During the five years since the 9/11 attacks, government officials have reminded us how infiltrating terrorist cells to thwart terrorist plots is easier said than done.
Osama Eldawoody is someone who did exactly that by spying on his fellow Muslims.
"I'm American," Eldawoody told CBS News Chief Investigative Correspondent Armen Keteyian. "I like to do my part for my country."
As a paid confidential informant for the New York Police Department, Eldawoody helped the government derail a post-9/11 plot that would have been one of the city's worst nightmares — an attack on its subway system.
That nightmare almost came true two years ago — until the NYPD, backed by hours of incriminating conversations taped by Eldawoody, busted two men in August 2004 for plotting to bomb the busy Herald Square station underneath Macy's, the world's biggest department store.
In an exclusive interview with CBS News and subsequent walk past the targeted subway site, Eldawoody detailed how he became a paid "CI" (confidential informant), and how he obtained crucial evidence against the plotters who would later be convicted. He also talked openly about the personal and financial cost of his cooperation.
"I got damaged, big-time," he says. "I'm in a bad situation."
Eldawoody says his experience as an informant has become a financial hardship. Government payments — totaling $100,000 over three years, according to court records — covered little more than his expenses and could stop at any time. He was forced to turn down a lucrative translator job in Iraq that would have allowed him to support himself, his wife, and daughter because he had to remain in this country for the trial.
What also upsets Eldawoody is his belief the government failed to live up to another critical condition — to keep his real name a secret. "After I risk my life for America, my country and for people of my country, and now I'm asking God for help," Eldawoody says.
Eldawoody, 50, a naturalized American citizen from Egypt, says 9/11 the attacks motivated him, and that a routine post-9/11 police visit to his Staten Island home in 2002 opened a dialogue with an NYPD detective, who recruited him to the counter-terrorism cause.
"When I signed up for this, I didn't know what I was going to do," says Eldawoody, who went undercover in 2003.
At first, Eldawoody played a bit part — he was assigned to visit mosques in Staten Island and Brooklyn, to take down license plates in the parking lot, and to keep his eyes and ears open for talk of jihad or holy war. "They said, 'OK, go to pray and see if things are going on.' I asked, 'like what?' They said, 'like radical — if you hear radical conversations, just to keep your eyes and ears open," Eldawoody says.
He once reported that a visiting imam had told congregants a Muslim should "arm yourself with weapons to defend Islam." But otherwise, Eldawoody's more than 500 visits to mosques were uneventful.
However, in early 2004, following a lead developed by a Bangladesh-born undercover police officer, the NYPD told Eldawoody to befriend a young Pakistani named Matin Siraj, who worked in an Islamic bookstore next to a mosque in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn.
When Siraj learned that Eldawoody had a degree in nuclear engineering, he asked him if he knew how to make a nuclear bomb. As time went on, Siraj and a friend of his, James Elshafay, began discussing schemes to detonate a car bomb on city bridges, including the Verrazano, which spans the entrance to New York Harbor.
"He's a terrorist. He wants to harm the country and the people of the country. That's what I thought immediately," says Eldawoody, who in the spring of 2004 began secretly taping dozens of conversations with Siraj and Elshafay.
"Our people's time is coming," Siraj said, according to Eldwaoody's later trial testimony, referring to attacks on Americans. "So let's do it."
According to Eldawoody, Siraj was motivated by U.S. policies in the Middle East — siding with Israel over the Palestinians, invading Iraq, harshly treating prisoners in Abu Ghraib. "He was saying that if we do not attack the Americans, they will keep on harming Muslims," Eldawoody testified. "I will teach them nice lesson."
As Eldawoody told CBS News: "They were hoping to take revenge against America. That's what they were hoping — to destroy the country, the economy."