Year of the Rats

How the FBI’s terror informants brought down a Bronx jazz musician

Bronx jazz musician Tarik Shah told an undercover FBI agent that he wanted to teach karate moves to members of Al Qaeda. It wasn’t a smart move: Last April, he was sentenced to serve 15 years on charges of supporting terrorism.

Previous news stories have described Shah, a jazz bassist and martial artist with a propensity for big talk that eventually got him into serious trouble. But until now, there’s been little information about the two undercover informants that the FBI used to investigate a man it considered such a dangerous terrorist that the bureau surveilled him for four years and spent considerable resources to take him down.

Shah’s arrest came about thanks in part to an informant known in court documents as “CS-1” (shorthand for “Confidential Source No. 1”). Shah’s attorneys never made CS-1’s real identity or his role in the case an issue.

But informants—paid or otherwise—have been central to domestic counterterrorism operations in the war on terror. One paid informant told a group of six New Jersey Muslims that he could deliver an arsenal of weapons for a siege on the 7,000 armed personnel at Fort Dix. Another informant—this one a twice-convicted drug dealer working with the FBI—helped a group of Trinidadian immigrants dream up the unlikely plan of destroying John F. Kennedy International Airport by igniting a jet-fuel pipeline.

And then there was CS-1, a paid informant who, according to the FBI’s criminal complaint, walked into the Brooklyn Islamic bookstore House of Knowledge on December 7, 2001. He asked the shop’s owner, Abdulrahman Farhane, to wire money to jihadists overseas. Farhane was reluctant; he referred CS-1 to Shah, who told the informant in a tape-recorded conversation that he knew some “brothers” who could help. But Shah was all talk and no action, and not a penny was sent overseas. Undeterred, the FBI kept watching him for years, but took CS-1 off the case when it became clear that Shah didn’t trust him.

Despondent over his treatment by the FBI, CS-1 later blew his cover in a remarkable way. On November 15, 2004, hours after sending a fax to his handlers at the bureau berating them for not treating him better, CS-1 approached the northwest guard station at the White House to deliver a similarly themed letter to President Bush. When the Secret Service refused the envelope, CS-1 stepped back, pulled a lighter from his pocket, and set himself on fire. He was burned on more than 30 percent of his body before guards could put the flames out.

The next day, newspapers carried stories about the man, Mohamed Alanssi, documenting his history of erratic behavior, which included cheating people out of money from Yemen to Brooklyn. The stories also revealed that he’d received $100,000 to work with the FBI. At the time of his suicide attempt, Alanssi was set to testify against Mohammed Ali Hassan al-Moayad, a Yemeni financier he had helped the FBI lure to Frankfurt, Germany, in a January 2003 sting operation.

In February 2005, Alanssi testified at the al-Moayad trial, and described his self- immolation at the White House as a way to “put the government and the world on notice.” Alanssi then disappeared from the news until, two months later, he was sentenced to five years’ probation for writing thousands of dollars’ worth of bad checks.

By that time, however, the FBI had switched to a new informant in its ongoing obsession with Shah, and was close to an arrest. The new informant was a man who has been known up to this time only as “Saeed.”

Saeed, court documents show, turns out to be Theodore Shelby, a former Black Panther who’d made a career of holding up drug dealers and had been serving time for a string of tollbooth robberies when he cut a deal for early prison release by agreeing to work with the FBI. Shelby first earned his informant credentials while working alongside Alanssi in Germany, according to the testimony of FBI agent Brian Murphy. Shelby played the part of a former Black Panther with a pile of money for Sheikh al-Moayad’s charities.

In the Shah investigation, the FBI asked Shelby to attend Shah’s jazz gigs and to approach him for bass lessons. By the fall of 2003, Shelby was living with Shah and wearing a wire for the feds.

Murphy directed Shelby to tell Shah about a warehouse in Long Island that would make the perfect training facility for aspiring terrorists. Shah, who had taught karate workshops at mosques and Islamic centers throughout the state, took the bait with zeal, daydreaming out loud about slinging ninja stars and firing bows and arrows.

Murphy then recruited the bureau’s top counterterrorism investigator, Ali Soufan, for the final chapter of the sting operation. Soufan was a Lebanese-born agent who had spearheaded a number of high-profile national- security cases, including the investigations into the East Africa bombings by Al Qaeda in 1998 and the USS Cole attack in 2000. Soufan had received the bureau’s Excellence in Investigation award, the highest honor bestowed on an agent. In the Shah case, he volunteered to play Ali, an Al Qaeda recruiter spending the day in Plattsburgh, New York, to scope out new jihadi talent.

Shah and Shelby took a train to meet Soufan, where the agent told his new recruit that he was looking for an instructor in hand-to-hand combat for domestic operations. Shah said that he would rather work overseas, but, according to the agent’s testimony, Soufan offered the struggling musician $1,000 a week if he agreed to stay in the country. Shah signed on, and even volunteered the commitment of a friend in Boca Raton, Florida, a Columbia University–educated physician and Black Muslim convert by the name of Rafiq Sabir, who Shah said would provide medical assistance to injured jihadis. Soufan called the deception a “proactive counterterrorism operation,” designed, he told the court, “to reach out to individuals who wanted to be Al Qaeda members, make them believe that they actually get their goals in reaching Al Qaeda, and then we stop them before they hurt people.”

In the early-morning hours of May 28, 2005, after returning home from two late-night gigs, Shah was roused out of bed by seven federal agents, slapped in handcuffs, and driven down to the FBI’s Manhattan field office. Shah refused to sign a form waiving his rights, but after three hours of questioning and an offer of leniency, he agreed to go with federal agents to Baltimore and set up a former karate student, D.C. cab driver Mahmud Faruq Brent, in a wiretapped hotel room.

The FBI accused Brent of traveling to Pakistan in the months after 9/11 to train with an anti-Indian terrorist cell in Kashmir. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 15 years in prison last summer. Like Shah, Sabir (the physician) was charged with conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist group: He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 25 years in prison last fall. Farhane, the bookstore owner, was charged with lying to a federal agent, as well as with the same conspiracy charge leveled against Sabir and Shah. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 13 years.

Shah initially pleaded not guilty, but at his trial, his attorneys never raised the troubled histories of the two men, Alanssi and Shelby, who helped to put him behind bars. He later changed his plea and received a 15-year sentence. He currently sits in the Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg, Virginia.

The FBI wouldn’t disclose Alanssi’s or Shelby’s current whereabouts.

Agent Soufan, meanwhile, left the bureau after the close of the investigation to take a job at Giuliani Partners.

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