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Anatomy Of a Foiled Plot

Two would-be bombers of the Herald Square subway station find that three is a crowd.


6. We Have Informants Everywhere.

7. Homegrown Terrorists Are Incompetent.

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 19-year-old Tottenville High School dropout. The two men greeted each other warmly. Though they had known one another for less than a year, Dawadi had become a mentor to the naïve, 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 34th Avenue in Astoria, Shahawar Matin Siraj, a 22-year-old Pakistani national, came down from his apartment and got in the car. Siraj, who entered the U.S. 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 30th 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 34th Street subway using a different entrance.

Six days later, two of the three were arrested for plotting to blow up the 34th 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 30,000 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 No. 4 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 1,000 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.

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