“Put on the TV and you get sick from it. You see Afghanistan, and it’s a war against the Muslims. Iraq, it’s a war against the Muslims. Palestine, it’s a war against the Muslims. Chechnya, a war against the Muslims. Everywhere you look, it’s the same thing. Now even in the Sudan.”
But the deeper hurt has come closer to home. He knows Shahawar Matin Siraj and his family. The imam asked him to help when Siraj was arrested, and Rimawi spent some time checking the reputations of the lawyers being considered. He was instrumental in their decision to stay with the court-appointed counsel.
Rimawi reflects the general feeling in the community when he argues that the case against Siraj and Elshafay is simply one more example of law-enforcement officials’ unjustly arresting Muslims for public-relations value. “The Bush administration needs to keep arresting Muslims,” he says. “They must be able to say ‘See, we stopped another terrorist, we found another sleeping [sic] cell. We are protecting you from the terrorists.’ ”
An affable man with generally moderate views, Rimawi believes that as long as the government keeps telling people over and over that the terrorists are going to strike again soon, the arrests will continue. “If later it turns out they’re not guilty, who cares? It’s the idea of it. I believe in that. We are being targeted. The first cell they arrested in Detroit, they are free now. In Albany, free now. They said there was a mistake in the translation. Gimme a break.”
Rimawi’s passion is not diminished at all when I tell him Elshafay has apparently pleaded guilty. “Innocent or not is not the point,” he says.
“If you take a young man like that and tell him you are religious and you are experienced and clever, and you work him for a year and you keep talking to him and telling him ‘We have to do this,’ it’s easy for that young man to say, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’ Of course that would happen. Doing this, they could arrest most young Muslim people.”
The cops, however, are adamant that this was not, as Cohen puts it, “in any way about leading a horse to water. Our C.I. was very careful to let the suspects take the lead and do the talking.”
From the beginning, Rimawi watched as Dawadi tried to ingratiate himself in the community. He says the informant came to the mosque and introduced himself as a religious man. He told everyone his father was a well-known author of Islamic books in Egypt. “When he heard the call for prayer, he would start to cry,” Rimawi says, shaking his head almost in disbelief. “When someone would read the Koran, he would start to cry. He was a very good actor.”
Though the cops dismiss the notion out of hand, Rimawi believes that Dawadi’s original target was the imam, not Siraj. He says Dawadi tried to get close to the sheik. He told the religious leader he was a real-estate developer, but because he was new to the community people didn’t trust him. He asked the sheik to be his partner. He told him he wouldn’t have to do anything other than let Dawadi use his name and he would split the profits.
When the imam turned him down for the second time, Rimawi says, and told Dawadi not to come see him anymore, he turned his attention to Siraj.
No doubt part of Rimawi’s frustration over the case is the bitter irony that for years, the board members of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge have worked enthusiastically and energetically to be good neighbors, to become an integral part of the community.
Though Rimawi says he has not personally experienced any hostility or hate, he compares the situation for American Arabs now to that of blacks in the fifties and sixties. “I wish I could leave,” he says finally, turning out the lights.
“My wife and children went to Palestine and Jordan recently. I told them, ‘Find a place you like and we’ll move back.’ But my kids were born here; they don’t want to go.”
On Monday, August 23, two days after Siraj, Elshafay, and Dawadi conducted their reconnaissance of the 34th Street subway station, the men got together in Brooklyn to give real shape to their attack plan. Playing out his role, Dawadi said the brotherhood had approved their mission and directed them to conceal the bombs—which Dawadi would get from the brotherhood—in backpacks.
In the midst of the session, Siraj, who had from the beginning been the most vocal about his desire to commit an act of terror and had tried to project the façade of a tough guy, seemed to get cold feet. Suddenly, he told his companions he didn’t want to handle the bombs. He would help with the planning, he would go with them to 34th Street, but he didn’t want to actually go down into the subway with the explosives. “I am not ready to die,” he said.
“There was silence for a bit when Siraj finished talking,” one of the detectives says. “Then, very calmly, James says, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll place the bombs in the subway.’ ”
Energized by his decision to be the pivotal player in the plot, Elshafay then said he had an idea. He’d dress like an Orthodox Jew to put the explosives in place. He’d put on side curls and a long black coat. He would go in the 33rd Street entrance and come out on 34th, and they could pick him up there. Warming to this image, Siraj suggested putting the bombs in a Macy’s bag. “Jews shop at Macy’s,” he offered.
By this time, days before the start of the Republican convention, the cops were taking every precaution. They had the suspects under 24-hour surveillance and were working closely with the U.S. Attorney’s office to make sure they were getting all the elements they needed for an airtight case.
Then, early in the morning on August 27, one of the lead detectives got a call at home to get to the NYPD’s counterterrorism bureau in Brooklyn as quickly as possible. The decision had been made to move on the suspects.
Since Siraj had an assault case pending against him, the cops used it as a lure. They called and asked him to come to the 68th Precinct in Bay Ridge at three o’clock to get the case closed out. He said fine. But when he left work at Islamic Books and Tapes that Friday afternoon, he was headed in the opposite direction.
Not taking any chances, the cops grabbed him. In his pocket was the original hand-drawn map of targets that Elshafay had first given him back in April—the one he had hidden among the volumes in the bookstore.
Elshafay was also called by the cops and told there was a traffic accident they needed to talk to him about. His mother dropped him at the mosque on Staten Island, where the cops arrested him. Before they put him in the patrol car, he asked if he could have a cigarette.
“There’s no question in our mind that they would have played this out completely,” says Cohen. “If they couldn’t get the explosives or if they just got frustrated, they had other options. All it takes is an AK-47 and a desire to become a martyr. Well, they have no options now.”