Day and night, the most feared people in America contact Ashraf Nubani.
So it was in June 2003, when a team of FBI agents rapped at the door of Randall “Ismail” Royer and arrested him on charges of helping a “network of militant jihadists” in Northern Virginia. So it was when authorities cuffed Majed Hajbeh after discovering he’d been convicted in Jordan for involvement in bomb attacks there. And so it was when agents carted away Mahmoud Elhassan in January, charging him with aiding and abetting a local man’s attempt to join the Islamic State.
In the past 15 years, Nubani, a Springfield, Va., lawyer, has represented either in the media or legally at least 21 people accused of terrorist ties. He defended Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law. He defended a 23-year-old man accused of plotting to assassinate then-President George W. Bush. He defended another man said to be a Hamas operative.
In some of the region’s most notorious cases, where allegations of Islamophobia and terrorism have collided, there was Nubani. “He’s in a lot of cases,” said Charlie Swift, director of the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America. “He’s stepped up, and he has taken a lot of cases.”
One of the unexpected byproducts of the war on terrorism has been the emergence of a small fraternity of lawyers who have a speciality in defending alleged terrorists. Following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, investigators turned their attention to America’s suburbs, and Washington’s in particular, where seven of the 19 al-Qaeda hijackers spent time before the attacks. This has since precipitated more than 500 terrorism-related prosecutions, according to a 2014 Human Rights Watch report, and a need for lawyers who know how to defend clients embroiled in them. A federal court in New York, where many are waged, has even established a “terrorism panel” of 27 lawyers the court could tap to represent alleged terrorists.
“It’s a speciality,” said David Ruhnke, a lawyer with the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel who has represented terrorism defendants in New York. “There are lawyers who do nothing but sue people whose elevators blow up, and there are lawyers that do this.”
The rise of the Islamic State, which has the most sophisticated recruiting apparatus of any terrorist organization in history, has accelerated the push to root out alleged terrorists in the United States and called forth a familiar cast of names who defend them.
One is Nubani, a controversial lawyer who makes no bones about the fact that he isn’t a criminal lawyer by training — a matter some clients now say harmed their cases.
He’s an immigration lawyer who, as a part-time imam at Dar Al-Hijrah, was suddenly thrust into a national maelstrom when members of his Islamic community were accused of terrorist ties and called for help. And soon, this seemingly demure man who writes poetry on the side was standing before the cameras — on the steps of the Alexandria courthouse, in front of the home of an accused terrorist — almost always in a pair of dark sunglasses.
He doesn’t don them for aesthetic reasons. Nubani is legally blind, and his eyes, which don’t perceive color, absorb substantially more light than they should. His is a gray, bright world.
What others can see at 200 feet, Nubani can see only right next to him. This means he can’t drive. He can’t use a computer unless the text is so large others can read it from across the room. And earlier this year, when his client Elhassan was arrested on charges that could put him away for 20 years, Nubani could read them only by bringing the criminal complaint within an inch of his nose.
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There’s a story Ashraf Nubani tells when explaining how he became who he is. It begins with a T-shirt that landed him in a world of trouble.
Nubani, a Palestinian who came to the United States from Kuwait when he was 4, was a teenager. He wasn’t raised in a religious household, and he said his parents mostly wanted their three children to fit in. But Nubani’s high school years in Chicago were particularly significant for Palestinians. Israel had just invaded Lebanon, and the tensions that would years later culminate in the First Intifada had started simmering.
So Nubani went to a local store and asked a clerk to make him a shirt that said “Free Palestine” on one side and “PLO” on the other. He called that moment an “emotional awakening,” when, over the protestations of his parents, he embraced a controversial political position and strutted into school, shirt on. Teachers, he said, told him to take it off. But he refused, bringing the case to a local American Civil Liberties Union branch, which sent the school board a letter saying he had the right to wear the shirt.
That was when Nubani started thinking about being a lawyer. He got his law degree at Indiana University, then picked up a New York internship with the famed radical lawyer, William Kunstler, who made a career out of defending hated people and causes.
It was 1993. Kunstler was representing Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, whom authorities arrested shortly after the World Trade Center bombings, charging him with urging additional attacks. The case was one of the country’s first prosecutions against an alleged Muslim terrorist that hinged on plans, not actions.
“The case that Ashraf worked on was a template for future prosecutions,” said Ronald Kuby, who was a partner at the firm and also worked the case. “ . . . Ashraf got to know [Abdel Rahman] and participate in legal meetings because he could translate” Arabic. Kuby recalled Nubani’s seriousness: “His blindness helped create a discipline in him that tended to be lacking in law students of his age cohort.”
Those weeks sketched out the contours of what would become Nubani’s career. They taught him the difficulties of defending widely despised people who can often afford little for legal aid. “There is a lack of competition” for the cases, Kuby said, later adding that Abdel Rahman paid nothing for his defense. “You can’t monetize them, and everyone hates you.”
But Nubani realized he could play an important role. “There are a lot of cultural and religious variables in terrorism cases, and very few criminal defense attorneys can begin to deal with that,” said Stanley Cohen, a lawyer who has also defended accused terrorists and who pleaded guilty to obstructing the Internal Revenue Service in 2014, serving nearly a year in prison. He called Nubani an “invaluable conduit” between culture and criminal defense.
But Nubani wasn’t sure he wanted to be a conduit. He took a job at a Springfield law firm, working immigration cases. He and his wife, Fayzah, whom he met in Jordan, enrolled their children in local Islamic schools and were soon stopping by a nearby mosque, Dar Al-Hijrah. Nubani became active there, delivering sermons, translating for visiting sheiks — and sinking deeper into a community that would become the focus of numerous investigations in the years following Sept. 11, 2001.
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In a region of power attorneys, Ashraf Nubani is not one. His office is the size of a studio apartment. He doesn’t advertise. The Virginia Bar reprimanded him in 2008 after he overdrew a client’s trust account three times in six months. He declared bankruptcy in 2009, listing his liabilities as somewhere between $100,000 and $500,000.
“I don’t make what other lawyers make,” he said, blaming the reprimand on “bad record keeping” and his blindness. “I don’t even make the average. And I know that. But I am what I am. . . . I’ve taken a lot of cases pro bono.”
It was a decision he made shortly after the twin towers went down, when federal authorities started investigating people who attended his mosque, and Nubani’s phone started ringing. The Muslims in the community wanted someone they thought they could trust — and for many, that was Nubani.
“I was a part of that community,” Nubani said, “and being an attorney, I was a wanted commodity.” He added: “Everyone needs representation — a child murderer, a rapist, and people ask, how could I even do that? But everyone needs representation.”
Others have had a different view of lawyers who defend accused terrorists, questioning their motives as well as who pays their fees when they don’t take cases pro bono.
Although no such charges have been directed publicly at Nubani, he said his defense of accused terrorists made the partners at his former firm uncomfortable. He decided to leave in 2003 and start his own law firm. Two partners at Becker, Hicks, Irving & Hadeed, however, said in interviews that they have no recollection of that. “He did defend controversial figures at the time,” Larry Becker said. “ . . . I don’t remember any acrimony.”
The departure came at the same time as one of the region’s most notorious terrorism cases. It featured Randall “Ismail” Royer, an activist with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who said he first met Nubani in the late 1990s through contacts in the Muslim community. So when authorities began investigating him and other members of what was called the Virginia Jihad Network, Royer and his wife called Nubani.
“I never paid him a penny,” Royer said from federal prison in Hopewell, Va., where he is serving a 20-year sentence after pleading guilty to helping American friends join Lashkar-e-Taiba, later designated a terrorist group, fighting Indian forces in Kashmir. “And I don’t know how many people have paid him. He was operating on charity.”
But after the charges came down — and Royer realized he was facing life in prison — he became frustrated with Nubani. “A more experienced criminal attorney could have been able to do that job better,” he said. In a letter, he commented: “I think he was over his head after my arrest. . . . His desire to help exceeded his ability to help.”
It’s a concern Nubani would hear again. The judge disqualified Nubani from Royer’s defense, citing an undisclosed conflict of interest, which Nubani said he cannot recall. “I was working with an experienced attorney at that time,” Nubani said of Royer’s comment. “ . . . And I never felt in over my head.”
Then in another case in 2005, the government denied Nubani’s request for security clearance to review evidence a judge said could help his client, who had been accused of plotting to kill President Bush. The reason was not disclosed, but Nubani said that the government told him it was his “family ties” and didn’t specify further.
And finally, in 2013, Reuters reported, a judge warned an al-Qaeda spokesman against having Nubani as his lawyer, noting that his disability could interfere with his ability to get a security clearance. “I was offended,” Nubani said.
But Muslim clients continue to turn to him. “It’s trust more than experience,” said Majed Hajbeh, who retained Nubani after he was arrested on an immigration violation following authorities’ discovery that a Jordanian court had convicted him in a terrorist attack. The conviction was later overturned. “You saw him, and you saw he prays five times a day,” Hajbeh continued. “And that’s the issue.”
So perhaps that explains what happened in January. Within two days of authorities arresting Elhassan, who is Sudanese and Muslim, Nubani’s phone lit up. It was Elhassan’s family, Nubani said. They had heard of him and needed help.
And so, understanding he is one in a tiny cadre of lawyers willing — and perhaps able — to help a man accused of terrorist ties, Nubani agreed to take Elhassan’s case.
Jennifer Jenkins and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.