Nabil Almarabh had all the markings of a terrorist. He entered the United States illegally. He traveled in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he had self-defense training in small arms. While in Detroit, the 36-year-old Kuwaiti obtained a commercial driver’s license that allowed him to truck hazardous material. He briefly lived in Boston with a man who was later convicted of attempting to bomb a hotel in Jordan. That same man allegedly told the FBI that Almarabh was an associate of Osama bin Laden. When he was arrested, Almarabh had $22,000 in a bank account in Kuwait and $25,000 worth of amber gems in his possession.
Despite all the seemingly incriminating facts, the government never brought terrorism charges against Almarabh. In fact, last fall a federal prosecutor admitted at Almarabh’s sentencing (for entering the country illegally) that it had no evidence linking him to any terrorist activity or organization.
That doesn’t mean the feds don’t intend to deport him to Syria, where Almarabh claims his life would be in danger.
Almarabh has been in federal custody since Sept. 19, 2001. He’s currently incarcerated at the Monroe County Jail, where federal detainees are held. He hopes to avoid deportation to Syria under “the convention against torture,” says his lawyer, Tamara French. If granted, the government can deport him to any country except Syria, or it could let him stay in the States. French says that Almarabh may be tortured if returned to Syria “because he was portrayed in the media as a terrorist.” The trial on his application is expected this summer.
Almarabh had been on a terrorist watch list, part of a nationwide dragnet seeking men of Middle Eastern descent in the wake of Sept. 11.
Two days before his arrest, FBI agents looking for Almarabh raided a Detroit apartment where he had lived from October 2000 to January 2001. The agents found instead three Arabs who were charged with possessing false documents and, later, providing material support to terrorists; they eventually arrested a fourth man on similar charges. Arguments in their trial concluded in U.S. District Court in Detroit last month; by press time Monday, the jury had been deliberating for nearly six days.
During the trial, the government tried to link the four defendants to Almarabh. Prosecutors showed Almarabh’s picture to the jury and alleged that the Detroit apartment was a “safe house” for terrorists. Almarabh says he does not know any of the defendants.
U.S. District Court Judge Gerald E. Rosen instructed the jury to disregard the photo. He noted that the government had admitted that it had no evidence that Almarabh was a terrorist. When the jury left the courtroom, Rosen reprimanded the prosecution for trying to link the defendants to a man who had once been on a terror watch list. The judge complained that prosecutors had repeatedly told him they did not intend to try to link Almarabh to the defendants.
Almarabh has since received an eight-month prison sentence, but was let off with time already served.
The effort to deport him, however, has kept him behind bars. He was born in Kuwait but is considered a Syrian citizen since his parents were born there.
He says his mother died after she learned he had been jailed as a terror suspect. Almarabh says he never got a chance to tell her the accusations were false.
“She had a stroke and died with a broken heart,” he says.
Almarabh says he came to the United States in 1989 to live in Boston with a family friend; he worked at a cab company for about two years. He says a co-worker harassed him and told the FBI that Almarabh planned a bombing.
Agents concluded that the accusation was false, then tried to recruit him as an informant.
He refused, and feared that he would be deported since his tourist visa had expired.
When a roommate offered Almarabh a job with an Islamic charity, he says, he accepted, and went to Pakistan in 1992 to distribute food, medicine and money to refugees there and in Afghanistan. Since he carried money, he says, the charity provided defensive firearms training.
He says he left Pakistan in 1993 due to a crackdown on Arabs there after the first World Trade Center bombing.
He returned to the United States in 1994, living briefly in Boston. An uncle from Toronto suggested he seek asylum in Canada. His 1995 request was denied.
He returned to the States, drove a cab in Boston and married a Vietnamese woman who has a son; she later became a U.S. citizen.
In 1998, he says, Raed Hijazi, whom he met in Pakistan, moved in with Almarabh and his new family. But Almarabh says he kicked Hijazi out after he struck his stepson.
Almarabh believes Hijazi told the FBI that Almarabh was a bin Laden associate who had trained at terrorist camps in Afghanistan. He says the accusations are false.
“I am not a terrorist,” says Almarabh. “In my heart, I am against killing.”
After Almarabh ousted Hijazi, FBI agents came to his home looking for Hijazi (who would later be convicted of attempting to bomb a hotel in Jordan).
Tired of pressure from the FBI, which continued to insist he serve as an informant, he says, Almarabh left his wife and stepson in August 2000 to attend truck-driving school in Detroit, where tuition was cheaper. (His wife is still in Boston.) He obtained a commercial driver’s license that allowed him to haul hazardous material. For about three months he lived alone at the Detroit apartment where three of the men on trial for providing support to terrorists later lived and were arrested.
Unable to find work, he went to Toronto to work at an uncle’s photocopy shop. Business was slow, so he sold his share of the company to his uncle and returned to this country. He says that the $22,000 that the government found in a Kuwaiti bank account was payment from his uncle for his share of the photocopy business; the gems also came from his uncle.
In June 2001, he joined another uncle in Chicago. He held various jobs, including one at a liquor store, where he was arrested.
Almarabh was held in solitary confinement at several detention facilities, including one in Brooklyn, where he claims he was beaten, repeatedly strip-searched and denied legal counsel.
“It was a nightmare that I’ll never forget,” the 36-year-old Kuwaiti says in thickly accented English.
He says that Brooklyn center’s lights were on 24 hours a day, guards broke his finger and rapped on the door through the night to prevent him from sleeping.
“I went nuts,” says Almarabh, who banged a chair against the cell door, yelled and flooded the showers in frustration.
Now, he waits for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to hear his deportation case.
Despite his ordeal, Almarabh says, “I love this country,” and he wants to stay.
“I still have faith in God,” says Almarabh, who claims that he has trouble sleeping, anxiety and has lost about 30 pounds since his detention. “If they want to deport me, I’m not going to panic. But I leave them responsible for what happens to me.”Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]