Trials tested Muslim’s faith in America

Times Staff Writer

Managing a furniture store is not what Osama Awadallah had his sights on during college. But selling couches and dressers will do until an offer to develop computer information systems comes along.

His job opportunities are limited, he said, because of the notoriety from his friendship with two 9/11 hijackers. He was one of the hundreds of Muslim men jailed as material witnesses in the 9/11 investigation. After testifying before the grand jury, he was indicted on charges of perjury, and the experience caused him to question the American ideal of equal justice and democracy. At his first trial he was just one juror away from conviction and deportation. But his faith in this country was restored at the second trial when he was found not guilty in 2006.

“When I came to the United States I had these dreams about this beautiful country,” Awadallah said in a recent interview. He came in 1999 as a student. “But after 9/11, I thought I was not in America. I was scared. Then I saw the goodness of the American people who believe in justice.”

Sporting wire-rim glasses that blend into his round face, Awadallah tenses upon meeting strangers. The bushy beard he wore as a sign of his devotion to Islam has been cropped short, a compromise to help him get a foot in the corporate door.


Jogging and workouts have buffed up the scrawny frame he had when he was arrested in 2001.

Awadallah, 27, said his family elders did not want him to be interviewed for this article. “My family wants people to forget about me. At the same time, I want to make Americans aware of what’s going on in their country. I don’t think they understand their rights.”

He met a reporter at the La Mesa condo of Mimi Pollack, a friend and teacher at Grossmont College in El Cajon, and was more than two hours late. After a tepid apology, he offered a brusque explanation that he is more careful now about whom he talks to because he “stopped trusting people” after his arrest.

Minutes later he began to relax and the furrowed brow was replaced by a warm grin. “Americans are great in their understanding,” he said, gesturing toward Pollack.

His friendship with Pollack has endured even though she turned over to the FBI evidence that led to the two perjury counts lodged against him. Still, she believed in his innocence and was his most vocal advocate.

Despite his acquittal, Awadallah said he is still looked at with suspicion.

“There are non-Muslims who still think I had something to do with the attacks and Muslims who think I got my freedom because I’m working for the government. I can’t control what people think. All I can do is move on.”

Moving on means he wants to become a U.S. citizen, marry and “live like any American.” Finding a woman to marry is a milepost in an American journey that for a while was like “a bad movie that turned real,” he said.

He reached an important goal last year when he graduated from San Diego State with a business degree. His long-term goal is to become a doctor.

“I want to prove that I can be a good American citizen, but I can’t get a job in my field because with a name like Osama, [employers] research me,” he said. “They Google my name and get thousands of hits” about his trials and association with Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, who were among the hijackers who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

He was a casual acquaintance of the two terrorists in 2000. He met them at the mosque in La Mesa and worked for about a month with Alhazmi at a service station. The FBI found his old telephone number in Alhazmi’s car, which was parked at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., and detained him as a material witness on Sept. 21, 2001.

Authorities took him to New York City to testify before a federal grand jury. He was indicted on two counts of perjury because under questioning he said he could not remember Almihdhar’s first name, though there was proof he knew it.

Awadallah had written a report about his summer for Pollack’s class on English as a second language, and she gave the essay to the FBI. “One of the quietest people I have ever met is Nawaf and Khalid,” he had written. He blames the contradiction in his testimony on his poor English and fear and confusion after being kept awake all night by guards.

Defense attorney Randall B. Hamud said Awadallah appeared at his bail hearing before then-federal Judge Michael Mukasey, now President Bush’s nominee for attorney general, after being detained as a material witness. Bail was denied, and Hamud said he complained to Mukasey that jailers had beaten Awadallah.

“He looked at Osama and said, ‘Your client looks fine to me. You can file a lawsuit if you want to,’ ” according to Hamud.

U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin later wrote that “many of Awadallah’s allegations about his treatment during the weeks of incarceration are uncontested” and noted that government officials acknowledged he had multiple bruises on his body and a cut on his left hand.

Awadallah said his ties to Alhazmi and Almihdhar “will fade with time,” and the two hijackers “have been judged by God.” The attacks were not sanctioned by Islam, he said, and there is no excuse for killing 3,000 innocent people.

Born in Venezuela, Awadallah is a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian descent. He said his family lost its property when Israel was established in 1948. Pollack described him as an “in-your-face Muslim” who engaged in passionate debates about Islam and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians before his arrest.

He was also “very conflicted” about Jews, Hamud said.

Though he still criticizes Israel, Awadallah now discusses the volatile issues of the Middle East in “calmer, rational and mature” discussions, Pollack said.

If walls separate Jews and Muslims in America, they can be breached, Awadallah said.

“In America it is possible for people to work together. My case proves that,” he said. “Maybe one day people will work together in Israel and there will be justice for Palestinians.”

As is Pollack, many people who helped clear Awadallah were Jewish, including his three New York lawyers, several jurors, and Scheindlin, who presided over the case. She dismissed the charges against Awadallah in a 60-page opinion that said jailing him solely as a material witness was unlawful. An appeals court reinstated the charges.

Awadallah said he saw the irony of Jews’ helping him.

“People like [juror] David Lipschultz knew there was justice to be served,” he said. Lipschultz, a nurse, was the lone holdout for acquittal at Awadallah’s first trial. “Civil rights isn’t just something you read about in history,” Lipschultz said in an interview.

Awadallah said his unsettling experience also had an upside; it broadened his contact with non-Muslims. Before his arrest, his life revolved mostly around mosque and school, where he kept to himself.

“The best people who treat foreigners well are Americans. So many nice people have helped me with my English, showing me places and going out together,” he said. America “is still a home for freedom. I have no thoughts whatsoever that this is not a good country for Muslims.”