FBI informant's perilous work in Fla. Taliban case


Published: Friday, March 8, 2013 at 7:38 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 8, 2013 at 7:38 p.m.

PLANTATION — Standing on a Pakistani mountainside with a suspected Taliban fighter, FBI undercover informant David Mahmood Siddiqui remembers thinking, he could have been sent hurtling off a cliff to his death with just a nudge. In such dangerous situations, Siddiqui said he always tried to hold a Quran tightly in his hands.

"As long as you have a Quran in your hands," he told The Associated Press in an interview Friday, "they (the Taliban) will not harm you."

Siddiqui, a 58-year-old Pakistani-American who became a U.S. citizen in 1977, spent four years helping the FBI build its case against Hafiz Muhammad Sher Ali Khan, who was convicted Monday of terrorism support and conspiracy charges. Evidence during his two-month trial showed that Khan, the 77-year-old imam at a Miami mosque, funneled about $50,000 to the Pakistani Taliban, listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S.

Siddiqui wore an FBI wire to record thousands of conversations with Khan. Prosecutors made heavy use of the evidence Siddiqui gathered, playing dozens of those recordings in court.

Khan faces up to 15 years in prison on each of the four counts when he is sentenced in May. Siddiqui said the verdict was more than just.

"He was found guilty because he is guilty. I was there, and I saw what happened," he said. "I asked him on a recorded conversation if he was Taliban and he said yes. It's right there on the tape."

Testifying in his own defense, Khan insisted that he never supported the Taliban and that the money he sent overseas was for his family, for charity and to support his religious school, known as a madrassa. The school is in Pakistan's Swat Valley, which at times has been dominated by the Taliban. Khan claimed that it was Siddiqui who was a Taliban backer and that he only played along because Siddiqui promised to give him $1 million for his good works.

Not true, Siddiqui said in the interview. FBI agents also testified there was no evidence to back up Khan's claim about the money.

"I never promised him $1 million. He is a liar," he said.

Siddiqui, by trade a chef and restaurant manager, said he became an informant after noticing that the FBI was interested in recruiting Muslims and speakers of Pakistani languages such as Pashto and Urdu. He said he had worked as a food service manager in Libya for an oil company and encountered strong anti-American sentiment there, which upset him.

"I decided it was time for me to work with a federal agency where I could help them to catch bad people," he said.

After Siddiqui signed up, the FBI used him as an informant to help make national security cases in San Antonio, Texas; New York City; and elsewhere in Florida, he said. But the Khan case, which he began to work on in 2008, was by far the biggest. The FBI paid him about $126,000 plus expenses for four years of work.

"I did it for the love of my country, not for money. If I had a restaurant, I could have made a lot more money," Siddiqui said.

Wearing the wire to surreptitiously record talks with Khan was dangerous enough. But in September 2010, the FBI sent Siddiqui to Pakistan's Swat Valley to meet up with some of people who were getting Khan's money. With Khan's grandson Alam Zeb as his driver — Zeb is a suspected Taliban fighter also indicted by the U.S. in the Khan case — Siddiqui spent three weeks gathering intelligence.

He couldn't take notes, because they might be discovered. Obviously he couldn't record anything. He had no way of contacting the FBI. At one point, he found out later, agents feared he might have been killed. He met Taliban soldiers, some of them bearing battle scars, many telling tales of combat with Pakistan's army and with U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He visited Khan's madrassa. He witnessed a woman being whipped by a tribal leader because she allowed too much of her face to be seen.

"The whole place was Taliban," Siddiqui said. "Was it dangerous? Yes, very dangerous. I did it with faith in my country and my FBI friends."

Eventually, Zeb drove Siddiqui back to Islamabad, but Siddiqui waited until he flew to Bangkok, Thailand, to contact his FBI handlers out of concern that Pakistan's intelligence service might be monitoring his communications. Siddiqui said he told the bureau about a Taliban plot to attack a supply convoy on its way from Pakistan to U.S. forces in Afghanistan and believes it may have been averted.

Khan's attorney, Khurrum Wahid, said Friday there is little evidence to support many of Siddiqui's claims about what took place during his trip to Pakistan, which he said were filled with "lies and exaggerations." Pakistan cut off video testimony by defense witnesses from Islamabad during the trial in which people who met Siddiqui would have refuted his claims, the attorney said.

"I believe he lied to his handlers about what happened in Pakistan," Wahid said. "I traced his entire path."

Siddiqui said he's not sure if the FBI will ask for his services again, but said he'd gladly do it. He's looking for work in the restaurant or food service field. Siddiqui, father of three older children, lives in a quiet Fort Lauderdale suburb with his wife, who works at a local mall.

"I finished my job. I finished my enemy. Now, hopefully, I'll get a job," he said.

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