- Khalifah al-AkiliMuslim American from the Pittsburgh area who says he was entrapped by FBI informants including Shahed Hussain.
- Lyric Cabralco-director of (T)ERROR, a documentary that follows undercover FBI informant Saeed “Shariff” Torres as he engages in a sting operation targeting Muslim man Khalifah al-Akili.
- Sam Bravermanattorney who represented one of the “Newburgh Four,” four black Muslim men who were convicted in 2010 of plotting to shoot down U.S. military planes based on testimony from Shahed Hussain.
When a limousine crashed in upstate New York this weekend, killing 20 people, investigators quickly uncovered a series of shoddy practices by the limo company that owned the vehicle, including a record of repeated safety violations. The limousine that crashed in Schoharie, New York, in the deadliest U.S. transportation disaster since 2009 had failed an inspection last month and was not licensed to be on the road. Now it’s been revealed that the owner of Prestige Limousine Chauffeur Service is a Pakistani immigrant named Shahed Hussain, an FBI informant with a long history of entrapping Muslim men on behalf of the U.S. government. On Wednesday, state officials arrested his son Nauman Hussain, who operates his father’s limo service, and charged him with criminally negligent homicide. In Pittsburgh, we speak with a man who was entrapped by Hussain, Khalifah al-Akili. We also speak with Lyric Cabral, co-director of “(T)ERROR,” a documentary that follows a sting operation targeting Khalifah al-Akili. In New York, we speak with Sam Braverman, an attorney who represented one of the “Newburgh Four,” four black Muslim men who were convicted in 2010 of plotting to shoot down U.S. military planes based on testimony from Shahed Hussain.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to look at how a limousine crash that killed 20 people Saturday in upstate New York is linked to a man who is an FBI informant, long accused of lying to the government and getting away with it. The crash in the town of Schoharie was the deadliest U.S. transportation disaster since 2009. The limousine had failed an inspection last month and was not licensed to be on the road. The New York Times reports that shortly before the crash, one of the victims sent a text message to a friend saying she was worried about the limo’s condition. It has since been revealed the company that owned the car had a record of repeated safety violations. Earlier this year, it was issued written violations after vehicle inspections by the New York State Police and the Department of Transportation.
On Wednesday, state officials arrested the operator of Prestige Limousine Chauffeur Service and charged him with criminally negligent homicide. He is Nauman Hussain, the son of a Pakistani immigrant named Malik Shahed Hussain, who is the company’s owner and also an FBI informant.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2001, Malik Shahed Hussain was arrested for helping people cheat on driver’s license tests. In exchange for avoiding deportation, he took a job as an FBI confidential informant, posing as a radical arms dealer in FBI sting operations. Hussain was a key figure in the FBI’s case against the so-called Newburgh Four, four black Muslim men sentenced to 25-year prison terms after they were convicted for placing what they thought were bombs in a New York synagogue in 2010. Defense attorneys say the men were entrapped by Hussain.
We turn now to a Pittsburgh man who was entrapped by Hussain. His name is Khalifah al-Akili. He just finished serving nearly eight years in federal prison and was released September 25th. In a moment, we’re going to speak to him directly. He is in a halfway house. But first, we want to turn to a clip from the documentary (T)ERROR—that’s T in parentheses and the word “error”—(T)ERROR—where Khalifah al-Akili describes how Hussain, then working as an FBI informant in Pittsburgh under the name of Mohammed, tried to recruit him for a terror plot.
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: It was so clear that I didn’t want to meet these guys. Like seriously. Like, I literally made up excuse after excuse after excuse. The next morning, walked up here to the corner, and that’s when, you know, quote-unquote, “Mohammed” came from around the corner, just appeared out of nowhere. You know, he had his hotel downtown Pittsburgh, and yet he was here in Wilkinsburg at 9:30 in the morning without no car, no vehicle. He just so happened to have that card from my mother on him. I reluctantly agreed to go to McDonald’s and, you know, have some coffee with him. The morning that we all came in here, we actually sat at this first booth right here, and that’s whenever he began to talk about his people being involved in jihad and whatnot and fighting.
AMY GOODMAN: Khalifah al-Akili joins us now on the telephone from Pittsburgh.
Khalifah, welcome to Democracy Now! Congratulations on getting out of prison, after almost eight years. When you heard about this news of the worst U.S. traffic accident in almost a decade and that the limousine that was used, that was illegally on the road, was owned by the FBI informant who led to your imprisonment, can you talk about your response and exactly who Shahed Hussain is?
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: Yeah. Good morning, Amy. I was completely devastated by this news, the fact that this man is allowed—continues to live among citizens and to be out here, when this guy is—he’s a rodent. You know, he’s a liar. He’s a thief. He’s a criminal. He’s a scam artist. And he’s a danger to society. And the fact that this took place, and more than likely that the money that was used to build this company was money was paid to him by our government? I mean, this is ridiculous. Because he’s an asset to our government and he’s bringing them manufactured cases of terrorism, this is why he’s allowed to continue to stay in this country and to flourish and to run these illegal businesses, in which he’s constantly cutting corners and—it’s just sad. Twenty people die as a result of this guy’s negligence? I mean, this is sick. You know? And he—
AMY GOODMAN: Khalifah, talk about how you met Hussain.
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: Yeah, I met him through the other informant that was involved in the case, “Shariff.” He told me one day, he said, “Hey, man, my brother’s coming in from out of town, and I really want you to meet him. He’s a real resourceful guy, you know, and I think you guys would get along, be able to relate.” And so, that’s how the initial introduction was made. I only met this guy once or twice, on two different occasions. And, you know, I didn’t want to meet him from the very beginning, because I already knew that he was an informant. I knew that he was trying to entrap me. But he was very aggressive in trying to pursue me and to sit down with me, to talk with me. And it’s just sad, man, to hear this news. You know, it really is.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about where you’re speaking to us from and how his actions led to your imprisonment?
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: Yeah, sure. I’m speaking from Pittsburgh. I’m in a halfway house. Right now I’m just focused on trying to—you know, my transition back into society, to reunite with my family. And this guy’s actions led to my imprisonment because of his attempts to entrap me. And then, after I publicly exposed him, then the government came in with a 2-year-old picture of me and some friends having fun at a gun range, and used that to indict me and give me a rack of years in federal prison. And yet this guy is responsible for—directly or indirectly, for the homicide of 20 people, and he’s not going to do a day in jail.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you figure out he was an FBI informant?
KHALIFAH AL-AKILI: I knew because I knew that “Shariff” was an FBI informant. So, the fact that this guy was introducing me to another guy, I just—I knew immediately.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Khalifah, I don’t want you to get in trouble. You’re at the halfway house, and I know you have to get off the air at half past the hour, so I want to thank you very much for joining us. Khalifah al-Akili, joining us, talking about how he was entrapped by Malik Shahed Hussain, who is the man who owns the Prestige limousine service, the limousine that was illegally on the road. A number of his cars had failed inspection, and yet this limousine carried 20 people—the driver and 17 friends between the age of, I think, 24 and 34, who were all going to a 30th birthday party. Two of the couples in the car had just gotten married. The driver, of course, killed, and two bystanders.
We’re joined now by two other guests, who can talk about the man who owns this service. Not exactly clear where he is right now. His son has been arrested on manslaughter charges as a result of the accident. Here in New York, Sam Braverman joins us, an attorney who represented one of the Newburgh Four, who were convicted after Shahed Hussain led the group and organized the scheme. He’ll tell us about that. And in Los Angeles, Lyric Cabral is with us, co-director of the film (T)ERROR—that’s T in parentheses and the word “error”—(T)ERROR—a documentary that follows undercover FBI informant Saeed “Shariff” Torres, who Khalifah was just talking about, another FBI informant.
Lyric, we met you at the Sundance Film Festival, this astounding film a few years ago. If you can finish Khalifah’s story for us, how he figured out who Shahed was and the significance? I mean, he not only was involved in the jailing of men in Pittsburgh, but also, as we’ll talk about with Sam Braverman, the men in New York who were then entrapped and are serving decades in prison at this point. Lyric?
LYRIC CABRAL: Yes. So, Shahed Hussain, in Pittsburgh, he was going by the name Mohammed, and he had been assigned there presumably to investigate Khalifah al-Akili. But because of the Newburgh Four case, because that was such a publicly critiqued example of entrapment, during that trial, Shahed Hussain was photographed and was exposed. His photograph was placed on—actually, it was the front cover of The New York Times. And so, because of all the publicly available information, in part due to Sam Braverman and other defense attorneys on the Newburgh Four team, there was basically this publicly available information about Shahed Hussain, including recordings that he made of the Newburgh Four that were entered as government evidence during their trial in 2009. So all of this was sort of public.
And so, when Khalifah had his suspicions about Hussain, Shahed Hussain, in Pittsburgh, under the name Mohammed, gave Khalifah a business card with a number. And Khalifah, due to his suspicions, he googled that phone number, and it referenced a number in one of the Newburgh Four trial transcripts that was publicly available. So, Khalifah, through this Google search, was able to actually confirm on paper that Shahed Hussain was an informant.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, that is simply amazing. This guy gives him his number. He’s very nervous about him, and he checks it out on Google, and he sees it’s the number of the FBI informant in the Newburgh Four case, which brings us to Sam Braverman.
SAM BRAVERMAN: Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN: Hi. It’s great to have you with us. Talk about this case in Newburgh. Yes, it was front-page news, but I think for many people in this country it’s long been forgotten about as they rot away in jail.
SAM BRAVERMAN: Oh, absolutely true. So, the trial was essentially Maksud—that was his nickname in our case. Of course, I don’t think anybody could honestly say they know what his real name is, because he did so much immigration fraud on his original asylum application. So I don’t think anybody believes that. He could be Fred. I mean, nobody knows his real name. But beyond that, he comes to Newburgh. He’s tasked to go to Newburgh. He goes into mosques. And he’s specifically tasked—
AMY GOODMAN: Newburgh, a very depressed town.
SAM BRAVERMAN: Newburgh is a very depressed town. He was in Woppinger’s Falls before, originally, and he went into a mosque. And the people said, “Get out of here. Get out of here.” He went to the Newburgh mosque, and the imam there said, “Get out of here.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Why? Why were they telling him to leave?
SAM BRAVERMAN: They were telling him to leave because he was in there to say, “Let’s have a jihad. Let’s have a holy war.” And the people in the mosque were saying, “This has nothing to do with us. We’re here to pray. We’re here for a peaceful mission.” And so he kept getting thrown out of places. And he found a disaffected person in a parking lot. And that’s how the Newburgh case began.
AMY GOODMAN: His name?
SAM BRAVERMAN: And his name was James Cromitie. So, James Cromitie was a loudmouth by his own absolute admission. He shot off his mouth endlessly. And then, like Khalifah, one day he said, “You know, I don’t have any interest in this man anymore,” and hid for a month and a half. Hid. The FBI knew exactly where he was, because they were trailing him everywhere he was. But every time that Maksud would knock on his door, he was hiding behind the door, or he’d call him and say, “Oh, I’m out of town. I’m in Philly, wherever I am.”
But the FBI was paying Maksud to do something. He had a job, like a salesman. So, as a salesman, he only gets paid if he makes the sale. And he has to tell the person who wants to make the sale, “Let me tell you anything you want to hear.” So, in our trial, Maksud—Shahed Hussain—said things like, “I’ll give you $250,000, a barbershop, free cars, free travel.” My client, Laguerre Payen, was totally impoverished, and my client was bought for food. So, in every meeting, my client is eating. That’s how you got my client to join this thing. There’s a—you know, if you feed somebody rice and they’re starving, they’ll believe anything you ask them to believe, because they’re starving to death, as was my client. So, that was the premise that got everybody into this.
Once they were there, Shahed Hussain just kept doing things. His everyday task was to make the story better. And the FBI was continually trying to reel him in at the same time. So they’re saying, “No, no, don’t offer those things. You can offer $5,000.” So he went off the reservation and said, “No, 250 is good.” And then he did these things. And then he lied to his handlers about it, and they didn’t know about it until they actually heard the tapes, where he said, “Two-fifty. I offered you 250. You didn’t want it. How about a car?” So, it was endless. And he said, you know, “I want to fly you on a plane.” My client said, “I can’t go anywhere. I don’t have a passport.” You’re talking about the most uneducated, the most unsalvageable young men, and they target them.
AMY GOODMAN: This is very significant, because Shahed knows enough that he cannot just be offering financial inducements. He has to, as he talks about “the cause,” they have to be there for the cause.
SAM BRAVERMAN: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Jihad, not for the money, because that will get the FBI in trouble. So I want to go to the HBO documentary The Newburgh Sting which features secret recordings the FBI made of conversations between the undercover FBI informant, Shahed Hussain, and James Cromitie, one of the men who became part of the Newburgh Four. You have to listen very closely, because, well, obviously, this is surveillance audio. It’s hard to understand. The clip begins with Shahed Hussain.
SHAHED HUSSAIN: What is your understanding that you make a lot of money and still be on the side of Allah?
JAMES CROMITIE: That’d be good, but I have to know what I’m going to do to make the money.
SHAHED HUSSAIN: I have a lot of ideas, OK, for you. … If you can get some people, it would be nice. If we have bodies, it would be nice. OK?
JAMES CROMITIE: Do have to use that word “bodies”?
SHAHED HUSSAIN: But you said that you were going to get some brothers together.
JAMES CROMITIE: Don’t worry about the brothers. Don’t worry. You’re going to meet some brothers. Just be—
SHAHED HUSSAIN: I’m hoping we can—we can do it.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Shahed Hussain saying, “You’re going to get some brothers together,” to James Cromitie. And this is another clip from the secret FBI recordings. This one begins with James Cromitie.
JAMES CROMITIE: None of these brothers got jobs. Only—there’s three of us without no jobs.
SHAHED HUSSAIN: Sure.
JAMES CROMITIE: But, actually, how do you think we feel? We getting ready to do all this. We ain’t got no money in our pockets. How do you think we feel? Look at me, brother.
SHAHED HUSSAIN: Mm-hmm.
JAMES CROMITIE: How do you think they feel?
SHAHED HUSSAIN: If these brothers are doing it for money, I don’t need those. It’s about Allah.
JAMES CROMITIE: No, I talked to them already. They already know, OK? I’m not even worried about them.
SHAHED HUSSAIN: OK. And [inaudible] it is for Allah [inaudible], and that’s all it is. And if they want need for money or greediness or they think they are going to make any money or [inaudible], please do not, because this is jihad. This is jihad. And that’s what a jihad is.
JAMES CROMITIE: But you know what they’re thinking? They can use the money, though.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Cromitie at the end, who is now in prison, saying, “Yeah, yeah. I know you’re saying jihad, but they really need the money.”
SAM BRAVERMAN: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: And that’s Shahed Hussain. And again, to bring this back, for people who are just joining us now, Shahed Hussain, who runs the Prestige limousine service that was involved in this deadly car crash, he was cited numerous times for dangerous vehicles.
This one was not supposed to be on the road in Schoharie, and it’s the one that crashed, killing all 20, all 17 people in the car and the driver, as well as two passersby.
SAM BRAVERMAN: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about then defending your clients and how they ended up in jail, because these are such damning—not so much of your clients. They’re clearly desperate and sometimes trying to get away from him. He is coming up with the plot all the time. He shows them synagogues. He shows them a military base.
SAM BRAVERMAN: So, in the case here, there were a lot of different ways. Remember, we are compressing time, in a sense, because it starts in early 2008, and it goes all the way to 2009—nine months of recruitment. And during this nine months of recruitment, people keep leaving. They keep walking away. They can’t find people. My client comes in. The first time he appears on tape anywhere, he says to Shahed, “By the way, thanks for the job. I really needed a job.” It doesn’t say, “I’m here to do damage to the world.” “I need a job.” I mean, literally waifs on the street.
So this persistence is what, ultimately, the FBI is allowed to use to say, “Let’s compress it all into one moment. What do we have? We have people saying in clips, ’I’m here for the job.’” What the trial was about was pulling back that band-aid, that bandage that hides the actual wounds. And the wounds were Shahed Hussain doing whatever he wanted to do.
And that’s the connection with the case here today. It’s not because he was an informant then and lied then that he’s somehow legally responsible for this. It’s because every day of his life and every minute he has ever had, he has had no responsibilities for anything. So he comes, and he lies about his immigration on his application for asylum. Never punished. He comes here, and he creates a fraudulent business. Never punished. He comes here, and he does a bribery scandal at the DMV, and he’s never punished. He comes here, and he lies at the trial up in Albany. Never punished. He comes here, and he files bankruptcy, lies on his bankruptcy application. Never punished. Comes here to trial, and for this whole case here, lies in every step of the trial, exceeds his authority, makes offers, binds the FBI to things. Never punished. At trial, he lies on the stand. McMahon turns to the jury and says, “This man is lying.” Never held accountable for it. The government stands and says, “You’re doing a great job.” In the terror case, in other cases he’s done, and now this.
So, the timeline is, for all of us to watch this to say, he has never been held accountable in his life for anything. So what has he learned from that? He learned sociopathy, the ability to say, without remorse, without any concern, without any hesitation, “I’ll do whatever I want.” So if I want this truck on the road, it goes on the road. And who says “no”? You? Me? No. We’re still paying his salary. He’s making hundreds of thousands of dollars, doesn’t pay taxes on it. He lies and commits felony crimes.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean he doesn’t pay taxes on it?
SAM BRAVERMAN: He didn’t pay taxes on it. The government just pays him money.
AMY GOODMAN: You mean the FBI?
SAM BRAVERMAN: Yeah. In our trial, it came out that he got $66,000 in the year before our trial. He didn’t pay taxes on that money. It’s a gift. So what does he learn? He learns to do anything he wants. He goes to Pakistan—wherever he is. Who knows if he’s actually there? And his son is here to stand up for him. Maybe his son takes the beating for him. I don’t know.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: When did he leave the U.S.?
SAM BRAVERMAN: Who knows? Who knows? He comes and goes as he pleases. Have you ever been to JFK and see the line to get in and out of JFK? Do you think he stands on that line? He doesn’t. He just disappears. During our trial, he disappeared during the trial, came back. Nobody says, “We know where he is.” The FBI agent handler who was on the trial, on the stand, says, “He goes.” “Did you follow him in Pakistan?” “No.” I asked him, “How do you know he’s not actually a terrorist? Maybe he’s the actual terrorist.”
AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t there a question of—he first came to the United States from Pakistan fleeing a murder charge?
SAM BRAVERMAN: So he says, right? We don’t even have proof of that. But he absolutely said that he was a victim of an unlawful arrest and all these other things. We have no proof if that’s true, and the FBI never offered proof that that was true. The only thing we know about the FBI is they said about the four in the trial, they said—in a letter, in an internal memorandum, they said, “We know these guys are totally incapable of an operation without our informant.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to go to comments that have been made, a statement that’s been issued by Muslim groups in the U.S. The Muslim Solidarity Committee, Project SALAM and the Coalition for Civil Freedoms issued a statement about Hussain, saying, quote, “The limousine company is the latest hit on this road of calamity. Shahed Hussain’s debt to justice has not been paid. The years spent in prison (and the years still to serve) for the phony crimes that Hussain engineered for the FBI cannot be recovered for the men he put away. And the terrible irony of a felon convicted as part of a DMV scam, who is now responsible for the faulty operation of a vehicle that killed 20 innocent people, is not lost on us.” So, Lyric Cabral, could you respond to that and also say what you recall from Hussain’s testimony? You said that, in fact, you thought he was taking directions from the FBI.
LYRIC CABRAL: So, one of the things that has always troubled me about Hussain, in response to the Project SALAM statement that you just read, is going back to his initial charge, which was DMV fraud. You know, the FBI always says—the FBI’s argument is that it needs a criminal to catch a criminal. But going back to that actual act, which was in the—I believe it was in the early 2000s—my question is: Why did the FBI choose to hire this individual? Because that very act, for which they could have prosecuted him and put him in jail, is ultimately what killed these people: fraud. Getting vehicles—actually, what he was convicted of—what he should have been convicted of, what the FBI knew that he was doing, was helping people to receive driver’s licenses illegally. And his son, in this accident, did not have a license to drive this vehicle. So I have not heard much scrutiny around the FBI. To date, I have not heard the bureau make a statement about its informant. But I actually question the bureau, really, and why they chose to employ this individual after knowing his capability around these crimes.
AMY GOODMAN: Lyric, you spoke to the mother of David Williams, one of the Newburgh Four. I think they’re in jail, what, for 25 years?
LYRIC CABRAL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: When she learned of this horrific car crash that involved the man who ended up getting her son in prison, what did she tell you?
LYRIC CABRAL: Elizabeth McWilliams was just horrified. You know, legally, she’s just wondering, like any mother would—she’s still trying to get her son out of jail. She understands that an injustice occurred. So I think her first response was a legal one, going back to sort of the point that I spoke on: Is there any way that the FBI can be held accountable for this man, now that it’s clear that the original crime, when they hired him, is what killed these people ultimately? So she’s wondering how this current event might impact her son’s charge, might impact David’s freedom.
AMY GOODMAN: In the last 10 seconds, your response, Sam Braverman, when you heard what happened in Schoharie?
SAM BRAVERMAN: Sure. You know, it’s more of the same for this young man. Hussain does whatever he wants to do throughout his life. And it’s not just that there are sociopaths among us, because there are. It’s when our government tolerates this sort of craziness. Like the last story about Scott, governor in Florida: We’ll just tolerate the nonsense; let’s close our eyes and hide in the sand. If you hide in the sand about the environment, if you hide in the sand about justice, if you hide in the sand about all of the issues that are important to us, why do we ever think we should be crediting you? The bottom line is, they wrapped their arms around a liar, and here’s what reaped from what they’ve sown.
AMY GOODMAN: And as Michael German said in the remarkable film by David Heilbroner, the HBO film The Newburgh Sting, quoting Michael German, an FBI agent—after 9/11, his colleagues at the FBI were saying, you know, “The rules to longer apply.”
SAM BRAVERMAN: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: And he’s walking around saying, “What are you talking about, the rules the longer apply?”
SAM BRAVERMAN: Right, right. He says, “The rules? You mean the Constitution?” I actually sat with Mike, and I watched Lyric’s film. It’s a great film. And he’s a good guy, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Sam Braverman, lawyer for one of the Newburgh Four. Lyric Cabral, co-director of the award-winning documentary (T)ERROR, which is now on Netflix. And we want to thank Khalifah, who joined us from the halfway house in Pittsburgh. We thank you so much, Khalifa al-Akili, for enlightening us as we continue to try to find out what has taken place on the roads of upstate New York and where at this point Shahed Hussain is. His son is in jail.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, How Fascism Works, a new book by Yale professor Jason Stanley. Stay with us.