Informer in bomb plot of Pakistani immigrant who tried blow up Herald Square subway tells of visits to mosques
May 7, 2006
The paid police informer who is the central witness at the trial of a Pakistani immigrant charged with plotting to blow up the Herald Square subway station testified yesterday that he collected a wide range of information on his visits to two city mosques, from the tenor of the sermons to how many people attended the services.
The informer, Osama Eldawoody, 50, secretly recorded roughly two dozen conversations about the plot with the immigrant, Shahawar Matin Siraj, in the summer of 2004 — many of them incriminating. He was questioned by Mr. Siraj's lawyer about the information he provided to the police on his frequent visits to mosques in Brooklyn and Staten Island. The visits occurred over roughly 13 months in 2003 and 2004, both before and after the informer met Mr. Siraj.
Regardless of the outcome of the trial for Mr. Siraj, 23, who faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted, Mr. Eldawoody's testimony is shedding light on what seem to be new police tactics to uncover terrorist plots before they come to fruition. While a federal judge gave the police expanded powers in 2003, critics have nonetheless raised objections to the use of informers in places of worship, political events and other gatherings.
Mr. Eldawoody had earlier testified that he had been told to keep "his eyes and ears open for any radical thing," but many of the details that came out during questioning seemed mundane: How many people attended a service. How long it lasted. The name of the imam who spoke.
A frequent phrase in the reports he made to the police was, "the service was religious in nature."
What he reported sometimes seemed like small talk among worshipers. For example, pressed by one of Mr. Siraj's lawyers to explain what one report, about a man who discussed opening a new mosque on Staten Island, had to do with radicals, Mr. Eldawoody replied, "He doesn't have to be bad or good — I report it — he doesn't have to be a terrorist to report it. I report what happens and what I saw and what I heard."
Earlier in the day, prosecutors concluded their questioning of Mr. Eldawoody by playing a 45-minute videotape for jurors showing Mr. Siraj agreeing to guide a bomber into the subway station and to point out where he should plant backpack bombs. But he said he did not want to place the bombs himself, stressing he wanted to cause only economic damage. He also said he had to ask his mother first.
"I will work with those brothers, that's it," he said. "As a planner or whatever. But to putting there? I'm not sure."
Although Mr. Siraj was captured on the recordings talking about his plan to blow up the subway station, his lawyers contend that the young man, who came to New York from Karachi, Pakistan, in 1999 with his parents, was duped by the informer, who was motivated by the nearly $100,000 paid to him by the Police Department over about three years.
Yesterday, one of Mr. Siraj's lawyers, Martin R. Stolar, appeared to be trying to highlight the Police Department's tactics as he cross-examined Mr. Eldawoody for several hours, questioning him on his recollections about the information he gave to the intelligence division detective who was his handler, including details about his visits to the al-Noor mosque on Staten Island and the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn.
Using reports filed by the detective, which were piled roughly two inches high on a table beside him, Mr. Stolar asked the witness about his registration as a paid informer in July 2003 and questioned him about each mosque visit. Sometimes there were several visits in one day.
Mr. Stolar questioned him about the documents filed by the detective, Stephen Andrews — which reflected information Mr. Eldawoody had provided, by telephone or in person — asking if he recalled making the reports.
At one point, Mr. Stolar asked about a report indicating that he had told the detective that the imam of the Staten Island mosque was looking for a new house in New Jersey. Mr. Eldawoody said that he did not recall giving that information.
At another, the lawyer asked about a report suggesting Mr. Eldawoody had suspicions about a man named Maher, who was looking for foreclosure properties to buy. Mr. Eldawoody said he did not remember that.
And he asked about Mr. Eldawoody's reasons for reporting another conversation: "How did the fact that somebody wanted to open a new mosque on Staten Island relate to the mission that you thought you were doing, which was looking for violent jihad or radical talk?"
Under questioning by prosecutors last week, Mr. Eldawoody, a nuclear engineer who became a naturalized citizen after coming to America in 1986, said he began working as an informer to protect his new country.
Mr. Stolar, who has suggested that Mr. Eldawoody's motive was financial, asked the witness if he was spying in the mosque.
"I don't see it that way — that I was spying," he said. "If there is anything wrong that would hurt the United States, I would be the one to defend the country."
Mr. Stolar has said he intends to put the Police Department's tactics on trial, and at the beginning of his cross-examination, which he said would last several days, he suggested that he would focus closely on Mr. Eldawoody's actions and how the department supervised him.
At one point, he questioned the witness about a report that indicated that he had written down the license plate numbers of worshipers at a mosque.
"I was asked to do that," Mr. Eldawoody replied.
"Who asked you?" Mr. Stolar said.
"The detective," he said.
"He told you to go out and write down the license plates of people who attended services?" the lawyer asked.
"Yes," Mr. Eldawoody replied.