New York Times
25 November 2001
Swept Up in a Dragnet,
Hundreds Sit in Custody and Ask, 'Why?'
Almeida/The New York Times
Diab with her 3-year-old daughter, Lama, in their
apartment in Stanton, Calif. Her husband, Basem, has
been detained since Nov. 7 by immigration officials.
Osama Elfar was dozing on a hard bench under the ever-present drone of the prison television set when a guard's voice crackled over the intercom, "Happy birthday." Otherwise, Nov. 9 would have passed without Mr. Elfar even noticing he had turned 30.
"When you're here, you don't know day from night, Thursday from Friday — it's all the same," Mr. Elfar said in a telephone interview from the Mississippi County Correctional Facility in Charleston, Mo. "A new decade start for me. Unfortunately, I was locked up."
An Egyptian who came to the United States five years ago to attend a Florida flight school, Mr. Elfar recently worked as a mechanic for a small airline in St. Louis. He has been in jail for two months and began a hunger strike on Friday to protest his incarceration.
Mr. Elfar is among hundreds of little- known foreigners swept up in a vast dragnet after the terrorist attacks — some of whom have résumés suspiciously like those of the 19 hijackers, and others who have spent days, weeks and now months in prison for immigration violations that before Sept. 11 would probably have been ignored or resolved with paperwork. Government officials say that the aggressive response is warranted by the extraordinary situation, and that they are simply enforcing longstanding laws.
"Sept. 11 has forced the entire government to change the way we do business," said Mindy Tucker, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department. "Our No. 1 priority right now is to prevent any further terrorist attacks. Part of that entails identifying those who may have connections to terrorism who are here in America and making sure they're not in a position to carry out any further terrorism."
Over all, more than 1,200 people have been detained as part of the sweeping investigation, including men traveling the country with large amounts of cash and box cutters, and those who sought information on crop-dusters and flying lessons on large jets.
But a senior law enforcement official said for the first time last week that just 10 to 15 of the detainees are suspected as Al Qaeda sympathizers, and that the government has yet to find evidence indicating that any of them had knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks or acted as accomplices.
While most members of this small group are being held in New York on material witness warrants, some 500 others — almost twice as many as previously believed — are in federal custody on immigration charges for violations like overstaying their visas or lying on documents.
A handful of those arrested are believed to have known some of of the suspected hijackers. Osama Awadallah, for instance, wrote about one of them in a college exam book, prosecutors say. Another student, Mohdar Abdallah, is in jail because his name was found on a slip of paper in a rental car one of the hijackers parked at Dulles International Airport in Washington before his suicide mission.
Others seem to have drawn suspicion for more coincidental reasons. An Egyptian antiques dealer from Arkansas named Hady Hassan Omar made plane reservations on a Kinko's computer around the same time one of the hijackers did so at the same place; he spent two months in jail before being released on Friday. A Pakistani gas station attendant was just a few minutes ahead of Mohammed Atta, the suspected ringleader, in the line to renew his driver's license; he was denied bail by a Miami judge.
Of those snared in the government's net, many have cooperated with the F.B.I., admitted that they violated their visa agreements and agreed to leave the country. But they remain in jail.
Now, as the Justice Department seeks to interview 5,000 young men who have arrived here from the Middle East on temporary visas in the past two years, immigration attorneys and Arab-American community leaders are worried that cooperation may lead to the same fate as that of those already detained.
"The impact of all this is alienating the very community whose confidence and support is critical to a successful investigation," said Lucas Guttentag, director of the immigration rights project of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The F.B.I. has so far denied a Freedom of Information Act request filed by a coalition of 21 Arab-American and human rights groups demanding a list of who is jailed, where and why. Earlier this month, six members of Congress made a similar request. Ms. Tucker said that the department was prevented from releasing some information because judges have sealed criminal cases, and that some information has been given to Congress.
"People don't want to step forward to help with bail," said Randall Hamud, a San Diego lawyer who represents three detained students, one of whom has been released. "They're afraid if they give money, they'll be put on an F.B.I. hit list."
Mr. Elfar, the man who turned 30 in the detention center, said he was expecting F.B.I. questions because he had entered the country to study at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., as did one of the hijackers. Agents picked him up on Sept. 24 at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, where he had been repairing planes for Trans States Airlines, a small regional carrier, for several years.
Investigators seized Mr. Elfar's address book, phone bills and computer. On Oct. 5, he was given a lie detector test.
A month ago, Mr. Elfar, who is from Alexandria, Egypt, was granted a "voluntary departure," which means he must leave the country but would not be blocked from returning. He was supposed to fly out by Friday; instead, he is still in jail.
"He's willing to buy a ticket, but they're not finalizing this," said Dorothy Harper, Mr. Elfar's lawyer. "Whether they're investigating more, whether they just want to keep him around for a while, I don't know."
Already fasting during daylight hours because of Ramadan, Mr. Elfar said Friday that he was starting a hunger strike and would only drink a glass of water each sunset to fulfill his religious obligation of breaking the fast.
"A lot of things that were on my mind I do not believe it anymore, like the fair trial, the free speech," he said.
Though the government has provided scant information, the story of the detainees has begun to emerge through interviews with their lawyers, relatives and friends. Here are a few of their stories.
* Ali al-Maqtari
In the two months he spent in a detention center in Mason, Tenn., Ali al-Maqtari had a lot of time to think about why he had lost his liberty. But even now, two weeks after he was released with a simple, "You're free to go," he is unable to explain it.
"They said this is a free country, right?" he said. "But for two months I was locked up, I suffered there and my wife had to leave the Army, and for something I didn't do. I really don't understand it, and no one will explain it to me."
Immigration officials will not discuss the matter. But court papers show that Mr. Maqtari was detained because authorities found two box cutters in his car, along with postcards of New York City, as he drove to Fort Campbell, Ky., where his wife was reporting for Army duty on Sept. 15.
Although an immigration judge asked the government to present more solid evidence for holding Mr. Maqtari, the government declined to do so, saying only that he might be part of a larger terrorist "mosaic." "What may seem trivial to some may appear of great moment to those within the F.B.I. or the intelligence community," wrote Michael E. Rolince, the F.B.I.'s international terrorism section chief, in an Oct. 11 affidavit justifying Mr. Maqtari's detention. He added that the bureau was unable to rule out the possibility he was linked to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mr. Maqtari, 26, was born in Yemen, studied in France and came to the United States on a tourist visa last year with hopes of becoming a French teacher. He met Tiffinay Hughes, a native of North Carolina and a convert to Islam, through an online chat room, and they were married in June. He had planned to study at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, but his wife, a member of the National Guard, wanted to enlist, so he drove her to Fort Campbell.
At the gate, the two were ordered out of their car and questioned while the car was searched, Mr. Maqtari said. His lawyer, Michael J. Boyle of New Haven, said her picture had already been posted at the guardhouse because she had picked up her military orders in Massachusetts on Sept. 13 wearing an Islamic head covering. While he was taken to Memphis for questioning, she was trailed by guards around the base for weeks, while other soldiers openly asked her if she was a spy. She said base officers encouraged her to take an honorable discharge, and she finally did so on Oct. 28.
Meanwhile, Mr. Maqtari was held at the West Tennessee Detention Center for weeks, able to speak by phone to his wife once a week. On Oct. 1, an immigration judge agreed to release him on $50,000 bond, but the immigration service appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals, saying he was a danger to the community. The board said the service could continue to hold Mr. Maqtari, but asked for additional proof. A month later, when the service had provided no more proof than the Rolince affidavit, the board said Mr. Maqtari could go.
The couple has moved back to New Haven, where both plan to study education and look for work.
"I just want to get my life back," he said. "I just hope people will trust me now."
* Ahmed Abou el-Kheir
Ahmed Abou el-Kheir was among the first wave of people arrested following the Sept. 11 attacks. He arrived in the United States on a tourist visa on Sept. 7. He was arrested and has been in jail ever since on a variety of charges.
Details are scant as to why Mr. Kheir, 28, came under suspicion. All documents pertaining to his status as a material witness are under seal. Law-enforcement authorities declined comment on the case.
In a recent telephone interview from the Passaic County jail in New Jersey, where he is being held, Mr. Kheir, an Egyptian citizen, said he believed there was suspicion he had "a relationship with one of the hijackers." He said he was shown an array of photographs, apparently of suspected hijackers, and was asked whether he knew any of them.
"I'm sure that I didn't know any of them," he said. One person familiar with the investigation said a polygraph test of Mr. Kheir raised some questions about the veracity of his answers.
Mr. Kheir contended he was arrested because "I was Egyptian and Arabic and Muslim — this is the reason they hold me."
Mr. Kheir was picked up in the days after the attacks and initially charged with trespassing in the suburban Maryland hotel where he was staying, said his lawyer, Martin R. Stolar. At some point in late September, while still in custody, Mr. Kheir was charged as a material witness.
On Oct. 11, however, investigators dismissed the material witness order. But before he could be released, Mr. Kheir was served with an arrest warrant charging that he had failed to pay a $250 fine for a 1998 disorderly conduct charge in the Bronx, Mr. Stolar said.
On Oct. 12, Mr. Kheir appeared before a judge in the Bronx, Mr. Stolar said. The warrant was vacated, and he was given a conditional discharge.
Mr. Stolar then learned that there was another request to detain his client, this time from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Documents charged that Mr. Kheir, who had visited the United States on two previous occasions, had held jobs while on a tourist visa.
Because of these violations, Mr. Kheir was eventually ordered to leave the country, Mr. Stolar said. So far, Mr. Kheir has not been able to go anywhere. The immigration service will not deport him without his passport, which the F.B.I. still has. Mr. Stolar said he has been calling the two agencies, trying "to get the two of them together, so the I.N.S. can pick up the man's passport and get the guy on the airplane."
* Mohammed Refai
Mohammed Refai became a detainee on Sept. 18, after federal investigators in Arkansas found documents that appeared to connect one of the terrorist hijackers, Saeed Alghamdi, with an apartment complex in Akron, Ohio.
Mr. Refai, a Syrian immigrant, was one of a handful of Middle Eastern residents who lived in the complex. Initially, investigators believed Mr. Refai, 40, knew something about the terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. At the Gas O Clean gas station he ran in Akron, investigators discovered he was selling cigarette lighters with knives in them. A polygraph test he took indicated deception. In interviews with his girlfriend, investigators learned that Mr. Refai had considered naming their child Osama. And at his home, they found video footage of bridges and power plants in Chicago, Washington and Niagara Falls, N.Y.
But Bradley Ortman, Mr. Refai's lawyer, said that investigators have cleared Mr. Refai of having connections to terrorists. According to newspaper accounts, investigators apparently have decided that the documents from Arkansas involved a case of mistaken identity, the cigarette lighters were just trinkets and Osama bin Laden was not the Osama proposed as his child's namesake. Mr. Refai has told investigators the videos were vacation shots.
Mr. Refai is still being held, however, accused of obtaining a green card by entering into a sham marriage with an American citizen in April 1998. The couple divorced 18 months after marrying.
Mr. Refai's ex-wife, Susan Hinzman, was recently charged with making false statements about their relationship.
Mr. Ortman said Mr. Refai was awaiting a deportation hearing.
* Basem Diab
Nearly nine months pregnant, Basima Diab sits by the phone most days, waiting for her husband, Basem, to call from the detention center where he has spent the last two weeks.
She worries about whether he has enough blankets. "It gets very cold in there," she said.
With their 3-year-old daughter in tow, the Diabs, both 34, came from Syria on tourist visas nearly a year ago, hoping for a taste of the relaxed social norms that draw so many from the Middle East to the suburbs outside of Disneyland.
A few months later, Mrs. Diab began what has been a difficult pregnancy, with frequent trips to the emergency room to treat her diabetes. The health care has been so good that the couple decided to stay in the United States until the baby was born, if not longer.
To cover the doctor visits and rent on their apartment in Stanton, Calif., Mr. Diab started loading trucks at Sasha Cosmetics, a company in Huntington Beach, Calif. "He's an educated guy, an engineer," Niazi Azhak, the owner, said. "But he couldn't find work anywhere else."
Nor was he supposed to. Under the terms of his visa, working is a deportable offense. Yet Mr. Diab stacked boxes at the plant for several weeks, earning roughly $1,500 a month, about 10 times what he might have made in Syria, his wife said. Then, 15 minutes after he showed up for his shift on Nov. 7, Mr. Diab was taken away by federal agents.
At a minimum, immigration officials said, Mr. Diab overstayed his visa, and would likely get a hearing before an immigration judge in the next few weeks. In the meantime, his former employers have said they would buy the family plane tickets back to Syria, while others in the Middle Eastern community in Orange County would try to find money for bail, if the judge granted it, and food for Mrs. Diab.
* Nacer Fathi Mustafa
Nacer Fathi Mustafa and his father, Fathi Mustafa, went to Mexico on Sept. 9, on what was supposed to be a four-day business trip to buy leather jackets to sell at their store in Labelle, Fla.
Because of the attacks, they could not fly back until Sept. 15, and when they got to the airport in Houston, Mr. Mustafa, 29, and his 65-year-old father were detained by immigration officials who said their passports had an extra layer of laminate of the sort sometimes used to fraudulently insert a different picture.
The elder Mr. Mustafa, a Palestinian who is a naturalized American citizen, was released after 10 days, but sent home to Florida wearing a leg monitor to track his movements. His son, who was born in the United States and had a prior arrest record, was kept in jail for more than two months, and finally got home to his wife and two young daughters on Wednesday, after law-enforcement officials cleared his passport.
"It's been very hard," Mr. Mustafa said. "My 18-year-old brother was working in the store, but he doesn't know very much, and I've lost about $50,000. I don't know yet if we'll be able to go on. This is a small town and your reputation means everything."
His detention was difficult for his family. His wife, Sabreen, does not have a driver's license, so she had to be driven everywhere she needed to go by members of the extended family. And Diana, who is 5, and Jeneen, who is 8 months old, were bewildered by their father's absence.
"I'd call every day, and talk to Diana, and she would ask when I'd be home, and I would tell her in a week," Mr. Mustafa said. "I told her I was working. I didn't want to say I was in jail."
Even so, he said, Diana must have heard people talking, because when he returned she asked about jail. "So I asked her, 'What's jail?' and she didn't really know," he said. "I'll tell her about it when she's older."
Mr. Mustafa's father still has the leg monitor attached, but expects that it to be removed this week.
"It has been embarrassing for him," said his son. "He basically doesn't go out much, but if he goes to the bank, he sees people looking at him. It's changed his life a lot."