A Family Affair: Who’s Left Behind After the FBI’s Fake Terror Stings

The FBI is paying thousands of untrained informants to spy on law-abiding Muslim Americans. The program has justified itself with a series of prosecutions that are as questionable as they are high-profile. Here are the families who were left behind.

By Lyric Cabral Sep 08, 2011

Tenth Anniversary of September 11

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A Family Affair: Who’s Left Behind After the FBI’s Fake Terror Stings

A Letter to My Son on the Tenth Anniversary of September 11
Terry Keleher writes his son about the events of 9/11 and the future.

Ten years after September 11, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has prioritized protecting American citizens from the threat of domestic terrorism emanating from within our borders. Consequently, about 15,000 of our friends, neighbors, business proprietors and religious leaders now work as paid, untrained informants for the FBI, in zealous pursuit of disrupting a terrorist threat. Though a clear path to "radicalization" has yet to be identified, the FBI relies on this vast network of informants to "see something and say something" about American citizens whose speech, ideology or religious expression suggests cause for a national security investigation. The Obama administration is invoking the state secrets privilege to block legal challenges to the surveillance as a violation of constitutional rights.

A large portion of the FBI’s $3.3 billion counter-terrorism budget is dedicated to informants, who typically earn about $100 a day for their role in an active investigation. Informants are disproportionately tasked to gather information in Muslim-American communities; they have been deployed based on blunt mapping programs that profile and target entire Muslim populations. Since 9/11, 508 defendants have been prosecuted for terrorism in 36 states and Washington, D.C. Almost half of these cases involved the use of an FBI informant. 

The Raleigh Seven, Fort Dix Five, Newburgh Four and Tarik Shah (Martial Arts) cases received national attention as high-profile terrorism arrests–in each case an FBI informant enticed Muslim men to participate in a fictional terrorist plot. The lengths to which informants went to convince the men to participate in their nonexistent plots are striking; the details of their ultimate participation are often absurd. The families involved in these cases are African American, Albanian and Jordanian,* but they are united in that their belief that their family members were targeted and entrapped. As the anniversary of 9/11 nears, I aim that these photographs speak to the personal toll of our national security policies, which continue to adversely affect Muslim-American communities and families. 

Ibrahim Shnewer, father of Mohammed Shnewer in the Fort Dix Five case, prays at Masjid-As-Salaam in Albany, N.Y. Masjid-as-Salaam was targeted by FBI informant Shahed Hussain, who was instrumental in securing the conviction of Yassin Aref, the mosque’s imam, in 2007 (Hussain was later involved in the Newburgh Four case as well). The preemptive prosecution wall lists the names of many individuals prosecuted in terrorism cases since 9/11–in the majority of these cases no one was hurt and the weaponry involved was fake and provided by the FBI.

Laila Yaghi holds a picture of her son Ziyad Yaghi (left) and his friend Omar, taken during Ziyad’s 2006 vacation in Egypt. Two years after returning home to Raleigh, N.C., Ziyad was charged with conspiracy and material support for terrorism, for allegedly traveling overseas to seek training and terrorist resources. Ziyad has pleaded not guilty and he is currently going through trial. 

Elizabeth McWilliams, mother of David Williams IV, speaks to the media outside the White Plains Federal Court House on the day the Newburgh Four trial was scheduled to begin. She is hesitant to speak to the media "because they only want their story, not my story." Williams, Laguerre Payen, Onta Williams and James Cromitie were sentenced to 25 years for their role in a fake synagogue bombing. Presiding Federal District Judge Colleen McMahon commented that "a government, understandably zealous to protect its citizens, created acts of terrorism out of the fantasies and the bravado and the bigotry of one man in particular and four men generally and then made these fantasies come true."

Zurata Duka serves dinner at home to her five grandchildren, whom she cares for while their father, Dritan Duka, serves a prison sentence of 33 years plus life. Dritan, Eljvir, and Shain Duka were convicted in 2009 of conspiring to kill military personnel at the Fort Dix Military Base in New Jersey. Two informants surveilled the men for over a year, though there was scant evidence indicating the Duka brothers had any knowledge of an alleged attack at Fort Dix.

Tarik Shah, a prominent martial arts teacher and bassist who played at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, is seen playing at a Harlem jazz club. His mother, Marlene Shaw, enjoyed her birthday in a jazz club where he once played. Tarik pleaded guilty in 2007 of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism. He had been held in solitary confinement for 33 months and felt that his innocence would never be proven in a federal trial. Tarik was targeted by two FBI informants, who encouraged him to teach martial arts to individuals with purported Al Queda associations.

Lyric Cabral is a photographer, journalist and documentary filmmaker in New York City.

*This article has been updated since publication. A previous version incorrectly identified the nationality of the Jordanian family.