Chughtai, who in the 1990s had set up a MRI machine next door to Mahmood and knew that Mahmood and Ahmad were friendly, said he had heard rumors that Ahmad had once accompanied a nuclear scientist to see bin Laden but had forgotten the scientist’s name. And that was what the counterterrorism agent was most interested in.
“[He] called me and said, ‘Dr. Chughtai, I have done more research about Zaheer than anybody else. I could do a thesis,’” Chughtai recalled. “He wanted me to send everything possible on Shifa. I faxed and faxed. One day he called and asked about Zaheer going with a nuclear scientist to see Osama. I said, ‘I heard the story, don’t remember the guy.’ He asked if I would recognize the name. I said, ‘Maybe.’ He said, ‘Bashiruddin.’ And that was the name I remembered.”
Chughtai said the FBI agent also asked about people working in the Pakistani embassy in Washington, but he didn’t recognize any names.
An FBI official confirmed that the agent had met with Chughtai but refused to discuss the investigation. The official also verified to ProPublica that the agent who talked to Chughtai worked on the same team as Sarah Webb Linden, the FBI agent who signed the affidavit against Fai and Ahmad. The FBI requested that ProPublica not name the agent, to avoid compromising the investigation.
The FBI first questioned Fai in 2007 but seemed to step up its scrutiny in 2010.
That March, the Justice Department sent Fai a letter, telling him that the Indian press had reported that he was a Pakistani agent, and if so, he needed to register with the department as a foreign agent. Fai responded after several weeks, denying he was an agent of Pakistan.
Three months later, New York police pulled Fai over and found $35,000 in cash in his car. Fai claimed the money was from a man identified by the FBI as “Straw Donor B.” After getting advice from Ahmad, the donor allegedly told the FBI that the money was from Sabir, the Brooklyn imam. But the cleric wasn’t even in the U.S. when Fai was pulled over, the FBI said. In his interview with ProPublica, Sabir identified Straw Donor B as a man in his 30s named “Akif” and called him “a stupid boy.” Sabir denied giving Akif money for Fai. ProPublica could not find Akif.
Despite the growing pressure, Fai kept traveling the world and kept asking the ISI for more money, the FBI said. Fai’s lawyers have pointed out that Fai repeatedly chose to return to the U.S., despite knowing he was being watched.
To some, Fai’s behavior indicated that he believed that he was protected.
“The ISI probably told him: ‘Don’t worry, you’re taken care of, you’re part of the tacit agreement we have with the CIA,’” said Vijay Sazawal, who is from the Indian side of Kashmir and started a rival Kashmiri group in the U.S. “He’s not stupid. I have to believe he was confident he was shielded.”
In February, Fai traveled to Pakistan, right about the time that U.S. and Pakistan relations were starting to fall apart. CIA operative Raymond Davis had been arrested for allegedly shooting two men in Lahore. The arrest and fallout heightened tensions between the countries.
When Fai returned home, his luggage was searched. Customs agents found what appeared to be excerpts of a court filing on Davis from the Lahore High Court. Within days, Linden, the FBI agent, visited Fai at home. She asked whether he knew anyone in the Pakistan government. Yes, he admitted. But he then suggested that none of them knew him, the FBI affidavit said.
Fai also allegedly showed Linden the court filing, which had a photocopy of a photograph of Fai on the back.
Linden testified that she emailed Fai on July 13, asking to meet again “to talk about the situation in Kashmir.” Fai agreed.
She showed up at Fai’s house after he returned from a trip to the United Kingdom, on the morning of July 18. Fai again denied working with the ISI.
That night, Fai went out to dinner with family and friends. After coming home, Fai or a family member called the police to report a suspicious car parked near Fai’s driveway. FBI agents were in the car.
The next morning, Fai was arrested as he drove his wife toward the subway.
Before charges against Fai and Ahmad were were publicly announced, agents fanned out across the U.S., questioning about 18 men linked to Ahmad, said Shafqat Chaudhary, who serves on the boards of Ahmad’s hospital and his U.S. charity, the Society for International Help. Chaudhary, a Long Island businessman, said the FBI questioned him but declined to say what it asked him. He said he wasn’t involved in transferring money for Ahmad and had done nothing wrong. Chaudhary said none of the men questioned by the FBI had been arrested, as far as he knew.
Sabir said law-enforcement agents — he wasn’t certain which agency they were from — also questioned him, showing him photographs of Chaudhary, Akif and Ahmad, along with several photographs of men he didn’t know. He said he had not moved money to Fai.