Informant’s fire brings shadowy tale
November 20, 2004
WASHINGTON – Mohamed Alanssi slid the photos of his once-happy life across the table of a Union Station restaurant. The portrait of his wife with two of his six children. The picture showing the living room of the $1 million home he built as a prosperous businessman in his native Yemen. The 1970s snapshot of him as a low-level employee at the U.S. embassy in Yemen, shaking hands with the U.S. ambassador.
But that happiness ended after he made the mistake of becoming an FBI terrorism informant, Alanssi said tearfully in an interview three weeks ago. His cooperation had been leaked and his family in Yemen was angry with him, some calling him a traitor. His wife was dying of cancer, he was penniless, and the U.S. residency papers the FBI had promised him had not materialized, he said.
Last week, Alanssi’s despondency drove him to attempt suicide by setting himself on fire in front of the White House. In a note faxed to The Washington Post and his FBI handlers hours before, Alanssi said he would not testify at a high-profile terrorism trial in New York in January because his family in Yemen would be killed in revenge and “me too I will be a dead man.”
His dramatic act put the murky, secretive world of informants under a rare spotlight. It is a world become doubly important since the 2001 terrorist attacks, as U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies strive to infiltrate al-Qaida and other terrorist networks to prevent future attacks. Alanssi’s highly publicized suicide attempt may make that task more difficult, some experts said.
“It’s not going to be fatal to source development, but there will be agent handlers who will have this thrown up to them,” said Skip Brandon, a former deputy assistant FBI director and now an officer of Smith Brandon International, an intelligence consulting firm.
Alanssi, 52, is under FBI guard at Washington Hospital Center, where his condition has been upgraded to fair.
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The FBI has declined to comment about Alanssi, whom some acquaintances accuse of dishonest business dealings.
Parts of Alanssi’s account of his relationship with the FBI are questionable or difficult to verify. But court records and interviews with law enforcement sources appear to confirm his claims that he has helped the FBI in a number of terrorism cases over the past three years, including the January 2003 arrest of a prominent Yemeni cleric now facing trial in New York on charges of financing al-Qaida.
The reasons for Alanssi’s estrangement from the FBI and his growing emotional distress aren’t totally clear, although experts said it’s common for such recruits to suffer informant’s remorse as the time approaches for them to testify in open court.
“That puts a lot of stress on them,” Brandon said. “In theory, if he were an FBI informant and they planned to use him (at) trial, the last thing you’d want to do is mistreat him or abuse him in any way. … I find it hard to believe they threw this guy on the trash and hoped to resurrect him in January. It could be that his demands were so outrageous that it simply broke the system.”
Alanssi’s personal and financial troubles appear to be at least partly his own fault. He said the FBI paid him $100,000 in June 2003, an amount regarded as very generous by some intelligence experts. Yet in May, he was charged with felony bank fraud in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., for writing bad checks, a case the FBI has tried to keep quiet.
According to three people who met Alanssi in the United States, he used the same talents that made him a capable FBI informant for other purposes. The three – immigrants from Peru, Egypt and Eritrea – said in interviews that Alanssi exploited their sympathy, bilking them out of several thousand dollars with his teary stories about medical and family problems, and his promises of quick repayment.
“He tells everyone different stories. He never tells the truth,” said Sayed Mahmoud Aly, a limousine driver at a Capitol Hill hotel who said Alanssi owes him $4,000. “He started crying, and when he cry … it broke my heart.”
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Alanssi described his work for the FBI during three recent meetings with a reporter at Union Station.
At the time of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, he said, he was in New York on a visitor’s visa exploring business opportunities. He decided to approach the FBI because he was upset by the terrorist attacks on Americans, whom he likes, he said. He also saw an opportunity to realize his dream of living and working in the United States.
Alanssi, a short, stout man with graying hair and eyeglasses, said he offered the FBI information on Yemeni figures who were sympathetic to al-Qaida, and a relationship quickly took off.
FBI agent Robert Fuller – to whom Alanssi faxed his suicide note Monday – wrote in a January 2003 affidavit that he began working in November 2001 with an unnamed confidential informant who was a Yemeni citizen. The informant “provided information that has proven to be reliable and contributed, in part, to the arrests of 20 individuals and the seizure of over $1 million,” Fuller wrote.
In that and a second affidavit, Fuller outlines Alanssi’s role in the FBI sting operation in Frankfurt, Germany, that led to Moayad’s arrest, as well as the efforts Alanssi made for more than a year to ingratiate himself with Moayad. Alanssi persuaded the cleric to travel to Germany to meet an FBI undercover agent posing as a wealthy American seeking to donate $2 million to terrorist activities.
Those documents corroborate many of the details about the sting operation that Alanssi related in the interviews with a reporter, including his earlier videotaping in October 2002 of a mass wedding of 175 couples organized by Moayad and his delivery of the videotape to the FBI.
Alanssi said that he had once lived near Moayad’s mosque in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa and that he used that connection – and his real name – to gain the cleric’s trust. But he said the FBI promised him it wouldn’t arrest Moayad in Germany while “I’m in the picture.”
Despite that promise, he said, the FBI ordered him to go to Moayad’s hotel room in Frankfurt just before the sheikh’s arrest. His role in the sting quickly became known in Yemen, Alanssi said. Several weeks later, it was leaked to Western papers, including The Post, which included Alanssi’s name in a story about the sting that was published Feb. 28, 2003.
As a result of the publicity, Alanssi said, his family in Yemen was harassed by Moayad’s followers.
Although the FBI told Alanssi he could bring members of his family to the United States and sent them about $16,000 to buy plane tickets, they have refused to join him, he said. They are angry with him for subjecting them to public disfavor, Alanssi said. His family also is reluctant to come here, he added, because he hasn’t been given permanent U.S. residency as promised.
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According to Alanssi, the FBI also promised him a new identity and “a very big amount (of money) which will make me retired.”
None of those promises was ever written down, he said.
Alanssi said that after Moayad’s arrest, he asked one of his FBI handlers for his money. “He said, ‘How much do you want?,’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘Five million.’ And he began laughing at me.”
Finally, he said, the FBI deposited $100,000 in his bank account and asked him to sign a receipt for the money.
“Wow,” said Pat Lang, former chief of Middle East intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency. “That’s a lot of money to pay an intelligence source.”
A law enforcement source last week confirmed Alanssi was paid a “relatively” big sum of money.
Alanssi, however, said he did not regard the $100,000 as a final payment. “I am not crazy to destroy my life for these tips,” he said.
On Nov. 9, he faxed a seven-page, handwritten note marked “Top Urgent” to FBI agent Fuller, demanding $5 million and threatening to sue the bureau for $20 million if he did not get it.
“It is not unusual at all for people to have inflated ideas about the value of their information,” Brandon said. “This is fairly common in an area in which there is not only national but world attention, that is, countering terrorism. … One of the things I know my old colleagues have faced since 9/11 has been a steady stream of people wanting to sell them information, many of whom are interested in making money.”
Alanssi said he used some of the $100,000 to rent a home in Wappinger Falls in Upstate New York, expecting that he could eventually persuade his family to join him. He also bought $25,000 in furniture for the home and paid back loans.
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Alanssi said the FBI offered to help him get a start in a small business, and he decided to buy a dry cleaning store in Beacon, N.Y., near Wappinger Falls. He used $25,000 of his FBI money as a down payment and the FBI agreed to pay the remaining $49,000 for the business in installments of $3,000 a month, he said.
But troubles soon followed. Alanssi said he got sick from the dry cleaning chemicals and the FBI stopped paying the installments after two months.
Alicia Rivera, who had owned the business, Friendly Dry Cleaners, disputed that account. Rivera said Alanssi offered to buy her store by paying off her credit card debt of $13,000 and to keep her on as an employee. She said she signed a contract in September 2003 calling for Alanssi to pay her in monthly installments. She denied that he gave her a $25,000 down payment.
Rivera, an immigrant from Peru, said Alanssi quickly fired her, even though he didn’t know how to run the dry cleaning machine. He did not pay the installments or the building rent, she said, forcing her to take him to court. In June, he signed the title back to her.
But before he did so, she said, he begged her for $1,000 to pay for prescription drugs and she gave him the money.
“He requested money from my wife, and it’s crazy, because he owed us money,” said her husband, Levy Rivera. “She gave him $1,000 because he was crying.”
In his interviews with The Post, Alanssi disclosed that he had written two bad checks to repay a loan and that this was reported to the Beacon police. When FBI agents got wind of this, Alanssi said, they berated him and “forced” him to plead guilty to federal bank fraud charges in June. According to the docket in that case, which is before Judge Jack Weinstein, a sealed document was entered Oct. 12, the day before Alanssi’s scheduled sentencing. The docket does not state which side filed the sealed document, which is unusual. And the outcome of the case is unclear.
Alanssi said the FBI found lawyer Lawrence Ruggiero to act as his defense attorney in the case. Ruggiero declined to comment when contacted by a reporter.
Alanssi said he felt uncomfortable in New York because of his FBI work and in June accepted the bureau’s suggestion that he move to the Washington suburbs. He said the FBI gave him $1,700 to buy a minivan to move and that it recently began paying his rent at his Falls Church, Va., apartment.
Limousine driver Aly, an immigrant from Egypt, said Alanssi hired him as a chauffeur for 10 days in May when Alanssi came to Washington with the family of one of his sons. Aly said Alanssi paid him with two checks totaling $4,000 but then stopped payment on them and disappeared.
Around the same time, the housekeeping manager at a Washington hotel gave Alanssi $3,800 to buy plane tickets to send his son’s family back to Yemen. He promised to pay her back within weeks but never has, said the Eritrean-born woman, who asked not to be identified because her family does not know she gave Alanssi that much money.
“He cried, he cried, like a baby,” she said. “He make you believe him.”
Alanssi said in the interviews that after moving to Virginia, he sought help at Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church. He used a false name, he said, because he believed that everyone at the mosque was aware that someone named Mohamed Alanssi had worked with the FBI to arrest Moayad. He was given a job in the mosque bookstore.
Jamal Abdulmoty, the bookstore manager, called Alanssi “weird” and said he presented himself as homeless when he showed up in July. Abdulmoty said he let Alanssi stay in his own apartment while he was on vacation and gave him chores to do in the bookstore. Then he disappeared. The mosque has been looking for him, Abdulmoty said, because he made $1,500 in overseas phone calls from the bookstore phone.
Nobody at the mosque, Abdulmoty added, knew or cared about Moayad’s case.
Alanssi, who appeared severely depressed and lonely in the recent interviews, said he knew he could be arrested if he went home but did not care. “I’m very scared and nervous. But at the end, I feel I did a good job … for all American people,” he said. “I like them very much. When I do anything to protect them from bad people, I feel happy…. And I don’t think the American people would be happy if my wife died before I see her. To keep me in this country – is this my reward?”
Alanssi told a reporter that he was unable to go home to visit his seriously ill wife because the FBI was keeping his passport. But Basharaheel Hisham, editor of Al Ayyam, a Yemeni newspaper, said Yemeni citizens can get travel documents from any Yemeni embassy.
“I don’t think his intention is to come back to Yemen,” Hisham said. “Basically, he’s looked at as a traitor for doing something like this.”
When U.S. Park Police searched Alanssi’s apartment after his suicide attempt, among the items they seized, according to the search warrant filing, was a “passport … for Mohamed M.M. Alanssi.”
Staff writers Tom Jackman, Allan Lengel and Michael Powell and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.