Article — From the August 2011 issue
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Article — From the August 2011 issue
Yassin Aref, a Kurdish refugee from Iraq, was first interviewed by the FBI during their initial post-9/11 sweep. The agent’s notes from the meeting are unremarkable. Aref arrived in the United States in 1999 and was soon thereafter hired as the imam of the Central Avenue mosque, where he earned $500 a week. Still, after the interview agents kept an eye on Aref’s mosque, installing cameras aimed at the front and rear entrances. (When I asked Tim Coll whether he had also bugged the mosque, his face turned red and he wouldn’t answer.)
Aref was interviewed again in April 2003, when, in the first weeks of the Iraq invasion, the FBI began to question some 11,000 individuals who had ties to the country. In this meeting, the two agents spoke with him at greater length, and he told them how he and his wife had fled Iraq in 1995 to escape the persecution of the Ba’athist regime. According to one of the investigating agents’ notes, Aref offered that “the FBI could keep a close eye on him and watch everything he does,” and that “due to his lack of familiarity with the American language and legal system,” he asked that the FBI “let him know if he does or says anything illegal or wrong.”
In the spring of 2003, U.S. forces raided suspected insurgent camps throughout Iraq. Soldiers found Aref’s name and Albany phone number in the course of three such raids, including one outside the town of Rawah at what was believed to be a training camp for the extremist group Ansar-al-Islam, where his name turned up amid “pocket litter” scattered on the ground at the site. Next to his name was a word that U.S. military intelligence officers translated as the Arabic term for “commander.” Shortly after the raid, the FBI launched its sting operation.
To get closer to Aref, the FBI turned to an Albany man they’d arrested more than a year earlier: Shahed Hussain, a Pakistani immigrant who went by the nickname Malik and who had been busted helping immigrants fraudulently obtain driver’s licenses, feeding them answers on the test while working as their translator. Malik was facing prison time and possible deportation to Pakistan, where, Coll believed, he was wanted for rape or murder. So Malik was receptive when the FBI offered him a cooperation deal. Coll explained that Malik’s mission, in exchange for “consideration” at his sentencing, was to root out possible terrorist threats. “I told him that he has to produce,” Coll said. “I explained it’s like playing pinball. Keep scoring as many points as you can without people knowing your identity.”
Malik first approached Mohammed Hossain at his pizzeria, presenting himself as a wealthy businessman in need of spiritual counseling. For months he met with Hossain, bringing toys for Hossain’s children and talking about his own religious education. The conversations frequently turned to politics, but Hossain proved not to have extremist leanings. Typical of these exchanges, Malik asked Hossain about the World Trade Center attacks. “Was it good or bad?” Malik asked, and Hossain answered, “Of course, this was bad.” When asked how he defined the word “jihad,” Hossain answered, “You stopped all your considerable worldly business to come here and engage in a few words about God. This is called jihad.” But he proved more pliable on the issue of money, admitting to Malik that he was having “a little bit” of cash-flow trouble on a couple of rental properties he owned. At the behest of the FBI, Malik offered Hossain a loan.
In November 2003, five months into the operation, Malik showed Hossain the missile. In the FBI’s surveillance footage, Malik can be heard describing his business importing merchandise from China. He then tells Hossain, almost offhandedly, that “we also import weapons.” He draws back the tarp to reveal the missile and asks Hossain whether he knows what it is. “No,” says Hossain. Malik tells him, “This is for destroying airplanes.” Hossain says, “But it’s not legal.” Malik laughs, “What is legal in the world?”
The link to Aref was a stroke of luck for the FBI. Hossain himself suggested the imam be brought in to witness the loan, which was made in installments. The handovers of cash were themselves prosaic, but Malik soon turned to the young imam for spiritual guidance, and the two began meeting, occasionally sitting at a local Dunkin’ Donuts, where Malik increasingly brought up controversial topics. Aref didn’t speak Malik’s native Urdu, so the two conversed in broken English. The prosecution would later point to a handful of conversations incriminating Aref, including one at his house in February 2004 during which Malik mentioned that Aref and Hossain should not go to New York City the following week because there would be a missile attack. The transcript of this, the most damning conversation in the eight-month sting, is not available because Malik’s hidden tape recorder supposedly fell off him. Nevertheless, according to the FBI, Aref responded by asking Malik to leave his home. Aref later claimed that he thought Malik was joking and warned him not to make such comments, which prosecutors said meant that Aref was aware of the missile conspiracy. Several months later, Malik once again discussed his other business in front of Aref and made references to New York, but he referred to the missile by the code word “chaudry,” which Malik never explained to Aref. During that same conversation, Malik mentioned that he was afraid he’d have to hide out from the FBI. Aref said that he had no such qualms because he wasn’t doing anything wrong.
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