Prisoner of war

A Corning man becomes a detainee in America’s fight against terrorism

Photo by Josh Indar

Interrogator: You want to get treated bad again?
Murad: I-I’m … This is the truth.
Interrogator: OK. What, where did you stay in the U.S.? Who met you in the U.S.?
Murad: There is my friend. I…
Interrogator: Who?
Murad: We went together.
Interrogator: Who?
Murad: My friend’s name is Nasser Ali.
—From the transcript of a Philippine police interrogation of Abdul Hakim Murad, currently serving a life sentence in New York for plotting to blow up several American airliners.

• • •

The one and only runway at the Corning Municipal Airport is cracked and weed-strewn, but the town is proud of its airfield nonetheless. Not only is it rare for a town of only 6,800 residents to have a city-run airport, Corning’s field is also historic, being the fifth-oldest uncontrolled airstrip in California. The strip is uncontrolled in that it has no tower, no air traffic controllers and no radar system. Pilots flying into Corning at night simply dial their radios to a specific frequency and send short radio “clicks” in order to turn on the runway lights by remote.

Among the aluminum hangars lining the runway is one belonging to A&B Aircraft Painting, a small aircraft painting and body shop owned by Nasir Ali Mubarak, who goes by his middle name, Ali. On a reporter’s recent visit to the shop, two men were working feverishly, trying to put together a plane that had been partially disassembled so it could be painted. It was hot in the hangar, and the men sweated as they scoured the shelves, workbenches and floor for missing parts, screws and tools.

Paints, solvents and chemical strippers were scattered about, suggesting either a disorderly approach to aircraft painting or a recent flurry of activity. Tom Hogan, the owner of the plane, cursed the mess as he climbed up to reattach a stray piece of wing.

“There’ve been a lot of people through here in the last couple days,” he said. “The FBI’s rifled through everything. Everyone from the FBI to people [Mubarak] owed money to.”

Hogan said Mubarak had a reputation for doing good work at a reasonable price. But when federal authorities detained Mubarak in early June, the planes he had scheduled to paint were left in limbo. Though Hogan was able to get his plane back, others still sit in various stages of rehabilitation on the tarmac and in the A&B hangar, waiting patiently for someone to put them back together.

Since June 2, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has held Mubarak, 34, in custody, ostensibly because the student visa with which he entered this country expired in 1992. This was not something Mubarak had hidden from authorities. Like many other immigrants to this country, he had been fighting deportation for years in the hope that his residency would someday be approved. Until his arrest, it looked like his three-year marriage to Corning resident Stephanie Jolley Mubarak would be his ticket to gaining some form of citizenship here.

The Mubaraks both claim that their marriage is for real and that INS officials had assured them that Ali had been approved for permanent residency. An INS agent named Debbie Walgas reportedly told the Mubaraks that a letter to that effect had been sent from her office. That letter never made it to Corning, and Walgas could not be reached for comment.

But the real reason Mubarak is being detained has almost nothing to do with his residency status and almost everything to do with the fact that he is a Muslim from Pakistan whose former roommate and fellow flight school student, Abdul Hakim Murad, happens to be a convicted terrorist with ties to the Al-Qaeda network.

When Islamic terrorists attacked the United States last September, it caused us all to look for answers as to how and why such a tragedy could occur, and what could be done to stop future attacks.

Many reacted with soul-searching reflection, asking themselves and each other how and why anybody could do something so horrific. Others looked for a place to cast blame, whether toward government officials who knew there was a threat and failed to act upon it, or toward people who looked like or had the same religion as those who committed the act.

In the weeks and months immediately following Sept. 11, government officials, often acting in total secrecy, began rounding up people who were thought to be connected to terrorist organizations, or who fit the profile of would-be terrorists, or in some cases people whose only crime had been to come here in an undocumented fashion to find the work, freedom and lifestyle that most native-born Americans take for granted.

Nobody will say exactly how many have been detained, though a recent Washington Post article put the number at 1,200. The Justice Department cites national-security concerns when defending its veil of secrecy regarding the detentions. But the case of Nasir Ali Mubarak has brought the issue close to home, causing many here to question whether the government is casting too wide a net in its zeal to protect us from terrorism.

Mubarak’s case brings the domestic front of the battle against terrorism into sharper focus than any other such case because not only is Mubarak a longtime area resident with solid support from many conservative and influential community members, he is also a Muslim, a trained pilot and, as it turns out, an old acquaintance of Abdul Hakim Murad.

Murad was arrested in the Philippines in 1995 after the apartment he was renting with another convicted terrorist, 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, exploded. The two had apparently been handling nitroglycerin, which they were going to use to blow up American passenger jets, according to a Philippine police interrogation transcript. In that transcript, Murad, also a pilot, mentions a man named “Nasser Ali” as the person he had stayed with while visiting the United States for flight school lessons in 1991.

Mubarak has never denied knowing Murad. He has told the authorities several times that he came to this country with Murad so the two could share travel expenses. But he has always maintained that he had no idea that Murad was involved with terrorism. According to testimony Mubarak gave in a San Francisco immigration court, he knew Murad for about a year. He lost contact with him about 10 years ago and found out about Murad’s ties to terrorism only after hearing of his conviction in 1995.

“I was really shocked,” Mubarak said about his learning of Murad’s conviction. “I could not believe it. I thought this person had the same goal as me—to be a pilot.”

Murad is currently serving out a life sentence in a New York state prison for conspiring to detonate bombs on 11 commercial airplanes.

Mubarak now has two children, a wife and a business in the Corning area, where he has lived since 1997. But if the federal government gets its way, Mubarak will soon be either on a plane to Pakistan, where he hasn’t resided in 30 years, or in a federal detention center, where, because of a package of laws enacted after last year’s terror attacks called the U.S.A. Patriot Act, Mubarak could potentially be held indefinitely.

Nasir Ali Mubarak is a Muslim, a trained pilot and former acquaintance of a man convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. But he was also a hard-working Corning business owner until he was detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Services in June. He’s been held without charges since.

Courtesy Of Stephanie Mubarak

Media reports of the recent secretive deportation of 131 Pakistani immigrants—people who were not charged with any crime or thought to have any links to terrorism—lend a foreboding sense of urgency to Mubarak’s case.

In an interview given during visiting hours at the Yuba County Jail in Marysville, Mubarak said he didn’t understand why the government wanted to deport him. Everything he owned, cherished and believed in, he said, was in the United States.

“I don’t have anything back there. Everything, my family is all here,” he said. “I’ve been here so long. I just want to run my business and take care of my kids.”

(Jail officials, who were worried that a CN&R reporter had failed to gain proper permission from the INS to visit Mubarak, cut the interview short. Authorization for a visit was granted about a week later, but on the morning of the scheduled interview, Mubarak was taken without warning from the Yuba County Jail and moved to an unspecified location.)

Mubarak was arrested at the Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport on June 2 as he and his wife were trying to board a flight to Sacramento. They were in Dallas, he said, to buy a Toyota 4-Runner that they had seen advertised on the Internet for $6,500. The Mubaraks traveled with one-way tickets, intending to drive the car back to California. They did indeed buy the car, but a mechanic’s inspection turned up transmission problems, so the couple returned it and purchased two more one-way tickets back to Sacramento.

As they were waiting to board their flight, an airport security officer told the Mubaraks that Ali had been “flagged” and was wanted for questioning. After waiting unguarded in the terminal for an hour and a half, Mubarak said he talked to and was cleared by an INS agent at the airport. But the FBI was not so charitable. After questioning him and his wife, they decided to hold Ali on the grounds that his visa had expired. He has been in jail ever since.

If the U.S. government has a reason, other than a minor visa violation (which normally is not a jailable offense), for detaining Mubarak, its agents aren’t saying what it is. Neither the FBI nor the INS would make any comment regarding Mubarak’s case. But both agencies have had knowledge of Mubarak’s whereabouts and activities for several years.

The FBI, for instance, showed up to interview Mubarak at his business just a few hours after the attacks of Sept. 11 and followed up the interview a few months later with a lie detector test, which Mubarak says he not only suggested they do but also passed. (An INS lawyer subsequently called the results “inconclusive.")

According to an FBI agent’s testimony in court, Mubarak cooperated fully with the FBI, even offering his services as a translator to them several times, with no response. After hearing media reports that federal agencies were in desperate need of skilled linguists, he wrote a letter to President Bush expressing his concern over the attacks and offering whatever services he could to help the United States battle terrorism. Although he speaks five languages and understands the Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures, he received no reply to his queries.

Even in jail, Mubarak said he was still willing to help. He loves the United States, he said, and supports President Bush, for whom he expresses great admiration. In his view, the FBI field agents and INS bureaucrats who arrested and detained him are the ones who are “abusing the system.”

The INS has had more contact with Mubarak than the FBI, as he was required for at least three years to attend periodic residency hearings in San Francisco. He says he never missed a hearing and what’s more was told by his INS case worker just a few days before he left for Dallas that he had just been granted permanent-residency status. Since then, the INS has not only denied him this status, but has also expressed an intent to revoke his three-year-old application for it on the basis of a Red Bluff woman’s claim that Mubarak once offered her money to marry him so he could remain in the country.

According to a deposition given (while Mubarak was in custody) by the woman to Red Bluff attorney Matthew McGlynn, Mubarak offered Automne Burton, 23, $15,000 to marry him solely for the purpose of obtaining a visa. Though the INS submitted the deposition at Mubarak’s bond hearing and used the statements in it to try to revoke Mubarak’s residency application, it doesn’t charge that Mubarak ever submitted a fraudulent application.

Burton could not be found for comment and McGlynn could not be reached. Mubarak denies he offered Burton money for marriage, and, before the FBI solicited the deposition, Burton had written a letter in support of Mubarak, in which she never mentioned any allegations of fraud. Though her deposition to the court reportedly states that she was to receive $5,000 before the marriage took place, it also states that she never received any money.

But the mere accusation of a fraudulent marriage has been enough to turn off many would-be supporters of Mubarak, said Mubarak’s friend-turned-legal-fundraiser, Jerry Turney.

“Talk about support drying up,” Turney said. “It was like the sound of air rushing out of a room. People just didn’t want to hear any more after that.”

Turney, a Bay Area schoolteacher, met Mubarak a little over a year ago, when he went to Corning to have his small plane painted. Echoing the sentiments of many of Mubarak’s friends, he said he thought Mubarak was “a real special guy” from the moment he met him, and the two became friends rather quickly.

When Turney and his wife heard of Mubarak’s troubles, they immediately began a fund for his defense, which they estimate will cost upward of $100,000. With A&B Aircraft Painting sitting idle and losing money daily, the Turneys are helping the Mubaraks sell whatever they don’t need and are soliciting donations from friends and family members.

It’s been an uphill struggle, especially after the Burton allegation. But Turney doesn’t just consider it a favor for a friend. Comparing the current wave of detentions and deportations to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, Turney said he could not stand by in good conscience while the government rounded up everyone who fit a certain profile.

“I was outraged to hear what happened to Ali,” he said. “It’s guilt by accusation. It’s like saying that because these people have never done anything wrong, this means they’re going to do something wrong in the future. It’s twisted thinking.”

While Mubarak is in an uphill fight to stay in this country and out of jail, he does have one thing going for him. Even in the conservative, small-town communities of Corning and Red Bluff, plenty of people are willing to go to bat for him.

Bill Wax, one of Mubarak’s business associates, is one of those people. Wax, who has known Mubarak for several years, said the idea that Mubarak is a dangerous man is simply ridiculous.

Eric Sawyer, who met Ali Mubarak 10 years ago, is an aircraft inspector who says the many inspections he’s made of Mubarak’s business have never turned up anything unusual or suspicious.

Photo by Josh Indar

“He works too many hours a day—he doesn’t have time to be a goddamn terrorist,” Wax said. “It’s just stupid.”

The FBI didn’t interview Bill Wax. It also didn’t interview Eric Sawyer, a licensed aircraft mechanic and inspector who has known Mubarak for almost 10 years.

Sawyer met Mubarak at the California School of Aeronautics in Red Bluff in 1993. A licensed aircraft mechanic and inspector, Sawyer often works with Mubarak on a daily basis and has inspected hundreds of planes that Mubarak has either flown or painted. Not once, he said, did anything unusual turn up in any of his inspections.

But despite his first-hand knowledge about Mubarak’s business and personal activities, no federal agency has ever interviewed Sawyer about Mubarak. Most other sources close to Mubarak say they were never interviewed either.

But the FBI did interview the operators of A&B’s neighboring businesses at the Corning Municipal Airport. One neighbor, Jerry Rindahl, who owns, runs and lives at the Airport Mini Storage across the street from the airport, and who also flies small planes out of Corning, said he, for one, wasn’t surprised when he heard Mubarak was in trouble.

“Everybody in aviation circles knows or has heard about Ali,” Rindahl said, adding that in his view Mubarak’s reputation as a businessman is “terrible.”

Too many of the airplanes that Mubarak works on come back for one reason or another, he said.

Mubarak said Rindahl has never liked him and has spread rumors about him before. Others close to Mubarak concurred, and an official source with inside information on airport affairs said that some of Mubarak’s airport neighbors distrust foreigners.

Rindahl said he had been long been suspicious of Mubarak because of some strange nocturnal flights he claims to have seen Mubarak take.

“Every once in a while, we’d notice a whole plane full of Arabs take off and come back a few hours later—always at night, never in the daytime,” Rindahl said. “It gets you to thinking.”

Rindahl said he personally witnessed six or eight such flights in the five years Mubarak has been in Corning. He said he believed Mubarak was borrowing his clients’ planes to give private flying lessons, though he admittedly wasn’t sure who the people in the plane were or who the planes belonged to. Mubarak does have access to his own plane, and no laws restrict him from using it.

Though no one, besides possibly the government, seems to be making much of Rindahl’s observations so far, Rindahl characterized Mubarak as “shady” and “flaky” and said he owed thousands of dollars to businesses and individuals who provided him work materials on credit.

“By my standards, he’s a terrible liar,” Rindahl said. “He really cons people.”

Most people interviewed for this story, however, whether they know Mubarak from Corning or from being involved in private aviation, don’t share Rindahl’s view. Corning City Manager Steve Kimbrough said the city, which leases hangar space to A&B, had received no serious or substantiated complaints against Mubarak or his business. He characterized Mubarak as “an absolute gentleman.”

Charles Kraus, Mubarak’s friend, business partner and self-described mentor for almost a decade, said Mubarak is being railroaded because he doesn’t have the same rights as most Americans.

“Ali’s a trustworthy guy,” he said. “They’re just trying to dig up more and more—trying to ruin an innocent man’s business.”

Krause and between 15 and 20 other friends and relatives of Mubarak’s—most from either Corning or Red Bluff—chartered a bus to attend Mubarak’s first bond hearing in San Francisco last June. At that time, Mubarak had already been in custody for more than two weeks and looked tired and drawn as he watched the proceedings.

In court, no fewer than seven federal lawyers were on hand to try to convince Immigration Judge Antonio Gonzalez that Mubarak is both a flight risk and a danger to his community. While bond hearings are typically wrapped up in less than an hour, Mubarak’s has dragged on for more than a month.

At the hearing, INS lawyers grilled Mubarak and his wife about their marriage, their former relationships and Mubarak’s business. Though they stopped short of accusing Mubarak of having any terrorist ties or tendencies, they asked dozens of questions about his religion (Mubarak is a Muslim, though his wife and kids are Christian), the chemicals he uses in his business, his association with Murad, his skills and activities as a pilot and his finances, which the lawyers alleged were in disarray.

Mubarak was brought into court in wrist and ankle chains and wearing a red, jail-issued sweatsuit. The handcuffs allowed him to raise his hand only halfway when he was instructed to take an oath of honesty. On the stand, he spoke in near-perfect English about his journey from Pakistan to the United States, about his association with a convicted terrorist, and about his dream of becoming an airline pilot.

Born in Peshawar, Pakistan, Mubarak moved with his family to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, when he was about 3 years old. When he was 10, he saw his first airline pilot and was struck by the uniform the pilot wore and the respect with which others treated him. That was the moment, Mubarak said, when he knew what he wanted to do with his life.

Photo by Josh Indar

He took his first flying lesson at age 16, even though he said it was expensive to study flying in the UAE. For a while, Mubarak worked as a clerk for the Emirates’ Air Force, but he wasn’t able to join up because he never became a UAE citizen. Instead, he joined the Abu Dhabi Flying Club and received lessons there until the school closed, forcing Mubarak to drive all the way to Dubai three times a week to complete his lesson plan, a round-trip journey of about 200 miles. It was in Dubai that Mubarak met Abdul Hakim Murad.

Murad was a fellow flying student at the Dubai flying school. Mubarak said in court that he knew Murad for about six months before the two decided they would journey together to the United States to attend Alpha Tango flying school in San Antonio, Texas. Mubarak said he paired up with Murad as a way to share the cost of expenses while he was getting his pilot’s license. He and Murad never discussed politics, Mubarak claims, and Murad never betrayed to him any hatred of the United States nor any ties to terrorist organizations.

The two journeyed to San Antonio in 1991 (Mubarak had obtained a student visa in Abu Dhabi) but stayed only about a week because, Mubarak said, the school was too small and didn’t have enough planes to go around. So Mubarak bought a car for $1,800—roughly half of what he had saved for traveling expenses—and he and Murad set out for Schenectady, N.Y., where they enrolled together at Richmore Flight School.

Mubarak attended the school for seven or eight months, but Murad dropped out after only a few weeks to attend a school in Florida, reportedly telling Mubarak it was too cold in Schenectady. During the time Mubarak was in New York, he and Murad once attempted to go sightseeing in New York City, he said, but they got lost and never made it into the actual city. Mubarak was later able to take a sightseeing trip by air with one of his flight instructors, a fact the government felt strongly inclined to state at Mubarak’s bond hearing.

Mubarak apparently received a few different levels of flying licenses at Richmore, but the school could not confirm what lessons he received there because it keeps records for only seven years, a school spokesman said.

Mubarak and Murad linked up again in June 1992 to travel to California, where Mubarak had worked out a deal with the California Aeronautics flying school in Red Bluff. There, he was able to log enough flight hours to get his flight instructor’s license and make job contacts with local pilots and small-plane owners. Murad apparently didn’t stay more than two or three weeks in Red Bluff, and it was around then that Mubarak says he lost touch with his traveling companion. The last time they spoke, he said, was by phone sometime in 1992, when Murad asked him for help in getting another student visa. Mubarak wasn’t able to help, he said.

The next time he heard anything about Murad, he said, was when Murad was put on trial for terrorist conspiracy.

Mubarak eventually began flying for Diamond Air, a Red Bluff company that maintained aircraft and leased flying services, particularly for surveying and agricultural projects. At Diamond, Mubarak took aerial photos of crops for Shasta County and also learned how to maintain and paint small planes. During the time he worked for Diamond, he became such good friends with the owner, Skip Barron, that Barron would often refer to Mubarak as his adopted son. When Barron died of cancer in 1995, he willed his business to Mubarak.

Diamond Air was not a profitable business, and Mubarak closed it and moved to Corning in 1997.

While still in Red Bluff, Mubarak became romantically involved with Bertha Acevedo, a Mexican national who lived in Mubarak’s apartment complex. The two had a relationship for several years that resulted in the couple’s having two children, a boy and a girl. Though they never married, Mubarak continued seeing Acevedo, and she says he has helped support her and the children continuously over the years.

While waiting with her children to visit Mubarak in jail recently, she characterized Ali as a “nice person” who “loves his kids” and “loves this country.” She told as much to the FBI, who interviewed her in June, she said.

Mubarak also was married for a brief period to a Red Bluff woman named Brandy Mathews. His brief marriage to Automne Burton similarly flopped. But in 1997, Mubarak met and began to pursue Stephanie Jolley, a blond, blue-eyed woman who was working at the time as the manager of a Corning gas station.

Mubarak asked Jolley out several times over a two-year period but was turned down each time. Finally, in February 1999, she agreed to a date. The couple married in Reno just a few weeks later, and Jolly took the name Stephanie Mubarak.

She said in a recent interview that she had never known true love until she met Ali Mubarak. Until her partner’s arrest, she said, the two of them had been almost inseparable. With Ali working long hours at his shop, Stephanie would often go straight from her own job to the A&B hangar, where she would work by her husband’s side until 10 or 11 p.m.

When asked what she would do if the government were to deport Ali, Stephanie, who has never been out of the country except for one trip to Mexico, did not hesitate to answer.

“I’m going with him,” she said. “I think it’s a rare chance to find the kind of love Ali and I have, and it’s worth it. If it takes giving up a country to be with the man I love, then yeah, I’ll do it.”

Stephanie said the case against her husband had tainted her idealism and soured her feelings for the United States.

“I love this country, and I love what it stood for,” she said. “But I don’t think it stands for that any more. I used to believe in the government [and the] justice system. I used to believe that if you had never done anything wrong, you had nothing to fear. Unfortunately, the government does lie sometimes.”

Despite the support she and Ali have received from friends, family and community members, Stephanie is not confident that her husband will ever again live as a free man in the United States.

“I honestly believe that within six months they will deport Ali, and soon after I’ll follow him. People don’t understand what it’s like to lose a mate. On Sept. 11, people lost their husbands, lost their wives, lost their children. I’m losing my husband through imprisonment.”

Many of Mubarak’s supporters believe his case is being used by the Department of Justice to test the immigration courts. Since the government will not comment on the case, it is unknown whether that claim has any veracity. But if the government wins, it could set a precedent in which an immigrant who has gone through legal channels in trying to obtain citizenship, who has a business and standing in his community, and who has marriage and family ties in the United States could be deported for no real reason other than his race, religion and former roommate.

The fact that Mubarak is not being charged with any crime, is not alleged to have any actual ties to terrorism, and indeed has never had any trouble with the law in this country seems of no consequence to the INS legal team, which has yet to enter any solid evidence that Mubarak is even a flight risk for bail, much less a candidate for deportation.

So while lawmakers continue to grant authorities new and intrusive powers, Mubarak’s imprisonment has left his children without a father and with no means of support. His business is bankrupt, his assets are being sold, and his reputation has been forever sullied, for no other appreciable reason than the fact that he makes the government nervous.