Get on the bus
Pressured to Name Names
A Moroccan says the U.S. gave him a stark choice: Inform on fellow Muslims or be deported as a likely terrorist. It's a routine tactic, some say.
By Lee Romney, Times Staff Writer
August 7, 2006
SAN FRANCISCO — The document that federal agents handed to Yassine Ouassif to justify his deportation contained startling language: "The United States government has reason to believe that you are likely to engage in terrorist activity."
Ouassif was in exclusive company. Since Sept. 11, only five people have faced that ominous charge. Ouassif was about to become the sixth.
The slip of paper offered no details on what was behind the accusation.
As federal officials took him into custody in December, they told the 24-year-old Moroccan — a permanent resident who had moved to California nine months before the terrorist attacks — that he would be taken to a detention facility in Arizona. He could fight deportation from there, but it would take at least two years, they said. And they assured him he would fail.
Ouassif was scared. He cried. But he was not surprised.
Just three weeks earlier, an FBI agent had laid out a stark choice in a furtive meeting near an East Bay commuter rail station: If Ouassif signed on as an informant in the government's war to root out terrorism, all his problems would disappear. If he declined, Ouassif would almost certainly be deported.
"He was gambling on me," said Ouassif, a devout Muslim whose thick, curling eyelashes lend him a childlike demeanor.
Ouassif, saying he is a law-abiding green-card holder, chose to fight back. "Hire people to help you and pay them," he said. "Don't put someone in the field and say, 'You have to help us.' "
The story of the San Francisco resident — a security guard and part-time engineering student — is in some ways unremarkable. He is one of many immigrants investigated, yet not charged or deported, in the post-Sept. 11 era. But his case reveals a lesser-known aspect of the war on terror: the federal government's high-stakes — some say coercive — tactics to recruit Muslim collaborators.
Ouassif treaded water for seven months in a murky administrative netherworld — facing vague accusations of terrorist activity, but granted no court hearing — while he says he was pressed aggressively to become an informant.
The account of Ouassif's ordeal is based largely on interviews with him and his lawyer, as well as his own voluminous written chronicle. Immigration officials declined to comment, since no formal action was taken against Ouassif. FBI officials also declined to discuss the investigation, saying it is classified.
Nevertheless, the basic outlines of Ouassif's tale check out — including evidence that he was told to contact a San Francisco FBI agent who tried to recruit him.
San Francisco FBI spokeswoman LaRae Quy said the known facts — that Ouassif did not become an informant and was not deported — prove that he was treated fairly.
"It's clear that there wasn't any coercion here or he would have been thrown out of the country for not cooperating," she said.
But lawyers and local Islamic leaders in California cite at least a dozen recent cases of clients who were aggressively encouraged to become informants after they were detained for minor visa violations.
"They are trying to cultivate and exploit innocent people, enticing them, bribing them, tricking them in all these ways to snitch and spy," said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the 70-mosque Islamic Shura Council of Southern California.
For more than five weeks, Ouassif said, he was told to wait while a Moroccan intelligence agent promised to resolve the U.S. Embassy's concerns. When they finally met again, Ouassif recounted, the agent asked him to attend the mosque near his family home in Casablanca and spy on some prominent Islamists.
And then he told him that was just the start.
"We also need your help in America," Ouassif recalled the agent saying.
Ouassif wanted none of it.
Without reporting to U.S. Embassy authorities in Casablanca, as authorities had ordered him to do, Ouassif booked a flight to Montreal. He hoped to escape notice by crossing the border by bus. But he didn't.
At the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Champlain, N.Y., on Nov. 23, 2005, Ouassif said he underwent questioning, his right hand cuffed for a time to a small metal chair. He had not reported to the U.S. Embassy in Morocco, he told the female agent who questioned him, because he was innocent and afraid he might lose his green card.
She asked about his visits to Morocco, religious beliefs and views on jihad.
When she finished, an FBI agent, identified by his business card as Michael Lonergan, told Ouassif that under normal circumstances he would be detained but that a San Francisco FBI agent named "Dan" had just intervened. Ouassif could go home, if he agreed to call Dan when he got there
Still, problems with informants in high-profile cases have underscored the perils.
The informant, and star witness, in a botched Detroit terrorism prosecution allegedly told his cellmate that he had lied. The case unraveled after an investigation revealed prosecutors had withheld that and other key information from the defense.
Another informant in a high-profile New York terrorism case set himself ablaze in a personal protest against his handlers.
And in the California prosecution of a Lodi father and son, the informant told tales of seeing top Al Qaeda officials in the Central Valley — sightings discounted by terrorism experts as preposterous
"America is like a bus," Ouassif said Fliflet told him. "Either you board the bus or you leave."
Ouassif sought help. At his side at his first immigration appointment, on Dec. 14, was Banafsheh Akhlaghi, an Iranian-born lawyer who has become an advocate for the civil rights of Middle Easterners, Muslims and South Asians.
Fliflet and an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement chided him for not helping his country and promised they had proof he was "a bad guy." Then, Customs and Border Protection agents took him into custody and handed him the charging document, also known as a notice to appear in court.
But within hours, he was released. The region's national security prosecutor for the Department of Homeland Security, Peter Vincent, had relayed to Akhlaghi that there was insufficient evidence to prove the terrorism allegation, she said.
The agents then asked Vincent for more time to gather evidence. They took four more months. At last, on April 18, Ouassif's ordeal ended.
"Finally, they gave me my green card back, with no explanation and not even any apology," Ouassif said.
Reached at the cellphone number that Fliflet gave Ouassif, Fliflet declined to comment.
"My only concern right now is to live a normal life," he said. "I want to bring my wife to this country, as my other friends have. This is all I'm thinking of. It's really personal."
posted by Steve @ 10:58:00 AM