How to Keep an Ex-Terrorist Talking

New York Times

December 9, 2007 – The informer was growing terrified about the prospect of testifying against Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden, he feared, would get to him or his family. Allah, he suspected, was already punishing him; his father was sick and his infant child had died. “Anything I touch, I don’t feel happy,” he said.

But the United States prosecutors and F.B.I. agents who had been hiding him in witness protection since his defection from Al Qaeda reassured him over and over: Think positive. He was probably the safest man in America. Allah would surely support his decision to turn on his fellow terrorists.

Their soothing counsel veered into theology and philosophy and even psychiatry. “Jamal, just look at it this way,” one official explained. “We’re part of the giant therapy group that you’re now going to be involved with, O.K.?”

That exchange in 2000 — disclosed in transcripts that have been filed publicly for the first time — was part of two years’ worth of videotaped talks between federal authorities and Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, a former payroll manager for Osama bin Laden who became the first and most important Qaeda member to cooperate with the government as it began investigating the organization.

Mr. Fadl’s riveting testimony was critical in the 2001 trial in which four men were convicted of conspiracy in the bombings of two United States Embassies in Africa. An appeal of the verdict is to be argued tomorrow, and the videotaped conversations are expected to be part of that debate.

But the 900 pages of videotape transcripts offer much more than material for a legal dispute. They provide an extraordinary glimpse into a little-known, continuing process — the delicate care and management of a cooperative former terrorist — that can seem oddly nuanced and even gentle in the era of Guantánamo and debates over torture. On Thursday, for example, the C.I.A. acknowledged that it had destroyed videotapes showing its use of harsh interrogation methods on captured Qaeda operatives.

These pages, on the other hand, reveal how differently the government has treated terrorists who volunteer information. And they show how messy and improvised the negotiations with Mr. Fadl turned out to be, as federal prosecutors labored in unfamiliar territory, building a case not against a mob family, but against a mysterious terrorist group with international reach.

The government officials — led by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who would later become the special prosecutor in the C.I.A. leak case — can be seen trying to tamp down Mr. Fadl’s, and his wife’s, growing fear about his testifying against one of the world’s most dangerous men. That fear turns to panic after prosecutors lure another Qaeda operative, a relative of Mr. Fadl’s, into custody and he refuses to cooperate.

Mr. Fadl, a Sudanese who is still in hiding and may be called to testify in future trials, can be seen pressing officials to protect and provide for numerous relatives in Africa, where the authorities admit their ability to help is limited.

As a Muslim, he challenges his American handlers with perplexing religious questions. As a foreigner, he becomes frustrated when the government, for all its powers, cannot get him the papers he needs to get a job.

The transcripts show a complicated friendship between Mr. Fadl and the Americans that lurches from tearful counseling sessions to playful humor. Prosecutors and agents refer to Mr. Fadl as Junior, and chide him about his fondness for fast food.

Mr. Fitzgerald, speaking to Mr. Fadl on a videotelephone, compares the marshal guarding him to the unseen crime-fighting boss in the television series “Charlie’s Angels.”

But, Mr. Fitzgerald points out, “Jamal is not quite Farrah Fawcett.”

“Not even close,” the marshal adds.

The transcripts themselves emerged from a messy process: The videotapes they detail were made by mistake, from 2000 to 2002, by federal marshals who had set up the videophone hookup so prosecutors in New York could keep in close touch with Mr. Fadl. Prosecutors and the F.B.I. had not authorized the taping, and when prosecutors learned of it in 2002 they were shocked, knowing they would have to share the tapes with defense lawyers who were appealing the embassy bombings verdict.

The taped conversations continued for several months after Sept. 11, 2001, but the transcripts give no indication that the attacks changed Mr. Fadl’s treatment, or his willingness to assist. A former federal official said Mr. Fadl helped identify former associates who had been captured in Afghanistan.

Deflecting His Demands

Mr. Fadl’s cooperation began in 1996, after he walked into a United States embassy in Africa and offered his help, only later revealing that he had embezzled money from Mr. bin Laden. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy for activities in Al Qaeda, and is not expected to go to prison.

In return for information about the organization’s history and leadership, the government brought over more than a dozen of his relatives from Sudan, and spent nearly $1 million for his family’s housing, protection and medical bills.

But by the time the videotaping began in early 2000, Mr. Fadl was feeling bored and isolated in his new American life, sequestered with his wife and several children in an undisclosed location.

In Sudan, he pointed out, he had once run a factory. Now, there was little to fill his day besides playing soccer, smoking cigarettes and watching television. Even his children were frustrated with him. “They ask me, ‘Why you don’t work? Dad never all day work.’”

He said he loved helping the authorities, but felt badly undercompensated.

“I’ve been doing all kinds of things, including giving information to protect the American citizens, and I feel I’m from here,” he said. “And I hear in the newspapers every day that the United States is giving money to Egypt, one billion to Jordan.”

The Americans diplomatically parried his demands, pointing out that their agreement did not allow them to pay for his information, and that they had already spent large sums on the family’s behalf.

“The more things you pile on,” one official told him, “the more people will look at it and say, ‘You know, we can only do so much.’”

The officials — the transcripts usually do not identify the prosecutor or agent speaking — promised to get him immigration papers, yet conceded they could not speed citizenship for a protected witness. “Not even God can get citizenship in the program very, very quickly,” one official said.

All the same, an official assured Mr. Fadl that “if there’s any witness in the world we will not forget, it will be you.”

He added, “It’s not like you’re going to testify on Friday, and you never hear from us again, O.K.?”

God and the Devil

As the moment for that testimony approached — the embassy bombings trial, which began in January 2001 — Mr. Fadl began to focus on a more pressing fear: that after years of private preparation, he would soon have to enter a public courtroom and speak against Al Qaeda. And if Mr. bin Laden were captured, Mr. Fadl could face his old boss from the witness stand.

He worried about his family, at home and overseas. “They try hurt someone I love very much,” he said.

Mr. Fadl floated a suggestion: If the Americans found another informer, could that witness testify in his place?

An official responded bluntly: “Jamal, as a friend, I’ll tell you this: I don’t think — I don’t think there is any chance.”

“I’m just so worried,” Mr. Fadl said later.

The official noted that some of Mr. Fadl’s closest friends in the F.B.I. would also testify.

“You got gun all the time with you, though,” Mr. Fadl replied.

Violence was not his only fear. Mr. Fadl wondered aloud whether his family’s run of misfortune — including his baby’s death and his father’s illness — sprang from some supernatural source. He had once heard a bin Laden adviser condemn a dissident and predict that his life would be a disaster.

Mr. Fadl said he was reading the Koran and praying. “We have special prayers to chase the devil,” he said. “I don’t know if you have this in Christianity.”

The Americans tried patiently to convince him that his recent troubles were unconnected to one another, and urged him to see the bright side: His children, for example, were getting a good education and a great future.

“I know everything great,” Mr. Fadl agreed.

Still, he had been doing some math: Even if Al Qaeda had the support of only 5 or 10 percent of the people in Arab countries, millions would be praying for his demise. “This what I believe,” he said. “They’re going to pray against me.”

“Jamal,” one official interjected, “if what you’re doing is right, and it is —— ”

“I believe that,” Mr. Fadl said.

“And Allah knows that, O.K.? So, God isn’t going to listen to 90 million people who are wrong. He’ll listen to the 210 million that are right, including yourself. That’s why God is God.”

There was still another force working on Mr. Fadl. “It’s my wife,” he said. “I love her.”

His wife, Nadia, had long been unhappy with their life in hiding. She did not speak English or drive, had no friends and was nervous when he was away. When he came home late one night after playing billiards, she locked him out and ordered him to sleep in the garage.

“Wait until your clothes come flying out the window,” one official remarked, to much laughter. “Welcome to America.”

Yet the officials sympathized. One said it had to be hard for a spouse to be “just dragged into a situation” like this.

As the trial loomed, Mr. Fadl said his wife was terrified that Mr. bin Laden would retaliate. “This guy, he got people everywhere,” she told him.

One day he broke the news that she wanted him to refuse to testify, even if that meant prison. She later declared that she would return to Sudan, despite the risks.

The officials had no answer for that. “We can’t make her stay here,” one said. “You know that.”

Finally, she showed up for a videoconference, where they faced her fury. Speaking through an interpreter, she suggested she had been tricked into joining her husband in the United States, claiming she was told he was working for a company, not fighting Al Qaeda.

“Well, we’re going to have a difference of opinion on that, Nadia,” one American told her. “I was there, and I’m the one who spoke to you.”

At the next conference, she insisted that Mr. Fadl should not have to testify more than once. “I don’t agree with this,” she said, turning to him. “Do you agree with this?”

There was talk about who would keep the children if she left. “The uncertainty drives me insane,” she said. “You guys are not concerned with him like I am.”

Ultimately, she remained, and in February 2001, her husband testified for four days in Manhattan federal court. The judge ordered the sketch artists not to draw him.

‘A Hard Path’

Before the trial began, however, Mr. Fadl and his American friends had another difficult issue to discuss: how to persuade his niece’s husband in Sudan to defect and join him as an informer.

Mr. Fadl said the relative, Mohamed Suleiman al Nalfi, had worked with Mr. bin Laden’s top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, and would have fresh information.

They agreed on a sting operation. Mr. Fadl, pretending to be somewhere overseas, would call Mr. Nalfi and invite him to meet him. Once he arrived, American officials would confront Mr. Nalfi and make their pitch.

They worked out what Mr. Fadl would say on the phone. “Follow your script,” an official told him. “Let him talk so you don’t seem like you’re anxious.”

There was a risk: If Mr. Nalfi refused to cooperate, he would be arrested. Mr. Fadl seemed to accept that possibility. “This is the best chance for him to do the right thing,” Mr. Fadl said.

“He’ll thank you,” one official said later.

Mr. Fadl succeeded in luring his relative out of Sudan, but Mr. Nalfi refused to cooperate and was imprisoned.

When told the news, Mr. Fadl panicked and began to sob. He had a new fear — that Mr. Nalfi’s family might retaliate against his relatives in Sudan. Mr. Nalfi, he said, would tell everyone he had been betrayed: “Jamal, he sold me to American government.”

The suggestion of a family vendetta put the Americans back on familiar ground.

“If you were involved in, like, organized crime or something,” one official said, “and you were testifying against Cousin Vinny or something, you know, that’s always a problem.” The government, he said, could bring over more family members and place them in witness protection. “It’s something that the marshals deal with all the time.”

But Mr. Fadl was still distraught. And in the end, the Americans ran out of reassurances.

“You’ve chosen a hard path for yourself,” one official told him. “It’s not easy. The whole thing is not easy. You know, things don’t happen the way we plan them to happen.”

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