Nation’s Frantic Dragnet Entangles Many Lives
The Staten Island postal worker was supposedly once photographed with Osama bin Laden and went “missing” after Sept. 11. Today, he is back sorting the mail and denies ever dropping out of sight or meeting the Saudi fugitive.
The Akron, Ohio, gas station manager and reputed Bin Laden sympathizer was said to have wanted to name his son Osama. In fact, the boy’s name is Noah.
And the erstwhile Taliban recruiter from suburban San Diego showed few signs of religious fervor but likes to party in Las Vegas.
The massive criminal investigation arising from Sept. 11 has resulted in hundreds of arrests or detentions and produced a much clearer picture of the 19 hijackers and their deadly plot. Though no accomplices are known to have been apprehended in the United States, authorities say the dragnet may have disrupted other planned attacks.
But interviews and a review of confidential law enforcement documents demonstrate how the far-reaching inquiry has also taken some odd twists and wrong turns.
Sinister interpretations of innocuous details have, for instance, transformed family vacation film of Niagara Falls and Washington, D.C., into suspicious surveillance footage. A gas station with cots became a suspected “safe house.”
Several defense attorneys and relatives of those swept up in the investigative maelstrom say their clients and loved ones have been singled out on slivers of flimsy evidence--having names similar to a suspect’s, using public Internet locations once favored by the terrorists or having crossed paths with someone linked to a hijacker.
On Sept. 19, FBI agents descended on the Los Angeles apartment of three Yemeni siblings who had come to the United States as students. The officers roused the men after discovering that the name of the middle brother was listed as an alternate driver on the auto insurance form of another Yemeni man who may have known a hijacker. No criminal charges were filed, but the three face deportation for immigration violations.
“Taking into account the magnitude of what happened, I can understand the hysteria,” Sobhi Mustafa Sobhi, 32, the eldest of the three, said from federal detention at a county jail on the edge of the Mojave desert. “We’re just three of hundreds getting washed into the backwash.”
Official exhortations that people report suspicious happenings have apparently had the intended effect.
FBI agents in Houston responded to a report from an apartment manager that two Middle Eastern flight students vacated their flat in the days before Sept. 11, leaving behind “suspicious items.” Authorities eventually found the two men, examined encrypted files on their computer hard drives and cleared them of any wrongdoing. The Houston report was one of more than 400,000 tips nationwide.
“The only thing a lot of these people are guilty of is having the Arabic version of Bob Jones for a name,” said Bob Doguim, an FBI spokesman in Houston.
Yet the FBI has generally refused to issue public exonerations of those found to have no credible link to Sept. 11. The result, say defense attorneys and families, is a lingering aura of complicity and community distrust of those whose names appeared on the dozens of law enforcement “watch lists” issued since the strikes.
“Even our closest friends are afraid to talk with us now,” said Ayman Refai, a Cincinnati restaurant owner and naturalized U.S. citizen from Syria whose older brother, Mohammed, was detained a week after the strikes. “We all come here for the American dream, the better life, the opportunity. Is that a crime now?”
Thorsten Biermann, a 33-year-old aspiring commercial pilot in Germany, fears lasting damage from being placed on a watch list.
“I have a lot of problems because of this,” said Biermann, who wound up on the list because he roomed in Florida with one of the hijackers, Ziad Samir Jarrah, while the two were taking flight training in Florida a year ago. Biermann said he voluntarily went to authorities in Germany and told them all he knows about Jarrah, a Lebanese who offered scant outward signs of fanaticism. Yet Biermann said his bank account was frozen and he was barred from entering the U.S.
“You don’t get a job as a pilot anywhere in the world if you’re not allowed to travel into the United States,” Biermann said.
The FBI has stressed that the watch lists are not a catalog of suspects but rather a rough roster of people whom agents want to speak with. The lists have been widely distributed among law enforcement agencies, banks, airlines and elsewhere. At least one version--with more than 200 names, including the hijackers and other known terrorists--was mistakenly published on the Internet. Officials have constantly updated the lists, adding and deleting names but seldom providing explanations.
FBI Obligated to Alert INS
The FBI says some ambiguity and confusion were unavoidable, given the horrific scale of the crime, the fear of other attacks and the scope of the inquiry. Even in cases where those interviewed clearly had no part in the attacks, the FBI said it was obligated to turn over suspected lawbreakers to local police or the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“What you want to do is you cast the big net, and then you determine what is plausible and what isn’t,” said Jill Stillman, an FBI spokeswoman in Washington. “We’re trying to talk to as many people as possible, and I’m sure that some pan out and some don’t. That’s the way it is.”
Throughout, once-promising avenues of inquiry quickly turned out to be dead ends. Authorities searched doggedly for evidence that other planes may have been targeted for hijacking, apparently without finding compelling proof so far. Saudi flight students in the United States were an early focus. One airline passenger aroused suspicion and made it onto a watch list after butter knives were found under a seat near him.
Still, officials say there were often good reasons for initial suspicion that later waned.
Ahmad Abou El-Kheir was among the first wave of arrestees in the frantic days after the attacks. The son of a retired general, El-Kheir, 28, studied hotel management in college in his native Egypt. The FBI found that El-Kheir had checked out of a Maryland hotel on Sept. 11. He was believed to be an “associate” of two of the hijackers. A polygraph test showed “strong deception.”
El-Kheir was eventually hauled off to New York as one of a number of “material witnesses,” believed to have vital information. Soon, El-Kheir’s significance seemed to diminish. A federal judge dismissed the material witness warrant on Oct. 11. The onetime suspected associate of terrorist mass murderers found himself in a Bronx court answering to a minor disorderly conduct conviction outstanding from three years earlier.
Next was an immigration charge of having violated the terms of his tourist visa on a previous visit. As El-Kheir was shuttled to and from jails in New York and New Jersey, his lawyer worried about his physical safety amid the charged atmosphere after Sept. 11.
“As far as I know, he’s still alive,” said El-Kheir’s attorney, Martin R. Stolar, who has had difficulty finding his client and arranging for hearings. “They’re moving to deport him. I say fine with me. He’s had it with this country for a while. But I can’t get anybody to pay attention to the case.”
Bin Laden Photo Called ‘a Total Fabrication’
Ahmed Sattar has not been detained. But the name of the Staten Island postal worker, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Egypt, was also placed on a federal watch list, although his name was slightly misspelled. Sattar was described in documents as a postal employee “missing” since Sept. 11. He was said to have been photographed with Bin Laden in 1993, after the first attack on the World Trade Center.
“That is a total fabrication,” Sattar said in a telephone interview from his home in Staten Island, where he has been a mail handler for more than a dozen years. “I have not seen in my life Bin Laden, or even spoken to him. . . .”
The father of four U.S.-born children has long been on the FBI radar screen. He served as a court-appointed interpreter and paralegal for the “blind sheik,” Omar Abdel Rahman, who is serving a life sentence for his part in a plot to blow up New York landmarks. The outspoken Sattar calls Rahman a “scapegoat” but said he was appalled by the Sept. 11 strikes.
“Of course I denounce violence,” Sattar said. Since the attacks, Sattar added, he has been shadowed by plainclothes officers in sedans. As for the report that he went missing on Sept. 11, Sattar said he took a few days off, with the post office’s permission, and was soon back to work.
“There is no mystery: They know where I am,” Sattar said. “If they want me, as my lawyer says, they only have to open the car and get out and talk to me or do whatever they want.”
Federal agents confronted Mohammed Refai a week after the attacks. The 40-year-old Syrian immigrant managed a gas station in Akron and seemed close to winning permanent U.S. residence status, based on his previous marriage to a citizen. Then came Sept. 11.
FBI agents in Arkansas found unspecified financial information possibly linking one of the suspected hijackers, Saeed Alghamdi, to an apartment complex in Akron. Agents zeroed in on Refai, one of the few Middle Easterners residing there. During interrogation, Refai’s girlfriend quipped that Refai had wanted to name the couple’s child Osama, after Bin Laden. The FBI evidently didn’t think the comment was funny, though the infant’s name is actually Noah.
Searches of Refai’s home and workplace turned up items that were viewed as casting Refai in an ominous light. Agents found several computers and videos of buildings, bridges and power plants in Washington, Chicago, Cleveland and Niagara Falls, N.Y. The gas station yielded “cigarette lighters with concealed knives,” according to an investigative document. The site was “suspected of being a safe house based on the number of cots at this location.” A polygraph of Refai showed “deception.”
Refai was placed in solitary confinement in upstate New York and was initially unable to speak with an attorney, his family said. Immigration agents charged that his marriage had been fraudulent and moved to deport him. But the FBI seemed to become less convinced of his terrorist pedigree. For one thing, the original financial connection between a hijacker and the Akron address may have been another case of confused names.
Refai’s family and attorney said there are harmless explanations for all the items found. The cigarette lighters are inexpensive and common novelty items that were openly displayed on a counter. The gas station, they said, is just that--not the nerve center of a terrorist cell, though the site has been targeted by rock throwers and others since the case hit the local press, said Ayman Refai, the younger brother. And the videos are family shots that the two brothers took on trips.
“When you go to Niagara Falls, is it a crime to take pictures there?” asked Ayman Refai, 33, who said he and his brother considered the Sept. 11 attacks an affront to Islam. As for the polygraph results, the family cites Refai’s poor English and nerves. Refai is seeking to be released on bond as he fights deportation, but his brother said the family’s life is already a wreck.
“I’ve been here for 12 years and I’ve always thought of myself as so American,” said Ayman Refai. “After this, we have to think: ‘Do we fit in or what?’ ”
Fitting in never seemed to be a problem for Mehdi Madani, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Iran. He was an aircraft mechanic in the United States and previously ran a gas station in San Diego with his wife, Beverly Madani, who lives in Fallbrook, north of San Diego. They have been separated for three years, the wife said. Mehdi Madani is not particularly religious and was always running to Las Vegas, according to the wife and others.
A few days after Sept. 11, Beverly Madani said, FBI agents arrived at her house and spent seven hours grilling her and her 13-year-old daughter about Madani. Her husband had been taken into custody while attempting to board a flight for Hamburg, Germany, Madani said she was told by the agents. Later, the wife said, Madani telephoned and said the FBI had flown him to New York.
Beverly Madani said the FBI may be confusing her husband with someone else. In fact, a federal watch list included the name Abdul Wahab Madani, who is described as a Saudi pilot who was “seeking Muslim youth to travel to Afghanistan in support of the Taliban.”
But the watch list entry for Abdul Wahab Madani includes Beverly Madani’s Fallbrook address and notes a date of birth also associated with Mehdi Madani. A related document said Abdul Wahab Madani also had been employed as an airline mechanic and noted his arrest as he attempted to board a flight to Germany--facts that fit the case of Mehdi Madani. His responses to questions on the polygraph were judged “deceptive.”
Beverly Madani said her husband has since been released and has telephoned from Germany. Pinpointing the source of the apparent confusion about him is difficult. The FBI in San Diego declined to comment. But Madani’s wife said she does not believe her estranged mate is a terrorist. She said she first heard about the supposed Taliban connection from a reporter.
“He was just a real charming type, real good looking,” she said. “He’s kind of deceptive, though, and that’s what gets him into a lot of trouble. He’s too dumb to even lie good. Even the FBI agent was laughing about that.”
Times staff writers William C. Rempel in Los Angeles and H.G. Reza in San Diego, and Times researcher Nona Yates contributed to this report.