II. The 9/11 Aftermath

© Murtaza Pardais  All rights reserved



"If you say somebody is Muslim, the second word is terrorist. Everybody uses this terminology."

-- Shahid Malik

"I had nothing to do with it, there was nothing I could have ever done to stop it, or prevent it, or protect people from it, but it's still part of how people think of me and think  of my family."

-- Sabrina Shairzay




            "Where do I go now?"

            That's the feeling Nahid Aziz remembers from the weeks and months following September 11, 2001. With Afghanistan incessantly portrayed in media reports as a nest of terrorists and their religion linked in the public mind to violent extremism, Afghan Americans -- who had come to the United States seeking refuge from America's chief enemy --  suddenly were faced with being seen in American eyes as enemies themselves. So were Pakistani Americans and other Muslim American communities, now the objects of widespread public hostility and suspicion and at times violent attack. Like Japanese Americans during World War II, Muslim Americans after 9/11 "have to prove our loyalty on a daily basis," said Irfan Malik, who heads one leading Pakistani American national organization and is active in a number of other national and local groups. The sense of a daily loyalty test applies not just to himself as an immigrant from Pakistan, he added. "My kids who were born here, they are asked to do the same."

            Shabbir Anwar, who came to the United States from Pakistan in the 1990s, has the same feeling. Even after spending more than a decade on active service as a U.S. Air Force reservist, including three tours of duty in Iraq, he still lives with a sense that Americans and even some of his military colleagues may not fully trust his loyalty. In general, he said, despite sporadic needling remarks from other airmen that he chooses to take as harmless ribbing, he doesn't feel that being a Muslim in the American military has been difficult. But at times, he went on, "I wonder if I'm being accepted as equal... not because somebody did or said something, just in the back of my mind." After being "bombarded every day" with negative news about Muslims, Anwar feels, Americans "tend to have those negative opinions, negative thoughts, as soon as they hear a Muslim name" -- even if the man with the name has spent years serving in his adopted country's wars.

           In Iraq, where he served with a military police unit, Anwar became a kind of unofficial adviser for his colleagues on Islamic subjects, explaining things such as religious rituals or holidays or the differences between various sects. Being the only person in his unit who knew such things made him feel useful, but also different. "I always knew I was helping a good cause," he said, "but it kind of made you wonder if you were being accepted as equal as part of military.... it made me feel how important the mission I was doing was, but on other hand, it was always a feeling of OK, is this going to be enough to prove my loyalty? That was always the case, thinking that someone's going to question my loyalty."

            Wajahat Ali, a Pakistani American writer, lawyer and community activist, calls the 9/11 attack "a permanent fork in the timeline," in his own life and for other Muslims. On the one hand, as an act of religiously inspired terror, 9/11 "was a rude awakening for many Muslims that this poisonous element did indeed exist within the realm of Islam," Ali said. On the other hand, it made Muslims, willingly or not, into ambassadors representing their religion, their cultures, and their nationalities in front of the larger society. (One might assume, he added, that in the 11 years since 9/11 "all the awareness and discussion of Islam would make people less ignorant," but that's not what he's seen happening. Instead, he believes the post-9/11 period with its continuing waves of anti-Islamic rhetoric has generated more public ignorance, not less.)

            Many Pakistani and Afghan Americans, like other Muslims, remember name-calling and racial slurs as part of their post-9/11 experience. For some, it was a fairly common occurrence. Abdul Khan, who was nine years old when he and his mother came from Pakistan to join his father in Maryland, recalls being tormented for months during his first year in high school by fellow students who taunted him for being a terrorist. What sunk in, he says, is that when he hears anyone use the word terrorist, "Muslim comes to your head. Terrorist, Muslim, terrorist, Muslim. They're interchangeable." Shahid Malik, a Pakistani immigrant who owns an event management business in Virginia, made the same point in almost the same words. "Right now that's the connotation of Islam. If you say somebody is Muslim, the second word is terrorist. Everybody uses this terminology." The deranged white supremacist in Norway who killed 77 people in a bomb and mass shooting attack in July 2011, wasn't called "a Christian terrorist, he is a mentally disturbed person," Malik went on. "If the same person were Muslim he would have been a Muslim terrorist."

            Masood Haque, a Pakistani American and an emergency room doctor in New York's Westchester County, has also heard the word "terrorist" many times from disturbed or strung-out patients. "When a patient gets really mad at me," he said,  "the first thing they say to me usually is, 'you fucking terrorist,' 'you fucking go back to your country,' 'who do you think you are!' They often confuse me with Indians, with Arabs, they kind of go back and forth with these racial epithets."

            For Haque, another consequence of 9/11 was "a very very strong sense that you had to mind what you say; the opinions you expressed, they had to not offend anybody." That meant, among other things, not trying to explain things he knows about the political and historical context of Muslim extremism. He is not a religious believer himself and emphatically opposes violent terrorism, but as an immigrant who has lived in both cultures, Haque believes he has a sense of "where these people are coming from, why they have such a strong feeling." But, he said, for years "you couldn't have that conversation with anybody. You could not say it, you had to watch what you say." Nor did Haque feel free to say things in everyday situations that might draw attention -- grumbling about long waits in the Motor Vehicles office, for example. "It's less so now, but for the first five or six years you could not draw any kind of attention, you just wanted to blend in and not get yourself in trouble."

            The 9/11 backlash came to Afghan Americans and Pakistani Americans in many ways. Some created national news, in cases involving hate killings or major terrorist prosecutions. Many more did not make the headlines. But virtually no one in the Pakistani or Afghan communities was unaffected. Here are some things that happened.


            "I  didn't want to be a coward":  With her two small children and wearing her headscarf, as usual, Rohina Malik, a Pakistani American actress and playwright, was on her way to a Pakistani friend's wedding in Chicago. On the sidewalk outside the wedding hall, she noticed an American couple, apparently guests at another wedding taking place inside. The man was smoking a cigarette. As Malik walked past, the man suddenly began shouting:

          "Take that fucking shit off your head!"

            "I froze. I couldn’t move. My brain was trying to process what just happened," Malik wrote in recreating the scene for her one-woman play, "Unveiled."[1] In the play, Maryam, the character who narrates the story, is fictionalized, but her account of the exchange on the sidewalk presents it just as Malik remembers it happening in real life.

            "I kept asking myself, 'Did he just say that to me?'" Maryam says in the play. "I turned around and he was glaring at me, with this look that said, 'Yeah, I just said that to you.'

            "I could have walked away and just ignored him," Maryam goes on, "but I didn’t want to be a coward in front of my children.... So I looked that man straight in the eye and said, 'Sir, you need to get an education, because you’re ignorant.'"

         The dialogue continues (in performance, Malik speaks both parts)


            MAN: Fuck you! You’re in America, take that shit off your head.

            MARYAM: That’s right I’m in America, where I have my constitutional right to practice my religion and dress how I like.

            MAN: You A-rabs are terrorists, go back to Afghanistan.

            MARYAM: Sir, let me educate you, Afghans are not Arabs. I’m not an Arab, or an Afghan, or a terrorist. I’m an American, a Pakistani American.

            MAN: If you’re American, then dress like one!

            MARYAM: I am dressed like one, veiled or unveiled. I am an American! And I’m not going to waste another second of my time talking to an ignorant loser like you.

            MAN: Don’t call me a loser, you bitch!

            MARYAM: At this point, the guy charges towards me with his fist getting closer and closer to my face. All of a sudden, his lady friend pulls him back.

            LADY: JOHN, NO! JOHN, NO! Don’t do it John! She’s not worth it. She’s just a fucking A-rab.

            MARYAM: I spent most of my best friend’s wedding at the police station.... This man, John, thought it was okay to swear at me in front of my children. He thought it was okay to physically attack me in front of my children. That’s because in his eyes I was not a mother, a wife, a daughter. I was just a "Mozlem," a "Terrorist." I was not human. Do you know what it feels like to be treated like you and your children are not human? (Pause) I do.


             After recounting the story, Maryam adds this reflection, which one can guess is Malik's as well:

            "Before 9/11, I always felt like I was a part of the great melting pot that America is. (Pause) But, after that day, that horrible day in September, I found myself wondering if this American experience included me. You see, on September 10th, 2001, I was a normal American, life was normal, we were normal Americans living our lives. The next day, everything changed. The backlash was so ugly. Women in veils got the worst of it.Do you know, years have gone by, but still every September 11th, my husband will not let me leave the house. He worries about my safety....

            "As for John, he was arrested for assault. Truth is, I don’t think John’s arrest will really teach him anything, maybe to hate Muslims more. So what’s the solution? I don’t know, getting to know me might help. Maybe, maybe I should have invited him to the wedding...."

            "We're sorry that we're going to war":  For weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Sufia Alnoor's father, a former Afghan army officer, did not want her or her sister to leave their  house. Both girls wore headscarves, and he "was really worried," Alnoor remembers, about what might happen to them if they went out in identifiable Muslim dress. The family was living in Springfield, Virginia, and the girls were attending a local Islamic girls school. One day around the time of the first U.S. air attacks on Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, Sufia related, "I remember my dad was moving things, I think from the garage," and her sister started to come out of the house to help. When their father saw her, he began to shout, "'get back in, get back in!' He was that worried that he didn't want us to step out of the house." But, she went on, instead of the hostility they feared, a group of their American neighbors came to the house with flowers and candles. As she spoke, her eyes filled with tears. "Our neighbors brought us flowers and candles," she said a second time, and started crying again. "They were like, 'We're sorry that we're going to war.'"

            The man on the radio: "I had been 'hiding' the fact I was Afghan," Sabrina Shairzay remembers about the days after 9/11. She was in New York City at the time, in her senior year at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "[I] took off the Allah necklace I used to wear (I wore it because it was a gift from my mom to keep me safe, not because I was religious), didn't correct anyone when they thought I was Hispanic (to this day I still struggle with admitting my true heritage -- it depends on the situation), but our community as a whole was scared of any retaliation. I was devastated, ashamed to admit who I was and guilt ridden for not standing up for the innocent ones."

            Then she heard a man on the radio telling an interviewer he hoped Americans would "kill all those people in Afghanistan."

            Before 9/11, she thought, "most people didn't even know where Afghanistan was or had even heard of it. Now everyone wanted the whole country and the people blown up. It was heartbreaking on so many levels, and finally I couldn't stay silent anymore."  She poured out her feelings in a five-page essay that she wrote in one anguished stream of consciousness, without stopping to use capital letters or correct small spelling mistakes. Her first sentence was: "hasn't anyone heard the saying two wrongs don't make a right?" The rest of the essay is full of sorrow and passion -- notably, not for the things that were happening to her in New York, but for Afghans facing American destructive power in a country she had never seen. (She has since left New York and now lives in Minneapolis.) Here is some of what she wrote:

            ....if you want to stop the threats of terrorism, if you want to sleep better at night knowing there is no threat to america, death to afghanistan and all its people is not what is going to make you feel better.  the terrorists are not true afghans, they are not true muslims. the taliban care nothing for the afghans, they do not feel for the country in their hearts as americans do for the united states. all the taliban wants is to force their fanatical ways upon the poor and the weak. the taliban was not an elected form of government in afghanistan. the taliban forced their way into power through violence....

            i believe in bringing those responsible to justice and prosecuted to the full extent of god's law and the government, but the idea of my people sitting in ruins in afghanistan and looking up to see missiles being dropped on top of them again, not scared because they have seen it countless times before, not screaming because they have been expecting their end forever, not crying because they will be reunited in afterlife with their families, i do not believe this is proper retribution for what has torn new york and america. if you feel it is, then there is no more i can say. maybe it will be better if america blew up afghanistan. in that case, if that is the direction of revenge, if that is the idea of retribution, i ask please, blow up the whole country, leave nothing behind, and send me there so i can die with them....

            my family has been living in fear...  my family is terrified for my brother and i being in new york, they desperately want us to come home so we can hide together. is this anyway to live? for me and my family to hide from america, where i was born and raised, because of what a group of violent animals who i hate with every bone in my body for what they are doing to afghans, did to my new york city, to my country.... imagine there was a country bigger and stronger than america that had vowed to destroy the entire country in retaliation for an act a small group committed, a group not even supported by the population. imagine the fear facing through the population as people everywhere fled for their lives before the destruction began...

            i am afghan, i am muslim. i am not taliban, i am not a terrorist. i am american, i am a new yorker, i am suffering, i am in hiding, i am sorry... i have felt helpless, living in such freedom and opportunity in america while afghans have suffered, knowing there was nothing i could do to help them, to help the girls my age, that the lives these children have lived, growing up in war, numb to the sounds of missiles and bombs, could not understand the life i have led in america, that i graduated high school, that i attend college, that i have had a job, that i drive a car, that i use the internet, that i watch t.v., that i buy cd's, because these children my age have never done any of this. and now if america turns against them, i wish to lay down and die as well because i cannot live if the american part of me has killed the afghan part of me.


            Nearly twelve years later, Shairzay's feelings are still complicated and painful. She has never put her mother's Allah necklace back on, and remains hesitant to disclose her Afghan identity to people she doesn't know. She struggled a bit to explain that reluctance. "Sometimes it was just a lot of questions I didn't want to answer, assumptions that I'm a terrorist or my family is terrorist," she said. "It's like in a way I had a secret, and I didn't want people to know the secret," she said, so not mentioning her Afghan identity was a way to avoid difficult questions.

            When she was growing up, Shairzay recalled, being Afghan was part of her life but not the central one, either in her family or in the "pretty much upper middle class white" Connecticut town where they lived. "We never really noticed that we were that different, because most people had never heard of Afghanistan. My parents weren't strict, my mom didn't cover or anything. If anything, most people just thought we were exotic.... My parents didn't force Islam, being middle eastern, being Afghan, on us when we were growing up. We always kind of lived in this in-between place, where we weren't 100 percent American and we weren't 100 percent Afghan, we were a mix of  something. And all of a sudden this insane international catastrophe happens on 9/11 and now...  a part of me that has always kind of been a mystery is now out in the open, and it's ugly. It's this horrible part that had been unleashed onto the world and caused all of this horror and damage" and, she added, completely changed perceptions of Afghanistan among the people around her. The connection with terrorism and violence became "the only thing that people knew, whereas before it was just kind of mysterious and exotic.... It's weird. I had nothing to do with it, there was nothing I could have ever done to stop it, or prevent it, or protect people from it, but it's still part of how people think of me and think of my family."

            As Shairzay spoke, it became clear that beneath those feelings lay a deeper, more complicated layer of emotion, having to do not only with other people's views of her family's homeland and religious heritage, but her own perceptions as well. In that underlying layer there is an illogical but unshakable feeling that some part of her identity is connected to the terrorists, that she somehow shared the responsibility for the attacks just because of who she is and that her family came from the place where the attacks were planned. Shairzay knows that none of the 9/11 attackers was Afghan, and that the terrorists' version of Islamic teachings has no resemblance to the religious traditions and values she learned in her family. Even so, seeing acquaintances in New York who lost friends or relatives on 9/11, or hearing the names of victims read out in anniversary commemorations in the years following the attacks, left her with a sense that "I feel like I owe something for it." She felt guilty, Shairzay said, for "not being able to explain why this was happening, why did they do it... it's not that it was my family or my people that did it, but there was just something about the connection to it, that makes me -- it makes me angry, it makes me sad."

            At the border: It's not her real name, but the woman who told this story asked to be called Maryam (not to be confused with Maryam in Rohina Malik's play). After arriving from Afghanistan, she and her family settled in Ithaca, New York. From there they regularly made the three-hour drive across the Canadian border to Kingston, Ontario, to visit close relatives who had settled there. For years those trips were uneventful, but when Maryam, her brother and her mother drove back from another visit a few months after 9/11, an immigration officer at the U.S. border checkpoint ordered her brother out of the car and roughly handcuffed him, kicking him in the process.

            Maryam's mother, watching the scene from the back seat, was so upset that she fainted. At that, another immigration agent offered to call an ambulance. "She doesn't need an ambulance, she needs her son," Maryam told him, but the ambulance came anyway and took her to a hospital in Buffalo, leaving her son in handcuffs at the checkpoint. After two hours, Maryam said, the officers released her brother and told him he could leave. But he refused to go until they explained what had happened. After some argument, they finally told him that they had thought he might be someone else they were looking for -- though the suspect's last name and date of birth were different, and the only match with Maryam's brother was the first name.

            "For two weeks my brother couldn't go to work" because he was so shaken by what happened, Maryam told me, and her mother refuses to go to Canada again. Maryam is sure their religion was the only reason for the incident. "It's because we are Muslims."

            A fateful photograph:  Exactly four weeks after 9/11, a boyish-looking 24-year-old pizza deliveryman named Ansar Mahmood drove up a steep hill to the end of Rossman Avenue on the southern outskirts of Hudson, New York. A customer had told him there was a nice view from that spot, and Mahmood had gone there with a borrowed camera hoping to get some photographs to send to his family in Pakistan, so they could see what a beautiful place he was living in. Standing at the end of the road was a high chain-link fence with a small building behind it and beyond, a mile or so to the west, the scenic view he had hoped for, showing a stretch of the Hudson River with the Catskill mountains rising beyond the far bank.

            After parking outside the fence, Mahmood walked through the unlocked gate and approached a couple of men who were working on the other side. "I ask one of them, can you take my picture over there?" Mahmood recalled later. "He said why not, sure." Mahmood returned to his car to get the camera, then walked back through the gate and handed the camera to the man. "He say move here and here, he gave directions. He take like three or four pictures... he was nice to me. I thanked him, we exchanged a few words, and then I left."[2]

            Mahmood was delighted with the photographs, but when he got back to the pizza store, two policemen intercepted him before he could get to the door and hustled him to the police station. Although Mahmood didn't know it, the area behind the chain-link fence was on the grounds of Hudson's reservoir and water treatment facility. A security guard had grown suspicious and had called to report that a Muslim-looking young man had turned up there with a camera. Investigators quickly decided that Mahmood -- a legal immigrant with a green card -- was not a terrorist. But they found evidence on a completely unrelated issue: that he had co-signed an apartment lease and registered a car for two friends, a Pakistani couple who were in the United States on expired visas. Mahmood denied knowing about his friends' illegal status, but when his questioners promised he would be freed if he signed a statement saying he did know, he agreed to sign. Instead of being released, though, Mahmood was rearrested on a criminal charge of harboring illegal aliens -- an "aggravated felony" under immigration statutes, though that is a status that exists nowhere else in U.S. criminal law.

            Stuck with his signed admission and on the advice of his public defender, Mahmood pleaded guilty to the harboring charge -- not realizing, he contends, that a criminal conviction would automatically subject him to deportation, and that the aggravated felony category meant he could be banned from the United States for life. The judge in the harboring case did not give him additional prison time, sentencing him to time served and five years probation. But again, instead of being freed, Mahmood was immediately returned to prison while the deportation proceeding unfolded. After spending two and a half more years behind bars while he and his supporters tried unsuccessfully to appeal the order, he was flown back to Pakistan. In its final notice denying his appeal, the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged that Mahmood had committed no terrorist acts and had no terrorist connections. Nevertheless, and despite the relative harmlessness of his offense, it concluded that kicking him permanently out of the country was "in the best interest of national security."



           Indisputably, some real terrorists emerged from the Pakistani and Afghan American communities -- Faisal Shahzad, for example, a Pakistan-born U.S. citizen who early on the evening of May 1, 2010, parked a sport utility vehicle packed with explosive materials in New York City's Times Square. Before walking away, Shahzad activated a timed detonator mechanism, which however failed to ignite the explosives. Arrested two days later after being taken off a plane that was about to fly to the Middle East, Shahzad remained unrepentant. "I consider myself a mujahid, a Muslim soldier," he declared in a court appearance where he pleaded guilty to ten terrorism-related offenses, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and an attempted act of terrorism. Explaining his plea, Shahzad delivered a defiant speech to the presiding judge:

            "I want to plead guilty and I'm going to plead guilty 100 times forward because until the hour the U.S. pulls its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and stops the drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen and in Pakistan, and stops the occupation of Muslim lands, and stops killing the Muslims and stops reporting the Muslims to its government, we will be attacking U.S., and I plead guilty to that."[3]

            Najibullah Zazi, who grew up in an Afghan immigrant family in Queens, also found his way into the holy war against America. A one-time street vender who sold coffee and pastries from a cart for several years not far from Ground Zero in New York's financial district, Zazi was incongruously remembered by customers for his smiling, sunny personality.[4] Twice, in 2006 and 2007, he temporarily left his vending job to go to Pakistan, where he had lived as a boy for some years after his family left Afghanistan. He returned from those trips with stricter attitudes about religious belief and practices, or so it seemed to some of his acquaintances. In late summer of 2008, with two classmates from Flushing High School, Zazi left for a third trip to Pakistan. This time he traveled to an al-Qaeda training camp where, according to the U.S. Justice Department, he and his companions were trained in the use of various weapons and explosives. They originally planned to go to Afghanistan to fight against U.S. troops there, but at the urging of their al-Qaeda instructors, agreed instead to return home and carry out suicide bomb attacks against American targets.

            After four and a half months in Pakistan, Zazi returned to the United States and moved from New York to Aurora, Colorado, where he found work as an airport shuttle driver. Over the summer of 2009, he and several co-plotters made the rounds of beauty supply shops in the Denver area, buying large quantities of beauty products containing chemicals that can be used to make explosives. On two occasions, he rented a hotel room that he used to mix the chemicals into two pounds of explosive, intended to be used in three bombs. In early September he packed all the bomb-making materials into a rented car and drove to New York City where, he later told investigators, he intended to use the explosives for suicide attacks in the New York subway system. By then, the FBI was already aware of the possible terrorist plot, and had Zazi under surveillance while he drove across the country. (U.S. intelligence officials have suggested that identifying Zazi was a successful result of the massive National Security Agency surveillance program that touched off a heated public controversy after its existence was revealed in June 2013. According to another account, however, the alert came from British intelligence authorities who had intercepted an e-mail to Zazi from a senior al-Qaeda member in Pakistan.[5])

            Shortly after he reached New York, Zazi learned from an acquaintance who had been contacted by police that he was being monitored. He abandoned his plans and flew back to Colorado, where he was arrested a few days later. In February 2010 he pleaded guilty to three terrorism-related crimes, two of them carrying a possible life sentence. Instead of public defiance, though, Zazi chose to cooperate with investigators -- apparently, among possible other reasons, to get more lenient treatment for family members and others who also face prosecution. His cooperation may explain why at this writing, three and a half years after his guilty plea, he has still not been sentenced.

            There is no question that Faisal Shahzad and Najibullah Zazi wanted to commit mass murder, had the means to carry out their plans, and if they had been successful, would have killed scores or hundreds of innocent people. But many other post-9/11 terrorism cases were less convincing, even where prosecutors won convictions. An example is the case involving Shahawar Matin Siraj, a Pakistani immigrant who was convicted and given a 30-year prison sentence for a terrorist plot also aimed at the New York subways -- in Siraj's case, a plan to blow up the Herald Square station, the third busiest station in the entire New York subway system. The severe sentence was imposed even though no act of terror was attempted or committed, and despite the fact that Siraj and his mentally ill co-defendant had no ties with any terrorist organizations and never acquired or tried to acquire any explosives. Prosecutors pictured him as a violent fanatic, but many others described Siraj as a confused, slow-witted, naive young man who had none of the skills and knowledge needed to carry out a terrorist act and would never even have thought about planning one if not for what was in effect a sting operation by the intelligence division of the New York Police Department. 

            The acts that were the basis for Siraj's conviction were a preparatory scouting trip to the Herald Square station, his possession of crude diagrams of the station layout, and conversations, recorded by a police informant, in which he spoke about bombing that and other targets. But those acts were committed only after the informant spent many months inflaming Siraj's anger at the United States by plying him with photographs and stories of American atrocities in Iraq and against Muslims elsewhere.
       Shahina Parveen, Siraj's mother, who calls her son "not very mature" and says his IQ has been measured at 78, insists that the informant, a 50-year-old Egyptian engineer named Osama Eldawoody, manufactured the terror plot and drew her son into it. Eldawoody "kept manipulating him emotionally and mentally, showing him pictures from the war in Iraq, what's happening in Palestine, from Abu Ghraib, from Guantanamo, telling him stories about the rape of young girls in Iraq as a way to emotionally incite him," Parveen said through a translator. "In this way they incited him and set him aflame, and then they blamed him for being incited."

            Eldawoody first appeared at the Islamic bookstore in Brooklyn where Siraj worked in the early fall of 2003, nearly a year before Siraj was arrested. Beside showing the inflammatory photographs, he also advised the younger man that violence against Americans -- at least, against American soldiers and law enforcement agents -- was authorized by Muslim theologians. Claiming to be connected with a fictitious "brotherhood" of militants in upstate New York, Eldawoody told Siraj and another young recruit, James Elshafay, that his organization would supply explosives for an attack; at one point, he even talked about acquiring nuclear materials from the Russian mafia. (Elshafay, who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, pleaded guilty in the case and later testified against Siraj.)

            Eldawoody only began taping their conversations in late spring or early summer of 2004, so there was no record of the many exchanges over the first eight or nine months of their relationship. That meant there was no conclusive proof whether the idea of blowing up the Herald Square station or other targets they periodically discussed was truly "the brainchild and handiwork of the defendant," as prosecutors maintained in a pre-sentence filing,[6] or if Eldawoody had strayed from legally permissible ground and was the true author of the criminal plot he enticed Siraj to join. Some on his jury were concerned that Eldawoody, who received a total of $100,000 from the NYPD for his work, might have crossed the line into entrapment. But without any tapes, it was a hard claim to prove, and the legal hurdle is high, requiring a defendant to "show by a preponderance of the evidence that the government induced him or her to commit the crime charged."[7] 

            "I believe it could have been entrapment," one juror told a New York Times reporter after the trial, "but the defense didn't come up with the evidence."  Another juror said about the months of conversations before Eldawoody began taping, "We don't have those conversations, and other conversations and the other reports. So we don't know what happened up until that time. It could have happened. He could have been entrapped back then. We don't have the evidence to prove it at that point."[8]

            Countering the entrapment argument, the prosecutors introduced evidence that Siraj had made approving comments about violent terrorism well before he met Eldawoody -- speaking admiringly about Osama bin Laden and Palestinian suicide bombers, and expressing a hope for further attacks in New York. None of those comments gave any indication that Siraj was thinking about or planning any terrorist attacks himself, but they showed, prosecutors argued, that he was already sympathetic to terrorism before he was "inflamed" by Eldawoody. Even had Siraj been able to meet the demanding legal standard for proving that he had been induced into his criminal acts, the testimony about his earlier statements could have torpedoed an entrapment defense, because even a defendant who is successful in proving inducement can still be found guilty if the government can prove beyond reasonable doubt that he was "predisposed" to commit the offense he is accused of.

"They incited him and set him aflame, and then they blamed him for being incited."

-- Shahina Parveen, mother of convicted would-be subway bomber Shahawar Matin Siraj


"I'm not proud of my government for what it did in this case. There would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it, and brought it to fruition....The essence of what occurred here was that a government, understandably zealous to protect its citizens, created acts of terrorism out of the fantasies and the bravado and the bigotry of one man in particular and four men generally, and then made these fantasies come true."

-- U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon, while sentencing the last of the convicted Newburgh Four defendants


            In the end the jury did not accept the defense argument that Siraj was illegally entrapped into his actions, and prosecutors and police officials declared the verdict and the heavy sentence were appropriate for the threat he had posed. New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly even called Eldawoody "a hero who did a great service to the people of New York." Others, though, continued to see the case as morally, if not legally, a clear example of entrapment -- the result of overzealous law enforcement rather than any true terrorist crime.[9] (It's worth noting that the legal standard for entrapment may not correspond with the common-sense standard, as indicated in several comments from the judge in another controversial terrorism case in which an informant, in this case working for the FBI, clearly played a major role in the supposed terror plot. "I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt," U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon told the defendants in what became known as the Newburgh Four case, "that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it, and brought it to fruition." But, she added,  "that does not mean that there was no crime. The jury concluded that you were not entrapped, and I see no basis to overturn their verdict." Over the course of the trial and in subsequent sentencing hearings, McMahon made other scathing comments criticizing the government's case, though without finding that the defendants' constitutional rights had been violated. At one point she observed, "The FBI did not infiltrate a plot. There was no plot." And later, before sentencing the last defendant, she said: "I'm not proud of my government for what it did in this case," adding that the four convicted men were guilty of terrorism only "because the government made them terrorists.... The essence of what occurred here was that a government, understandably zealous to protect its citizens, created acts of terrorism out of the fantasies and the bravado and the bigotry of one man in particular and four men generally, and then made these fantasies come true."[10])

            Whether real or dubious, the number of terrorism cases prosecuted in the United States after 9/11 has been relatively modest, measured against the massive counter-terrorism effort by federal and local law enforcement agencies. Far more common was the pattern in Ansar Mahmood's case, where authorities looking for possible terrorists found no evidence of terrorist plans or connections but did find technical immigration violations or past criminal convictions -- usually for very minor offenses -- that became the grounds for detention and deportation. There may have been some threats that were never detected, but almost certainly, in the vast majority of cases, the reason investigators found no evidence of terrorism was that there was nothing to be found. Between September 2002 and September 2003 the NSEERS program (National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, commonly known as "special registration") registered more than 83,000 men, almost all Muslims, who were in the United States but without immigrant status. More than 13,000 were issued deportation orders, in the great majority of cases for overstaying their visas or other immigration violations, and almost 3,000 were detained for various periods. But as one critical report noted, the program "has not resulted in a single known terrorism-related conviction." As far as available records show, earlier large-scale roundups of immigrants after 9/11 did not turn up any terrorists either. Nor did six years of surveillance conducted by the New York Police Department's secret Demographics Unit, which spied on mosques, Muslim student organizations, and a wide range of other individuals and groups targeted only because they were Muslim.[11]
If it contributed only minimally to meeting the terrorism threat, NSEERS did succeed in a different realm of terror -- creating widespread panic among Muslim immigrants, particularly those in less affluent areas with many more people holding temporary visas or who were in the country illegally. "As a result of NSEERS," one immigration lawyer wrote, "the Muslim communities felt very much under siege. It seemed that the legal standard changed and they were guilty until they were proven innocent. They were placed in a state of constant anxiety and fear."[12]

            The fear appeared most acute in the large South Asian community in New York, where, unsurprisingly, emotions after 9/11 were stronger than elsewhere in the country. Thousands of the city's Pakistanis and other Muslims abandoned homes and businesses to seek asylum in Canada. Similar exoduses occurred from other cities. Typically, when families reached Canadian border checkpoints, they were sent back to wait for an appointment to be interviewed by Canadian immigration officials. But when they came back through border posts on the U.S. side, men who did not have valid immigration documents were detained, subject to bail. Wives and children were set free on their own recognizance -- but with no place to go. Refugee service agencies near the border tried to assist with immigration procedures and find shelter where stranded families could stay while waiting for their interviews on the Canadian side. Once those were scheduled, in most cases, families could post bonds for the detained men (as long as they were not already under deportation order) and then go back to Canada together, where most were eventually granted asylum. The bonds usually ranged from $2,500 to $5,000, a formidable amount for immigrant families.

            For organizations responding to the crisis, it was not only the number of asylum seekers that was unprecedented. The implication of their arrival was unprecedented too. Groups such as Vermont Refugee Assistance (now Vermont Immigration and Asylum Advocates) were accustomed to dealing with people seeking refuge in America from danger or persecution in other countries. Now, they were seeing people who were fleeing from danger in the United States. Almost all the Pakistani and other families desperately trying to reach Canada were outside U.S. law, to be sure. Still, says Michele Jenness, then the Vermont Refugee Assistance legal coordinator, "they had adopted this country...  they had found safe haven in the U.S., established lives and families, they were part of the web of the community," and now were forced to move again because, for no other reason than their religious and ethnic identity, the American government was punishing them for a crime they had not committed.

            Ejaz Haider, a Pakistani newspaper editor temporarily in the United States as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, made a similar point in a commentary for the Washington Post. "For more than a century," he wrote, "people from all over the world have come to the United States to escape repression and enjoy its freedoms. Perhaps for the first time in American history, we are witnessing the spectacle of families migrating from the United States in search of safety." Haider wrote the article after his own arrest for inadvertently failing to comply with NSEERS requirements -- despite painstaking efforts, from the vantage point of a sophisticated and very well connected visitor, to find out what they were.

            "I did not know I was in violation of the INS policy," he wrote. "Brookings did not know I was in violation. My friends in the State Department did not know I was in violation. And if -- even after following the policy closely and calling the INS for information -- we could not understand the law, what hope can there be for the cabdriver or the restaurant worker who doesn’t have the leisure to discover the letter and intent of INS policies?"[13]

            The headline on Haider's article, "Wrong message to the Muslim world," captured a further point about NSEERS and the repressive post-9/11 climate it reflected. The registration program was not just ineffective against potential terrorists. In all probability, it actually damaged anti-terrorism efforts, by alienating or frightening away exactly the people who were most likely to have useful information about possible threats. The same can be said about controversial criminal prosecutions like those against Matin Siraj or the Newburgh Four. Those cases and the scary headlines they produced may have persuaded some Americans that terrible events had been narrowly avoided, but they also left many Muslims convinced that anyone in their community could become a target for a made-up terrorism charge -- so the safest course might be to avoid contact with law enforcement authorities no matter what the circumstances. There is no way to know how many more tips might have come from a Muslim community that was less fearful and less alienated, but it seems beyond reasonable doubt that a different government approach, aimed at gaining trust and cooperation instead of spreading fear, would have been a better way to learn about and intercept terror threats.

            Muslim community leaders have consistently delivered that message ever since 9/11. Irfan Malik, president of the USPAK Foundation, says the Muslim leadership needs to educate both sides, law enforcement and counter-terrorism agencies on the one hand and wary Muslim Americans on the other. "My job... is to build that balance," he said. "I'm trying to educate our community," telling Muslims that civil liberties violations, profiling, entrapment and other abuses are real issues but should not be overblown to the point of refusing all cooperation, while at the same time warning the government that losing the trust of the Muslim community would be a great loss for counter-terror efforts. At every opportunity, he said, he and other leaders "tell the FBI, Homeland Security, Department of Justice and all those, you have to be careful how you implement your policies as well... if you put this community not at ease, you're losing a partner." Muslims have strong reasons to cooperate in anti-terror investigations, Malik added. "We are very much aware, this is my country, this is my home now, the safety of people around me is really important to me. So if I have a bad apple in my community, the best person who can identify that bad apple is me."


*    *    *


[1] © 2009, Rohina Malik. Brief excerpts from the play can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7ATqM-IQ18


[2]Recorded interview in the documentary film "Stranger in Paradise," Masood Haque, writer/producer/director/editor, © 2007, Eksaki Films LLC. The film can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/111669090. Footage of the interview in the Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, New York, was shot for an earlier unreleased documentary by filmmaker Jim Sofranko. Additionally, a long account of the case including a detailed interview with Mahmood appears in Irum Shiekh, Detained Without Cause, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p. 59-91. Also see Worlds Apart: How Deporting Immigrants After 9/11 Tore Families Apart and Shattered Communities,  New York: American Civil Liberties Union, December 2004, p. 4-5


[3] Lorraine Adams with Ayesha Nasir, "Inside the mind of the Times Square bomber," The Observer, Sept. 18, 2010


[4] Michael Wilson, "From Smiling Coffee Vendor to Terror Suspect," New York Times, Sept. 26, 2009; Samantha Gross, David Caruso and Michael Rubinkam, "Radical influences all around NYC terror suspect," Associated Press, Sept. 25, 2009


[5] "NSA director says surveillance programs thwarted ‘dozens’ of attacks," Washington Post, June 12, 2013; "British spies help prevent al Qaeda-inspired attack on New York subway," Daily Telegraph (London), Nov. 9, 2009. Also see Brian M. Jenkins and Joseph Trella, Carnage Interrupted: an analysis of fifteen terrorist plots against public surface transportation, San Jose, California: Mineta Transportation Institute, April 2012, p. 55-57; and "Al Qaeda Operative Convicted by Jury in One of the Most Serious Terrorist Plots Against America since 9/11,"  press release, Office of Public Affairs, U.S Department of Justice, May 1, 2012 


[6] Would-be subway bomber awaits sentencing," USA Today, Jan. 7, 2007


[7] Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the “Homegrown Threat” in the United States. New York: NYU School of Law, 2011, p. 15


[8] Jennifer Lee, "Entrapment Evidence Lacking, Jurors Say,"  New York Times, May 25, 2006


[9] The quote from Commissioner Kelly is in Armen Keteyian, Phil Hirschkorn, and Michael Rey, “The Cost of Cooperation,” CBS News, Sept. 10, 2006. Two highly critical accounts of official conduct of the Siraj case are in Amitava Kumar, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010; and Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the “Homegrown Threat” in the United States, New York: New York University School of Law, 2011, p. 33-37. For a more positive perspective on police and prosecution actions see The Herald Square Plot, New York: NEFA Foundation, March 2008. Additional sources include Craig Horowitz,  "Anatomy Of a Foiled Plot," New York Magazine, May 21, 2005; William K. Rashbaum, "Man Gets 30 Years in Subway Bomb Plot," New York Times, Jan. 9, 2007;  Robin Shulman, "The Informer: Behind the Scenes, or Setting the Stage?" Washington Post, May 29, 2007.


[10] Crisis of Confidence: How Washington Lost Faith in America's Courts," Truth-out.org, Aug. 22, 2011; Adam Klasfeld, "Would-Be Bombers Say FBI Set Them Up, " Courthouse News Service, March 24, 2011; Bruce Golding, "Judge 'not proud of my government' for anti-terror sting operation," New York Post, Sept. 7, 2011. For a wider ranging report on the use of informants in terrorism cases, see Petra Bartosiewicz, "To catch a Terrorist: The FBI hunts for the enemy within," Harper's Magazine, Aug. 2011


[11] Rights Working Group and Center for Immigrants’ Rights at Pennsylvania State University Dickinson School of Law,  The NSEERS Effect: A Decade of Racial Profiling, Fear, and Secrecy,  May 2012, p. 4; New York City Profiling Collaborative et al, In Our Own Words: Narratives of South Asian New Yorkers Affected by Racial and Religious Profiling, March 2012, p. 10; Adam Goldman, "Muslim spying led to no leads, terror cases," Associated Press, Aug. 21, 2012     

      The most controversial part of NSEERS was the registration requirement, which applied to "non-immigrant" men over 16 from a list of 25 countries, all but one (North Korea) with predominantly Muslim populations.  The registration procedure was ended after a year, though various other parts of the NSEERS program remained in effect until April, 2011. The rule had a greater impact on Pakistanis than on the Afghan community, because most Afghans in the United States were admitted as refugees and thus had permanent residence and were not subject to the registration process. Afghan Americans were, of course, affected by the general climate that NSEERS helped create.


[12] The NSEERS Effect, p. 13. For a fictionalized but true-to-life account of these events, see Marina Budhos's young adult novel Ask Me No Questions, New York: Atheneum, 2006. Budhos's fictional family is from Bangladesh, but the circumstances for Pakistanis would have been identical.


[13] Ejaz Haider, "Wrong message to the Muslim World," Washington Post, Feb. 5, 2003



III - Religion and the American Generation