The Terrorism Case That Wasn't -- and Still Is
Sunday, June 12, 2005
Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI learned that 18 Middle Eastern men had obtained licenses in Pennsylvania to haul hazardous materials across the nation's roadways.
Deeply concerned about another terrorist attack, prosecutors filed fraud charges against the men on Sept. 24, 2001. The next day, then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft appeared before Congress. Invoking the threat of attacks with poisons from crop-dusting aircraft or other hazardous materials, he said some of the defendants "may have links to the hijackers."
Within two days, the FBI was backing off that allegation. Two months later, prosecutors in Pittsburgh, where the men -- mostly Iraqis -- were convicted, said they had no apparent terrorist ties. The U.S. attorney's office later learned that the men never intended to buy the hazardous-materials permits.
Robert Cindrich, a former U.S. district judge who heard the case, said that he would "not continue to characterize this as a successful prosecution of a terrorism case, because it was not."
Yet the case still makes up the largest single portion of the government's list of terrorism prosecutions.
Rena Zottola's husband, Kumeit Al-Saraf, was put on probation after pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge and remains unemployed. She said that "what Americans need to realize is that for the people in this case, their lives are ruined. His name is tainted now. That's it."
Ali Alubeidy lost his business in the Pittsburgh area after he was linked to the hazmat scam. His auto repair garage was destroyed in an unsolved arson fire. All he could save was a singed workbench.
He and his business partner, Mohammed Alibrahimi, have moved their garage to an Italian neighborhood 15 miles away. "I'm hiding," Alubeidy said. "I don't want any more trouble."
The case began in March 2000 as a state investigation of Pennsylvania driver's license examiner Robert A. Ferrari, a former trucker who has admitted to taking bribes. He pleaded guilty to five counts of unlawful production of an identification document -- commercial driver's licenses, many with hazardous-materials endorsements, that he issued to people who had not taken required tests.
A commercial license enables someone to drive a truck, and a hazardous-materials endorsement is required to transport cargo the government considers a potential risk. The scam was quickly uncovered, and Ferrari was fired in April 2000.
Nearly 18 months later, on Sept. 20, 2001, Pennsylvania officials contacted the FBI, said Mary Beth Buchanan, the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh. Four days later, 20 men from Pittsburgh and elsewhere faced federal charges of fraudulently obtaining commercial driver's licenses. Eighteen had hazardous-materials endorsements.
But by Sept. 27, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said the bureau had the "preliminary belief" that the Pittsburgh arrests "do not relate in any way" to the Sept. 11 attacks. In late November 2001, Buchanan's office said publicly that the men had not been linked to terrorism. The announcement came the same week that the Justice Department released the names of 93 people nationwide charged in the anti-terrorism investigation since Sept. 11.
The list included the men charged in Pittsburgh. Nearly all were Iraqi refugees from the Persian Gulf War who had fought Saddam Hussein in an uprising the United States encouraged. Forced to flee to camps in Saudi Arabia, they came to the United States with the aid of relief groups.
"I ran from Saddam," said Alubeidy, 39. "The U.S. was my angel." Like most of the defendants, he is a Shiite Muslim, and he notes the enmity that Osama bin Laden and some other Sunni Muslims hold for followers of his branch of Islam. "I hate bin Laden," Alubeidy says.
Alubeidy and others in the group -- who range from truck drivers to gas station attendants -- said they had heard through an informal grapevine of Iraqi exiles that cheap licenses were for sale in Pennsylvania. Some of the menand their lawyers said the licenses were never used.
Defense lawyer Thomas Farrell said that after his client, Mustafa Al Aboody of Seattle, learned his license was fake, he took the hazardous-materials test legitimately. "He is working as a truck driver right now -- the very thing they initially said was part of a plot against the United States," Farrell said.
Buchanan acknowledged in an interview that the men had not requested hazardous-materials permits, and no evidence of a terrorism connection was presented at trial. The examiner, Ferrari, testified at Alibrahimi's trial that he issued them because "it was just easier" to do it that way.
Only Alibrahimi was convicted at trial. The other men pleaded guilty. Nearly all were put on probation.
Juror Gregory Kurpakus said that the judge instructed jurors not to let the events of Sept. 11 influence deliberations, but that many jurors did anyway. "Being so fresh and still being on the news, and him coming in with the name Mohammed . . . I know that did enter into it."
Buchanan said prosecutors pursued the case vigorously because hazardous-materials permits "certainly could have been used in a potential terrorist plot. When we learned we had a significant number of individuals who all happened, coincidentally, to be of Middle Eastern descent, this immediately was alarming."
Defense lawyers do not fault the government for aggressively pursuing the allegations. But they said officials should no longer consider the case terrorism-related.
"It's unconscionable. It's a lie. This is not a terrorism case under any rational definition," said lawyer William Swor, who represented Samir Almazaal of Georgia. "If I get up in the morning and look outside to see if it's snowing, does that make me a weatherman?"
Researcher Julie Tate and research database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.