The Role of an F.B.I. Informer Draws Praise as Well as Questions About Legitimacy
By DAVID KOCIENIEWSKI | May 10, 2007
It was August 2006 when one of the young Muslim men accused of plotting to kill soldiers at Fort Dix first broached the idea, according to the authorities. Talking to an informer who was secretly taping the exchange, the young man said that he thought he could round up six or seven other men willing to take part, and that a rocket-propelled grenade might be the most effective weapon, the authorities said.
And he had one more notion: He wanted the informer to lead the attack, according to a federal complaint. “I am at your services,” the young man is quoted as telling the informer, who had presented himself as an Egyptian with a military background.
That moment, recorded on tape and submitted in federal court this week in Camden, N.J., as the authorities charged six Muslim men in the plot, captures something of the complexity of using informers in terror investigations. The informer, sent to penetrate a loose group of men who liked to talk about jihad and fire guns in the woods, had come to be seen by the suspects as the person who might actually show them how an act of terror could be carried off.
Indeed, over the months that followed, as the targets of the investigation spoke with a sometimes unfocused zeal about waging holy war, the informer, one of two used in the investigation, would tell them that he could get them the sophisticated weapons they wanted. He would accompany them on surveillance missions to military installations, debating the risks, and when the men looked ready to purchase the weapons, it was the informer who seemed to be pushing the idea of buying the deadliest items, startling at least one of the suspects.
Since 9/11, law enforcement officials have praised the work of such informers, saying they have been doing exactly what they should be doing — gaining access to the world of a possible threat, playing along to see just how far suspects were willing to go, and allowing the authorities to act before the potential terrorists did.
In the case of the men arrested this week, the authorities have been emphatic: The men were prepared to kill, and to die in the effort, and the informer was vital to preventing any loss of life.
“Their intentions and motivation were obviously well established before the investigation began,” said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the United States attorney in New Jersey, Christopher J. Christie, who announced the arrests of the men on Tuesday.
The authorities made the arrests and ended the operation, officials said, because the men were at last ready to acquire the weapons they had sought.
As the case goes forward, the role of the main informer will almost surely be contested. Over the years, informers in terror cases have become the focus of efforts by defense lawyers and others to call into question the legitimacy of the investigations. They have often sought to show that informers engaged in entrapment.
“The police are allowed to use some enticement in cases,” said Troy Archie, a lawyer for one of the six men charged, Dritan Duka. “But it depends how far they go.”
Certainly, the work of informers can sometimes seem murky. In one instance, the informer who was the main witness in a major terror financing case in Brooklyn in 2005 almost did not make it to the witness stand after he set himself on fire in front of the White House to protest his compensation by his F.B.I. handlers. The informer helped win a conviction, but wound up being prosecuted himself for writing bad checks while working for the F.B.I.
In the criminal complaint they filed against the six men in New Jersey, federal prosecutors took the step of including information about an earlier problem involving their main informer. Prosecutors acknowledged that the informer, two months before he became involved in the Fort Dix case, had misled investigators in order to protect a friend.
The prosecutors added that “the F.B.I. has been able to independently corroborate the information provided” by the informer in this case through recordings and surveillance tapes.
The complaint captures only a small portion of the interactions between the informer and the six suspects during the 14 months they were associated. Defense lawyers assigned yesterday to represent two of the central figures in the case objected to what they called the selective excerpts of conversations submitted by the prosecutors.
“The prosecutors have put out only snippets of conversations, rather than the entire context of conversations,” said Rocco C. Cipparone, who represents another of the six, Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer.
However, a close reading of even the limited material in the criminal complaint suggests a relationship in which some of the suspects never fully trusted the informer, but nonetheless shared secrets with him about a wide assortment of illicit plans and illegal weapons.
Without doubt, in most of the instances described in the complaint, the informer seems to be merely facilitating the menacing plans of the suspects or following along. But on some occasions, the informer appears to have played a slightly more provocative role.
He first struck up an acquaintance with Mr. Shnewer, a cabdriver, in March 2006, two months after a store clerk alerted the authorities that a man had asked him to make a DVD copy of a videotape that appeared to be a terrorist training exercise.
The complaint suggests that the informer quickly began to establish a rapport with Mr. Shnewer, apparently one of the group’s leaders. The informer was shown terror training videotapes, included in talks about obtaining weapons and invited to be the group’s tactical leader in any assault. He later went with Mr. Shnewer on trips to scout a variety of military targets.
Months elapsed without significant developments. The complaint indicates that in October 2006, seven months after the informer first entered the ranks of the men, it might have been the informer who helped jump-start another suspect, Serdar Tatar, who still had not followed through on his promise to get a map of the base from his father’s pizzeria near Fort Dix. The two men were discussing Fort Dix, the complaint said, when the informer “expressed anger at the United States.”
“You want to make them pay for something that they did,” Mr. Tatar said to the informer, according to the complaint. “O.K., you need maps?”
Soon, Mr. Tatar provided the map, the complaint says.
In November, it was the informer who volunteered that he might have a source who could provide the machine guns and heavier arms the men had long been talking about.
“Shnewer expressed interest,” the complaint says.
By early this year, the complaint asserts, the informer accompanied the men to a shooting range in the Poconos, and later practiced assault maneuvers with them using paintball guns. During those exercises, the suspects mused about obtaining explosives and whether to attack a warship when it was docked in Philadelphia.
Eljvir Duka, one of three brothers among the suspects, offered a rationale for their planned attacks, saying, according to the complaint, that when someone threatened “your religion, your way of life, then you go jihad.”
But no specific dates were discussed or plans committed to.
And when efforts to finally get the more potent weapons seemed close to producing results, the informer presented a list of possible arms that could now be bought. The list included fully automatic machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. But it was the men who scaled back their ambitions.
In fact, one of the suspects, Dritan Duka, seemed taken aback by the informer’s listing of the heavy artillery. Mr. Duka appeared to ask the informer if there was anything more he should know about the informer’s background or intentions, including whether he was religious. Asked why he seemed alarmed, Mr. Duka said to the informer, “There was some stuff on the list that was heavy.” And he added an expletive.
In the last recorded conversation cited in the complaint, the men opted only for the machine guns. They would “hold off” on anything more.