According to defense attorneys for Sheik Ali Hassan al-Moayad, Mohamed Alanssi - who suffered burns in Monday's protest - is a confidential informant central to the prosecution of al-Moayad.
Al-Moayad, who is awaiting trial in federal court in Brooklyn, is considered by U.S. authorities to be their biggest catch to date in a campaign to cut off funding for terrorists.
Al-Moayad, a leading member of an Islamic-oriented political party in Yemen, was extradited from Germany last year. He and his assistant allegedly conspired to provide material support to Osama bin Laden and the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas.
Alanssi sent suicide notes Monday morning to his FBI handler and a Washington Post reporter, complaining about his treatment by the government and threatening that he would burn himself in an "unexpected place."
He arrived at the White House gate later that day with a letter addressed to President Bush, pulled a lighter from his pocket and set his clothing ablaze. He was hospitalized in serious condition Tuesday afternoon.
Federal prosecutors and the FBI declined to comment on the case. But attorneys for al-Moayad and his codefendant, Mohammed Mohsen Yahya Zayed, said Tuesday they believe the government case was seriously weakened by the incident and Alanssi's suicide notes to the FBI and the Post. The newspaper published Alanssi's letters on its Web site.
Alanssi, a 52-year-old Virginia resident, wrote to FBI agent Robert Fuller in New York complaining that the agent had ignored Alanssi's request to visit his ailing wife and family in Yemen. He threatened not to testify against al-Moayad as a result. He wrote the Post that he was afraid the government might "put me in jail and might torture me inside the jail" if he stopped cooperating.
In what the Post described as a series of recent interviews, Alanssi also said that some FBI agents told him he would "be a millionaire" and receive permanent U.S. residency in exchange for his cooperation, the newspaper reported.
Defense lawyers in the al-Moayad case say Alanssi's allegations reveal the tremendous pressure he was under to produce evidence against al-Moayad and his Yemeni assistant, Zayed.
"This was a manufactured crime and Alanssi had a very strong motive to ensnare these people," said Zayed's attorney, Jonathan Marks. "They promised to make him a millionaire on the one hand if he went along with the program and if he didn't they were going to put him in jail and torture him."
Alanssi approached al-Moayad in a mosque in Sana'a, Yemen, and lured him to Germany last year to meet a man he described as a wealthy American, defense lawyers said.
According to transcripts of recorded conversations, the American is a second FBI informant - posing as a former Black Panther who had converted to Islam and wanted to send money to al Qaeda and Hamas.
The American did not speak Arabic and al-Moayad and Zayed spoke no English, so Alanssi translated their conversations, according to court papers.
"He is the key. He is the man who is the contact between the government and my client," said al-Moayad's attorney, Howard Jacobs. "His credibility is at great issue in the case."
Marks wrote in documents filed in federal court on Monday that Alanssi's translations were "inaccurate, incomplete and frequently embellished." He often introduced baseless statements about terror links that a jury could mistakenly attribute to the defendants, Marks said. The defense papers were filed hours after Alanssi set himself on fire in Washington.
Marks asked U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson to bar the English portions of the recorded conversations from the trial, scheduled to begin in January.
By Michael Weissenstein and Tom Hays