I’m Sorry I Called You a Terrorist
Just before the pandemic, a young woman came to my office and asked what I knew about her father.
She had barely met him – her parents split soon after she was born – but every so often, she searched for her father online. This time, his name showed up on my website, on a list of Muslim-Americans charged with involvement in violent extremism. She was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, not far from my office at the university, and she made an appointment to come see me.
“Is my father a terrorist?” she asked.
I didn’t recognize the name and had to look it up. There he was: arrested in October 2001, pled guilty to drug dealing and immigration fraud, served six months in prison. I had gotten his name from a document released by the National Security Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, identifying people convicted since 9/11 in cases related to international terrorism.
Trial records provided more detail. In 2000, a court in Florida had convicted the young woman’s father — his first name is Muhammed — for selling steroids and sentenced him to probation, on condition that he complete a drug treatment program. Two days after 9/11, a counselor at the program notified the sheriff’s office that Muhammed hadn’t shown up for a session.
Muhammed was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, where 15 of the 19 hijackers grew up. He has the same last name as three of the hijackers, who had also lived at times in Florida. He had taken flying lessons.
The missed appointment appears to have been treated as a high-priority tip. An FBI agent accompanied two sheriff’s detectives to Muhammed’s apartment the same day. Muhammad let them search the place, and in a dresser drawer, they found a box of syringes and needles, which are commonly used for steroid injection. There was no evidence of a connection to terrorism. The officers left.
A week later, when Muhammed was out of the apartment, the officers showed up again. A women who identified herself as Muhammed’s girlfriend let them in. This time, they found more syringes and needles, plus four kinds of steroids, still in their original packaging. Also, taped under the top of a dresser, they found a second Saudi Arabian passport, with Muhammed’s photo and a different last name. There was no evidence of a connection to terrorism. The officers left.
Three weeks later, federal agents arrested Muhammed and charged him with intent to distribute steroids and three counts of passport and visa fraud. He pled guilty to the drug charge and one of the passport charges and was sentenced to six months in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of $10,000. By the time of his sentencing in April 2002, Muhammed had already served his six months, and he was released and deported. Nothing in the court records suggested any connection to terrorism.
To show the young woman the source of my information, I swiveled my computer screen and called up the most recent list of international terrorism-related convictions that the Department of Justice had released through the Freedom of Information Act. (I am part of a lawsuit to get the Department of Justice to release a comparable list of domestic terrorism-related convictions.)
Muhammed’s name was not on the list.
I scrolled up and down, puzzled. I called up older versions of the list. His name was there, just as I had remembered.
Apparently, the Department of Justice had removed Muhammed’s name, along with the names of 116 other people, almost all of them Muslims. Their convictions were no longer considered terrorism-related. A footnote explained why. “Prior versions of this chart included a group of defendants who were identified during the course of the nationwide investigation conducted after September 11, 2001, and were subsequently charged with a criminal offense. Individuals whose convictions arose from that initial terrorism investigation were included on prior versions of the chart regardless of whether investigators developed or identified evidence that the defendants had any connection to international terrorism.”
With these names removed, the Department of Justice now listed only 17 international terrorism-related convictions from its massive manhunt in the year after 9/11 – far fewer than the previous total of 134, which was itself far fewer than the 331 “potential al Qaeda operatives inside the United States” that FBI Director Robert Mueller warned President George W. Bush about in late September 2001, as the government was preparing the USA PATRIOT Act.
The federal government had deployed Muhammed’s name for years to justify heightened diligence against Islamic terrorism. A month after Muhammed’s arrest, Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly identified him, along with 92 other people who had been arrested since 9/11, as part of what Ashcroft called a “deliberate campaign of arrest and detention to protect American lives.” Ashcroft continued, “We’re removing suspected terrorists who violate the law from our streets to prevent further terrorist attack. We believe we have al Qaeda membership in custody, and we will use every constitutional tool to keep suspected terrorists locked up.”
There was no press conference when Muhammed’s name was removed from the Department of Justice’s list of terrorism-related convictions.
In my office, I apologized to his daughter for including her father’s name on my list of terrorism-related cases. Here, I apologize to you, Muhammed. I’m sorry I called you a terrorist.