A Pakistani immigrant was convicted Wednesday of charges he plotted to blow up one of Manhattan’s busiest subway stations in retaliation for the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
A federal jury in Brooklyn deliberated two days before convicting Shahawar Matin Siraj of conspiracy and other charges. He faces up to life in prison.
The defense had sought to portray Siraj, 23, as an impressionable simpleton who was lured into a phony plot by a paid informant eager to earn his keep. Prosecutors disputed that claim, arguing that even if it was not the defendant’s idea to bomb a subway station, no law-abiding citizen would have gone along with it.
U.S. Attorney Todd Harrison suggested to jurors that “normal people” like them would have responded, “Excuse me, are you crazy? Thanks, but no thanks.”
Siraj and another man suspected in the plot, James Elshafay, were arrested on the eve of the 2004 Republican National Convention carrying crude diagrams of their target — the subway station in Herald Square, a dense shopping district that includes Macy’s flagship department store. Elshafay immediately agreed to cooperate with the government.
Authorities said Siraj had no affiliation with known terrorist organizations. Instead, he caught the attention of the informant, Osama Eldawoody, and an undercover police officer with his anti-American rants at an Islamic bookstore where he worked.
Eldawoody, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Egypt, and the Bangladesh-born undercover officer both testified for the government. Elwoody had been assigned by the New York Police Department to identify and monitor Islamic extremists in the city’s Muslim neighborhoods following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Compliments to bin Laden
The undercover officer, who testified using an alias, described being plucked straight out of the police academy in 2003 and given orders to become a “walking camera” among Muslims. He recalled a conversation on the second anniversary of the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center in which Siraj “complimented” Osama bin Laden.
“He said he was a talented brother and a great planner and that he hoped bin Laden planned something big for America,” the officer said.
Inside the bookstore, Eldawoody wore a wire and chatted up Siraj. When the topic turned to the war in Iraq, the defendant recounted rumors among radicals that U.S. soldiers were sexually abusing Iraqi girls.
“That was enough for me,” he said in one of series of secretly recorded conversations played for the jury. “I’m ready to do anything. I don’t care about my life.”
Eldawoody, assuming the role of an accomplice, assured Siraj that any plan he concocted would have the backing of a fictitious faction called The Brotherhood. On tape, Siraj was heard musing about possibly destroying the Verrazano-Narrows and three other bridges serving Staten Island or killing Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Mentor encouraged killing
Testifying in his own defense last week, Siraj said he never had a violent thought before he fell under the spell of the 50-year-old Eldawoody. He said the older man became a mentor and instructed him that there was a fatwa, or religious edict, permitting the killing of U.S. soldiers and law enforcement agents.
Eldawoody had himself talked about “blowing up the buildings and blowing up the Wall Street places,” the defendant said. He admitted taking steps to attack the subway station, but only after the informant inflamed him by showing him photos of prisoners being abused at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
“I used to just listen to him, but I never said ’Yes, I was going to do it,’ or ’no’ until the Abu Ghraib thing came up,” he said.