'I was a spy'

Kosovo citizen now fears he will be deported after allegedly working for US govt agencies

One evening in February, a man entering the subway at Barclays Centre in Brooklyn was detained by the police for using a discounted student MetroCard - his daughter's, it turned out. It was, he would say later, a stupid mistake that would have absurd consequences: The man, Blerim Skoro, a citizen of Kosovo, is now in jail in the United States, facing potential deportation.

But he was no mere hapless fare-beater. "I was working for the US government," he told an asylum officer in May, explaining his past life overseas and why he was afraid of being sent back to Kosovo, a transcript shows. "I was trained for Washington. I was a spy."

A native of the old Yugoslavia, Skoro, 45, appears to have lived a remarkable, if hidden, life that sprang from his arrest in 2000 on federal drug charges. He began cooperating with prosecutors in his case and others, pleaded guilty and received a seven-year sentence.

After Sept 11, 2001, he said in an affidavit, he became a prison informer for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), providing leads on fellow inmates with terrorist ties. After completing his sentence, he said, he was deported in 2007, but agreed to continue working for the government overseas.

He said he posed as a willing operative and insinuated himself with members of Al-Qaeda in the Balkans, secretly supplying the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with information about plots and the people behind them.


ST ILLUSTRATION: CHNG CHOON HIONG

After the CIA cut ties with him in 2010, he said, he eventually returned to the US via Canada - illegally, he admitted. Last year, with the help of a lawyer, he met separately with the FBI and counterterrorism officials from the New York Police Department, trying unsuccessfully to offer clandestine assistance in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Spy stories, by their nature, are often unverifiable, and government officials typically are loath to discuss such accounts. Indeed, a bureau spokesman said he could not "confirm or deny" any part of the story. The CIA, the police and the US attorney's office in Brooklyn also declined to comment.

Skoro, during several hours of interviews at the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey and by phone, showed a deep command of people, places and other facts.

His wife and three children, all US citizens, live in New York City. He said he still had much to offer the authorities. "I dealt with the most ruthless, dangerous terrorists in the Balkans and Middle East," he said.

A practising Muslim, he said others of his faith should be willing to covertly assist in the fight against ISIS. He suggested that his detention would send the opposite message. Muslims, he said, would ask: "How we can trust our government when you're going to put the spies in the prison?"

Skoro first entered the US in 1994. In the 2000 drug importation case that led to his cooperation with the government, he transported at least 14kg of heroin and cocaine and laundered about US$670,000 (S$900,000) in drug proceeds, the judge said at his sentencing.

Prosecutors recommended leniency, citing his assistance and noting that he had provided significant intelligence about drug traffickers in the city's Albanian community.

Skoro said the FBI promised he would be allowed to stay in the country after serving his sentence and acting as a prison informer. But after being told in 2007 that he would be deported, he left his bitterness behind, he said, and agreed to work for the agency abroad.

He received training at a safe house in Macedonia, and took on assignments in Pakistan, the Balkans, Syria and elsewhere, he said, posing as a jihadi who had become radicalised in prison.

In Egypt, he said in his affidavit, he befriended Betim Kaziu, a man who later told him of plans to attack US troops stationed in Kosovo, and even recorded a martyrdom video. Skoro said he passed the information to the CIA, and Kaziu was later arrested, tried and convicted in Brooklyn and sentenced to 27 years.

In 2010, Skoro said, he was shot and wounded on the way to a CIA debriefing in Macedonia. He managed to escape, but the agency ended the relationship, paying him the equivalent of about US$35,000 to US$40,000 in euros, he said.

The next year, while seeking asylum in Canada, he was interviewed by journalist Vincent Larouche for the online publication Rue Frontenac. The article, titled "The fugitive with 1,000 secrets", referred to him by the pseudonym Abu. It characterised his story as "convincing", but noted that much of his account could not be confirmed.

Aspects of his story also emerged in a court decision last year in Canada, related to an asylum request he had made that had used his actual name and cited his claim to have been a CIA spy who had infiltrated Islamist terror cells.

Mr Stephane Handfield, a Montreal lawyer who represented Skoro in Canada, said his asylum request was rejected in 2013, and a request to a federal court for review was dismissed last year. But Skoro had already slipped into the US illegally in November 2014.

In New York, he said, he made contact with several lawyers who said recently that they found his story to be credible. Mr Rene Kathawala, who leads the pro bono practice at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, said his firm would do everything possible to assist Skoro and his immigration lawyer, Mr Irwin Berowitz, in the deportation case.

Mr Berowitz said that an asylum officer who recently interviewed Skoro found him credible and that he had established a "reasonable fear of persecution" if deported to Kosovo. That finding allowed the case to be sent to an immigration judge for further proceedings, Mr Berowitz said.

Skoro was also referred to Mr Joshua Dratel, a lawyer who has developed a national security practice. Skoro approached him in April last year, intent on providing "proactive undercover assistance to law enforcement" with respect to ISIS, Mr Dratel said in a declaration that is also part of the immigration case.

Skoro initially told Mr Dratel that he would receive a call from a US official, who would refer to Skoro by a codename, according to the declaration. Mr Dratel said he received such a call. The caller asked whether Skoro was overseas, in which case he could "use him". But if Skoro was in the US, he was "off limits", the caller said. When Mr Dratel said Skoro was in the US, the caller gave Mr Dratel the name and number of a senior FBI counterterrorism official in Washington.

In June last year, Mr Dratel said, Skoro eventually met two FBI agents at his office. One agent, Mr Dratel recalled, said the CIA had confirmed to the bureau that Skoro had a previous relationship with the agency.

In November, Mr Dratel arranged for Skoro to meet New York police officials, including Mr John Miller, the deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism. But the bureau and the police ultimately declined to use Skoro.

Mr Jack Cloonan, a retired FBI counterterrorism agent, said he had never heard of Skoro and had no idea if his claims were authentic. But Mr Cloonan said the case underscored how important it was for the government to have someone who was Muslim and operational who could carry out acts that the intelligence agencies need.

After Skoro's illegal re-entry arrest in March, he was jailed without bond when federal prosecutors in Brooklyn argued that he might flee.

But on March 23, one day after the ISIS attacks in Brussels, a prosecutor called Mr Dratel and said the government was now interested in meeting Skoro to determine if he could be of assistance.

Mr Dratel said he met prosecutors alone, outlining what his client knew and providing copies of screenshots of certain text messages between Skoro and a purported ISIS operative in Syria.

Two days later, the government, without elaboration, moved to dismiss Skoro's illegal re-entry charge. The prosecutors did not pursue a meeting with him directly, Mr Dratel said.

Mr Skoro was then moved into immigration custody, where he remains today.

NEW YORK TIMES

•Aurelien Breeden and Samantha Schmidt contributed reporting, and Alain Delaqueriere contributed research.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 17, 2016, with the headline ''I was a spy''. Print Edition | Subscribe