The dragnet comes up empty

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, law enforcement agents detained more than 1,000 people, mostly Middle Eastern-born men. Some were held for weeks without an attorney. Some were virtually convicted in the press. But none have been implicated in terrorism.

By Eric Boehlert
Published June 19, 2002 9:20PM (EDT)

Sitting inside a federal courtroom in Memphis on the morning of Feb. 11, Brooklyn plumber Sakher Hammad knew his life was taking a dramatic turn for the worse.

Along with four friends, Hammad was scheduled to appear before a magistrate judge to hear misdemeanor charges that they'd tried to illegally obtain Tennessee driver's licenses. But that morning, the prosecutor unexpectedly cited "connections" to Sept. 11 and the World Trade Center, and raised the possibility that the Middle Eastern men, including Hammad's cousin Abdelmuhsen Mahmid Hammad, might be involved in terrorism against the United States. In fact, the prosecutor announced, a local Department of Motor Vehicles employee accused of selling the fake licenses had been expected to testify, but she had been killed just hours earlier in a suspicious, fiery car crash.

With that, an audible gasp went up in the courtroom.

The judge, pronouncing the events "upsetting and disturbing," denied bail and ordered Hammad moved to a maximum-security prison where he was locked down in solitary confinement in a 5-by-7-foot cell, given no contact with the outside world and forced to wait 24 days to see his attorney.

The news media swarmed to the case. Fox News, the Associated Press, the Miami Herald, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and CBS Evening News all raised questions about the dramatic developments in Tennessee, including terrorist activities, late-night homicides and even al-Qaida connections.

There was just one problem: Hammad, a 24-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen, and his friends aren't terrorists, and the evidence suggests the DMV worker committed suicide. For Hammad, who lost friends in the attack on the World Trade Center, the doomed road trip to Tennessee and his surreal, publicized run-in with the law have been devastating.

"My life is destroyed," he says. "I lost my business. I lost a lot of my friends. I lost my fiancie. My apartment. You can't really tell the story until you live it."

In the nine months since last year's terrorist attack on New York and Washington, government officials estimate that 1,100 people, mostly Middle Eastern-born men, have been arrested or detained. Independent observers, though, such as David Cole, professor of constitutional law at the Georgetown Law Center, suggest the number stands closer to 1,500 or 2,000.

The dragnet was intended to disrupt any other potential terrorist cells operating inside America. "The Department of Justice is waging a deliberate campaign of arrest and detention to protect American lives," Attorney General John Ashcroft announced last November. "We're removing suspected terrorists who violate the law from our streets to prevent further terrorist attack."

Yet only a single man, Zacarias Moussaoui, has been charged with being a Sept. 11 conspirator, and he was detained for immigration violations even before the dragnet began. In the meantime, hundreds have been deported for routine visa violations. The U.S. Justice Department, under court order, reported last week that 147 detainees remain in custody -- 74 on immigration-related charges and 73 on separate criminal charges.

"They essentially arrested people first and then investigated," complains Cole. "Virtually all of them were cleared of terrorist charges, which illustrates how little accurate intelligence the FBI had if it was willing to arrest a large number of people who were innocent of any links with terrorism."

A Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, yesterday stressed that the detentions were lawfully conducted and fell within law enforcement's mandate. "The information we have gained from our activities, whether it be the interviews we conducted or the people we detained, has been valuable to our investigation of 9/11 and to our preventive efforts," the official said.

The sweep has been shrouded in secrecy throughout. Cole charged that investigators used ethnic profiling to target young, Muslim and Middle Eastern men. Immigration hearings were immediately closed off even to family members -- a move that a federal appeals court this week ruled was unconstitutional -- while Ashcroft refused to release the names of those detained. The attorney general announced late last year that suspected members of al-Qaida were among those being detained. And he effectively squelched political criticism of the dragnet when he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee last December and said "fear mongers" whipping up concern about civil rights were aiding terrorists.

However, among the 128 criminal charges that have been filed against the 1,000-plus detainees, none, according to a Justice Department official, have been for terrorist activity.

As the one-year anniversary of 9/11 approaches, detainees are still trickling out of jail, being deported or pleading guilty to relatively minor offenses, but they are doing so without the news coverage that accompanied their arrests.

It's unlikely that the public, politicians or the press will lose interest in high-profile cases such as that of American-born Jose Padilla, aka Abdullah Al Muhajir, the alleged "dirty bomb" conspirator, or Moussaoui's unfolding trial. But scores of other once-intriguing terrorism cases have proven to be little more than wild speculation and have been largely forgotten by the press and the public. The men targeted, though, are still paying a high price.

Two weeks ago, Mohammed Azmath, an Indian national, quietly pled guilty to credit-card fraud. That's a long way from last Sept. 12, when he and companion Syed Gul Mohammed Shah were taken into custody on an Amtrak train during a stop in Fort Worth, Texas. The men raised suspicion after they were found with $5,600 in cash, box cutters like those used by the Sept. 11 hijackers, and hair dye. The men had also flown out of the Newark, N.J., airport the morning of Sept. 11, just like the set of hijackers who commandeered United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. According to the police report, both also appeared "extremely nervous" when confronted on the train.

The men, quickly deemed potential suspects, were held as material witnesses for two months in isolation with no access to attorneys. FBI agents raided Azmath and Shah's Jersey City, N.J., apartment, taking away boxes of evidence while a crowd gathered outside and chanted "USA! USA!"

Their arrest was covered by every major news organization, as law enforcement officials assured reporters that the men had important information about the terrorist network behind the World Trade Center hijackings. Two anonymous investigators told the Dallas Morning News that "credible witness accounts" indicated the two Indian men "were seen with one hijacker at a mosque in Brooklyn, N.Y." Some sources even hinted to the press that the men were connected to last year's anthrax attacks.

When information emerged that the men had lost their jobs last summer managing newsstands at the Newark train station, where they routinely used box cutters, and were moving to Texas to open a fruit stand, CNBC's Dan Abrams mocked their alibi as "the old fruit-stand defense."

But after interrogation during a nine-month detention, it became clear that neither Shah or Azmath had anything to do with the deadly events of Sept. 11.

Should that really have come as such a shock, simply based on what was known publicly at the time? For instance, the fact that the men were from India, which has few documented ties with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, should have raised a red flag. They are Muslim, but the terrorist plot was carried out predominantly by Saudis who arrived in America shortly before the attack; Azmath spent most of the 1990s living in the United States.

Meanwhile, it hardly seems significant that the men appeared "very nervous" while being detained in Fort Worth. Most immigrants in that situation would be nervous, especially in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11.

According to the New York Daily News, the duo actually showed up at the Newark airport with tickets for the wrong day and had to pay an extra fee to fly on Sept. 11 -- hardly the work of a tight-knit terrorist group. As for the much-reported hair dye, it turned out to be "For Men Only" used to cover both men's graying temples.

By December, any hint of terrorist connections evaporated when the Daily News quietly reported that a federal immigration judge, over the government's objections, had ordered Shah voluntarily deported, which meant he was free to apply for a visa to return to America. That's hardly the type of sentence that would be handed out to an al-Qaida operative.

As for Azmath, last week he pled guilty to fraud that cost credit card companies $58,000. He will be sentenced this summer and may be released for time already served. The Washington Post covered the news with a 300-word AP dispatch.

The same day last January that Azmath originally pled not guilty to the credit card charges in New York, Abdallah Higazy was being set free in a nearby courtroom.

Five days earlier, on Jan. 11, federal prosecutors in Manhattan charged Higazy, an Egyptian-born student, with perjury after he denied owning a ground-to-air radio transceiver recovered at a downtown hotel that has unobstructed views of the World Trade Center. Initial reports said the radio was found inside a locked hotel safe, along with a Quran and a passport, in the hotel room where Higazy was staying on Sept. 11. Higazy had been held as a material witness since Dec. 17, when he returned to the hotel to pick up possessions he left behind when all guests were ordered to evacuate the building. The FBI confronted him about the radio, which was found by a hotel employee.

After three sets of interviews, FBI interrogators got him to confess that the radio was his; then they charged him with making "false, fictitious and fraudulent statements" and interfering with the Sept. 11 investigation. Prosecutors insisted Higazy and his radio were "potentially a quite significant part" of an investigation into "the most serious crime in the nation's history." U.S. Magistrate Judge Frank Maas, citing a "very strong case" and Higazy's incentive to flee, ordered him held without bail.

Five days later, another hotel guest, a U.S.-born private pilot unaware of the case against Higazy, showed up to claim the handheld radio he'd left behind on Sept. 11. FBI investigators re-interviewed the hotel employee who found the radio. He changed his story; suddenly the radio wasn't found in a locked safe, but on a table in plain sight.

Higazy was released.

And then there's former Boston taxi driver Nabil Almarabh, a detainee once considered a "notorious" associate of Osama bin Laden, who was held in solitary confinement for more than eight months without seeing a judge or being assigned a lawyer, according to the Washington Post.

Last year, Almarabh's alleged terrorist activities were front-page news. In October, following the lead of anonymous federal investigators, the Boston Globe reported that Almarabh was probably one piece of an intricate al-Qaida terrorist cell operating in Boston.

Today, instead of facing terrorism allegations, Almarabh is facing charges of making a false statement about his citizenship and using a fake document to enter the country. If he pleads guilty, he will face a shorter prison term than the one he has already served behind bars since September.

All of these cases involving foreign men with Arabic-sounding names caught up in questionable activity immediately drew suspicion and, given the events of last year, grave concern. That was certainly true in Memphis with Hammad.

"In the context of Sept. 11, you can see why we viewed that with great suspicion," says FBI agent George Bolds, a spokesman for the Memphis bureau. "That may not mean there's a connection to terrorism, but we have to take a close look at it."

Even Hammad's court-appointed attorney, Jeffrey Jones, agrees that investigators were smart to examine the strange circumstances his Middle Eastern client found himself in. "Early on there was a point in time he and I could say, 'OK, given what's going on in the country after 9/11, there are certain amount of those dots to connect,'" Jones says. "But the lines between the dots broke down very quickly."

Hammad's trouble began when FBI agents received a tip that Katherine Smith, a local DMV employee, would be selling fraudulent driver's licenses to some Middle Eastern men who had driven there from New York. (Tennessee, which does not require applicants to provide Social Security numbers, has become a favorite destination for people in search of false IDs.) On Feb. 5, the agents swooped in on Hammad and his colleagues, who were in the process of applying for licenses at the Memphis testing station where Smith worked.

Virtually all of the government's suspicion about Hammad's possible terrorist links revolved around a single piece of paper found in his wallet: a visitor's pass for the World Trade Center dated Sept. 5. FBI agent Bolds says the finding was "startling." The New York Times called it "alarming." Again and again investigators and journalists used the pass to prop up the story, without ever explaining why the pass would be of any real importance. After all, tens of thousands of people worked at the World Trade Center, while thousands of visitors, including workmen, streamed into the complex every day.

"Show me one plumber in New York who doesn't have a World Trade Center pass," says Hammad, who says he was doing work on a twin tower sprinkler system on Sept. 5. "The FBI looked into that and it checked out completely," adds attorney Jones.

Considering that the deadly Sept. 11 attack was launched by airplanes dropping out of the sky and slamming into the towers, Jones wonders what would have been the advantage of having an al-Qaida operative inside the World Trade Center days in advance. "It's absurd, as if somebody needed to scout out the buildings," he says. "The whole thing doesn't make sense."

Six days after the arrest came the news of Smith's death, which catapulted the story to national prominence. At the hearing before the magistrate judge, FBI agent Suzanne Nash testified that Smith's car had been found just after midnight on a desolate stretch of U.S. 72 in Fayette County, 25 miles south of Memphis. The 1992 Acura Legend had crashed into a utility pole and burst into flames, leaving Smith's body charred beyond recognition. According to witnesses, the car was moving slowly at the time of impact and investigators later determined the gas tank did not explode, yet a residue of gasoline was found on Smith's body.

All five men were behind bars the night of Smith's death, but that didn't stop commentators from trying to find a connection. On Fox News' "O'Reilly Report" Feb. 15, there was this exchange between the host and guest, terrorism analyst Steven Emerson:

O'Reilly: "Miss Smith was assassinated when someone set her on fire inside her car. It looks like a professional hit."

Emerson: "FBI officials and agents are definitely investigating whether this was a political assassination, meaning terrorists actually assassinate her. I think this is a very intriguing case."

O'Reilly: "Yes. I do believe that it's a bigger story than we think it is."

Jones insists that investigators could have stopped that type of wild speculation if they had wanted to. "We had stories in the press about this case for three consecutive weeks," he complains. "But within one week the FBI knew my client absolutely had no terrorist leanings. They were all over him, checking out his story, his family. They knew all of this. Yet there was no attempt to make a retraction or water it down. It was politically popular, what they were doing. You had a prosecutor who saw a chance to get some ride out of going after terrorists, or some suggestion of terrorists. And the press was anxious to jump on it."

Leigh Anne Jordan, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Western District of Tennessee, which prosecuted the case, noted that the case is ongoing and declined to comment. All five men face upcoming sentencing hearings.

Officially, Smith's death remains unsolved. A final autopsy report, which may or may not say whether her death was a homicide or a suicide, may be released soon.

But while FBI agents initially told reporters that the evidence suggested a murder, nearly as much information pointed to suicide. For instance, Smith left her sleeping daughter home alone late at night and drove out to a deserted highway. Investigators found no trace of any explosives in the car, which meant the fire was likely caused by gasoline being doused deliberately inside the vehicle. Witnesses who saw the Acura catch fire did not report seeing anyone else in the car or fleeing from the scene. They also reported that the car was moving slowly when it became engulfed, suggesting that Smith, if she had wanted to, could have stopped the car or jumped out.

And then there was the note Smith wrote to her children, John and Vernola, shortly after her arrest. Investigators found it within days of Smith's death in February as stories flourished in the press about possible murder plots, but it was not made public until attorney Jones showed it to local reporters in late May. In it, Smith said she was only trying to help Khaled Odtllah, Hammad's friend and codefendant.

"He didn't give me any money. He was I thought my friend. I was trying to help him. Now I've lost everything and am called a liar when I was telling the truth. I can't live without any honor. I live a lonely life true enough but I didn't lie to the FBI. Forgive me John and Vernola. I can't live this way. I love you both and wish and pray for the best. Love Mama."

Could that be read as a suicide note? "I think that's fair," concedes FBI agent Bolds.

The note did not generate much news outside of Memphis. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, Newsday and the CBS Evening News, which all weighed in early on, failed to report on the anticlimactic conclusion.

Fox's O'Reilly also has avoided the story, despite the fact that in February he had a Tennessee radio talk-show host on and stressed he wanted to be kept updated: "I'm very interested in this Katherine Smith, and if you get anything on that, please call us right away. That woman got hit. That's a pro hit. And we want to know why."

A spokesman for Fox News says O'Reilly hasn't updated viewers because he most likely doesn't know about the recent developments. "I'll let him know," the spokesman said. "He'll probably go back and examine it."

Hammad is now back at home in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. Like the others, he eventually pled guilty to a one-count conspiracy indictment related to the driver's licenses. Last month in court, the prosecutor assured the judge there was "no proof of any terrorist activity" among the men and recommended a lenient sentence. The men are expected to be released on time served.

Hammad is nonetheless angry about the circumstances that led to his round-the-clock lockdown in a maximum-security prison. "Just because we're Arabs doesn't make us any less American," he says. "I grew up here. It's my country. I've been here eight years, working hard and paying taxes. I never had a problem with anybody and look what happened to me."

But investigators aren't the only target of his frustration: "If I ever saw Osama bin Laden," he says, "I'd kill him myself for what he did to ruin so many lives, to ruin my life."

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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