March 4, 2004. “Do you have any questions?” I asked Tarik Shah, a martial arts expert and musician from the Bronx. Shah was under the impression that I was a personal representative of Osama bin Laden. He had been telling me of his desire to join al-Qaeda and kill infidels, and while outlining his credentials he had boasted that he was a master of hand-to-hand combat and knew how to rip someone’s throat out.
“I’m talking about damage to the inside, so they would drown on their own blood.”
“I can’t make a decision on whether to accept you and your friend into al-Qaeda now,” I told him. “I need to confer with my al-Qaeda superiors first. In the meantime, you should continue your training, and I will be in touch.”
“Shukran,” he said: thank you. I guessed he felt that speaking Arabic would demonstrate his commitment to the cause.
The fact that I was doing the undercover mission was strange: Shah’s case belonged to a different squad, and I was a supervisory special agent—which meant that I was running my own squad and had my own agents to oversee. But the squad handling Shah had asked me to help. They didn’t have anyone else available who knew enough about al-Qaeda or had sufficient training to fool Shah.
I spent weeks preparing for the mission, reviewing the case information, refreshing my knowledge of al-Qaeda and its recruitment process, and practicing what I would say in different scenarios. I started by researching everything known about Shah: his thoughts, ideas, and motivations. Next I determined where he fit into the operation, and then I worked on developing my cover story, down to the smallest details: I would need to answer with confidence and show no hesitation.
Undercover operations don’t allow room for mistakes. If the wannabe terrorists find out who you really are, odds are they’ll kill you. Not only are you a representative of the Western oppressor that they’ve been professing a desire to kill, but you’re now the obstacle between them and their jihad. If you’re lucky, you’ll escape alive, but the operation will have failed, and the chance to catch them incriminating themselves will be lost.
In December 2003 Shah had been arrested by the City of Yonkers police for petty larceny, and during a search of his vehicle the police found phone numbers belonging to Seifullah Chapman—a member of an extremist group in northern Virginia, the Virginia Jihad Network, who was convicted in March 2004 of providing material support to a Pakistani terrorist group—and a second individual, who was known to have trained in foreign terrorist camps. Shah had also made inquiries in mosques and religious stores in New York about joining al-Qaeda—and those questions eventually reached us as well.
On December 16, 2003, we sent an informant whom I will call Saeed (a former convict and Black Panther) to befriend Shah under the guise of seeking bass lessons. Saeed succeeded, and as their friendship grew, Shah enlisted Saeed’s help in finding a location for a martial arts studio where he could “teach the brothers . . . knives and stars and stuff like that” so that they could carry out terrorist activities. Shah also told Saeed of a network he had of others who also wanted to help al-Qaeda.
In January 2004 Saeed told Shah that he had “important news”: he was in contact with an al-Qaeda recruiter from the Middle East who was interested in someone who could train a small group of fighters in hand-to-hand combat and martial arts. The brother’s name was Ali, he was originally from Canada, and he was in fact bin Laden’s personal representative in North America.
Shah said that he was interested and added that he had a close associate, Rafiq Sabir (also known as “the Doctor”), a Columbia University–trained emergency room doctor, living in Boca Raton, Florida, who would be interested in participating as well. He told Saeed to present himself and Sabir to Ali as a “package”—between the two of them, they could provide al-Qaeda with both martial arts services and medical services.
Saeed said he’d pass on the message and later told Shah that the recruiter was willing to meet Shah alone, and that the meeting would take place in Plattsburgh, in upstate New York, near the Canadian border. He warned Shah that Ali was part of a cell involved in jihad and was very security conscious.
On March 3, 2004, Shah and Saeed took a train from New York’s Penn Station to Plattsburgh, and I met them the following day. Shah tried to impress me by telling me about his training in jujitsu and knife and stick fighting, and he said that he was “blessed” to have studied with a mujahid who had fought in Malaysia in 1969. He also showed me his prayer beads, which he said could be used as a weapon to strangle someone.
I told Shah that his application was promising, as many brothers had been arrested in Afghanistan and were in Guantánamo, and we needed new trainers. Shah then made the case for accepting Sabir as well, who he said was a “very, very, very close friend”; they had known each other for more than twenty years. He said Sabir used to be a student in one of his martial arts classes, and that he had “got the spirit.” I told him I’d check with the brothers in light of his recommendation.
An undercover mission requires emotional and psychological preparation, as you are pretending to be someone you aren’t. You experience competing emotions as you develop a relationship with the targets—they trust you, and you become their “friend.” You see their good side as well as the evil side. At the same time, you are using what they say to lock them in jail. You do it, of course, to protect the public from the death and destruction such people want to inflict.
With Shah, as my cover story was that I was a recruiter for bin Laden, I was reversing the usual scenario and playing this situation as if he had to work to gain my trust. It would have been unusual for bin Laden’s personal representative to need to impress a wannabe al-Qaeda member, and the plan worked. He tried hard to establish his credentials with me, and it was clear that my presence made him nervous, as he felt he was mixing with an important terrorist.
On March 11, Saeed met Shah in his apartment in New York to deliver the message that I wished to meet “Doctor Rafiq” in Florida. On April 1, I met Shah in Orlando, Florida. Shah apologized and said that Sabir had had to leave the country for a family emergency. (He would be back, Shah said, on April 12.) I told Shah that I had spoken to the brothers about him, and that I had vouched for him. In light of his recommending Sabir, it was an acceptable risk for me to meet his friend. As Shah and I drove to a hotel where he was staying, because I wasn’t familiar with the area, I accidentally missed the exit, so I took the next one and backtracked. Shah smiled at me and said, “I know what you’re doing: You’re trying to ensure we aren’t followed.”
“I have to do what’s necessary,” I replied. (The surveillance team later told me that they were worried about what was happening, and were debating whether to intervene but decided to hold off.) We arrived at his hotel and took a walk, and as we passed a little girl who was on her father’s shoulders—she must have been less than two years old—she smiled at Shah and he smiled back. “She likes you,” I said.
“Yes,” he replied with a smile, and then he paused, and his expression turned serious, and he added, “but if needed, I could slit her throat.”
I asked Shah to make a martial arts demonstration video for al-Qaeda and to prepare a syllabus. He said he wanted to train in camps in Afghanistan to learn about “chemical stuff” and how to use “explosives and firearms.” He also said that he had trained many brothers who had gone to Afghanistan, including the individual whose number was found in his car and was known by authorities to have gone there.
Shah said he had wanted to start a martial arts school in New York just for Muslims, but that it wouldn’t be permitted, as it would be viewed as discriminatory. What he planned to do instead was to create a “social club,” because then “I can use the highest level of discrimination.”
Before we parted, we discussed using a code to communicate in the future.
I had series of phone calls and e-mail exchanges with Shah. The members of the squad running the operation wrote the e-mails, as I was busy running my own squad, but they showed me each one before it was sent. The e-mails contained questions about Sabir, and Shah wrote that he was concerned about how “open” the e-mails were and worried about the security risk. I told him not to worry.
Over the period of my undercover work, Shah continued working toward helping al-Qaeda and found possible training centers for al-Qaeda terrorists in the United States, including a warehouse in Long Island, New York. He also traveled to Phoenix, Arizona, to scout for possible recruits there, and came up with a list of people he had met across the country who were sympathetic to the cause.
On March 20, 2005, I called Shah on a cell phone using a Yemeni country code. He answered thinking it was Sabir—now in the Middle East—and was surprised to hear my voice. He didn’t know that I, too, was in the Middle East. I told him I was traveling, and in our agreed-upon code we spoke about the syllabus and the video. The handbook was almost complete, he said, and he was still working on the video. He assured me that he was still interested in our “business” proposal—code for his joining al-Qaeda.
On May 1, 2005, Sabir returned to the United States and stayed at a new apartment Shah had in the Bronx. I told Shah that I would return to the United States and would meet them both, which I did, on May 20, at Shah’s mother’s apartment, also in the Bronx.
With both of them present, Shah again attested to Sabir’s value, and told me that the two of them had been kicked out of a mosque in the Bronx, where Sabir was an assistant imam, after Sabir brought in Shah to teach urban warfare. I said I was “impressed” with what he had told me about Sabir and trusted his recommendation. “Sheikh Osama considers doctors our number-one resource,” I told Sabir. I said that we were ready for him and Shah to join the terrorist group.
I instructed them to continue their preparations. Shah still had not finished making his martial arts video for al-Qaeda to use. I warned him to wear a ski mask while on camera, in case the video “God forbid, falls into somebody’s hands.” I told them that before they were accepted as al-Qaeda members, they needed to pledge bayat to bin Laden. They readily agreed, Shah telling me, “We have been waiting for this for a long time.”
They fell to their knees, took my hands, and repeated after me: “God’s pledge is upon me and so is his covenant to commit myself to the orders of the guardians of the agreement, for the misfortune and for the prosperity. And to be a loyalist to the path of jihad, and to my brothers, until God’s word is exalted. And to be protective of the secrecy of the oath and to the directives of Al-Qaeda.” They embraced me, completing the al-Qaeda initiation process. They had taken the same oath as Mohammed Atta and the other 9/11 hijackers. I was now looking at two members of al-Qaeda.
Leaving the Bronx, I returned to the office, took off the wire I was wearing, and handed in my badge. That was my last day at work. I was leaving the FBI and heading into the private sector. At a farewell party that night, friends and colleagues wished me good luck.
“It’s a big loss for us that you’re leaving,” my close friend and confidant Carlos Fernandez said.
“Well, the oath I took to defend the United States from enemies foreign and domestic doesn’t end with a paycheck,” I told him. “I’ll still be doing my part, just from a different angle.”
That was a Friday. The next day, Shah was arrested. In the interrogation booth, the agent questioning him asked, “Do you know someone called Ali?”
“No, I don’t.”
“You haven’t met someone called Ali a number of times?”
“He looks like—” The agent went on to describe me.
“No, I don’t know him,” Shah said.
The agent realized that Shah truly believed I was a member of al-Qaeda and was trying to protect my identity. “Maybe you’ll recognize him if I show you a picture,” the agent said, and showed Shah an official FBI photo of me.
“Oh,” Shah replied, and, realizing the game was up, he confessed to everything.
Shah and most of his group pled guilty, but Sabir didn’t, so two years later, in 2007, I testified in court. That was the first time I had appeared before reporters—there had been many stories in the media full of speculation about who the undercover agent had been, and all of them had gotten it wrong.
We had done everything for the mission by the book, and the defense did little other than ask me to read the transcripts of my exchanges with Shah and Sabir.
Sabir was convicted.