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The New York Times

Was the Government Manufacturing Thwarted Terrorism?

IN THE ALMOST 20 YEARS SINCE 9/11, U.S. AUTHORITIES HAVE USED INFORMANTS TO CONVICT HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE FOR CRIMES RELATED TO INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM. BUT HOW DANGEROUS WERE THEY REALLY? Shahawar Matin Siraj first met the older man late in the summer of 2003. He would see him at the mosque in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, sobbing loudly during prayers and hovering near the imam. But when the man entered the bookstore nearby, where Siraj worked, he was warm and easygoing. He said his name was Osama Eldawoody, and the two men struck up an unlikely friendship. Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times Siraj, at 21, had a hulking build and a tendency to ramble when he spoke. He usually lingered around the store with friends from the neighborhood, talking about Islam and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He had difficulty grasping new ideas and would need them explained multiple times, but in front of his friends, he pretended to know more than he did. Eldawoody was the son of an Egyptian religious scholar and said he studied nuclear engineering. He was knowledgeable about the world and had a flair about him, gesticulating excitedly as he spoke. To Siraj’s delight, Eldawoody took an interest in him, encouraging him to pursue his interest in computers. Never before had someone this sophisticated, an adult more than twice his age, taken him so seriously. Siraj’s family fled Pakistan several years earlier, seeking to escape the violence against their Shiite minority sect. He was a teenager when they arrived in the United States, but he did not attend high school and was still struggling to earn his equivalency diploma. His world consisted of a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Queens that he shared with his parents and sister, and the equally cramped emporium filled with Islamic books and phone cards that was a 90-minute subway ride away in Bay Ridge. Siraj was quietly pleased when Eldawoody started offering him rides after work. The young man listened as his friend counseled him on personal responsibility and the Prophet’s sayings. Over the months, Siraj found himself pouring his heart out to Eldawoody, about his financial woes and about Mano, the woman in Pakistan he had met online; he hoped to marry her soon. He was distraught when Eldawoody confided that he was suffering from a liver disease and worried that it was potentially fatal. Siraj promised to care for Eldawoody’s daughter if anything happened to him and began telling him, in his broken English, “I am like your son.” Slowly, their conversations took on a darker edge. Eldawoody complained to Siraj that the F.B.I. was harassing him, maybe because he was a Muslim who knew about nuclear engineering. They discussed the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and online images of Muslims being tortured and killed in the wars overseas. When Siraj saw a picture of a girl who was raped, he broke down and cried. Eldawoody seemed to share his friend’s anger. Something had to be done, something that would get the world to pay attention. They agreed that an attack that would hurt the United States economically would help save Muslim lives. But what should they target? Siraj suggested the bridges they drove past, or major subway stations and train lines. In July 2004, Siraj introduced Eldawoody to James Elshafay, a portly 19-year-old who was a regular at the store. Elshafay was also angry about the American treatment of Muslims and had even drawn a map of Staten Island bridges and police precincts to target, which Siraj shared with Eldawoody. Soon the friends were discussing more feasible possibilities. Wall Street came up, but Siraj wasn’t sure why it was so famous and asked Eldawoody to explain. In August, Siraj had another idea: What about the Herald Square subway station in Midtown Manhattan? He transferred there on his commute between Brooklyn and Queens, and, eager to impress his companions, he mapped out the station. It was underneath a shopping mall; maybe they could place bombs here. Then, before Siraj knew it, it was no longer idle talk. On Aug. 21, the three men visited Herald Square and made drawings that Eldawoody kept. But Siraj was starting to have doubts: The station was a busy one and never empty. What if a child got hurt? What if someone died because of him? Siraj liked to talk tough, but this was different. Eldawoody appeared to be serious. On the night of Aug. 23, Siraj sat in the back seat of Eldawoody’s tan Toyota Corolla, Elshafay in the front. Eldawoody had said he had connected friends upstate, whom he called the Brothers, and now they were keen to support the Herald Square idea. Siraj was tense. He was determined to find a way out of the plot, but he was afraid. The Brothers sounded dangerous, and Eldawoody had come to know everything about him and his family, where they lived and worked. Siraj glanced at Eldawoody. Did he have a gun? Eldawoody handed a backpack to each of his companions, which were to be used to carry the bombs. Siraj looked at his backpack. “It’s very big,” he said. Eldawoody seemed perplexed. Siraj used to lift heavy bags of produce when he worked at a deli. “This is big?” Eldawoody asked. Siraj explained that it would be noticeable, then tried a different approach, telling an invented story about the F.B.I. arresting two Muslims during a Pakistan Day parade near Herald Square. It would be too dangerous for him to be in the area now. Growing annoyed, Eldawoody reminded him that the Brothers were counting on him. Siraj hedged. He had already given the Brothers the idea, he said. He could help with the planning aspect, really anything but planting the bomb, but he needed to feel comfortable with every single detail. And there was another matter. “I have to, you know, ask my mom’s permission.” Exasperated, Eldawoody asked more directly about Siraj’s willingness to place a bomb. “You don’t want to put it there?” “No.” There was silence as the car rolled through Queens. Suddenly, Elshafay said he would dress up as a Jew for the operation, and Siraj jokingly encouraged the idea, hoping laughter would cut the tension. Again, Eldawoody asked if Siraj would join. Siraj, now so close to home, responded that he could check out the security at the station. He clarified again, though: He wouldn’t carry a bomb. He didn’t want to put it anywhere with his hands. Eldawoody pulled up to Siraj’s apartment building. They shook hands, but Siraj could sense Eldawoody’s frustration and disappointment. “I’m sorry,” Siraj said, and got out. Siraj begged God for forgiveness for what he had almost become entangled in. He considered going to the police, but when there was a scuffle at the bookstore with an aggressive customer earlier that year, the New York Police Department charged him with misdemeanor assault, and that case was still open. He was a Muslim man with an asylum case pending in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. He tried to reassure himself. Eldawoody had insisted that he was essential to the plot, and because Siraj had refused to place the bomb, didn’t that really mean the plan was dead? They hadn’t even finalized a date for an attack. Four days after the car ride, Siraj got a call from the Police Department, asking him to come to a station in Bay Ridge to discuss his misdemeanor charge. He set off from the bookstore around 3 p.m., when, without warning, he was surrounded by three unmarked cars. A gun was pointed at his head, and his hands were cuffed. An hour later, he was sitting in an office in Lower Manhattan, panicking. He asked to call his mom but was not allowed to. A six-foot table separated him and an N.Y.P.D. officer, an N.Y.P.D. intelligence detective, an F.B.I. agent and two federal prosecutors. Siraj learned that he was under arrest on suspicion of conspiring to blow up the Herald Square subway station. His friend, Eldawoody, was an informant. That night, the department started carrying out another series of arrests, rounding up hundreds of demonstrators who had been gathering ahead of the Republican National Convention, scheduled to start in three days at Madison Square Garden, to protest the Bush administration’s wars. Officers had been monitoring activist groups for weeks and justified the measures by invoking the specter of terrorism. As the arrests continued, the department focused the media’s attention on the plot they had recently foiled just a block away from the convention, at Herald Square. The police said they were forced to arrest Siraj and Elshafay before they slipped surveillance and took action. “It was clear that they had an intention to cause damage to kill people,” Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said in a news conference broadcast live on CNN. The motive, he stated, was “hatred for America.” When a reporter asked if there was any entrapment involved in the arrest, Kelly rejected the idea flatly. “Entrapment?” he replied. “No, not that I see.” THIS YEAR BRINGS THE 20TH anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The wars the United States launched afterward have become forever wars, with American troops still active around the world. The detention center at Guantánamo Bay has become a political quagmire for every new administration. If the fight against terrorism has changed the way we engage with the world, it has also fundamentally altered our democracy at home. After the attacks, sweeping legislation and policy changes cleared the way for the authorities to surveil whole communities, monitoring even those who had no connection to terrorism. Prosecutors were now able to build cases from invasive intelligence-gathering tactics that would have been restricted earlier. The U.S. attorney general allowed law enforcement to deploy informants from the earliest stages of a terrorism investigation, contravening the established practice of waiting until there was reasonable indication of criminal activity; the Justice Department further relaxed restrictions in later years, permitting such use of informants even when assessing a potential case. In trials, the government presented evidence gathered by paid civilian informants who latched onto low-income, vulnerable and mentally challenged individuals, urged them toward a plot and, in several cases, even offered money and supplies to carry out bombings. Nearly 50 percent of international-terrorism-related prosecutions since 2001 have involved such informants, according to a database of cases maintained by Trevor Aaronson and Margot Williams of the Intercept. The government also started exploiting a little-used statute that criminalized the provision of services or resources — so-called material support — to terrorist organizations, expanding the definition of “support” to target people with increasingly ambiguous connections to terrorists; in 2010, the Supreme Court even found that training militant groups on how to mediate conflicts peacefully constituted material support. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the government has imprisoned some 800 people on charges related to international terrorism, according to the Intercept database. But these numbers obscure a complicated reality. Many of these people were not found to have committed any acts of violence. Still, the government managed to achieve a high rate of conviction. Those accused of terrorism often pleaded guilty, usually because they were offered leniency in exchange for information, or because they knew they would almost certainly receive a longer sentence if they went to trial and were convicted. And if the evidence suggesting terrorism was too weak, prosecutors sometimes ended up indicting suspects on other offenses involving fraud, immigration, drug possession or perjury — in what the National Security Division, a branch of the Justice Department, called Category II cases — and adding them to the list of victories in the fight against terrorism. For example, Sabri Benkahla, who was investigated on suspicion of being part of a network of terrorists in Virginia, was acquitted of the original charges in 2004 but ultimately convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. “Prosecuting terror-related targets using Category II offenses,” an N.S.D. report stated, “is often an effective method — and sometimes the only available method — of deterring and disrupting potential terrorist planning and support activities.” In the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, government officials pointed to the absence of a major attack as evidence of the success of counterterrorism strategies. But in some respects, the government’s counterterrorism policy may be manufacturing the very threat it was meant to confront. “You’re trying to get people before they commit a crime,” said David Cole, the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “And if you’re doing that, you’re going to end up locking up a lot of people who probably would have never ended up committing a real crime. Who knows whether any of these people would have engaged in a terrorist act? I don’t know, you don’t know, the courts don’t know, the government doesn’t know. But as a result, the courts tend to be very deferential, because they buy into the notion ‘Better safe than sorry.’” As a growing number of Muslims went to prison on terrorism-related charges, the arrests themselves became evidence of a larger threat. Siraj was not affiliated with any terrorist group, but for government agencies and the news media, his case was proof of the need for greater vigilance; experts pointed to Siraj in studies about radicalization. In 2007, two N.Y.P.D. intelligence analysts prepared a report for policymakers and law enforcement, detailing how the Islamic bookstore in Bay Ridge became “an extremist incubator” for Siraj and Elshafay “as they progressed through the stages of radicalization.” Speaking at a congressional hearing in New York in 2008, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said the Herald Square bombing plot proved that the N.Y.P.D.’s intelligence and counterterrorism bureaus were “crucial elements in the global fight against terrorism.” Today there has been little accounting from policymakers of whether these measures have made us any safer; instead, the rise in domestic-terrorism incidents is inciting calls to further broaden the government’s counterterrorism apparatus. In 2017, the Government Accountability Office reported the number of “violent extremist” attacks on American soil that resulted in death. From Sept. 12, 2001, to the end of 2016, 23 such attacks were carried out by “radical Islamist violent extremists”; 62 were carried out by “far-right-wing violent extremist groups.” For the past several years, the F.B.I. has stated that it is concerned about domestic-extremist movements driven by “perceptions of government or law-enforcement overreach, sociopolitical conditions and reactions to legislative actions.” In 2019, the F.B.I. Agents Association, which represents 14,000 current and former agents, urged Congress to apply the weight of the federal government to meet the threat. The call was revived after Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol in January; the Biden administration directed the intelligence community to conduct a domestic-threat assessment and instructed the National Security Council to prioritize the issue. But many constitutional and civil rights lawyers worry that this renewed energy to combat extremism will miss the lessons of cases like Siraj’s — that the government’s approach to counterterrorism erodes constitutional protections for everyone, by blurring the lines between speech and action and by broadening the scope of who is classified as a threat. “We treat terrorism in an exceptional way,” said Shirin Sinnar, a law professor at Stanford University. “The ordinary rule of law doesn’t apply when it comes to terrorism — no ordinary oversight or democratic accountability.” SIRAJ’S WORLD HAD SHRUNK to four walls in a solitary cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal facility in New York, just north of Bay Ridge. There would be no bail. Temperatures were freezing. Mold sprouted in the food. The fluorescent lights glared day and night. In the months after Sept. 11, the jail housed dozens of Muslim men who were arrested without charges. Guards slammed them against walls, mocked them during strip searches and threatened them with death. Conditions in the jail had improved since then, but not by much. Weeks went by before Siraj saw his parents, sitting at a table, as he approached them in handcuffs. He conferred with them, and they agreed that he hadn’t done anything. There were discussions of a plea deal: He could be out in 10 years. But the proposition confused his family. Why should he admit he was a terrorist? Besides, he had no information to offer the authorities about jihadists. Siraj believed that a jury would see through the allegations, yet he could hardly even focus on the trial. When Martin R. Stolar, the civil rights attorney who took his case, visited him to discuss defense strategy, Siraj could talk only about the jail conditions. “He was totally obsessed,” Stolar said. The trial commenced on April 24, 2006. Fifteen months had passed since his arrest. Siraj was the only defendant. Elshafay had agreed to plead guilty and testify against his friend; he would get a five-year sentence. Prosecutors for the Eastern District of New York, which includes Brooklyn and Queens, needed Elshafay’s cooperation. Before Siraj was charged, F.B.I. and Justice Department officials raised concerns that Eldawoody’s role had been too heavy-handed. (The F.B.I. and the Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.) The Southern District of New York, which has jurisdiction in Manhattan and already had considerable experience prosecuting high-profile terrorism cases, including the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, declined to pursue the case. An attorney who worked there at the time recalled that the office had similar concerns about the “informant exploiting the defendant’s mental-health issues.” (“We were always very aggressive, particularly with terrorism,” the attorney told me. “If we passed on a case, usually there’s a pretty good reason for it.”) The Eastern District, which historically focused on mafia and gang cases, saw more potential. Terrorism cases were in demand after September 2001. Stolar had a long history of defending people against aggressive police tactics. In the 1970s, while the country reeled from revelations that the F.B.I. and the police had used informants and infiltrated left-wing and Black political groups, Stolar was working on a class-action lawsuit against the N.Y.P.D.’s improper monitoring of political activity. The lawsuit eventually led to the implementation of the Handschu guidelines, which stipulated that the department could not investigate political or religious groups without some factual basis for suspecting criminal activity. But in 2003, at the department’s request, the guidelines were relaxed. Stolar saw a familiar pattern in Siraj’s case, and he planned to argue entrapment: to show that Eldawoody hadn’t stopped a dangerous plot but had instead befriended and lured a young, pliable man toward one. Siraj was hardly the picture of the terrorist mastermind the prosecutors were alleging. He wanted to seem tough and knowledgeable, but he was easily swayed. He’s “not the brightest light bulb in the chandelier,” Stolar told the jury and Judge Nina Gershon. Unlike other criminal defenses that are based on English common law, the entrapment defense was born in the United States more than 100 years ago, amid concerns that the government might be creating crime to ensnare people who would not have committed it otherwise. But entrapment is a knotty defense. It requires the defendant to admit his guilt and then prove that he would not have committed the crime without the police’s inducement. In the Brooklyn courthouse that spring, the central question was whether Siraj would have plotted the bombing of the Herald Square station if he hadn’t met Eldawoody. Prosecutors can counter the entrapment argument by pointing to similar acts a defendant committed in the past. But terrorism cases pose an awkward problem; Siraj, like many such defendants, had no history of terrorism. So to prove that Siraj would have pursued the plan even without police involvement, the prosecutors would rely on his speech for evidence. That is, they would need to show that Siraj, a Muslim immigrant in the wake of Sept. 11, was predisposed to violence. Eldawoody took the stand first. In late 2002, the N.Y.P.D. arrived at Eldawoody’s door, saying it had received a call about mysterious large packages being delivered to his apartment on Staten Island. Eldawoody — who had tried his hand at several sales ventures, from clothing to food, with little success — explained that the packages were merely leather jackets that he planned to resell. The police did not question him further and instead asked if he would work for them; he agreed. In the courtroom, Eldawoody explained that he frequented mosques around the city and reported “anything good or bad” to his handler. Over the course of several months, he attended 575 prayer services. In Eldawoody’s telling, the matter was simple: Siraj was angry at the United States for killing Muslims and suggested bombing Herald Square. Eldawoody’s role was to be a co-conspirator, and in their conversations, it was Siraj who would often bring up violence. Among the items prosecutors presented as evidence against Siraj was the map that Elshafay had drawn of Staten Island, two CDs on bomb-making that Siraj had shown Eldawoody, including the widely known “Anarchist Cookbook,” and books that Siraj had recommended to Elshafay, which were available at the bookstore. The government’s witnesses said the N.Y.P.D. sent Eldawoody to Bay Ridge to investigate mosquegoers’ potential connections to Hamas and a group of terrorism suspects in Texas; Siraj become a person of interest only in March 2004, five months after the two men met. Prosecutors also played scratchy snippets from 30 hours of recorded conversations between the two men: In one, Siraj laughs and calls the police “pigs”; in another, he suggests placing explosives in the 59th Street subway station. He mentions that Area 51 in Nevada may have bomb-making materials, though he calls it “Area 52.” One of the recordings was from their final car ride. For the prosecutors, it revealed a plain truth: Siraj left the car agreeing to be a lookout. They didn’t mention that in that one conversation, Siraj refused to place the bomb 18 times. Twenty-one days into the trial, on May 15, Siraj was called to testify. He trudged to the witness stand, dressed in the same pinstripe suit he had worn through much of the proceedings. He was exhausted. Over the past weeks, he said, the guards at the Metropolitan Detention Center kept waking him up in the middle of the night to move him between cells. He willed himself to remember conversations from two years earlier, but details would get jumbled. Still, over several hours, Siraj shed light on a relationship that the recordings left out: that he and Elshafay both considered Eldawoody a religious mentor, and that it was Eldawoody who guided him to websites and images that disturbed him, including the photos of Iraqis being tortured by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. Siraj conceded that he suggested the subway idea when the three of them talked about hurting the United States economically. He wanted to impress Eldawoody, and he was also scared of him and the Brothers. Some of the prosecution’s evidence corroborated parts of Siraj’s testimony. Eldawoody’s N.Y.P.D. handler admitted that it was Eldawoody who first mentioned a “dirty bomb” in his conversations with Siraj. Elshafay said he agreed to join the subway plot partly because Eldawoody had told him that killing American soldiers was part of his religious duty; he also testified that Siraj tried to back out of the plan. Even the recordings the prosecution played hinted at how thoroughly Eldawoody had assumed a mentor role. In one, Siraj confides to him about his love for Mano, and Eldawoody promises to help bring her to the United States. Without any weapons or detailed plans for prosecutors to point to, the trial became a battle of murky narratives. Then, in a surprising move, the government revealed one more witness: an undercover N.Y.P.D. officer, referred to by his alias, Kamil Pasha, who had spoken many times with Siraj in Bay Ridge before Eldawoody came along. “I asked if there would be suicide bombings in the United States,” the officer told the court. “He said, ‘Yes, because of the United States’ support for Israel.’” Pasha’s statements rendered false what Siraj said in his testimony, that he hadn’t spoken about violence against the U.S. before he met Eldawoody. Still, such comments hardly qualified as intent; the officer admitted that in his more than 70 conversations with him, Siraj never spoke about carrying out an attack on Herald Square. It took prosecutors three weeks to lay out their case. The defense used two days to present their only two witnesses: Siraj and his mother, neither of whom were poised or spoke English well. Siraj’s mother, wearing a shalwar kameez, testified through an Urdu translator. Stolar had hoped to also bring Commissioner Kelly to the witness stand, to drive home the point that the Police Department’s counterterrorism strategy was flawed. During cross-examination, Eldawoody testified that he often reported mundane details to the Police Department, like the topics of the imams’ sermons or the license-plate numbers of congregants, and that he hadn’t met any Qaeda operatives. To Stolar, this was evidence that Eldawoody, who was being paid by the department, wasn’t actually finding extremists, and so he pursued Siraj. But Judge Gershon had ruled against Kelly’s coming to court. On May 24, two days before Siraj’s 24th birthday, Gershon called everyone to the courtroom. The jury had deliberated for 10 hours and reached its verdict: guilty. Afterward, some members of the jury told reporters for The New York Times that the government’s case wasn’t entirely convincing: At least three of them had been reluctant to convict Siraj. “We don’t know what happened,” one said. “He could have been entrapped back then. We don’t have the evidence to prove it.” While the entrapment defense was difficult to win, it was not impossible. But this was different. “If you have a Muslim defendant,” Stolar told me, “who’s charged with terrorism in the years following 9/11, you’re screwed.” While lawyers have successfully used the entrapment defense in other criminal cases, no lawyer or expert I spoke to could point to a terrorism case in which it succeeded. As the sentencing hearing approached, Stolar grew concerned about something that had long bothered him. Though local law enforcement had led the investigation into Siraj, federal authorities had taken over the case. Stolar had a guess as to why: The government could ask for harsher penalties in a federal case. During the trial, Stolar and Siraj’s mother repeatedly said that Siraj wasn’t bright. Hoping to sway the judge toward a lenient sentence, Stolar asked a psychologist to examine Siraj. The exam found that he had an I.Q. of 78. “His overall vocabulary, his judgment and reasoning and his ability to think abstractly are impaired compared to the general population,” the psychologist noted. Eight months after his guilty verdict, in January 2007, Siraj returned to the Brooklyn courthouse for sentencing. “Your honor, I want to apologize about whatever I said in the tapes,” he said. “I wish I can take those words back, but it cannot happen.” Gershon decided to give him the minimum of what “enhanced sentencing” guidelines recommended for those convicted of foreign terrorism. Siraj would spend the next 30 years in prison. SIRAJ HAD TO BE UP every morning by 6 to make his bed. It was a brick slab layered with a thin blue foam mattress, restraints on each corner. Most days, though, there wasn’t much of a bed to make; after finding roaches under the mattress, he had taken to sleeping directly on the bricks. A stack of lockers stood against the foot of the bed, and at the opposite wall, a metal toilet, a sink and a shower were crammed together. A small window above the radiator offered Siraj glimpses of the sky in Terre Haute, Ind. When it rained, the water leaked through. The cell door would slide open, and he would shuffle to the dining area, where he was handed a box of cereal and milk. He could wander around the unit, which was segregated from the rest of the prison, all day. There was a tiny laundry room and an exercise area with a stationary bike and a treadmill, where prisoners fashioned weights from mops and water bottles. There was an outdoor basketball court, where they played handball. It was surrounded by a cage. Siraj was imprisoned in a unit that once housed death-row inmates. It hadn’t been used in some time, and he was put to work, collecting dead rats and scraping clean the walls of the empty cells. He knew he was preparing the unit for the arrival of others. Terre Haute was an experimental prison, called a Communications Management Unit. The Federal Bureau of Prisons had only recently opened the facility, several months after Siraj’s trial, to help “protect the public” from people who “required increased monitoring” because of their offense. Another C.M.U. would open the following year in Marion, Ill. Siraj hadn’t heard of this type of prison before, but he learned soon enough what “communications management” meant. A man he believed to be working for the F.B.I. was visibly present in the unit, observing the incarcerated men and reading the letters they sent and received. When Siraj had to visit the clinic or the dentist, other sections of the penitentiary were locked down, and he was escorted through a dark underground tunnel. It made little sense to Stolar that his client would be considered so dangerous, when the government itself helped concoct the crime. In fact, when the C.M.U.s first opened, the Bureau of Prisons had no written criteria for determining who would be placed there. “The bureau actually developed the criteria based on who they sent to the unit, as opposed to the other way around,” Rachel Meeropol, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, told me. The most difficult adjustment for Siraj, though, was being severed from his family. Inmates in federal prisons are usually allowed 300 minutes a month for phone calls. But in the C.M.U., Siraj had to compress everything he wanted to say to his father, mother and sister into just 15 minutes a week. Siraj’s calls were monitored by intelligence analysts in Martinsburg, W.Va., who would type up detailed reports. (In response to my queries about Siraj’s placement in the C.M.U., a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons said that it doesn’t provide information about specific cases, that the units house “offenders needing enhanced oversight” and that the analysts monitor prisoners “who align with extremist ideology.”) Without his family to speak to, Siraj had fallen into studying the photos his mother mailed to him. He would lose himself in the lines on his parents’ faces, Mano’s smile, his sister’s teasing glances. Once, he saw a bright light and looked up to see a guard beaming his flashlight, ordering him to sleep. He had been sitting on the bed all day and night, the guard told him, staring at the pictures. In short phone calls, his mother would also pass him messages from Mano, but after a while, they stopped arriving. He had told her to move on. The outside world, his old life, began to dissolve. His new life consisted of his neighbors, the dozen or so men in the unit, occupying adjacent cells. There was Masoud Ahmad Khan, in his mid-30s, who had traveled to Pakistan after Sept. 11 to attend a militant training camp; he was accused of belonging to a jihadist network in Virginia and was sentenced to life in prison. There were a few of the “Lackawanna Six,” young Yemeni-Americans who in the spring of 2001 visited a training camp in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden was present; the men pleaded guilty to material-support charges, but the government couldn’t explain what the six were planning to do in the United States, if anything. As the months wore on, others arrived. Hatem Fariz, from Florida, had pleaded guilty to raising money for a Palestinian terrorist group. Two leaders of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, once the biggest Islamic charity in America, had been convicted of sending funds to Hamas. Yassin Aref, a Kurdish imam in Albany, was found guilty of providing material support after he watched an informant pretend to lend a friend some money; the informant claimed that the funds were obtained by selling a missile launcher to be used to assassinate a Pakistani ambassador. Aref couldn’t follow English fluently and said he didn’t realize what he had witnessed. He thought the absurdity of his case would finally be exposed when the government admitted that a translation error had led officials to mistakenly conclude that he was a military commander. And yet here he was. Siraj was closest to another person around his age, a 25-year-old from Lodi, Calif., named Hamid Hayat, who nearly died from a childhood battle with meningitis. Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, a civilian informant hired by the F.B.I. befriended Hayat, and the two discussed Islamist extremist groups and jihadist training camps. While Hayat was on a family trip to Pakistan, the informant called and pressured him to visit a camp. Hayat made excuses, but the informant would not relent; finally, annoyed, he said he might go. Hayat returned to the United States and was arrested by the F.B.I. within days. After hours of interrogation and sleep deprivation, he confessed to attending the training camp, though there is no evidence that he did. (He later disavowed the confession.) Prosecutors, charging Hayat with providing material support, claimed that they had broken up a Qaeda sleeper cell in California. In Terre Haute, Siraj fell into a daily rhythm. He served food in the kitchen, joked around with Hayat, read the Quran. Most hours, he claimed a plastic chair in front of the row of televisions mounted on the wall and watched “Pokémon.” “He was a kid,” Aref told me. “Maybe he was a big guy, but in his mind, he was not more than 10 years old.” One day, as Aref was watching the news, he saw that the authorities had arrested four Black Muslims from Newburgh, N.Y., on suspicion of planning to attack an American military base and a synagogue. An informant had helped build the case against them. Aref recognized him: It was the same man from his case. (The informant, who owned a limousine company, had a history of fraud and is now wanted for his involvement in a 2018 car crash in upstate New York that killed 20 people, the deadliest transportation accident in the country in nearly a decade.) The individuals in the Newburgh case were impoverished; the informant had promised them $250,000 and a luxury car if they agreed to carry out the attacks. One of the men, David Williams, needed money to pay for his younger brother’s cancer treatment, and another, Laguerre Payen, had a history of mental-health issues. In fact, it seemed law enforcement had a knack for finding men who were vulnerable. James Elshafay, who was abused as a child, took medication for schizophrenia and depression. Ahmed Ferhani, a 26-year-old who pleaded guilty for plotting to blow up a synagogue, was encouraged by an undercover officer to buy a gun from another undercover officer. Ferhani had been institutionalized repeatedly since he was a teenager; recently, he had tried to hang himself in prison. Jose Pimentel, a Muslim convert who smoked marijuana with an informant and made incriminating statements, appeared to be unstable; he had once even tried circumcising himself. None of the men had committed an act of violence against others, but all of them ended up behind bars. The “terrorists” were sent around the country: some to general-population prisons, some to maximum-security facilities in Colorado and New York and still others to the new restrictive prisons in the Midwest. In early 2010, for the first time in three years at Terre Haute, Siraj had visitors. He sat in his prison-issued sweats, behind plexiglass, staring at the two women across from him. The wrinkles on his mother’s face had deepened. His sister was taller, no longer the child he left behind. Siraj realized that he must look strange to them, too. When he arrived at the prison, he was prescribed Prozac for depression and insomnia. The medication made him gain weight, which, after months in the gym, had become muscle. He wanted to wrap his mother in his arms, but contact was not allowed at the C.M.U., as it was in the general-population prison. By then, the unit in Terre Haute had grown to about 50 men, mostly Arab or South Asian, and mostly Muslim. Guards started reprimanding them if they read aloud from the Quran and banned group prayers. Defense lawyers and the incarcerated men had a name for the facility: “Little Guantánamo.” OSAMA ELDAWOODY WAS one of thousands of informants recruited by the police and the F.B.I. after the Sept. 11 attacks, most of whom remain anonymous. The government doesn’t like to discuss specifics about its use of informants, but over the years, through trials and lawsuits, details about their recruitment and work have emerged. Some of those who refused to become informants say they faced retaliatory measures, including threats of being deported or being placed on the “no-fly list,” which prevents a person from flying into, out of or within the United States. One man who said he was approached to be an informant and refused was later convicted of, among other charges, providing material support; he remains in prison. In its rush to find informants to search for terrorists, the government had unwittingly created an incentive system. Many had committed crimes and agreed to work with the authorities in return for leniency; others were promised immigration assistance. (In November 2004, an informant who was afraid that his family would be targeted for his work with the F.B.I. set himself on fire in front of the White House.) Not long after Siraj’s sentencing, Eldawoody effectively vanished. There was no mention of him in the news, no trace of him on social media. I managed to find a possible address for someone with a similar name in a different state. On a warm day last October, I arrived in a quiet, suburban neighborhood where the streets were lined with manicured lawns, a car in every driveway. I thought of Siraj’s parents’ home, the constricted apartment on the second floor of a crowded building in Jackson Heights, as I approached a two-story tan and red-brick house and knocked on the door. There was a Toyota Camry parked in the driveway, but no one answered. I waited an hour, dropped a letter into the mailbox with my name and phone number and left. A week later, I received a text message from Eldawoody. Over the phone, he told me that soon after the trial, he and his wife moved across the country to start over, but he asked me not to publish his new location. Eldawoody also refused to tell me what type of work he had found. “I don’t do anything illegal,” he said. “I don’t do one job. I do several jobs.” He was, however, eager to tell me “the whole story” of Siraj’s case, most of which centered on how the government betrayed him. “They told me, ‘You will be protected,’” he said. But the police had not always lived up to that promise, he complained, noting that recent calls to his police contact to report an acquaintance who was harassing him went unreturned: “After the case is over, they don’t care.” Eldawoody believed that in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the authorities monitored his apartment building and later eavesdropped on his phone calls and even bugged his car. He was living in a rent-controlled apartment on Staten Island with his wife and daughter, he said, when the police approached him to work as an informant. According to Eldawoody, he had always felt uneasy about getting Siraj in trouble and even wanted to quit at some point. “I didn’t want Matin to be in that situation at all,” he told me. “I wanted to get away from the whole thing.” And then, one day, the two men were at the bookstore, and Siraj pulled out the map that Elshafay had drawn of Staten Island. Eldawoody panicked. “I told him: ‘Hide it! I don’t want to see it!’” he recalled. Eldawoody decided not to immediately tell Stephen Andrews, his N.Y.P.D. handler, about the drawing, he said. Only when the detective asked if Siraj had shown him anything did Eldawoody “remember” the map. “I was terrified,” Eldawoody said. “I was afraid.” He had never actually expected to see such plans. And, he told me, he grew more worried when Andrews pressed him about what Siraj might have shared with him. Eldawoody suspected that the Police Department was continuing its surveillance of him. Soon after, he started recording his conversations with Siraj; he wanted to prove to the police that he was not hiding anything. Eldawoody’s recollection doesn’t follow the timeline presented at trial: The recordings started in June 2004, and Siraj showed him the map in July. What is consistent, though, is that something shifted before the recordings began. In court, Andrews admitted that he was surprised when Eldawoody reported to him, in May, that Siraj spoke about attacking the United States. It seemed to be a sudden change in Siraj, but the Police Department directed Eldawoody to continue monitoring him. Two weeks before the final car ride and Siraj’s arrest, Eldawoody said, he was already meeting with prosecutors to discuss the case. He denied showing any photos to Siraj and repeated to me what he said in the trial: Siraj had always wanted to do something big and was comfortable killing civilians. This, however, contradicted the transcripts of their conversations; in their last car ride, Siraj told Eldawoody that killing people was unacceptable. In his closing argument, the lead prosecutor told the jury that if someone said they intended to blow up a subway station to make a political point, each one of them would respond, “Are you crazy?” But Eldawoody did not do that. According to Siraj, when he brought the Herald Square idea to Eldawoody, the older man responded that he would talk to the Brothers about it. (“I was just a kid!” Siraj told me, and wondered what would have happened if his mentor had discouraged such thoughts.) One detail about the case still irks Eldawoody: that he was not compensated to his liking. Before the trial, he was paid roughly $25,000 for his work, he said, and for several years, he continued to receive regular payments — more than $3,000 a month to start. But, he insisted, he deserved more. The Police Department and the prosecutors had prevented him from starting a lucrative job overseas because the trial was due to start, he said, and he was upset that they never reimbursed him for the forgone six-figure salary. There was another reason this lost money bothered him. Eldawoody told me that the N.Y.P.D had made promises to him. In fact, several months after Siraj’s trial, Eldawoody sent a handwritten letter to Hillary Clinton, one of the state’s senators at the time. He explained that he had worked as an informant on a terrorism case and had been promised financial security. The letter was an appeal. “Financially we became in debt because of the case,” he wrote. “The honorable senator, I really need to wipe my 10-year-old daughter’s tears.” After learning of the letter, Siraj’s lawyers used it to ask for a new trial and a judgment of acquittal, but the court denied both requests. (The N.Y.P.D. and the Eastern District of New York declined to elaborate on the case. In written statements, each noted that Siraj had been convicted and lost on appeal. The Eastern District also emphasized that he had admitted guilt under oath and made false statements during his testimony.) Eldawoody was happy to talk about the money he felt was owed to him, but when I asked him about Siraj, he grew more uncertain. Though he maintained that Siraj wanted to exact revenge on America, he didn’t seem entirely convinced that Siraj had posed the threat the government claimed he was. He wished Siraj had taken the plea deal. “I was shocked when Matin got the 30 years,” he told me. Did he believe that he had saved the public from a dangerous man? Eldawoody hesitated. After a while, he spoke. “I would not say he is dangerous or not,” Eldawoody said. “Matin, if he’s in a good environment, he would be a good person. He would be a very good person.” SIRAJ HAS NOW SPENT 16 years of his life in prison; with good behavior, he could be out by 2030. After four years in the Terre Haute C.M.U., he was transferred, without explanation, to Otisville, a medium-security federal facility in the Catskills, where he remains. I have been speaking to him for the past year, over the phone and in email, texts and letters, in English and Urdu. Since his arrest, Siraj has earned his equivalency diploma and learned to crochet and knit stuffed animals (he likes to make Pokémon characters). He has sent his mother many drawings over the years, and one day, he sent me one too. It depicted his room in Terre Haute, and I was impressed by the detail: the lines on the brick walls, the pipes underneath the sink. One piece of evidence at his trial was a map of Herald Square he drew at Eldawoody’s urging; Eldawoody had pointed out that the map was drawn with great detail. I realized that Siraj simply liked to draw. In our conversations, Siraj has never denied discussing a bomb plot with Eldawoody; he says he regrets his stupidity. But, he tells me often, he never actually carried out an attack, and he even tried to back out of it. A former New York police officer who worked in the intelligence division told me that he had heard that Siraj’s case was “an empty box, completely nothing.” Over the years, some government officials have also questioned the seriousness of the threats posed by “terrorists” in disrupted plots. A former prosecutor from New York told me that while sting operations are important, there are some terrorism cases “where the government really seemed to play a role in organizing the defendant’s thinking.” In Otisville, Siraj has been following news of his companions in Terre Haute. Fariz served his sentence. So, too, did Aref, who after his release was deported to Iraq. Masoud Khan, part of the supposed Virginia jihadist network, was freed after the Supreme Court, in separate rulings, found that the charge of “conspiracy to use weapons in a crime of violence” was unconstitutionally vague. Siraj also read about Uzair Paracha, who was arrested in 2003, at age 23, on charges of, among other things, providing material support to Al Qaeda. Recently declassified testimonies by three Qaeda members at Guantánamo, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, contradicted the government’s allegations that Paracha had knowingly helped terrorists. Paracha is now 41. He spent 17 years in prison, about half of that in solitary confinement. Siraj was invested in one case in particular: In late 2019, after 14 years behind bars, his friend Hamid Hayat had his conviction overturned when a judge found that his lawyers had provided “deficient representation” at his trial. I tracked down Hayat after his release. He told me it was difficult to adjust to life back home; sometimes he would wake up believing he was still in his cell. The two friends spoke, over the phone, for the first time in nearly a decade. Since 2001, more than 500 people convicted on terrorism-related charges have been released after completing their sentences, according to the Intercept database, but many others remain in prison. In 2011, Aref and several other plaintiffs, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, sued the Justice Department, which oversees the Bureau of Prisons, over the constitutionality of the C.M.U.s. The suit has dragged on so long that five people have served as attorney general: Eric Holder, Loretta Lynch, Jeff Sessions, William Barr and Merrick Garland. Over the past decade, courts have dismissed almost all of the plaintiffs’ charges against the Justice Department. In 2016, after two lawsuits challenged police surveillance, the N.Y.P.D. agreed to allow a civilian official to monitor investigations involving political and religious activity, but the settlement did not prohibit controversial investigation methods or reinstate the original Handschu guidelines. For the past two years, the Coalition for Civil Freedoms, a nonprofit group campaigning for the rights of those caught up in the counterterrorism dragnet, has sought support for the EGO Relief Act, a bill that would narrow the material-support statute and impose restrictions on law enforcement’s ability to use informants. Before the pandemic, the coalition met with staff members for nearly 60 representatives and senators, Republican and Democratic, on Capitol Hill. Some were surprised by the families’ stories, with one even commenting, according to a coalition member, “This happens in America?” But none have offered to introduce the bill, saying it wasn’t the right time. Existing federal laws criminalize domestic and international extremism differently, allowing greater latitude for prosecutors to build cases against foreign terrorists. With calls to address the rise of far-right extremism, bipartisan support is emerging for federal legislation that criminalizes domestic terrorism with the same severity. That would mean that the tactics employed against people like Siraj — the aggressive use of informants, material-support charges and highly monitored prisons — could now be used against anyone suspected of being a domestic extremist. One senior administration official told me that the White House has been taking note of the missteps and successes of the past 20 years. “We are very much going into this with certain criticism of past counterterrorism efforts ringing in our ear,” the official said. The government is considering several new approaches, including placing foreign affiliates of some right-wing groups on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, which would bring the issue of material support, with all its implications for civil liberties, into the realm of domestic counterterrorism. Richard Zabel, a former prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, insisted that federal domestic-terrorism laws are necessary, not just to punish crimes and protect minority communities but also to make a powerful statement. Prosecuting a violent right-wing extremist as a murderer, he explained, “doesn’t serve the same social purpose as prosecuting them as a terrorist.” Yet even if such legislation succeeds in highlighting society’s intolerance of white nationalism and protecting nonwhite communities from the most violent actors, it may come at a cost. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which shaped criminal material-support laws and also helped the government target and deport immigrants for even minor violations. Even without broad federal laws focused on domestic terrorism, the government has been able to use an existing counterterrorism infrastructure against what it considers to be domestic threats. In recent years, the police used social media to track down Black Lives Matter protesters and deployed informants to infiltrate demonstrations. Last summer, as Black Lives Matter protests spread through the country, William Barr, the attorney general at the time, announced a new task force to counter “antigovernment extremists,” a major goal of which was to “understand these groups well enough that we can stop such violence before it occurs.” In late May, on the second night of protests in New York, two young lawyers were arrested on suspicion of throwing a Molotov cocktail through the broken window of an empty police car. They were indicted on multiple federal charges, including arson and civil disorder, and were locked in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Detention Center while awaiting their bail hearing. They face life in prison. Though they couldn’t be charged with domestic terrorism, conservative commentators called their alleged offense a “material support of terrorism” and insinuated that one of the lawyers was an outside agitator who became radicalized during a trip to Palestine. “The tools refined against Black and non-Black Muslim communities are now going to be brought to bear against the movement in defense of Black lives,” said Ramzi Kassem, the director of the CUNY CLEAR Clinic, which provides legal support to those targeted in national-security and counterterrorism operations. The men who were once incarcerated in the C.M.U.s in Terre Haute and Marion described the units as a political prison; many of them believed that they were sent there because of their views about American foreign policy or because of their political activity. Daniel McGowan, a former environmental activist, told me that he was probably transferred to a C.M.U. from the general population because the Bureau of Prisons was facing criticism over the facility’s large Muslim population, and also because he had spoken out about his case and prison conditions in the news media. I asked Rachel Meeropol, the lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, if the C.M.U.s could be used to house other types of prisoners, now that the American authorities are directing their attention to domestic threats. “I think it’s entirely possible,” she said. “The unit could be used to suppress Black Lives Matter activists or Antifa or anyone else who the B.O.P. thinks, in that moment in time, is the biggest threat in terms of political speech and communication with the outside world.” IT HAS BEEN 15 YEARS since Siraj last saw the man who irrevocably changed his life. Eldawoody was not in court the day Siraj was sentenced. He told me that Siraj was “like a son” to him and that he hadn’t wanted to see him arrested. But if he felt remorse for his role, it didn’t seem to weigh on him. He knew I was in touch with Siraj but had nothing to say to the person he befriended over the course of a year, chatting about women and dreaming of a life to come as they drove through the streets of Queens. Siraj knew Eldawoody received payment for his work with the N.Y.P.D. But he couldn’t accept that his friend, a man he viewed as a second father, helped put him away for decades merely for a payoff. “I just want to ask him one question: Why did he do this to me?” Siraj told me over the phone. “I still don’t understand it to this day.” If Siraj had pleaded guilty and admitted to being a “terrorist,” if he had forgone the entrapment defense, he would most likely be free by now. He has exhausted his appeals. When President Barack Obama was leaving office, Siraj’s family and friends wrote letters requesting a pardon. They sent another request to Donald Trump in January. Siraj, who will turn 39 next month, makes lists of whom he will visit when he is out. The years have already taken many of those he held dear: his aunt, his cousin, his grandparents. He pictures standing in the kitchen with his mother, the dishes they will cook. He imagines the children he will have. But he knows that he will never be free of the stain on his life: that he is the “Herald Square bomber.” After he is released, he will most likely be deported back to Pakistan. No matter what job he tries to get, where he tries to settle, he will be forever known as a convicted terrorist. In one letter to me, Siraj wrote that it is sometimes hard to look at himself in the mirror. “What kind of person I am?” he asked me. “When you read about me what do you really see?” This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company