I Spy

My Not-So-Secret Life as an FBI Informant

"But you did," I said, leaning in toward him, immediately feeling I had something to prove. "I remember very clearly." And I described it for him. Crossing the bridge. Seeing the towers. Bin Laden's name. The e-mails from home.

"Oh, you're right," Ameen said suddenly, laughing and looking at me again. "But many people knew this."

Many people knew this. True enough. We've been hearing for months that both the FBI and the CIA knew about it, essentially stood by and watched it happen. And yet he was the one who had told me. And on September 11, he was at home in Egypt, thousands of miles from the falling towers.

illustration: Max Grafe

I had found this out—I had found Ameen himself—from a radio show that aired December 3. He had been interviewed by a WNYC reporter about his experience with the FBI. I recognized him immediately, not just from the identifying details, but also from the lighthearted swagger of his voice.

I was both relieved and distressed when I heard the report. Ameen and his wife spoke of repeated visits from federal agents, of how they were evicted from their apartment, of the uncertainty and sense of injustice they had felt. He had not, however, been arrested. He was not one of the nameless people sitting in a New Jersey prison. Apparently the feds had cleared him.

But the radio report said nothing about Ameen's foreknowledge of the attacks.

Months after the interview aired, I got up the nerve to call the reporter who did the story and ask her to put me in touch with Ameen. Within a week, I had his cell phone number. It took me a while to dial it. I don't know what I expected, but I figured it wouldn't be pleasant. Instead, Ameen joked that I could take him out to a nice dinner because I had turned him in. Within days, we were sitting elbow to elbow in a Brooklyn bar.

Ameen told me the FBI had contacted him first when he was still in Egypt, a few days after September 11. He said they told him they wanted to question him and he told them it would be no problem. Agents met him at JFK when he returned to the United States and subjected him to a lengthy interrogation; he was angered by their suspicions, but claimed he never worried that he would be held for something he hadn't done. He was a legal immigrant with a green card. He trusted the United States system to protect him. He seemed to have much more faith in that system than I did.

He also was adamant that the information he had shared with me on that July morning was simply common knowledge in the Arab world—and no one in the U.S. government has disproved that. He said he hadn't left the country in September to protect himself, but to visit his mother, who was gravely ill. "I believe in fate," he said. "If it is your time to die, there is nothing you can do about it anyway."

I told him that I didn't believe in fate. That I believed knowledge could save you sometimes. "What else do you know?" I asked him, only half-joking. "Are there going to be more attacks?"

"Who knows?" he replied. "If they say there is going to be an attack here, it will probably be abroad, and if they say it is going to be abroad, it will be here." One thing was certain, he said: United States foreign policy was creating legions of new followers for Al Qaeda.

As for the FBI agents themselves, he told me they had tried to recruit him as an informant. "But I would never work with such stupid people," he said.

I asked him to tell me about himself. He said he grew up in a village near Cairo. He also told me that his uncle had been a mover and shaker in Cairo and had brought him there as a youngster to further his education. He talked about serving in the Egyptian army. He showed me a scar from a bullet wound and said he had gotten it while helping to chase down the terrorists who shot up a bus full of German tourists in 1997. He told me that his marriage had ended, but that he wanted to stay on in the United States. He told me that he had stopped driving for the car service and was working as a "consultant" now. That his goal was to buy a house here.

I realized that there was no way I could be sure whether what he said to me was true.

Ameen was distracted for much of our conversation. A young woman he knew had come into the bar. She was tall and blonde and she gave him a long, close hug when they greeted each other. She ordered a glass of wine and sat a couple of seats away from us, chatting with a friend. I felt his impatience with our conversation; his body yearned toward her.

Before I left, I asked him one last thing. "Are you mad at me for calling the FBI?"

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