Dangerous illusions

Mohamed Abdulla saw a pack of journalists gathering outside his Dearborn business on the morning of Dec. 18, 2002, and thought it a good sign.

A month earlier the Dix Avenue shop where Abdulla and his family peddle cell phones, rent post office boxes, transfer money and make shipments overseas had been robbed and an employee shot. Seeing the television camera trucks and print reporters with their photographers, Abdulla assumed the culprit had been caught, and the media were there to get his reaction.

Then the feds came swarming in.

Stunned, the businessman watched in disbelief as agents scoured his store. Abdulla’s son, Saleh, was also present. The day is fixed in his memory.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” Saleh, 21, says. “Of course I was scared. When you see 20 agents in your store, you’re scared.”

At the same time, agents were also breaking through the door of Abdulla’s Dearborn home. His 27-year-old son, Samier, had just woke. The ruckus below brought him to the top of the stairs.

“All I see is three or four men pointing guns at me,” Samier says.

Still shaken from the robbery of the family’s store, he ran into his room and called 911. His brother’s driver’s license had been stolen in the robbery, and Samier’s first thought was the thieves had come back to rob the home.

“They yelled ‘Police!’ But how do I know who’s police?” Samier says.

Until that point, Mohamed Abdulla, now 62, had been living what he describes as the “American dream.” He’d come to this country with his wife, Kadijaa, in 1972, from their native Yemen. He went to work on Ford’s assembly line. The couple raised eight children, sending six of them through college. In 1999, after years of work and saving, they bought the United Mail Center, a small, storefront business in Dearborn’s south end.

It’s there that Abdulla’s American dream collided with the U.S. war on terror that’s been waged since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Authorities confiscated financial records, computers and about $36,000 in cash and checks from the Abdullas. Mohamed Abdulla was arrested and put in handcuffs. An agent warned that the media were waiting outside, and suggested Abdulla might want to cover his face.

He refused.

“The hand that does not steal does not shake,” Abdulla says.

The raids on Abdulla’s home and business were part of a coordinated nationwide effort that eventually resulted in 79 arrests over 19 months. In the metro area that December day, some 60 agents simultaneously moved in on a half-dozen business owners in Dearborn and Detroit suspected of terrorist links. Six men, including Abdulla, were arrested in what the feds dubbed “Operation Green Quest,” a months-long multi-agency investigation led by the U.S. Customs Service, which had zeroed in on businessmen involved in the ancient money-transfer practice called hawala.

Existing outside the traditional banking system, hawala involves closely connected networks of established dealers who, operating on something akin to the honor system, move funds around the world. Because there is little paperwork, the system has been identified by the U.S. government as a way of getting money into the hands of terrorists. Consequently, one provision of the controversial USA Patriot Act rushed through Congress immediately after 9/11 required money transfer businesses to register with the government by the end of 2001. Abdulla admits to never registering his business. But the press release issued by the Justice Department the day of Abdulla’s arrest makes it clear he was allegedly involved in something much more sinister that a simple paperwork snafu.

In the release, Jeffrey Collins, then U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said the arrests made as a result of Operation Green Quest “will have the positive and practical effect of discouraging the use of non-traditional financial institutions to deliver financial assistance to terrorist organizations.”

The busts made a huge splash in the local media. Local TV news outlets gave the story major play that night. The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press ran front-page stories the next day, with both reporting that the arrests were part of the U.S. war on terror.

The feds had to be pleased with the high-profile coverage. Although local officials deny that they alerted the media beforehand, Metro Times has been told by one reporter who covered the arrests that media had indeed been tipped off about the busts before the raids, ensuring there’d be plenty of cameras clicking and videotape rolling when the suspects were paraded out in handcuffs.

Such tips were common in the aftermath of 9/11, says Free Press reporter Tamara Audi, who wrote about the Abdulla raid. Audi says she got a call from the local office of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol — now Immigrations and Customs Enforcement — giving her a heads-up about the bust at United Mail Service.

“In fairness,” Audi says, “I would ask to be told if something was going down. It served both parties.”

Laila Al-Qatami, communications director for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C., says the organization is concerned about the amount of attention such cases receive. Those concerns were related in a meeting with Department of Justice and FBI officials last year.

“What we said is, can you explain why there’s so much fanfare?” Al-Qatami says.

The officials, she says, provided no answer to that question.

Jim Zogby, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Arab-American Institute, says using the media to hype actions against purported terrorists is a deliberate strategy employed by the Bush administration.

“They knew what they were doing,” Zogby says. And what they were doing, he contends, was creating the illusion of movement.

“They need, periodically, to ring a bell and scare people, to raise a warning, to say we’re out there doing something,” Zogby says.

As Abdulla’s case shows, that illusion is sustained even when evidence of a crime never materializes. Again, the media are complicit. Instead of the front-page sensationalism generated when Abdulla was arrested, coverage was relegated to a small article buried inside one of the local dailies when, in January 2003, a federal magistrate acceded to a prosecution request and dismissed the complaints filed against all six men. At the time, a U.S. Customs official was quoted as saying the complaints were being withdrawn to clear the way for expanded charges to be brought in the future. But formal charges were only ever filed against one of the men. In that case, Dearborn resident David Nasser Ali, then 42, pleaded guilty to operating an illegal money transfer business.

But for Abdulla, who was never charged with committing a crime, the sense of injustice still burns. Even now, prosecutors refuse to help clear his name, leaving a cloud of suspicion hanging over him.

“It’s not a finality,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Straus says about the Abdulla case. “You can’t draw any conclusions from us dropping the complaint.”

Critics say the arrest of Abdulla and the media attention it garnered provides a chilling example of what they contend has become a common tactic in the Bush administration’s war on terror. Arrests are made with much media fanfare, with the Justice Department trumpeting yet another victory, creating the impression that progress is being made in the fight to keep Americans safe from foreign fanatics intent on spreading death and destruction. But when the evidence behind those busts finally comes to light, there’s often no proof of any connection to terrorism.

“They’ve done this every time,” Zogby says. “It’s prosecution by press conference. If they bring the media to the event, they’ve not only judged the guy guilty and convicted him in the public eye, they’ve created suspicion about the community.”

If charges are eventually dropped, or a conviction winds up having no connection to terrorist activity, the image of all those handcuffed “terrorists” remains.

It is a deception that begins at the top. In a speech earlier this month touting the effectiveness of the Patriot Act in combating terrorism, President Bush contended that key aspects of that law rushed through Congress immediately after the 9/11 attacks should be kept on the books. Standing before a cadre of Ohio state troopers standing stiffly at attention, Bush announced that the Patriot Act — key provisions of which are set to expire unless renewed by federal lawmakers — has enabled authorities to charge more than 400 people in terrorism investigations since September 2001, with more than half of those arrests resulting in convictions.

As the Washington Post has just reported, the president’s numbers “are misleading at best.”

On June 12, the paper published the results of its evaluation of the Justice Department’s own list of terrorism prosecutions. After looking at 361 cases identified by the Justice Department as being “terrorism-related,” the Post found that only 39 people arrested in those cases “were convicted of crimes related to terrorism or national security.

“Most of the others were convicted of relatively minor crimes such as making false statements and violating immigration law — and had nothing to do with terrorism,” the Post analysis showed.

Those numbers confirm there is a national pattern to what Detroit attorney Bill Swor says has been his firsthand experience.

“In order to justify the war on terror, they’re counting everything as a terror case,” says Swor, who’s represented about a dozen people charged with relatively minor crimes under the aegis of terrorism prosecution.

“None of them had anything to do with terrorism,” Swor says.

Swor’s highest profile client, Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, was accused of being part of a terrorist “sleeper” cell operating in the metro area. In 2003, the Moroccan native was convicted of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists. But last year, at the request of the Justice Department — which admitted that the conviction was obtained through prosecutorial misconduct — those charges were dismissed and the conviction overturned by a federal judge. Elmardoudi is still in custody facing charges of stealing telephone calling card numbers.

Members of Abdulla’s family say they would have preferred to see their father stand trial rather than having the case against him fade away quietly.

A trial, they say, would have ended with an acquittal, providing the sort of closure that now eludes them. Granted, the cash and other assets seized were returned after Abdulla won a civil court action last year, but that is not the same as a jury rendering a not guilty verdict in a criminal trial.

The way it is now, the family’s name has never been officially cleared, and the suspicion of wrongdoing lingers over them.

The case and others like it generate concern about the way the Bush administration is portraying its domestic war on terror. As Zogby says, by continuing to “yell fire without any smoke,” the administration’s credibility is being squandered.

“I think there’s a danger in all of this,” Zogby says, “not only for the affected communities but in creating the illusion of movement when you don’t really have any. Ultimately, it calls into question their effectiveness.”

But effectiveness, he says, may not be the point.

It is the illusion of effectiveness that may be what’s more important.

Nancy Kaffer is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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