Pressured to Name Names
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.
Most Muslims who have been approached as potential informants are too fearful to talk publicly. Ouassif said he decided to speak to reporters from The Times and the Wall Street Journal because he hoped to encourage the FBI to find “a way of dealing with a situation like this in a non-harmful way.”
Ouassif grew up in Casablanca, Morocco, with seven brothers and one sister. He entered the United States in January 2001, at 19, after winning a green card through the federal government’s lottery. In 2003, he traveled to Morocco to marry a 17-year-old cousin. When he returned, he enrolled at San Francisco City College and made plans to bring his wife, Khadija El Fahri, to live with him.
Ouassif is now cleanshaven and wears jeans and sneakers. But then, he sported a full beard and, by his own account, embraced an intense religious orthodoxy. He gravitated to the Al-Tawheed mosque, on the edge of San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin neighborhood, across the street from a sex shop. At the mosque, Ouassif sold Moroccan clothing for extra income, worshiped and talked often with friends.
In the post-Sept. 11 environment, some conversations were starkly critical of U.S. policy, he conceded. But Ouassif said he never advocated violence and believes that those who commit terror against nonbelievers are “distorting Islam.”
His ordeal began Sept. 26, 2005, after a visit to his wife in Morocco. Three hours into his Paris-to-San Francisco flight, the plane turned back. An Air France spokesman confirmed that the flight was diverted “at the request of the U.S. authorities.”
Ouassif was questioned in France and then put on a plane to Casablanca. Moroccan agents took over, warning him that U.S. officials had the dirt on Ouassif and his friends.
“I pleaded with them in the name of God not to take any action without proof,” he said.
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.
Lonergan printed Dan’s number on his card.
Reached at his two-man office in Plattsburgh, N.Y., just south of Champlain, Lonergan said he could not comment.
Customs and Border Protection officials revoked Ouassif’s green card and instructed him to report to immigration authorities in San Francisco.
Informants have long been key to criminal investigations. But they are usually used merely to turn up leads. Agents then accumulate other evidence or follow through on their own, undercover.
Terrorism cases, in contrast, are increasingly built solely on informants.
Rand Corp. terrorism expert Brian Jenkins said the reasons are varied. The FBI lacks agents with language and ethnic backgrounds to infiltrate potential jihadist groups. Pressure has mounted to intervene before terrorist acts are carried out. And would-be terrorists now favor “local initiatives beneath the radar of international intelligence,” he said, making investigation of homegrown groups much more critical.
The recent arrests of seven Miami men who allegedly talked of blowing up Chicago’s Sears Tower, for example, stemmed entirely from the work of an undercover FBI informant who posed as an Al Qaeda operative.
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.
Initially investigated as a suspect, that informant agreed to help in exchange for more than $200,000 -- payments that critics contend could lead informants to lie or entrap.
Appealing to an innocent person’s concern for potential violence is the best recruiting approach, experts and the FBI’s Quy said.
But, Jenkins said, “The most common, easiest way is to use leverage against someone who has actually committed a crime and then to say, ‘Look, in exchange for X, we need your help.’ ”
One way to exert such leverage is through immigration violations. Even when the offense is minor, the consequences are almost always severe.
“For many people, the stakes are whether they get to continue living in the country that is their home,” said Georgetown University law professor David Cole, who has represented terrorism defendants. “That is a huge hammer to hold over somebody’s head.”
When he returned to San Francisco, Ouassif said he called the FBI agent, Dan Fliflet.
For nearly four hours the next day, they walked and talked near a West Oakland train station. “He said, ‘I know all about you and your friends at the AlTawheed mosque,’ ” Ouassif recounted. “ ‘I also know you have jihadi beliefs -- holy war beliefs.’ ”
Ouassif denied it. But Fliflet insisted he had a detailed report on Ouassif. He proposed a long-term collaboration, Ouassif recalled, first in San Francisco and later in Sacramento. Ouassif could cooperate. He would get his green card back and his wife would be allowed to come live with him. Or he could refuse. And then Fliflet would spearhead efforts to expel him.
“America is like a bus,” Ouassif said Fliflet told him. “Either you board the bus or you leave.”
He gave Ouassif one week to think about it. “We shook hands and he left,” he said. “It was the most terrible moment I have ever experienced.”
The questions tumbled out. “Is it going to harm people? Is it going to hurt me?” Then he swung the other way. “I thought, even if I have to go back and live with my family in Morocco, it’s OK. I just want to live a peaceful life.”
A friend counseled Ouassif to hold firm. “Nothing will happen to you,” he said. “This is their strategy. Be patient. It’s a test from God.”
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.
Vincent also declined to discuss the case and referred a call to ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice, who said that the agency never began formal immigration proceedings against Ouassif.
But she noted that the decision to present Ouassif with the notice to appear before a prosecutor agreed to press the case was unusual. “I wouldn’t think it’s common,” she said.
Ouassif’s story in many ways remains mysterious.
Akhlaghi said she was told the investigation was prompted by a transcript of Ouassif expressing anti-U.S. opinions that, “if he were a citizen, would have been protected speech.”
Such a conversation would likely have been recorded by an informant who had already infiltrated Ouassif’s Al-Tawheed friends.
Quy, the FBI spokeswoman, said that agents would not place someone on a no-fly list without cause.
“The FBI did not arbitrarily choose Yassine from a group of young Muslim men,” she said. “We were in receipt of specific information that indicated he may be either directly involved or have knowledge of terrorist activities.”
But Akhlaghi believes agents tried to scare Ouassif into cooperating, threatening him with charges they could not substantiate.
She has handled four other immigration cases since last year in which Bay Area clients were pressed in custody to become informants. Two Pakistani students and an Egyptian imam were picked up for minor violations, including failing to pay student fees and misstating an address on a form. The fourth, a Moroccan, was discovered to have overstayed his visa.
All declined to become informants and are fighting deportation.
“They are being visited when they are in shackles and handcuffs and an orange suit,” Akhlaghi said. “There is something that can be really threatening about that.”
Syed, of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, said he has heard of about 10 attempts to turn Muslims with immigration troubles into informants in the last 18 months.
Even in cases in which federal agents are using leverage, terrorism experts suggest there are lines that should not be crossed.
“If we were going to deport them anyway, and you say, ‘You’ve committed a violation. That’s the way it is. But if you help us out, we’ll throw you a lifeline,’ I think that’s fair,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on homeland security. “What I would consider unfair would be deliberately picking on someone for a violation for which they would not normally be punished.”
Ouassif has moved to a downtown apartment and, as a state-licensed security guard, now watches over Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power plants. He dropped out of school this spring in the midst of his ordeal, saying the stress was too much.
“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.”