Post-9/11 Probe Revived Stolen-Cereal Incident
Sunday, June 12, 2005
More than a year before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the FBI nabbed two Arab grocers loading boxes onto a tractor-trailer outside a drab gray apartment building here. The cargo: stolen Kellogg's cereal.
Agents did not charge the men that day, and set them free. But 16 months later, soon after hijacked planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the FBI was back. This time, agents arrested the pair and a third Arab grocer. After they were grilled about the terrorist attacks, the men were charged and pleaded guilty -- to conspiracy to possess the pilfered cornflakes.
To this day, the three grocers remain on the federal government's list of terrorism cases, although they never were charged with a terrorism-related crime. Often cited to emphasize the government's success fighting terrorism, the list that includes Nasser Abuali, Hussein Abuali and Rabi Ahmed is made up in large part of men caught up in the post-Sept. 11 dragnet that targeted Middle Easterners.
It also includes a Sudanese actor released after his name was mixed up with that of Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, as well as four Jordanians convicted in an immigrant-marriage scam in Florida. Neither the actor nor the Jordanians were linked to terrorism.
Their cases demonstrate how names put on the list can remain there for years, altering fates and damaging lives.
"I made a mistake, and I'm paying for it, but it has nothing to do with terrorism," one of the grocers, Ahmed, said in the doorway of his small brick home in a Newark suburb. His voice dropping so his children could not hear him, he said the family was forced to move from a much nicer home because of financial problems related to his prison stint.
A federal judge criticized the government for waiting until after Sept. 11 to file any charges, saying he found the delay "unsettling" and noting the defendants' ethnic backgrounds. "This case had no connection to terrorism," said Michael Pedicini, a lawyer for one of the men, "unless you consider cornflakes weapons of mass destruction."
Bryan Sierra, a Justice Department spokesman, said cases on the list are properly categorized as anti-terrorism.
"In a lot of these cases, there was no terrorism charge because no terrorism connection was found," he said. "That doesn't change the fact that we treated them as terrorism investigations out of an abundance of caution and to prevent another terrorist attack."
Federal law enforcement sources say they had good reason to focus on the New Jersey grocers after Sept. 11. The FBI had been tipped that one of the men might have tried to buy a rocket-propelled grenade, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the case's sensitivity.
Although that tip did not pan out, the men also were investigated for possible credit-card fraud, which the government says is sometimes used to finance terrorism.