A Deliberate Strategy of Disruption
Sunday, November 4, 2001; 12:29 AM
Exactly 23 minutes before suspected terrorist plot leader Mohamed Atta acquired a Florida driver's license, a 28-year-old Pakistani gas station attendant got his license renewed at the same motor vehicles' branch. For that reason, Mohammad Mubeen was standing in a tiny courtroom wearing an orange jumpsuit last Monday afternoon, one of more than 1,100 people ensnared in a nationwide hunt for terrorists.
In urgent, rapid-fire Urdu, Mubeen pleaded to be released. True, he had entered the United States illegally, he told the judge through a translator. But he said he simply did not know any of the hijackers.
Still, the government attorney in the Miami courtroom easily persuaded the judge to hold Mubeen without bond. The lawyer presented a striking legal document that offers insight into both the strategy behind the detentions and a novel legal argument to keep people in custody on the most slender suspicion.
Signed by a top international terrorism official at FBI headquarters in Washington, the seven-page document, which has not been previously disclosed, is being used repeatedly by prosecutors in detention hearings across the country. The FBI affidavit explains that "the business of counterterrorism intelligence gathering in the United States is akin to the construction of a mosaic.
"At this stage of the investigation, the FBI is gathering and processing thousands of bits and pieces of information that may seem innocuous at first glance. We must analyze all that information, however, to see if it can be fit into a picture that will reveal how the unseen whole operates. . . . What may seem trivial to some may appear of great moment to those within the FBI or the intelligence community who have a broader context."
The document's language offers the clearest window so far into a campaign of detentions on a scale not seen since World War II. As investigators race to comprehend the ongoing terrorist threat, the government has adopted a deliberate strategy of disruption -- locking up large numbers of Middle Eastern men, using whatever legal tools they can.
The operation is being conducted under great secrecy, with defense attorneys at times forbidden to remove documents from court and a federal gag order preventing officials from discussing the detainees. Law enforcement officials have refused to identify lawyers representing people who have been detained or to describe the most basic features of the operation. The officials say they are prohibited from disclosing more information because of privacy laws, judges' orders and the secrecy rules surrounding the grand jury investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The result has been confusion over exactly who is being counted in the government's official tally of 1,147 detainees and who is still being held. When asked directly how many people have been released, Justice Department officials say they are not keeping track.
Of the 1,147, Justice officials have specifically singled out only 185 detainees who are being held on immigration charges. An INS official described them as "active cases" believed to have "relevance to the investigation."
To try to illuminate this hidden campaign, The Washington Post identified 235 detainees and examined the circumstances of their cases.
The analysis of these cases -- located through court records, news accounts, lawyers, relatives and friends -- shows that three-fifths of the detainees found by The Post are, like Mubeen, being held on immigration charges. Seventy-five have been released.
A small, as-yet-unknown number are being held on "material witness" warrants, an indication that investigators believe they have information vital to the probe. Another small number -- perhaps 10 -- are believed to lie at the center of the investigation, with ties to the al Qaeda network or some knowledge of the hijackers. But sources say none of those men is cooperating.
The 235 identifiable cases reveal the essential nature of the current effort: It appears to be less an investigative search for accomplices to the Sept. 11 attacks than a large-scale preventive operation aimed at disrupting future terrorism.
That is evident, in part, from the fact that none of the detainees has been charged in the plot or with other acts of terrorism. In addition, the pace of detentions has accelerated visibly as government officials have received information about new threats and issued public warnings -- spiking sharply, for example, after rumors of planned attacks Sept. 22.
The government's strategy and methods have elicited protests from defense attorneys and civil libertarians. They say the campaign is a massive act of racial profiling similar to the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans at the start of World War II.
Senior Justice officials deflect such criticism. Except for the material witnesses, they say, all of the detainees have violated some kind of law. What is different after Sept. 11 is that many people are being held -- in what is essentially preventive detention -- who would otherwise be released on bond. Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff said: "If there is a violation that you find, we are going to move ahead on the case."
The Post's analysis of the identified 235 detainees shows with greater precision who is being picked up. The largest groups come from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan. Virtually all are men in their twenties and thirties. The greatest concentrations were arrested in several states with large Islamic populations and what law enforcement officials have identified asal Qaeda sympathizers: Texas, New Jersey, California, New York, Michigan and Florida.
The preventive nature of the campaign is evident from the character of arrests. Immediately after Attorney General John D. Ashcroft spoke publicly in late September of fears of chemical attacks by terrorists using trucks, law enforcement officers picked up 21 Iraqi refugees in a fraudulent truck license scheme; officials later said they appeared unconnected to the attacks.
In a speech late last month to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Ashcroft compared the government's current actions to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's campaign against organized crime in the early 1960s.
"Robert Kennedy's Justice Department, it is said, would arrest mobsters spitting on the sidewalk if it would help in the battle against organized crime," Ashcroft told the mayors in his most revealing public remarks to date about the detentions. "It has been and will be the policy of the Department of Justice to use the same aggressive arrest and detention tactics in the war on terror.
"Let the terrorists among us be warned: If you overstay your visa -- even one day -- we will arrest you."
Three Concentric Circles
From the analysis of the 235 detainees, an image of the investigation emerges that can be seen asa set of three concentric circles.
Nine men appear to be at the hot center of the investigation, including the well-publicized names who have generated the most attention from law enforcement. The next layer consists of 17 men and one woman with more fragile connections -- either to hijackers or to figures in the hot center. They include former roommates, people found with false identification and people who helped the hijackers get false IDs.
By far the largest group of detainees consists of an outer ring of people whose interest to investigators is largely unknown. Some in this outer ring were apprehended because they were in the same places or engaged in the same activities as the hijackers: learning to fly airplanes, traveling or -- as in Mubeen's case -- getting a driver's license. Others appear to have been detained more randomly, because they come from a set of Middle Eastern countries and had immigration violations.
The operation has generated some false leads, especially in the early days, when investigators, looking for Middle Eastern men who fit the profile of the hijackers, erroneously focused on a group of Saudi men who were pilots or in flight schools.
Chertoff, the assistant attorney general, said the investigation began by focusing on the hijackers and their credit-card and phone records and expanded outward. "Where we had information, we'd go out and interview," he said in an interview. "We went in as many different directions as we could."
Government Uses Every Tool Possible
The government's determination to employ every legal tool at its disposal -- to hold detainees as long as possible -- can be seen in cases across the country.
The tiny southwest Miami courtroom where Mubeen was denied bond is far from the only place where the FBI affidavit -- bearing the signature of Michael E. Rolince, chief of the FBI counterterrorism division's international terrorism section -- has been used to keep someone locked up. It was also presented during an immigration hearing in St. Louis, flabbergasting the lawyer who represents Osama Elfar.
Elfar, 30, was arrested by FBI agents at 7 a.m. Sept. 24, at the end of a night shift at his job asanaviation mechanic for Trans States Airlines. He was charged with staying in the United States longer than his visa allowed. The real reason for his arrest, he believes, is that he is Egyptian, Muslim and employed atanairport -- with a memorable first name.
He told the FBI agents he had no sympathy for Osama bin Laden. He volunteered to let them look around his apartment, take his phone bills and search his computer. They found nothing, said he and his attorney, J. Justin Meehan. On Oct. 5, Elfar took a polygraph test and passed, Meehan said, "with flying colors."
Nevertheless, two weeks later, a government lawyer blocked his bond with the affidavit that says the FBI "has been unable to rule out the possibility that [Elfar] is somehow linked to, or possesses knowledge of, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon."
Elfar still is being held in the Mississippi County jail in southeast Missouri. "This is what I do not understand," Elfar said in a telephone interview from the jail, three hours from St. Louis. "When I took the test, the agent promised that if I was clear, I would not be under arrest anymore."
Legal experts said the affidavit's argument to hold people while the FBI builds its mosaic is actually a new twist on an old metaphor. The CIA often relied on the mosaic argument to withhold information, on the grounds that enemies of the United States could gather fragments of intelligence and piece together government secrets.
The FBI's use of that argument to keep people in custody is "very foreign to the way things have been done," said Mark H. Lynch, a Washington lawyer familiar with the legal cases. "If they are holding people in order to rule out the possibility that they're involved, that just turns the system on its head."
On the other hand, William Barr, attorney general for the first President George Bush, said the affidavit is an effort to explain "selective enforcement" of the law and to "say to the judge, 'This is why we are landing like a ton of bricks on this case.' . . . Presidents going back to Lincoln have realized they have to have a willingness to meet an extraordinary threat, which this is."
The affidavit is only one of the techniques that law enforcement officials are using to prevent the detainees from being freed.
On Sept. 18, Ashcroft ordered the INS to revise its rule for holding detainees before they are charged, lengthening that period from a maximum of one day to 48 hours or an unspecified "reasonable time" in a national emergency.
Under another INS regulation that took effect at the beginning of last week, the INS can now automatically detain certain people granted bond on immigration violations for 10 days to give the agency time to appeal, an INS spokeswoman said.
Accounts from several detainees and their lawyers illustrate the government's new hard line.
Months before the attacks, the government had been trying to deport Palestinian activist Ghassan Dahduli, who was free on bond while he fought to stay in the country. Now, those same officials are trying to keep him from leaving.
After the hijackings, INS officials revoked Dahduli's bond and arrested him Sept. 22 at his home in Richardson, Tex., where he lived with his wife and five children. A few days later, news accounts said that the name of Dahduli, 41, who has lived in the United States for 23 years, turned up in the address book of Wadih el Hage, a former personal secretary to bin Laden who has been convicted in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
Dahduli's lawyer, Karen Pennington, said he agreed on Oct. 3 to be deported, but law enforcement officials are unwilling to let him go.
Other detainees are being held on criminal charges that reflect the extraordinary scrutiny now directed at Middle Eastern immigrants. Fathi Mustafa, 65, a Palestinian who has become a naturalized U.S. citizen, and his son, Nacer Fathi Mustafa, 29, a U.S. citizen, have been accused of possessing altered passports. They were detained in Houston four days after the hijacking attacks on their way home to Florida from a trip to Mexico to buy leather goods.
At the Houston airport where they were to catch a connecting flight, the father and son were pulled out of line by immigration officials who said their passports contained an extra layer of laminate, said their lawyer Dan B. Gerson. Federal officials have said that such additional clear sheets can be used to fraudulently insert someone's picture on top of the original photograph -- a method sometimes adopted by terrorists trying to conceal their identities.
Gerson said that his clients did not know why their passports had the extra layer and that they had entered the United States with them before and never been stopped. The elder Mustafa was released and allowed to return to Florida with a leg monitor to track his movements. His son, who has anarrest record, has been denied bail.
Such strict application of new and customary legal tools has enraged defense attorneys and groups that advocate civil liberties and immigration. Randall Hamud, a San Diego lawyer representing several detainees, said, "These are nickel-and-dime matters that have nothing to do with planes crashing into buildings."
Those critics have seized on the death of a detainee in New Jersey -- apparently of a heart attack -- and the beating of at least one young man by fellow inmates ata Missouri jail. Last week, a coalition of legal and immigration organizations filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI and the Justice Department, demanding information on the detainees.
Law enforcement officials say that every detainee is being granted due process. Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said, "Aside from one complaint about one inmate's treatment ata federal prison, the Department has not received any complaints."
Federal officials also say that their aggressive stance matches the prevailing public mood. "The American people expect us to be absolutely certain," INS spokesman Russ Bergeron said, before letting people go.
Ambiguous Connections to Hijackers
The men who form the hot center of the investigation are striking, in part, because they offer a new way of understanding that the Sept. 11 attacks were carried out by the 19 hijackers with little outside help.
Even at this focal point of the probe, none of the detainees has been accused of anact of terrorism. The only living people charged in the hijacking plot are three men -- two from Morocco and one from Yemen -- who lived in Hamburg, Germany, and now are international fugitives.
Of the 235 detainees who could be identified in the United States, only 10 are known to have any kind of link to the hijackers. Most of those known links are intriguing but ambiguous.
They include a telephone call placed to a former roommate of Atta's in Germany by Zacarias Moussaoui, a French Moroccan who was arrested ata Minnesota flight school Aug. 17 and is being held in New York on an immigration violation.
The connections also include two phone numbers left in a rental car at Dulles International Airport by the hijackers who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. They belonged to Osama Awadallah, 21, a Jordanian student who allegedly met some of the hijackers in San Diego, and Mohammed Abdi, 44, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia who lives in Alexandria.
Several of the men at the hot center are suspected of deeper involvement. Among them are Nabil Almarabh, a Kuwaiti who used to drive a Boston cab and has links to both the hijackers and al Qaeda, and Ayub Ali Khan and Mohammed Jaweed Azmath, both from India, who were apprehended with box-cutter knives the day after the hijackings on a train to Fort Worth.
Also in this group is Youssef Hmimssa, of Morocco, who lived in a Detroit apartment where police found false ID cards and documents suggesting a planned attack in Turkey on the U.S. secretary of defense.
In the next layer are two students who also allegedly knew some of the hijackers in San Diego: Mohdar Abdallah and Omer Bakarbashat, both of Yemen.
Another young Yemeni man in Southern California, Ramez Noaman, a student at California Polytechnic University at Pomona, was held asa material witness in Manhattan for a dozen days before his release and testified before the New York grand jury. In a brief telephone interview, he confirmed that he rented a room in a two-story San Diego house where two hijackers had lived before him.
In an even more ephemeral connection, Hady Omar Jr., an Egyptian antiques dealer in Fort Smith, Ark., made a plane reservation from the same computer ata Kinko's store in South Florida as one of the hijackers. Omar, 22, is being detained on immigration charges. His wife said the overlapping use of the computer was sheer coincidence.
Others in the second layer have been linked to men at the investigation's hot center, rather than to hijackers. One of those is Mohammad Aslam Pervez, a Pakistani who shared anapartment with the two men arrested with box-cutter knives on the train to Texas.
Several in this second layer appear to be under mounting pressure from investigators. Although the hot center group has not expanded in recent weeks, criminal charges such as perjury have been brought against detainees in the next ring.
Mujahid Abdulqaadir, 51, had been interviewed repeatedly by the FBI about his acquaintance with Moussaoui. Just two weeks ago, he was arrested asa material witness and brought to New York. On Friday, he was returned to Oklahoma, where he faces charges related to guns that FBI agents found while searching his house, his lawyer said.
For Some, Shattered Dreams
The evening of Oct. 11, hours after Ashcroft warned of "credible threats" of more terrorism, Tarek Abdelhamid Albasti was making spaghetti at the Crazy Tomato, the restaurant he owns in Evansville, Ind., with his uncle and his wife.
A former member of the Egyptian national rowing team, Albasti now is a U.S. citizen with a 2-year-old daughter, a father-in-law who is a former U.S. foreign service officer and a mother-in-law who can trace her lineage back to the American Revolution. Still, FBI agents had shown up twice after the attacks, to inquire about his political beliefs and the flying lessons that he had been given asa birthday present.
At 8 p.m. that Thursday night, the FBI returned to take him away with his Egyptian uncle and seven other Muslim men from Evansville. The next morning, they were flown in shackles to Chicago on a U.S. Marshal's Service jet.
After a week in jail, where they staged a hunger strike while being held as material witnesses, Albasti, his uncle and six others were released.
Albasti's detention fits a pattern common to many people in the investigation's outer ring. His family believes he was arrested because his new pilot's license fit the profile of the leaders of the hijacking plot.
Even a man who tried to help investigators wound up in custody. Two days after the attacks, Mustafa Abu Jdai and his wife, Dianna, in Tyler, Tex., called the FBI's 800 number. He told investigators he had answered anadvertisement for a job posted ata Dallas mosque and met last spring with several Arabic-speaking men who offered to pay him to take flight lessons in Texas, Florida or Oklahoma. Abu Jdai's wife said that the FBI showed her husband photographs and that he recognized one of the men as Marwan Al-Shehhi, who is believed to have piloted one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center.
Abu Jdai's wife said the FBI gave him a polygraph test and told him he gave a wrong answer to the last question. He was then charged with a visa violation and remains in a Dallas jail.
Even for those who have won release, the experience has profoundly soured their feelings toward the United States. When he got home from Chicago, Albasti, the Italian restaurant owner in Indiana, ripped up his pilot's license. He left for a visit to his parents in Egypt last week and is unsure whether he will return. Said his wife, Carolyn Baugh: "American dream. Shattered."
Washington Post staff writers Bob Woodward and Jim McGee and Research Editor Margot Williams also contributed to this report.