Tailing terror suspects: Former NYPD ‘undercover’ recalls foiling bomb plot

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JAMAICA, Queens (PIX11) --  Before a Queens mom was awakened by federal agents last Thursday in her Jamaica home—accused with her friend of stockpiling materials to bomb subways—the borough was familiar with previous plots that involved men.  Back in the fall of 2009, the suspects were grabbed in another part of Queens—three old friends from Flushing High School who lived near Whitestone.

Plots like these date back to the late 1990’s—when two Palestinian men living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn prepared four backpacks containing pipe bombs, ready to detonate at a spot where subway lines met the Long Island Railroad.  A stunned roommate flagged police, and carnage was avoided.

Retired NYPD undercover, Michael Zotto, was involved in a 2004 case that foiled a plot on the Herald Square subway station at 34th Street in Manhattan, before the Republican National Convention that year.

“I remember following them down the subway,” Zotto said of the two suspects, as he recounted their behavior, “and actually timing when the trains were coming in.  Looking at the police officers on the platform.”

“How far do you let something like that go, before you take a case down?” Zotto asked.

Zotto’s case involved the use of a paid, confidential informant.  One of the suspects, James Elshafay, was only 19 when he was arrested on Staten Island.  He was taking medication for schizophrenia and depression.

He immediately agreed to cooperate with the government and testified against his accomplice, Shawahar Matin Siraj.  Elshafay got five years in prison.  Siraj was sentenced to 30.

“We have concern with how people are being zeroed in on,” said Pardiss Kebriaei, a senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights.  People with problems “like poverty, mental health issues,” she said.

Professor Charles Strozier, founder of the John Jay College Center on Counter-terrorism, said of New York’s failed subway plots, “I find it incredible it hasn’t happened!”  He said the foiled conspiracies show the NYPD’s and FBI’s intelligence gathering has been good and “it gives a measure of confidence.”

Retired detective Zotto recalled the post 9/11 environment, when undercovers were gauging the temperature in neighborhood cafes and mosques, based on tips from the community.

“A lot of the information came from individuals inside these mosques,” Zotto recalled.  “They don’t like the rhetoric in their own house of worship, and they’ll tip us off.  If you don’t have these listening posts, if you don’t have these people—whether undercover officers or confidential informants—you’re not going to prevent the next attack.”

Professor Strozier agrees, even as he notes the danger is higher overseas.  “It’s much more in western Europe and North Africa than it is here,” he told PIX11.

Attorney Pardiss Kebrieaei said Americans are not getting the full story.

“If you sort of look underneath attention-grabbing headlines….I think you’ve seen that undercover agents and informants have played significant roles in furthering, if not creating, the plot,” Kebrieaei said.

“We know in a lot of these cases, people are held in prolonged, solitary confinement.”

Kebrieaei pointed to the 2006 case of Syed Fahad Hashmi, who was accused of providing material support to Al Qaeda.  Part of the complaint against him said he held luggage for two weeks, in his apartment, that contained socks and ponchos for Al Qaeda fighters in Pakistan.  The lawyer said Hashmi was facing 70 years in prison if convicted, so after three years in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, Hashmi took a plea deal that brought him 15 years in jail.  The attorney said Hashmi spent another three years in solitary at the “super max” federal prison in Florence, Colorado, before being moved to another facility.

“There are clearly discriminatory abuses that take place,” Kebrieaei said.

Professor Strozier defends the difficult work of counter-terrorism.  “it’s a hard job to be undercover,” he said.  “You’re dealing with people who are bent on committing murder.  An act of terrorism is going to wreak havoc for the city.”

Retired detective Zotto said the job he did—continued today by hundreds of others—is vital.

“It’s crucial in every investigation,” Zotto said.  “It’s crucial in every investigation, post 9/11. There were probably fifty thwarted attacks.”

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