According to court testimony, the FBI has paid Mahmoud Omar $1,500 a week since August 2006. Later, he also began receiving the free use of a $1,400-a-month apartment. Omar was facing possible deportation when the FBI recruited him in 2006.
The trial of five men accused of plotting to attack the Fort Dix Army base in New Jersey may hinge on the testimony of a government informant: Mahmoud Omar, an Egyptian national with a checkered past. But defense attorneys say there was no conspiracy, except for the one Omar tried to create.
Over the 14 months he worked with the FBI, Omar secretly recorded hundreds of hours of conversations with the defendants in the case.
In one recording, dated Aug. 1, 2006, he talked with Mohamad Shnewer, one of the so-called Fort Dix Five, for two hours. Their conversation ranged from car repair to the injustices faced by Muslims around the world. Both men expressed admiration for Osama bin Laden.
Finally, Shnewer says in Arabic, "If you want to do anything, there is Fort Dix. Here, Mahmoud, I am not exaggerating how easily you can strike an American base."
Ten days later, Shnewer and Omar drove to Fort Dix. This time, the FBI was watching and listening as Shnewer and Omar talked about using rocket-propelled grenades in a possible attack.
No attack ever took place. But the recordings are now at the heart of the government's case against Shnewer and four other men charged with planning an attack on the base.
All of the men are foreign-born Muslims in their 20s who lived in southern New Jersey, near Philadelphia. They were arrested in May of last year. Prosecutors say the defendants had planned to pose as pizza deliverymen to enter the base and kill soldiers. But according to defense attorneys, there was no conspiracy — which is why Omar had to invent one, they say.
"It's critical to look at who made these recordings," said Rocco Cipparone, the attorney representing Shnewer. Cipparone doesn't deny that his client talked about a possible attack on Fort Dix. But he says that even Omar referred to himself in the recordings as the "brains" of the operation.
"Omar was more than a bump on a log or a fly on the wall in a room," Cipparone said. "He was directing and shaping these conversations — and manipulating them, is our contention — in a way that made things look differently than they are. And he's the kind of person who had the knowledge and past history to try to do that."
Before working for the U.S. government, Omar pleaded guilty to bank fraud. He was facing possible deportation when the FBI recruited him in 2006. Since then, Omar has been paid more than $200,000 for his cooperation. The jury has heard a lot about Omar's criminal past, right down to the fact that he smoked marijuana a few days before the trial.
Prosecutors declined to be interviewed for this story. But they have defended Omar's credibility in court, saying the FBI needed an informant whom the defendants would trust. Temple University law professor Edward Ohlbaum says it's an argument that's familiar from mob prosecutions.
"There was a prosecutor in Philadelphia many years ago who used to say, 'If the defendants had conspired with the bishop of Boston, I would've brought you the bishop of Boston. But this is the kind of individual with whom the defendants are conspiring. And therefore, we brought him,'" Ohlbaum said.
Even prosecutors may be relieved when Omar is off the witness stand. Earlier this week, he said two of the defendants had not been aware of the plot to attack Fort Dix, as the government now alleges. Omar's testimony is expected to conclude next week.