NEWARK

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.

Michael Drewniak, spokesman for Newark-based U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie, said the government is "not apologetic for pursuing these individuals. They're criminals. I don't know how anyone could say these guys were treated overzealously at all."

"We never called them terrorists or charged them as such," Drewniak added.

The trio's lawyers believe the men were targeted because of their ethnicity. "They rounded up all the Arabs after Sept. 11, and this case popped back up," said one defense lawyer, Frederic Brooks.

His client, Nasser Abuali, is unsure what to believe. Told his name is still on a government list of terrorism cases, Abuali did a double take.

"Really?" he asked in an interview conducted in the back corner of his grocery store, because he does not want customers to know he served five months in prison. "Why?"

A native of Ramallah on the West Bank, Abuali, 45, is an effusive man with close-cropped gray hair and a thin mustache. He is a U.S. citizen, married with six children. The small grocery store he manages is in the basement of a gray apartment building, which takes up an entire city block in a working-class section of Newark.

On May 16, 2000, according to an FBI criminal complaint, agents learned that stolen cereal was being loaded onto a tractor-trailer behind Abuali's store. The cereal had been heisted from a truck warehouse in Parsippany, N.J.

When agents arrived, court documents show, they took two men into custody: Nasser's cousin, Hussein Abuali, also a Newark grocer, and Ahmed. Nasser Abuali later turned himself in.

They were questioned at the FBI office in Newark. Ahmed and Nasser Abuali say they were asked only about cereal. All three men were released, even though court records say Hussein Abuali admitted that the cereal was stolen.

Sources said the men were not initially charged because prosecutors were unsure if the case rose to the level of a federal crime.

Early on the morning of Sept. 27, 2001, Ahmed recalled, more than 10 agents pounded on his door and handcuffed him in front of his wife and children. They arrested the Abuali cousins as well and took them to jail. This time, the subject of the questioning was terrorism.

"They said if you have any information about what happened [on Sept. 11], what the Arab community is saying about the attacks, we will help you," said Ahmed, 32, a native of Jordan and a U.S. citizen. "Otherwise, they said they would put the case before a judge that day."

That same day, the three grocers were charged with conspiracy to possess stolen property, a felony.

Court documents make no mention of terrorism. All three men pleaded guilty and received four or five months in jail. Hussein Abuali also pleaded guilty to defrauding the federal food stamp program.

At Ahmed's sentencing, U.S. District Judge William H. Walls said he found it "just bothersome that somehow a law enforcement officer sits and does nothing for 18 months" after observing a crime.

"It doesn't sit well with me," he said.

Researcher Julie Tate and research database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.