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Anatomy Of a Foiled Plot

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The Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, center of the city's largest Arab Muslim community; right, Islamic Books and Tapes, where Siraj worked. (Photo credit: Phillip Toledano)  

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 U.S. 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 18-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 19, 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 34th Street subway station, the list included the station at 59th and Lexington, a 42nd 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 1,000 to 2,000 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 65th and 92nd 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 25 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 U.S. “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.


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