Agents took their time, worried that too much information
too soon would alert their targets
By BRENDAN J. LYONS, Senior writer
Click byline for more stories by writer.
First published: Thursday, October 12, 2006
ALBANY -- In the eyes of the FBI, Yassin Aref was cunning and cautious.
If the bureau's undercover informant was too aggressive and pulled
out a shoulder-fired missile in front of him, Aref might see through
the trap and the sting would be over.
So the agents were patient. They reeled him in slowly, ordering
their informant to engage Aref in discussions on Islam and terrorism,
and the profits it could bring, before flashing a less-sinister-looking
missile-triggering device during a secretly videotaped meeting.
That meeting took place in January 2004, six months after the FBI
launched an undercover investigation that ensnared Aref and co-defendant
Mohammed M. Hossain, 51, in a fictitious plot to launder money from
the sale of the shoulder-fired missile.
On Tuesday, after a federal jury convicted both men of terrorism-related
charges, questions lingered about the FBI's decision to never show
Aref the missile launcher that was at the heart of its case.
"The whole thing unsettles me completely," said Aref's
attorney, Terence L. Kindlon, who contends the FBI's informant never
disclosed that the money he was loaning the two men came from the
sale of a missile to terrorists.
"There's never a connect between those two things," Kindlon
said. "I had been hopeful that the jury was getting it. I really
don't think they did."
FBI officials said their plan, by design, was to bait Aref with
an opportunity to support a terrorism plot, but to do so cautiously.
In a world where terrorists are trained to keep their sinister plots
secret even from their mothers, an informant who is too obvious,
too brazen, might be transparent.
Aref was their "ultimate target," the person whose name
was discovered in terrorist encampments in Iraq and who the FBI believed
could be a terrorist sympathizer. Yet not once during the yearlong
sting was Aref ever shown the missile tube, easily recognizable to
the average citizen as a potential weapon of mass destruction.
"There was a lot of debate on that issue," said an FBI
agent, who spoke to the Times Union this week on the condition he
not be identified. "You've read the transcripts." He said
Aref told the informant to be careful not to talk to anyone.
If Aref saw the missile, the agent said, he may have been "spooked."
Another FBI official in Albany, who also spoke on the condition
of anonymity, said whether Aref was shown the missile is meaningless
to the case.
"If they didn't see a missile, even if they just believed they
were doing this in furtherance of a terrorism plot, that's enough," the
But whether Aref might run because he sensed danger or because he
wanted no part of a plot to sell shoulder-fired missiles to terrorists
is a question that might never be answered.
"I think that was the theme throughout it, throughout any of
the discussions, the informant refused to state squarely that what
he did was illegal," said Kevin A. Luibrand, Hossain's attorney. "He
refused to say that and he always danced around it and gave different
responses when he got close to describing what he was doing."
Aref was acquitted on 18 of the 27 counts related to the sting.
According to the verdicts, his acknowledgment of the plot did not
occur until about June 2004, when the informant had already met with
him dozens of times, and months after Aref had been shown a missile
triggering device the size of a shoe box.
Hossain, whom authorities said was targeted primarily because of
his close relationship with Aref -- and under a belief by FBI agents
he would pull Aref into the plot -- had been shown the shoulder-fired
missile. The informant pulled it out in November 2003, several weeks
before Aref was pulled into the scheme.
A grainy black-and-white photograph of that meeting, with the informant
hoisting the weapon onto his shoulder, was shown to jurors and became
an arguably insurmountable hurdle for Hossain's defense.
The photo, in part, sparked Luibrand's decision to invoke an entrapment
defense. Hossain, who had no criminal history, was not predisposed
to engage in such a sinister plot unless prodded by the FBI, Luibrand
Aref's attorneys, meanwhile, contend he only witnessed a loan for
Hossain, who co-founded the Central Avenue mosque where Aref had
been the spiritual leader. Aref, they said, was unaware the $50,000
cash being loaned to Hossain by the informant was coming from the
sale of a missile launcher to terrorists.
Aref, a Kurdish refugee who spoke broken English, also testified
he did not know what the word "missile" meant.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Pericak, the lead prosecutor, said
federal authorities are justified to call the shots on how blatantly
a crime of opportunity is presented in a sting.
"They showed him the trigger mechanism and you saw how cool
Aref was with the whole thing. He's calculating here, that's my belief," Pericak
said. "He's trying to it figure out. He searched the informant
twice for recording devices."
On Feb. 12, 2004, during a meeting when the informant's recording
device had fallen off, one of the informant's most critical disclosures
came when he warned Aref and Hossain about an impending missile attack
in New York City. He told the men the missile launcher he had shown
to Hossain, armed with the triggering device shown to Aref a month
earlier, would be used by terrorists to assassinate a Pakistani diplomat
outside the United Nations.
Aref claims he thought the informant was "crazy" so he
didn't report it to the FBI. But a bystander who witnessed the exchange,
and had been at Aref's house for dinner that night, testified Aref
immediately patted down the informant looking for a recording device.
"He heard about the attack and did nothing," Pericak said,
questioning what would happen if "a real terrorist showed up
in Albany. ... I'm convinced that if one did, they both would have
Pericak said while sting cases might unsettle some people,authorities
have to send a message.
"It's not just these guys, it's what happens tomorrow when
a guy is somewhere and overhears someone talking about an attack," he
said. "We want that person to call the FBI. If they call the
FBI because they're a good citizen that's great, but if they call
the FBI because they think this is a sting and they might get caught
up in it, that's OK, too."
Lyons can be reached at 454-5547 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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