A former Boston cab driver once portrayed as a major terrorism suspect was ordered deported to Syria today after prosecutors said the government had no evidence linking the man to terrorism.
Nabil Almarabh, 35, was sentenced to eight months in prison for immigration violations. He has already spent 11 months behind bars and received credit for time served.
In Buffalo, where Almarabh was sentenced, assistant federal defender Marianne Mariano said Almarabh would be deported to Syria, where he is a citizen, later this month. However, Almarabh remained apprehensive that the government could try to bring further charges, according to Adem Carroll, a relief coordinator for the Islamic Circle of North America, who spoke with him this afternoon.
According to a letter that Almarabh sent to The Washington Post shortly before his sentencing, the government recently called him to appear before a Chicago grand jury. That appearance, originally scheduled for Aug. 28, was delayed, said Carroll, but Almarabh is still expecting to appear.
"I don't know why they want me to come to the grand jury," Almarabh wrote. "I've talked to the FBI 15 times. I don't have anything more to tell them. I have nothing to do with terrorism."
Almarabh, who was born in Kuwait, was held in isolation in a New York jail for eight months before pleading guilty in June to trying to enter the country illegally a year earlier. During that time, he did not see a judge and was not assigned a lawyer, The Post reported in June.
Last fall, the U.S. government listed him among 200 people being sought for questioning in the terror attacks. In a court filing in Toronto, Canadian authorities alleged he was "connected to the bin Laden network." A manhunt led to his arrest in suburban Chicago on Sept. 30, where he was working in a liquor store.
In a translated statement made available today, Almarabh vehemently denied engaging in terrorist activity. However, he said in the early 1990s he stayed at a guest house in Pakistan that once was used by terrorists, took weapons training and initially lied to U.S. authorities about his relationship with a man later sentenced to death in Jordan for plotting to blow up a hotel filled with Americans and Israelis.
The government has no evidence "of any involvement by the defendant in any terrorist organization," prosecutor Paul Campana said in asking U.S. District Judge Richard Arcara to impose a sentence of two to eight months.
According to the Associated Press, Arcara responded that "there's something about this case that makes me uncomfortable. I don't feel I have enough information." Arcara had postponed sentencing on Aug. 16 because probation officers provided "a very sketchy sentencing report."
Arcara imposed the maximum penalty on Almarabh for a charge of conspiring with two men to illegally enter the United States at a crossing near Niagara Falls on June 27, 2001.
Although Almarabh was not charged with terrorism, several men who were arrested at his last known address, a Detroit apartment, last year during the manhunt were indicted last week on charges of conspiring to aid international terrorists.
Mariano failed to persuade the judge to deport Almarabh to Kuwait, where he was born and raised before his parents moved to Syria. His mother died in February and "it weighs heavily on his mind that he hadn't seen her," she added.
The judge expressed surprise that Almarabh was found with $22,000 and gems worth $25,000. "These are the things that kind of bother me," the judge said.
Mariano said that Almarabh had recently sold his share of a Toronto business to an uncle. However, she knew nothing about the amber stones. "Some people have those kinds of valuable items, some don't," the Associated Press quoted her as saying.
U.S. Attorney Mike Battle declined to explain why Almarabh had once been considered a terrorist suspect. "I know the climate makes it difficult to think of him in any other way, but our job is to follow the evidence," he said.
Customs Service officials said they had evidence of financial transactions between Almarabh and Raed Hijazi, a cab driver in Boston identified by U.S. authorities as an associate of Osama bin Laden. Hijazi was later captured in Syria and sentenced to death by a Jordanian court on charges of planning to blow up a hotel filled with Americans and Israelis on New Year's Day 2000.
In his statement, Almarabh said that in 1992 he traveled to Pakistan at the behest of a roommate who "both worked for the FBI and fought in Afghanistan." Almarabh said he stayed at a guest house known as the House of Martyrs and shortly after his arrival accepted an offer to "go away for some self-defense training with a pistol or AK-47."
Almarabh said he worked for the Muslim World League, an Islamic charity, distributing money and food to refugees and orphans. He said he did not engage in fighting or terrorist activity, but he decided to return to the United States after the Pakistani government launched a crackdown on Arabs following the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
In his statement, Almarabh said he met Hijazi while in Pakistan. He said Hijazi was an American citizen also known at the House of Martyrs as Abu Ahmad the American. Almarabh said he had hoped that Hijazi might help him return to the United States. Although that did not happen, he said he gave Hijazi his uncle's phone number in Canada and told him to call if he was ever in the region.
Almarabh said Hijazi contacted him from Canada in 1998 to ask if Almarabh, who had returned to Boston, could help him come to the United States. Almarabh said he sent Hijazi $500 for the trip and allowed him to stay in his home with his wife and stepson. During the second month of Hijazi's stay, Almarabh said, the two began to argue "over an issue of cleanliness."
"Abu Ahmad the American did not care about cleanliness," said Almarabh. "He was filthy."
Almarabh said Hijazi later struck his stepson, and he kicked him out of the house.
In May 1999, Almarabh said, the FBI approached him looking for Hijazi. Almarabh said he initially lied and said he did not know Hijazi.
"All my fear was caused by the fact that I had lived at 'the House of Martyrs,' very well known to the FBI," he said. "I was afraid that he'd think that I was from the world of terrorist, and to buy myself some time I told them that I didn't know him."