A Smaller Stick

Terrorism Investigators Risk Scaring Off Their Best Helpers

The devastating grief of thousands last week drove home the point: any terrorists hiding in America must be caught. In recent days, federal agents have scrambled to meet that mandate, arresting five Yemeni American men in Buffalo, New York, and one alleged associate abroad on charges of providing material support to terrorist groups. That support reportedly consisted of ability to use weaponry, following training at an Afghanistan Al Qaeda camp in the spring and summer of 2001.

Intriguingly, officials said that tips from inside the upstate New York Muslim community had triggered the lengthy investigation. The Yemeni enclave is by all accounts extremely tight-knit, yet Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson said, "We have had great cooperation from the Muslim American community." His remarks were a reminder of a delicate and important relationship, one that U.S. terrorism probers at home have continually endangered with their blunt hostility ("Haul 'em in" and "hunt 'em down," Bush has said).

If terrorists remaining in the U.S. fit the profile authorities have posited—Middle Eastern Muslim men who pose as workaday Joes—then uncovering them requires real finesse. The immigrant neighborhoods where the evildoers supposedly lurk are typically insular, if for the innocuous reasons of shared language, job and housing networks, and simple camaraderie. Outsiders cannot tell who is unusual as easily as insiders can. Blanket aggression, in the form of INS sweeps and prolonged detentions, may therefore hinder more than it helps. Apart from the moral concerns that rights groups have raised, there is a purely practical question: Why is the government targeting entire classes of people, repelling the kind of contacts it needs most?

Ahmed, for one, never wants to see a federal investigator again. An Egypt-born U.S. citizen, he refuses publication of his real name lest an agent come knocking. In October 2001, he said in an interview last week, the FBI visited the midtown Manhattan apartment building where he lives, looking for his old friend and neighbor, Said Hammouda. "They were with Said five, six hours," he said, then they left only to return about 10 days later. "They took Said away."

A long while later, the letters started coming.

"I am now in solitary confinement for the past three months and a half," Hammouda wrote on January 30 from a federal prison in Brooklyn. "By Allah, if it wasn't for the Qu'ran and the Salat I may lose my mind or have a nervous breakdown. This is the picture of the situation that I am in . . . extreme pressure . . . and killer stillness. By Allah dear Ahmed, if suicide was not forbidden religiously, I would have done it a long time ago."

The guards had painted over the window of his isolation cell, he wrote. Dozens of letters from his wife had been confiscated. He was punished for praying. "I cannot find an explanation for anything that is happening to me," he wrote. "Why am I imprisoned? Why in solitary confinement? Why in maximum security? No answers. Well, what is my charge? When am I going to be released? When am I going to be in a regular jail? When will I leave? No one knows. They know that I am innocent, because they researched everything since the day I was born until now."

In fact, the government never charged Hammouda with a crime. He was deported to Egypt on an immigration violation—the INS said his foreign divorce, under Islamic law, did not count in the States and disqualified the American marriage on his green card application. But the FBI included him among hundreds of others it incarcerated for supposed links to terrorism.

Says Ahmed, "I've been here 20 years and nothing ever happened to me, not even a traffic ticket. Now I worry about what happened yesterday, what will happen tomorrow. Any noise outside my door, I get nervous, because I see somebody taken away for nine months. The same can happen to me, even though I'm a U.S. citizen. That's what I'm thinking, and I get scared."

Like hundreds of others, Hammouda's story didn't make it into the news. But some former detainees have quite openly claimed mistreatment by the U.S. government. Jordanian Osama Awadallah, cleared of lying to investigators about knowing one of the September 11 hijackers, sued U.S. officials last week for unlawful arrest, discriminatory detention, and malicious prosecution. The Center for Constitutional Rights has filed a class-action suit on behalf of others who are alleging abuse and unjustified detention. One of the complainants, Shakir Baloch, told the Voice and other news outlets following his deportation to Canada of his despair during five months in solitary confinement. Anser Mehmood, now in Pakistan, and Indonesian Agus Budiman are among several others who have also told international media about abuse and unfairness while in U.S. custody.

But the stories don't have to make headlines to have impact in certain communities. Over 1000 immigrants, according to the Justice Department—anecdotal evidence suggests a great many more—have been jailed on terrorism suspicions, but in most cases deported without a criminal charge. Often wives, children, and businesses are left behind, cautionary tales for neighbors and friends. Respected community leaders have also been hit. A university professor and a Muslim charity organizer are among prominent detainees. On September 10, the imam of a Portland, Oregon, mosque was ordered held without bail on accusations that he possessed false identity documents. "If it can happen to him, nobody is safe," one supporter told the Associated Press.

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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