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TERROR IN OKLAHOMA CITY : Man Returned to United States Is Not a Suspect : Controversy: The Jordanian-born U.S. citizen was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Arab Americans are angry about his predicament.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 32-year-old Ibrahim Abdullah Hassan Ahmed, a Jordanian-born U.S. citizen from Oklahoma City, it apparently was a case of being in the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.

It now appears that Ahmed--who was taken off a British Airways flight in London on Thursday and returned to the United States as a possible witness to the Oklahoma City bombing--simply fit the profile of the sort of person the authorities were looking for before they turned their attention to domestic hate groups.

Ahmed--born in 1963 in the West Bank town of Janin, which was captured from Jordan by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War--was headed home for a visit before he was caught up in the bombing aftermath.

Although Ahmed is not now considered a suspect, for the first 24 hours or so after the blast, authorities assumed that it had been the work of Middle East terrorists, primarily because the technique of the attack was so similar to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York.

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Ahmed, it seems, just had too many similarities to the sort of person the police thought they were seeking. He had an Islamic-sounding name; he was between 20 and 40; he was traveling alone to a Middle East destination. Earlier reports that there was bomb-making material in his luggage were simply untrue.

Ahmed was questioned by the FBI at the airport in Chicago before he was allowed to board the flight to London. While his flight was in the air, U.S. authorities decided that they had more questions to put to him, so they asked the British government to send him back, which it did. After more questions, Ahmed was set free Friday.

“The person brought back from England has never been a suspect,” FBI Director Louis J. Freeh told a press conference. “In fact, he’s voluntarily cooperating, assisting the government since his return.”

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Justice Department spokesman John Russell said that Ahmed is still considered a possible witness to the most deadly terrorist attack in U.S. history. But Russell said that the man has been allowed to return home to Oklahoma City because there appeared to be no risk that he might flee.

“He indicated he wanted to go back to Oklahoma City, and we said OK,” Russell said.

Airline records show that Ahmed flew from Oklahoma City to Chicago, where he was scheduled to board an Alitalia flight for Rome with a continuing flight to Amman, Jordan. His ticket called for a long stay, until July 3. Because of the delay caused by FBI questions, Ahmed missed his Rome flight, so he took a flight to London, another convenient transfer airport for trips to the Middle East.

Although Ahmed could not be reached for comment, Arab American groups reacted with outrage.

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“He happened to be with the wrong name in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the National Assn. of Arab Americans. “I have been subjected to similar situations over the last few years.

“We understand the predicament the law enforcement agencies find themselves in,” he said. “They have to start someplace. One understands the questions that have to be asked at airports. Certainly those of us who travel frequently would like to be safe. But to target people on the basis of name, origin or religious background is unprofessional and does not contribute to safety.”

Atty. Gen. Janet Reno insisted that the authorities never tried to single out Arabs.

“Every lead must be pursued,” she said. “There should be no generalization based on somebody’s race or ethnic background whatsoever.”

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She said that the Justice Department has received no formal complaints from Arab American groups, “but if and when I do, we will review them. And if there is any action that the department should take, we will certainly do so.”


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