A Smaller Stick

Terrorism Investigators Risk Scaring Off Their Best Helpers

Advocates in areas with large South Asian and Arab populations, for instance in Brooklyn and Detroit, say the government's brash aggression has shattered faith in authorities. When Attorney General John Ashcroft earlier this year invited immigrants to volunteer for FBI interviews or provide information in exchange for naturalization help, there were many skeptics. Today, immigrant leaders say, there are even fewer takers. In fact, various advocates and lawyers have told the Voice in past months of immigrants who approached the FBI with information, only to be detained themselves.

The Buffalo arrests may signal an important shift in investigative style, but critics and legal scholars have said that the over-broad pursuit of Middle Easterners and Muslims did considerable damage to the government's credibility. In one high-profile case, agents arrested Mohammed Azmath and Syed Gul Mohammad Shah on an Amtrak train in Texas last September 12. The men were carrying box cutters, hair dye, and thousands of dollars in cash, but their lawyers have said they were stopped based on nothing stronger than their ethnic appearance. They were accused of having terrorist ties and kept in solitary for as long as nine months, but investigators found legitimate explanations for everything strange (the men used the box cutters in their work at a newsstand, for instance). Eventually Azmath and Shah pled guilty to credit card fraud, for which they are serving time. Egyptian Abdallah Higazy was jailed last year for possessing an aviation radio near the World Trade Center last September 11. After he'd spent a month in solitary and given a false confession, it turned out investigators had acted on a cruel hoax. Other prominent cases later fizzled into nothing, and some legal observers say the recent terrorism-related indictments of several men in Detroit—seemingly based solely on the statements of a single informant facing his own criminal charges—may be shaky as well.

Indeed, national media have reported with special care on the Buffalo suspects, pointing out that, as of last week, no attack plans or communications with Al Qaeda had been found and that many in the community viewed the accused as regular townies who happen to be devout Muslims.

But beyond prompting doubts about the government, the pursuit and arrest of entire classes of immigrants may come to haunt Americans in more concrete ways. If officials have indeed disrupted a "terrorist cell" in upstate New York, it is thanks to Muslim community members who came forward despite every indication that they were risking their own liberty. Others might not take that gamble.

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