September 2009 New York City
Bassam Shah had driven through a day and two nights from Denver, stopping only for gas, eating fried pies, drinking Red Bull, and urinating into a plastic milk jug between gas station fill-ups.
At dawn, in the chaos of merging lanes on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, orange traffic cones squeezed the cars to the right. Port Authority Police cars blocked the available lanes, routing all visitors to the city to a checkpoint just beyond the tollbooths. Commuter congestion into New York City was building at that early hour, though still not at its heaviest.
Two men in blue Windbreakers and baseball hats waved flashlights up ahead, peering into a car's rolled down windows. They wore wires in their ears.
Shah saw no dogs. For that, he was relieved. He was ten cars back from the search point.
He watched the driver, a man traveling alone like him, get out to open his trunk. The searchers - now he saw the words Port Authority Police on the backs of their jackets - shined their lights inside. They lifted the mat off the spare tire, conferred ... ... then let the man drive away.
Shah had to risk it. The decision was not a difficult one. If he fled, they would stop him and search him intimately and rejoice at their success. Instead, he made himself small, exactly as he had been trained to do, settling into the persona of a grateful immigrant. His story - he was driving into New York to check on his family's coffee cart - had the benefit of being the truth. It was verifiable. Truth by admission was imperative in a situation such as this one. He eased the Ford Taurus forward, warm vent air breathing on him, soothing him. It was a muggy early autumn morning. He counted down as each driver was quizzed, each car scrutinized. When his time came, he lowered his window and faced his interrogators.
"Where are you going?" asked the younger of the two black cops, shining his light in Shah's face.
"To Queens," Shah answered. He felt his confidence ebb as the words left him. Something felt wrong here. But to be this close and fail was impossible. He had felt certain the police were watching him in Colorado. But his cross-country drive had been uneventful. He had to push past his self-consciousness.
"You are coming from where?" the cop asked.
"Denver," answered Shah. "My home. Near there - Aurora."
All true. No lies.
The cop nodded. Truth or lies, it did not seem to matter much to him. "Step out of the car, please."
Of course they would make him get out. Shah was an Afghan, twenty-four years old, with caramel skin. His neck beard, hair, and eyebrows were all reddish brown. Physically, Shah fit every little box on their desperately simplistic checklist of profiling characteristics. The embodiment of what many Americans considered a dangerous man. He clicked open his seat belt obediently, attempted a smile, and emerged before the great bridge in the warm air over the Hudson River.
The other policeman leaned inside the open car door, scouring the front seats with his flashlight as though it were a laser irradiating the floorboards and upholstery in search of clues.
"Mind unzipping that?" the cop said, stabbing his light beam at the Nike gym bag on the backseat.
Shah could have refused. He knew his constitutional rights under U.S. law; indeed, most every Afghan in the States knew these laws by heart. These men had no warrants, but they could "ask" him to accompany them somewhere else for more searching. All they needed was a pretense. Such was the thin thread upon which Shah's freedom now hung.
He pulled out the bag, feeling the heat of the high candlepower flashlight beam upon his tan hands. He opened it, removing a long head wrap, bunching it in his hands. He pulled out two robes thick with a few days' body odor. He pulled out a half-burned candle and sticks of incense.
In other words, he had exactly what these men expected an Afghan to have.
They peered further inside, touching nothing with their blue gloved hands. Shah's laptop case was on the seat next to the bag; he showed it to them, and they were satisfied. They asked him to open the trunk and he complied. They discovered nothing there except the spare tire, a basic tool kit, and some grime.
And then it was over. They nodded to the driver's seat as a gesture that they were done and looked to the next vehicle. Shah deferred to them without making eye contact, got into the rental car, buckled up, and drove away.
All along the bridge, spangles of light glistened off the morning dew that coated the thick steel cables. Below, the running lights of barges on the Hudson River dimmed as though in awe of the dawning sun.
He felt great exhilaration at having passed the checkpoint, which was meant to discourage interlopers, but in fact seemed to him now like a threshold.
He was inside now. And it had been easy.
At the same time, Shah's anger began to rise anew. He cursed the deference the bridge trolls forced him to adopt. He was a man who valued his dignity. So he took in the beauty and magnificence of the view with a sneer.
As the city passed across his windshield, Shah's confidence returned, knowing that the detonators were securely fish-lined into the passenger side air conditioning vent.
In lower Manhattan, on the twenty- third floor of FBI headquarters at 26 Federal Plaza, not far from City Hall, the Joint Terrorism Task Force meeting was already under way. Jeremy Fisk, a detective assigned to the NYPD's Intelligence Division, arrived late, hobbled by a sprained ankle.
He had missed a layup in his over-thirty league the previous night - he played twice each week at ten p.m., a ridiculous time for an amateur to pursue any sport, but the only time he could reliably make with his schedule - and came down on someone else's foot and rolled his. He had sat on the court floor gripping his shin just above his hyper-extended ankle, waiting for the swelling to begin and cursing himself.
That's it, he'd thought, for the thousandth time in his life.
Enough with the basketball. They said that biology is destiny, and so it was that a formerly tall for his age fourteen-year-old now spent two evenings a week with like minded desperadoes throwing himself around a basketball court. He loved the game, but never the sheer exhaustion of running up and down the court - an exhaustion that came more easily these days. Fisk had topped out at five-eleven, never playing college after the JV team at Villanova, riding the bench because everybody else was better and, eventually, taller than he was.
Fisk limped over to the wall. The briefing room was over-crowded with representatives of the various agencies that comprised the JTTF. There were similar task forces in over one hundred cities nationwide, but New York's was, appropriately, the biggest. Besides the host agency, the FBI, full-time federal participants included the U.S. Marshals Service, the Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the Diplomatic Security Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Internal Revenue Service, the army, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and more than a dozen others, in addition to state and local law enforcement departments. Such task forces are often derogatorily referred to as "alphabet soup," due to the large number of acronyms. To Fisk's eyes, the JTTF was worse. It was alphabet, minestrone, potato leek, French onion, clam chowder, gumbo, and Scotch broth ... many great tastes that did not belong on the same menu.
Fisk's department, the Intelligence Division, was not part of the JTTF. It functioned as a separate intelligence gathering agency within the New York Police Department. He was here as little more than a courtesy.
Fisk shifted his weight off his hurt ankle, leaning against the wall behind a liaison from the Postal Inspection Service. At the head of the room, Cal Dunphy, the current top FBI special agent assigned to the JTTF, was bald by choice, his broad jaw forming his head into a perfect oval. His eyes briefly flashed on Fisk when he entered, but nothing was said. Dunphy pulled notes from a file and consulted them through the lenses of his rimless eyeglasses.
"We're in his car and on his phone. We're in his laptop. Mr. Shah is moving with full confidence, and yet has no idea that we've got a flashing beacon on his back, bright and strong."
The FBI and Intel had had many operational differences of opinion in the past. The chief source of friction was their shared jurisdiction: a good old-fashioned turf battle. Two well financed ops groups with similar but not identical agendas, going toe-to-toe in the greatest and most targeted city in the world. And neither side had either margin or tolerance for error.
They did not work well together. Recently, and too often, they had stepped on each other's toes, compromising the others investigation. Various attempts had been made at improving communication and coordination, but nothing altered the fact that they were two dogs fighting over the same piece of meat.
So each agency kept the other at arm's length. The FBI had Shah all to itself in Denver. Now Shah was in the Big Apple, on Intel's terrain. They had learned enough from the mistakes of the past to establish a baseline of coordination, resulting in Fisk's presence at this briefing. But that didn't mean they were suddenly on the same page. As Dunphy went on, it was clear to Fisk that the FBI was merely going through the motions. They were sharing the results of their surveillance info but not the sources. They wanted point on Shah. They certainly didn't want Intel tracking him independently. A couple of different liaisons asked questions that were intended to make them appear smart and involved, but without any true interest in moving the issue forward. Group-think. Fisk saw Dunphy glance his way. Dunphy, to his credit, knew Fisk wasn't going to let this ride.
Fisk stuck out his hand, as though hailing this train that was going around in circles. "This whole thing makes me itchy," he said. "I don't like it. He's here now. Right in the city. We know what he's got. We know what he's here for. I think letting him dangle like this is too goddamn risky. You say you're confident of his time line—"
"We've got three days, Fisk."
"Having a GPS tag on a fox who's already in the hen house doesn't reassure me much."
Dunphy all but sighed. "Nothing would reassure you, Fisk."
"Grabbing him now would."
"And give up three critical days of intelligence gathering? Who knows what we can get from this guy? This is crux time. Invaluable. This is the fruit at the bottom, Fisk. The sweet stuff. I understand your skittishness, but we're holding a strong hand here— " "It's not skittishness; it's common sense. You're telling me this guy is on a controlled burn. I've seen those things get out of hand many times. All it takes is a sudden shift in the wind."
Dunphy smiled. Fisk knew what that smile meant. He saw parents use it on their kids in the park. "We've got the best meteorologists in the business."
"Predicting the weather is not the same as making it rain," said Fisk.
The FBI had conducted various undercover terror stings since the dawn of domestic terrorism. For every terror plot that arose organically, which is to say without domestic law enforcement interference - the underwear bomber in a jetliner over Detroit, or the planned attack on Fort Dix, New Jersey - two others originated with the prodding of undercover federal agents. Not unlike actual terror cell leaders, they radicalized vulnerable Muslim suspects by fomenting anti-American dissent and supplying the conspirators with dummy materials, such as fake C-4 explosive or harmless blasting caps. These paper conspiracies were then passed off as major law enforcement victories, vanquished threats to homeland security. But it was no exaggeration to say that the FBI had instigated more terror plots in the United States since 9/11 than Al-Qaeda.
Fisk continued, "My concern is that everyone is on board with your plan - except the terrorist himself."
"Noted," said Dunphy, pissed off now, and finished with Fisk.
Fisk had heard enough. One of the pleasures of not being beholden to the JTTF was the ability to walk out of a meeting - or hobble, which was just what Fisk did.
Excerpted from The Intercept by Dick Wolf. Copyright © 2012 by Dick Wolf. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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