More than a year before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, FBI agents were aware that a Middle Eastern student at a U.S. college was making anti-American statements and had contacts with militant groups overseas.
Just hours after the twin towers fell, the FBI placed the student under around-the-clock surveillance.
The decision required as many as eight agents per shift to monitor the man’s travels, from apartment to college, mosque to supermarket. Another half-dozen agents listened in on his calls. Other agents filed wiretap reports or handled aerial surveillance. Two supervisory agents oversaw the case.
In all, almost 40 agents were needed to tail one target. “If this had been Manhattan or another city with a subway, we may have needed even more people,” said an agent who took part in the surveillance. “I mean, if someone’s on foot in New York, how you gonna follow them in a car?”
After several months, with resources stretched hopelessly thin, the FBI agents shifted gears. They ended the surveillance and worked with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to simply deport the student on minor immigration violations.
“I think he was ready to leave the area ... so we wanted to make sure we did something,” the agent said. Besides, he said, “the cost was enormous.”
Since last September’s attacks, federal authorities have wrestled with a stark dilemma: Should they watch, or simply deport, scores of illegal immigrants who may have crossed paths with terrorists?
“For the FBI, at this moment in time, there are no good options in a lot of these cases,” said Sacramento Supervisory FBI Agent Frank Scafidi. “A lot of times it comes down to dollars and cents.... We just can’t afford [surveillance] for as many people as we suspect might have bad intentions.”
Added one federal prosecutor: “The prevailing sentiment is, ‘Just get them the hell out’ ” if they have visa or other immigration violations.
But if anyone deported on such charges turns out to be a terrorist -- or an accomplice -- they may come back to haunt the U.S. by assuming new identities and reentering the country.
“Then, you are in some ways in a much worse position,” said the prosecutor, “because now you don’t know where they are.”
Since last September, the INS has deported almost 500 people as a direct result of the Justice Department investigation into terrorism. Hundreds more have been forced to leave as a result of stepped-up enforcement of immigration laws. It is likely that many people caught in the dragnet do not support terrorism, but the government is taking few chances.
Nasir Al Mubarak, for example, had lived illegally in the U.S. for a decade without incident. The Pakistani-born pilot faced deportation for overstaying his student visa but was free on bail pending an appeal on grounds that his marriage made him eligible for permanent residency.
That all changed on Sept. 11.
Right after the attacks on New York and Washington, FBI agents questioned the 35-year-old Sacramento-area resident about his association with terrorist Abdul Hakim Murad. In 1995, Murad, a Pakistani, was convicted of conspiring to blow up 12 U.S. airliners over the Pacific Ocean.
In 1991, Mubarak acknowledged, he and Murad came to the U.S. to attend flight schools, and lived together before Murad left the country. Mubarak said he had long since lost track of Murad, but after Sept. 11, federal authorities did not believe him and pressed for his deportation. Ultimately, Mubarak agreed to leave and returned in August to Pakistan, a country where he had last lived as a toddler.
Mubarak’s friends and family have insisted his case is a classic example of guilt by association. But FBI officials claimed the truth is far more complicated.
“Look, I went a number of years in grade school with a guy who became part of the Manson clan. Does that make me a felon? No,” Scafidi said. “But this guy [Mubarak] was encircled earlier in his life with a real-life, fire-breathing, ill-meaning terrorist.”
Agent Michael Mason, who heads the FBI’s Sacramento Office, said “there were sufficient connections that necessitated his removal to another country.”
Truth be told, Mason noted, were Mubarak not a foreign national, U.S. authorities may not have been able to take any action against him, regardless of their suspicions.
“If he were a U.S. citizen, he might be walking around the [Sacramento] area today,” Mason said. “But ... inasmuch as his residency in this country was an issue, that just became another arrow in my quiver to neutralize the threat.”
The decision whether to seek deportation is rarely an easy one for federal authorities.
“That,” said one FBI counterterrorism specialist, “is a question we debate every day.”
One Justice Department official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said federal authorities since last September have often detained acquaintances of terrorists if, for no other reason, than to buy time for their investigations.
Said the official: “The general assumption was that it was better to do something than do nothing.”
From that starting point, the official added, it was not a great leap to use deportations in cases where surveillance was too risky and terrorism charges might not be provable.
‘Better There Than Here’
“If we have some inkling someone might be a problem, do we really want them running around on our streets?” the official said. “It seems to me common sense that you’d say, ‘Better there, than here, in our own house.’ ”
Often, according to federal authorities, the single greatest factor in determining who should be deported is the staggering cost of surveillance.
Watching a single individual 24 hours a day and monitoring his calls can easily cost $100,000 a month, said veteran FBI agents. The costs range from roughly $55 an hour for agents to $150 an hour for aircraft surveillance to as much as $900 an hour for electronic surveillance equipment. And, agents said, those expenses do not include the per diem costs of at least $150 a day for out-of-town agents who are sometimes assigned for months if an office does not have adequate personnel itself.
Though he would not discuss the cost of such surveillance, Los Angeles FBI Agent Matt McLaughlin said expenses are clearly a consideration in determining what to do.
“It’s impossible to keep track of all these people through surveillance,” said McLaughlin, chief spokesman for the L.A. office. “The resources needed to do that are too substantial.”
Determining how many agents will be assigned to a surveillance depends on factors including the target’s location and potential awareness that he or she is being followed.
Authorities must also assess the individual’s potential danger to the community and ability to elude them. “If someone is really committed to not being under surveillance, it can make things really difficult,” said Bill Gore, who heads the FBI’s office in San Diego. “And if you really believe that this person is a threat ... the question becomes whether you can really afford to lose him. If not, maybe you just get rid of him” through deportation.
In many cases, the deportation proceedings offer only hints of connections to terrorism.
Acting on an unprecedented request by the INS, an Immigration Court judge agreed to close all proceedings -- and issue a gag order -- on the deportation case involving Zakaria Soubra, an outspoken Islamic student from Lebanon.
Soubra is one of eight people mentioned in a Phoenix FBI agent’s memo, written prior to the East Coast skyjackings, that raised concerns about alleged Middle East extremists attending flight schools in Arizona. He was taken into INS custody in Phoenix on May 23 for violating his immigration status. His violation? Soubra fell below the minimum of 12 credits per semester required for a student visa.
Records and interviews show FBI agents were interested in Soubra’s attendance at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., as well as his membership in Al Muhajiroun, a hard-line anti-American group that some intelligence agents suspect is linked to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, Al Qaeda.
Authorities have not alleged any links between Soubra and September’s hijackers. But investigators long ago established that one of the 19 terrorists, Hani Hanjour, first came to Arizona in the mid-1990s and trained at local flight schools.
Affidavits presented by the FBI requested that Soubra’s hearing be closed. INS attorneys also argued for secrecy in the case, suggesting that Soubra’s case involved issues of national security.
Ultimately, Soubra was ordered deported for what normally would be a routine immigration violation. His attorneys have railed against federal authorities for publicly invoking the specter of terrorism against their client without offering either evidence or a chance for him to clear his name.
“If these people are being accused of terrorism, absolutely get them the hell out of the country,” said Soubra’s Phoenix attorney Eric Bjotvedt. “But when they are not being charged with that, I cannot understand how you can treat them like ... terrorists.”
The same arguments -- for and against deportation -- have been advanced in the San Diego case of Mohdar Mohamed Abdullah.
A former San Diego State University student, Abdullah, 24, has been ordered deported back to Yemen after pleading guilty to lying on immigration forms, claiming he was from Somalia.
But that offense was overshadowed by the government’s assertions that Abdullah knew three of the Sept. 11 skyjackers and helped them get driver’s licenses, Social Security cards and information about student visas to attend flight schools in Florida.
In successfully blocking a lower bail for Abdullah in May, federal authorities claimed he “regularly dined, worked and prayed with the hijackers” who crashed into the Pentagon. And, authorities said, they did not believe Abdullah when he denied knowledge of the attack planned by his “friends” Hani Hanjour, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Al-Midhar.
Abdullah’s attorneys rejected the assertions as groundless attempts to make a routine immigration case appear a matter of national security. “These are nothing more than inflammatory statements by the government to demonize my client,” said attorney Randy Hamud, who represented Abdullah in the deportation proceedings.
Perhaps. But the case is just one of many that illustrates how authorities will use deportation when proving terrorism charges might not be possible.
Said Agent Scafidi: “It isn’t a fair process when you get right down to it because a lot of people who get caught up in this might have crossed paths with one of the top 10 dirty people in the world 20 years ago but have no terrorist leanings themselves. And who’s to say whether they would do anything in the future?
Not Taking Chances
“But we are not going to take a chance,” Scafidi said. “If you are here and obeying all of the laws, fine. But if you are here illegally or out of status or your car is not registered, you are going to cause a little more scrutiny ... and what we are doing is of necessity.
“We are being forced to use every legal and moral and ethical avenue that we can,” he said, “to ensure the safety of our citizens.”