A wire-wearing FBI informant named Shaheed Hussain was used in a sting operation… (Elizabeth Williams/AP )
Days before his arrest in Pittsburgh last month, Khalifa Ali al-Akili posted a remarkable message on his Facebook page: A mysterious man who spoke often of jihad had tried to interest Akili in buying a gun, then later introduced him to a second man, whom Akili was assured was “all about the struggle.”
It smelled, Akili wrote on Facebook, like a setup.
“I had a feeling that I had just played out a part in some Hollywood movie where I had just been introduced to the leader of a ‘terrorist’ sleeper cell,” Akili wrote.
When he googled a phone number provided by the second man, it turned out to be to Shahed Hussain, one of the FBI’s most prolific and controversial informants for terrorism cases. Soon the sting was off; Akili was subsequently arrested on gun — not terrorism — charges, which he has denied.
It was a rare miss for Hussain, 55, who has played a wealthy, dapper member of a Pakistani terrorist group in several FBI operations over nearly a decade.
This role has inflamed Muslim and civil rights activists, who describe Hussain as an “agent provocateur,” and prompted harsh comments from the presiding judge in a 2010 case, who questioned his honesty and the aggressiveness of the FBI’s tactics.
“I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition,” said U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon at the sentencing of four men from Newburgh, N.Y., convicted on terrorism charges. She added, “That does not mean there was no crime.”
Hussain declined to speak about his work for the FBI, saying in a brief phone interview, “I can’t say anything for security reasons.” The FBI declined to discuss Hussain or McMahon’s comments.
But the blown Pittsburgh sting and the voluminous court records from the 2010 case have provided rare insight into a tactic used increasingly by the FBI since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in which suspects are monitored almost from the beginning of plots and provided with means to help them carry them out. The targets in such stings have included Washington’s Metro subway system, the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol.
There have been 138 terrorism or national security cases involving informants since 2001, and 51 of those have come over the past three years, according to the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School in New York. The center said the government secured convictions in 91 percent of those cases.
Law enforcement officials say stings are a vital tactic for heading off terrorism. But civil rights activists and others say the FBI has been identifying individuals with radical views who, despite brash talk, might have little ability to launch attacks without the government’s help.
“It almost seems like the government is creating a theatrical event that produces more fear in the community,” said Michael German, a senior policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union and a former FBI agent who worked undercover.
Yet in these terrorism stings, every attempted defense that has alleged entrapment by the government has failed, according to Fordham’s Center on National Security. The FBI said that record speaks volumes and rejected any suggestion that it has invented terrorist plots. “They present the idea,” FBI spokesman Kathleen Wright said of the targets of investigations. “It is not us coming up with these ideas.”
Officials said the subjects of these stings are the ones who first generate suspicion — by contacting terrorists overseas, attempting to secure weapons or speaking of a desire to commit violence.
One of the prosecutors in the 2010 case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Halperin, said in court that confidential informants such as Hussain are an “important tool” for the FBI. “Mr. Hussain is Pakistani. He speaks Urdu. He speaks Pashto. He’s Muslim. He can read Arabic,” Halperin said. “All of these things make Mr. Hussain a very valuable asset for the FBI.”
The birth of an asset
In testimony for the 2010 terrorism case, for which Hussain appeared as a witness for the prosecution, he described himself as a member of a politically connected family in Pakistan who fled to the United States with his wife and children after he was falsely accused of murder during a government crackdown against the secular MQM party. He arrived on a fake British passport in 1994, Hussain testified.
In the years since, his relatives in Pakistan have transferred hundreds of thousands of dollars to him, allowing him and his family to acquire gas stations, a beverage center and a motel in Upstate New York, according to financial records produced in court. He also testified that former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto, during a trip to New York, gave his son $40,000 to buy a new car, but the judge, McMahon, questioned the veracity of the claim.
It was not the only time McMahon expressed doubts about Hussain’s honesty.