The Mysterious Informant

He was tall, muscular and mysterious--an Egyptian Muslim who was fluent in Arabic and apparently well versed in the operational details of espionage and terrorism. He said he had been an officer in the Egyptian army and that he had been among those who guarded Anwar Sadat, Egypt's late president, when Sadat was assassinated by Muslim fundamentalists in 1981. And bit by bit, he insinuated himself into a select group of followers of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind Egyptian mullah, as they launched what the FBI now says was a conspiracy to bomb U.N. headquarters and other locations in New York. Who is Emad Salem and what exactly did he do? Salem is "one weird dude," says attorney William Kunstler, who represents one of the 11 defendants in the so-called Beta-cell case. "I trusted him," says Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, the alleged ringleader of the Beta cell. "He played his role so cunningly."

What Siddig Ali and his lawyer hope to prove is entrapment--a sting operation, directed by the FBI and run by the mysterious Emad Salem, that went beyond the legally permissible bounds of investigative techniques. In an interview at the federal government's Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City late last month, Siddig Ali claimed that Salem "kept pushing us and giving us money. He said, 'We must bomb America!." Siddig Ali's lawyer, Kunstler associate Ron Kuby, seized on the published revelation that Salem had surreptitiously taped his conversations with the FBI to suggest that the government's star witness was a "ruthless, consummate opportunist without any allegiance to any person or country except himself." More to the point, Kuby said, Salem's tapes "will show that this scheme was originated, generated and terminated by the FBI"--will show, in short, that Siddig Ali and his co-defendants not only were bamboozled by the informer, but entrapped in a criminal conspiracy as well.

This is a tall order, and one that is arguably premature. Claiming entrapment or a clear pattern of government misconduct isn't easy, as defendants in the FBI's 1978 Abscam investigation of congressional corruption found out. The trial of Siddig Ali and his codefendants is still months away, and the defense lawyers have not yet seen all the evidence against their clients. And attorney Kuby has not heard the tapes of Salem's conversations with the FBI agents or seen a transcript of the tapes. (These tapes might contain "some little embarrassments," one source said, but they were probably "irrelevant" to the case.) So it is impossible for Kuby, Kunstler or anybody else to know just what Emad Salem said and did when he so adroitly led the defendants into the FBI's sting.

And lead them he did. Salem was somehow able to convince Siddig Ali that the electronic gadget he put on Siddig Ali's phone was a countersurveillance device; it almost certainly was an FBI bug. Salem allegedly helped the defendants build their bombs and he apparently rented the apartment and attached warehouse in Queens that were allegedly used as a bomb factory. He was present on the night that the FBI swooped down, and he was able to record many hours of allegedly incriminating conversations among the defendants with a hidden body mike. On May 7, according to transcripts of those tapes, Salem smoothly led Siddig Ali into revealing his primary target. "I want the United Nations," Siddig Ali says in the transcript. "Your idea about the United Nations is an excellent idea," the informer replies. "He probed here and there and managed to fix clearly that the U.N. was a target," says Victoria Toensing, a former deputy U.S. attorney general. "He was pretty good."

But there is room for doubt. Like most informers, Salem seems to have had a murky past and tangled motives. Egyptian officials have denied he was ever a member of Sadat's bodyguard, and reporters in New York have strange stories to tell. Among other details, they say, Salem was in the habit of showing reporters a macabre photo album that included pictures of people being tortured. "Salem boasted that he was a military explosives expert," Siddig Ali says. "As for allegations of this 'witches' brew' [a reference to the fuel-and-fertilizer mixture in the bombs] I know nothing of constructing bombs. Who made the witches' brew? Ask Mr. Salem." Others, meanwhile, have pointed out that Salem stands to earn a $500,000 reward for testifying in the case, which hardly suggests high-minded heroism. All this could yet influence a jury that the FBI went a step too far, says Paul Marcus, an expert on the entrapment defense, particularly if the informer seems "sleazy." Salem, now in protective custody, will have his chance to be convincing to the jurors and the case may depend on how well he acts the part.