A former flight safety student in Arizona facing deportation to Lebanon on immigration violations has instead been summoned to testify before a federal grand jury investigating terrorism.
Amid unusual secrecy, Zakaria Soubra, 26, is being held on a material witness warrant issued under seal in the same Northern Virginia courthouse where a range of terrorist plots has been investigated, including the case of the so-called 20th skyjacker Zacarias Moussaoui.
Soubra, who arrived in the Phoenix area in the late 1990s to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, has been linked in recent months to suspected extremists, federal sources say. The links, they say, include documents recovered from Al Qaeda associates in Pakistan and Soubra's time as a roommate to Ghassan Al-Sharbi, who was arrested in Pakistan last year with a senior member of Al Qaeda.
Soubra has long acknowledged support for Islamic world domination, but he has also passionately denied any links to terrorism or support for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Detained since May 2002 on a student visa violation, he initially fought to stay in the U.S. but decided last fall to no longer fight deportation and was set to be returned to Lebanon on Jan. 8.
But en route to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, federal sources say, the former member of the London-based, hard-line Islamic group Al Muhajiroun was abruptly returned to a detention facility in Florence, Ariz. His wife and friends say they have not heard from him since.
Federal law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have long harbored suspicions that Soubra has done more than simply voice his support for radical Islamic views. Indeed, records and interviews show Soubra was being watched by FBI agents in Phoenix long before the Sept. 11 attacks. Soubra and Al-Sharbi are named in the so-called Phoenix Memo in which FBI Special Agent Kenneth Williams warned about alleged Islamic extremists attending flight schools in the U.S.
Though the FBI interviewed him several times before and after the Sept. 11 attacks, the material witness warrant suggests authorities now suspect Soubra may have more information about terrorism than he shared and should not be deported.
"His name was popping up overseas ... and that is why we did not want to let him go" back to Lebanon, said one Justice Department source. "He would be back in the battlefield."
Said another federal source: "Soubra was involved in terrorist-supporting activities, facilitating shelter and employment for people ... involved with Al Qaeda."
Soubra's American-born wife, his former immigration attorney and friends dismiss the suggestion that he was involved in anything but fiery rhetoric.
"They don't like him because he states his opinions," said Brandy Chase, 18, who married Soubra in October in an Islamic ceremony. "If I was out there doing what he was doing, they wouldn't look at me twice."
Immigration attorney Eric Bjotvedt also criticized the government's actions, insisting that to date Soubra has been charged only with violating the requirement of his student visa that he take 12 units per semester. "If they had something on him, they would charge him with more than a visa violation," he said.
Soubra was first taken into custody in May in Arizona only hours after Williams of the Phoenix FBI told a congressional panel about his suspicions -- outlined in the July 2001 memo -- concerning Islamic militants attending U.S. flight schools.
While Williams' memo was written months before the Sept. 11 attacks, authorities have stressed that none of those named in his memo were linked to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
But the FBI determined soon after the Sept. 11 attacks that one of the 19 hijackers, Hani Hanjour, had resided in Arizona in the mid-1990s and trained at local flight schools. Hanjour also attended the same Phoenix-area mosque as Soubra, though authorities have ascribed little importance to that fact. "A lot of people went there," said one federal law enforcement source.
In an interview with The Times in late 2001, Soubra sharply criticized U.S. policies in the Middle East and said the U.S. and other Western governments must be removed using "intellectual and political" means. But he strongly condemned the Sept. 11 attacks as violations of Islamic law because they targeted civilians.
Before learning that he was still in U.S. custody, Soubra's wife said she and her husband's family in Lebanon were resigned to the fact that he would be deported. It was not until hours after his scheduled arrival in Lebanon, Chase said, that she was notified by a federal public defender in Phoenix that her husband was still in detention.
"I think they are just stringing him along to make it look as though he knows more than he does," Chase said. "He says the FBI keeps pumping him for information that he doesn't have."
Like Chase, attorney Bjotvedt said he was never notified his client would be held in the U.S. after agreeing to deportation. "No one called me," he said.
Even when Soubra agreed to no longer fight his deportation, Bjotvedt said, an attorney for the Immigration and Naturalization Service opposed a court motion under which Soubra's deportation would be classified as voluntary on grounds that the U.S. government "does not agree with his beliefs."
"That was shocking to me," Bjotvedt said. "People come here from all over the world to escape that kind of persecution."
Deedra Abboud, executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations in Arizona, agreed.
"From what I have gotten from his wife and attorneys, there is no evidence against him at all," Abboud said. "It is just that he is guilty by association: the mosque, the flight school and the fact that he has some anti-government ideas. In America, it is supposed to be your right to speak out ... but these days, that is not easy."