Victims of the Dragnet
Syed Ali likes to tell the story of taking his family down to Washington to attend President George W. Bush's inauguration. He contributed $1,000 to Bush's presidential campaign. As a Pakistani immigrant who came to the U.S. more than 20 years ago, Ali is the model immigrant-success story, working his way up to being a partner in a Manhattan security firm. A half-million-dollar home in the suburbs, three cars, kids in private schools. He even has a picture of Bush on his computer.
But Sept. 11 brought an end to Ali's dream. After the attacks, Ali found himself sitting in a New York City courtroom listening to himself described as a likely terrorist.
He is one of perhaps 1,200 Muslim men who have been held in New Jersey and New York jails, often on the pretext of violating immigration laws. The FBI, using the INS as a "front," as one attorney puts it, pulled in every Muslim it thought to be suspicious. Lawyers familiar with the cases believe there are 300 or so men in custody, but they really don't know exactly how many.
Ali said his case grew out of a business dispute. Ali and his other partners in their security firm squared off in lawsuits.
About a month after the World Trade Center attack, Ali was sitting in his Manhattan attorney's office when the phone rang. It was his wife, Delilah. Two dozen investigators from the New York DA's office were rummaging through the house, taking away the family's possessions, from notebooks to pictures on the walls to computers. They spotted Bush's picture on the computer and wanted to know why it was there. They eagerly snatched up Ali's son's flight-simulation computer game. Asked why, an investigator muttered something about "bioterrorism." Alarmed, Ali's attorney called the office of Robert Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney, which confirmed the search and told him Ali was to surrender at once.
Ali spent the night in a holding cell and the next morning listened in astonishment when the DA told a judge that "I was under investigations for terrorist activities. The prosecutor said I had traveled extensively throughout the world, and I have links in the Middle East, and I have traveled with individuals to Europe, specifically France and Paris, to Sweden, to England." They claimed to be investigating Ali because of unaccounted-for monies he had obtained through his business that they thought might be connected to terrorism.
"The people I traveled with were my family—my two kids and my wife," he said. "They said I was at the World Trade Center two weeks prior to the incident. I had taken my wife's friend with my son and shown them the World Trade Center because they had never been to New York. I was from Pakistan, so I must have something to do with something bad. I could hear the entire courtroom hissing, and hatred was coming out of people."
Ali was sent to Rikers Island and put in an area for murderers and other high-profile criminals. "All my assets were frozen," he said. "Everything taken out of my house—every family picture, every family video. Everything right down to our [tollbooth] EZ Pass. Our cars were taken. It was just a nightmare. I was arraigned—I could not make bail of $250,000. We didn't have any money. We could not use anything we owned."
Friends of the Ali family backed away from them. "Please don't call here anymore," he said one of his best friends told him. The one person who lent them money was their Argentinean housekeeper. "The way they read these accusations against me," he said, "it sounded like that if I am lucky I would get a life sentence. The worst would be the death penalty."
After 105 days, the judge lost patience and demanded to see some sign from the FBI—an agent or letter or something—that it wanted to hold Ali. He set a deadline for the government to put up or shut up. It came and went. Eventually, a New York County grand jury indicted Ali on charges of second-degree grand larceny and making false statements to a public authority in connection with his business dealings. There was no mention of terrorism. Ali pleaded not guilty; the case is pending. A judge freed him on $50,000 bond.
What happened to Ali was part of a deliberate government scheme to carry out a dragnet by avoiding usual judicial procedures. Two other examples:
•Qaiser Rafiq, a Pakistani and former Wall Street computer specialist, left his sister's Connecticut home at about 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 17, he said in a letter from jail to his family. He was abruptly stopped and surrounded by cop cars. Demanding to know if he had a bomb in his car and warning that they'd shoot him if he blinked, the cops asked, "Where are your terrorist friends?" He replied, "I don't know any terrorists." He said the cops told him, "Shut up, shut up. All you Muslims are terrorists."
At a Hartford police station, Rafiq was interrogated by FBI and state cops. "They asked me," he recalled in the letter, "what was I doing on Sept. 11, what I have been doing since Sept. 11, what do I think about Sept. 11. How long have I been living in this country, what I have been doing, my legal status, if I know any of the known terrorists. Did I ever send money to any terrorist network. I told them I am a highly educated computer professional who came to this country more than 13 years ago, I have a legal status in the country, I left my last Wall Street job due to a difference in opinion and arguments with the CEO. I was at my friend's house in Queens on Sept. 11. I don't know any of the known terrorists. I never sent money to any terrorist network. I consider the Sept. 11 attack as a horrible act of terrorism."
Rafiq is now in prison, where, according to a relative, his jailers sat by while other inmates beat him. He's awaiting trial on a charge of larceny—due, he said, to a statement he made five years ago in a business dispute. Bail is set at $1 million.
•Pakistani immigrant Mohammad Akoram had just left his Brighton Beach retail-goods store with an acquaintance on Nov. 11 when a car full of FBI and INS agents drove up and arrested his friend. As Akoram started to walk away, the cops put cuffs on him, too, because—as his son recalled—they said he might know something. Not to worry, the FBI agent told the family, he'll be back in a few days. The few days turned into five months. The last time Akoram's children saw him was at the airport a week ago, just before he was deported to Pakistan.
Now Akoram's son and wife are selling their house and their business to go back to Pakistan. "We don't want to, but we have no choice," the son said. "Our father is there, and we want to be with him."
Additional reporting by Gabrielle Jackson, Meritxell Mir and Michael Ridley.
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