have?"
Rimawi speaks calmly, in modulated tones, but his anger and disappointment are palpable. As he talks, the spirited singing voices of a pre-K class rise to fill the room from one floor below us. "Of course we are angry; we have been targeted," he continues as he takes off his jacket.
"Put on the TV and you get sick from it. You see Afghanistan, and it's a war against the Muslims. Iraq, it's a war against the Muslims. Palestine, it's a war against the Muslims. Chechnya, a war against the Muslims. Everywhere you look, it's the same thing. Now even in the Sudan."
But the deeper hurt has come closer to home. He knows Shahawar
Matin Siraj and his family. The imam asked him to help when Siraj was arrested, and Rimawi spent some time checking the reputations of the lawyers being considered. He was instrumental in their decision to stay with the court-appointed counsel.
Rimawi reflects the general feeling in the community when he argues that the case against Siraj and Elshafay is simply one more example of law-enforcement officials' unjustly arresting Muslims for public-relations value. "The Bush administration needs to keep arresting Muslims," he says. "They must be able to say 'See, we stopped another terrorist, we found another sleeping [sic] cell. We are protecting you from the terrorists.' "
An affable man with generally moderate views, Rimawi believes that as long as the government keeps telling people over and over that the terrorists are going to strike again soon, the arrests will continue. "If later it turns out they're not guilty, who cares? It's the idea of it. I believe in that. We are being targeted. The first cell they arrested in Detroit, they are free now. In Albany, free now. They said there was a mistake in the translation. Gimme a break."
Rimawi's passion is not diminished at all when I tell him Elshafay has apparently pleaded guilty. "Innocent or not is not the point," he says.
"If you take a young man like that and tell him you are religious and you are experienced and clever, and you work him for a year and you keep talking to him and telling him 'We have to do this,' it's easy for that young man to say, 'Yes, let's do it.' Of course that would happen. Doing this, they could arrest most young Muslim people."
The cops, however, are adamant that this was not, as Cohen puts it, "in any way about leading a horse to water. Our CI was very careful to let the suspects take the lead and do the talking."
From the beginning, Rimawi watched as Dawadi tried to ingratiate himself in the community. He says the informant came to the mosque and introduced himself as a religious man. He told everyone his father was a well-known author of Islamic books in Egypt.
"When he heard the call for prayer, he would start to cry," Rimawi says, shaking his head almost in disbelief. "When someone would read the Koran, he would start to cry. He was a very good actor."
Though the cops dismiss the notion out of hand, Rimawi believes that Dawadi's original target was the imam, not Siraj. He says Dawadi tried to get close to the sheik. He told the religious leader he was a real-estate developer, but because he was new to the community people didn't trust him. He asked the sheik to be his partner. He told him he wouldn't have to do anything other than let Dawadi use his name and he would split the profits.
When the imam turned him down for the second time, Rimawi says, and told Dawadi not to come see him anymore, he turned his attention to Siraj.
No doubt part of Rimawi's frustration over the case is the bitter irony that for years, the board members of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge have worked enthusiastically and energetically to be good neighbors, to become an integral part of the community.
Though Rimawi says he has not personally experienced any hostility or hate, he compares the situation for American Arabs now to that of blacks in the fifties and sixties. "I wish I could leave," he says finally, turning out the lights.
"My wife and children went to Palestine and Jordan recently. I told them, 'Find a place you like and we'll move back.' But my kids were born here; they don't want to go."
On Monday,August 23, two days after Siraj, Elshafay, and Dawadi conducted their reconnaissance of the Thirty-fourth Street subway station, the men got together in Brooklyn to give real shape to their attack plan. Playing out his role, Dawadi said the brotherhood had approved their mission and directed them to conceal the bombs- which Dawadi would get from the brotherhood-in backpacks.
In the midst of the session, Siraj, who had from the beginning been the most vocal about his desire to commit an act of terror and had tried to project the fafade of a tough guy, seemed to get cold feet. Suddenly, he told his companions he didn't want to handle the bombs. He would help with the planning, he would go with them to Thirty-fourth Street, but he didn't want to actually go down into the subway with the explosives. "I am not ready to die," he said.
"There was silence for a bit when Siraj finished talking," one of the detectives says. "Then, very calmly, James says, 'I'll do it. I'll place the bombs in the subway.' "
Energized by his decision to be the pivotal player in the plot, Elshafay then said he had an idea. He'd dress like an Orthodox Jew to put the explosives in place. He'd put on side curls and a long black coat. He would go in the Thiry-third Street entrance and come out on Thirty-fourth, and they could pick him up there. Warming to this image, Siraj suggested putting the bombs in a Macy's bag. "Jews shop at Macy's," he offered.
By this time, days before the start of the Republican convention, the cops were taking every precaution. They had the suspects under twenty-four-hour surveillance and were working closely with the U.S. Attorney's office to make sure they were getting all the elements they needed for an airtight case.
Then, early in the morning on August 27, one of the lead detectives got a call at home to get to the NYPD's counterterrorism bureau in Brooklyn as quickly as possible. The decision had been made to move on the suspects.
Since Siraj had an assault case pending against him, the cops used it as a lure. They called and asked him to come to the 68th Precinct in Bay Ridge at three o'clock to get the case closed out. He said fine. But when he left work at Islamic Books and Tapes that Friday afternoon, he was headed in the opposite direction.
Not taking any chances, the cops grabbed him. In his pocket was the original hand-drawn map of targets that Elshafay had first given him back in April-the one he had hidden among the volumes in the bookstore.
Elshafay was also called by the cops and told there was a traffic accident they needed to talk to him about. His mother dropped him at the mosque on Staten Island, where the cops arrested him. Before they put him in the patrol car, he asked if he could have a cigarette.
"There's no question in our mind that they would have played this out completely," says Cohen. "If they couldn't get the explosives or if they just got frustrated, they had other options. All it takes is an AK-47 and a desire to become a martyr. Well, they have no options now."