Searching for Osama

Catharin Thomas also lost someone following September 11. Her husband, a Muslim who emigrated from Yemen, was arrested, questioned and whisked away to Arizona, where he still sits almost two months later.

Tawfiq Alnassiri claims that Osama Altashi is not really interested in politics, and he should know. He and Osama grew up together in Yemen.

Tawfiq Alnassiri claims that Osama Altashi is not really interested in politics, and he should know. He and Osama grew up together in Yemen.

Photo by Larry Dalton

On the morning of September 11, Catharin Thomas slept soundly in the quiet suburban house she shared with her husband and her 9-year-old son. When the phone rang, the African-American woman, still groggy and blurry eyed, picked it up and heard from her husband the news of the first terrorist attacks in New York. Osama Altashi, who worked nights, told Thomas to turn on the TV, which she did, getting a first look at the images that would dominate television screens all over the nation for weeks to come.

Immediately swept up in the shared national drama, Thomas worried about a distant relative on the East Coast. She was on the phone with family members constantly. Altashi, a Muslim immigrant from Yemen, was as shocked and saddened as the rest of them.

After confirming that everyone she knew was safe, Thomas began to pity all the people who’d lost family members. And as America went to war against the Taliban, she began to pity the people of Afghanistan, their country bombed for harboring a Muslim who supposedly convinced other Muslims to kill thousands of innocent Americans with the help of a few box cutters.

Though Thomas and Altashi grieved over the devastation and the loss of life, they didn’t imagine that the fallout could be so far reaching that even Altashi would be swept away by it. But in the last days of October, without warning, he became caught up in the international war on terrorism.

Based on an anonymous tip, Altashi was whisked away from his family, held at the county jail without bail, questioned for two days by the FBI about terrorist activities, held by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for a visa violation, then shipped to Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, where he has sat, without a hearing, for seven weeks.

Thomas now feels that she too is a victim of September 11.

“We had this regular life,” she said, “and then they just sort of swiped him. You have this family, and then you don’t have … anything.”

Thomas, who fears that her husband may be deported, is part of a quiet group of people whose loved ones were gone just as suddenly and inexplicably as those lost to the terrorist attacks.

Of the original 1,100 men detained in the wake of September 11, 548 were still in custody in late November when a list was released that included their countries of origin, the charges against them, and the dates of the charges, but not the names of the detainees.

Altashi’s lawyer, Elias Shamieh, was adamant. Yes, he said, Altashi is on Attorney General John Ashcroft’s list. And like some of the others who are out on bond, Altashi should now be free to return to his family as well. But since September 11, young Muslim men who’ve aroused even the slightest suspicion in America can be held for weeks and months without bail, even if that suspicion is based on little more than their religion and country of origin.

Like many of the detainees, Altashi met some of the FBI’s criteria for a potential terrorist or a person with information about potential terrorists. First, he was identified, according to the FBI, as a man with possible information regarding the attacks (the FBI declines to say what that information was or where it came from). Secondly, he was a Muslim man who traveled from the Middle East on a student visa, which has since been revoked, though the INS declines to state the reason for its revocation.

Was that combination of traits suspicious enough to keep him in custody without a hearing throughout November and early December? It was, according to Russ Bergeron, national press contact for the INS—even if the FBI agent who questioned Altashi determined that he was innocent of any involvement with terrorists.

Due to the war on terrorism, the INS fears that men like Altashi may still represent links to valuable information, in spite of their good standing in the community, their involvement in work and school, and the fact that they were actively seeking permanent residency. The federal government doesn’t want to release someone who may turn out to be dangerous or who could provide information. But what if detainees like Altashi are not and never were dangerous and have no connection to September 11?

Altashi came to California out of Yemen in 1995 as an 18-year-old student. After studying English at Hayward State University, he moved to Sacramento, where he is about to complete a degree in geology at California State University at Sacramento.

Speaking of Altashi’s college career, Thomas said that her husband is a very good student, one who can now look at a mountainous landscape and tell you everything about the history of the rock.

The only aspects Altashi didn’t like about school were the speeches he occasionally had to give in class. “He’s kind of a shy guy,” said Thomas.

At night, Altashi worked as a guard for Comprehensive Security. John Burke, Altashi’s supervisor, explained that to get a “guard card,” Altashi had to submit to a background check, which makes security an odd choice of career for a man suspected by the government of possibly having terrorist connections.

Altashi’s friends maintained that he was not a particularly political person. Tawfiq Alnassiri, a lifelong friend who works both at Comprehensive Security and at Altashi’s mosque, called him “a very simple guy,” a man who liked music, called his mother and sister a lot, and avoided talking about things like politics.

Thomas said there were moments when the couple followed politics, like during national elections, but most of the time, they didn’t pay much attention. They didn’t have time, she maintained. Instead, she said, they’d rather do things like cook, dine out and go to the movies.

Though Altashi seemed to his family and friends like an unlikely candidate for suspicion, he did have immigration issues, which gave the INS a reason to detain him after he was questioned by the FBI. Like many of the detainees, Altashi was accused of violating the conditions of his visa and was “out of status.” Shamieh speculated that a minor infraction—changing schools without permission, or taking less than a full load of 12 units one semester—probably caused the INS to revoke his status as a student.

In 1997, Altashi married a woman in the United States who helped him apply for permanent residency. But when his first marriage ended within a year, Altashi apparently came under suspicion by the INS. It is unclear whether his application was denied by the INS or pulled by his ex-wife, but Shamieh does point out that Altashi’s ex-wife did submit a letter confirming that their marriage was legitimate.

Another attorney from Shamieh’s office, Roger Kubein, said that the INS sometimes discriminated against mixed-race marriages. He claimed that some men from Yemen were occasionally paying African-American women to marry them so that the men could gain citizenship. He didn’t say that Altashi was guilty of any such practice, but he did wonder if the INS might assume that he was.

In the fall of 1998, Altashi married Thomas, and in March 1999, submitted a second application for permanent residency. This application has not yet been approved or denied, a process that usually takes about a year, though Shamieh fears that if the first marriage was suspected to be a fraud, Altashi may never be granted permanent residency.

Usually, a three-year marriage to an American citizen, and a pending application for permanent residency would have shielded Altashi from deportation, according to Shamieh. To him, it seemed amazing that Altashi, a good student with a wife and a job, was picked up at all. But after September 11, everything is different.

At lunchtime on an afternoon in late October, according to his friend Alnassiri, Altashi took time off from school when his boss demanded that he come into the office. When Altashi arrived, an INS agent and an FBI agent handcuffed him and took him into custody.

“They already knew everything,” said Alnassiri, “everything about his life.”

That same afternoon, Thomas left the house to run some errands for the small brood of toddlers she watched as an in-home childcare provider.

“It was just a normal day for me,” she said.

When she returned home, a message from the INS explained that her husband was in custody at the county jail. There were also messages from Altashi, but they didn’t include any further details. He said he would call her later, and Thomas began the long process of waiting. She hasn’t seen her husband since.

At the county jail, nervous and surrounded by a frightening collection of criminals, Altashi was questioned for two days while his family, friends and even his attorney were denied access to him, according to Alnassiri. When the FBI had determined that Altashi was not involved in the events of September 11, an FBI agent wished him luck with immigration and left Altashi in the custody of the INS on suspicion of a visa infraction.

Thomas is convinced that Altashi had no involvement in the attacks, but after he was arrested, she went through the whole house, went through his briefcase, everything.

“If I’d seen anything,” she said, “I would have had my own thoughts.” The idea of protecting him if he were involved in something illegal seemed ridiculous to her. “I mean, my son lives here,” she said. “Sure, love is great, but … ”

After a few days in the county jail, Altashi was inexplicably moved to Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona, by way of Bakersfield. Immigration lawyers unfamiliar with the case speculated that a lack of space in Sacramento might have inspired the move, which Shamieh agreed is fairly routine, but facilities out of state greatly complicated the ability of Altashi’s lawyer and family to see him. Shamieh implied that this might have been at least part of the reason for the move.

The protocol from similar cases, according to Shamieh, suggested that Altashi should have gone before an immigration judge in Sacramento, who would likely have determined that Altashi didn’t pose a flight risk or a danger to the public. The judge would normally have issued a bond for his release, and Altashi would have been home, back to work and back to school until he was due in court. But Altashi did not see a judge in Sacramento. He was moved to Eloy, where a backlog of cases has kept him in limbo throughout November and into December.

Because of his long detainment, Altashi risked losing credit for the whole semester, and Thomas had to struggle to survive without the help of his income. In order to talk with him, she sent him money for calling cards and waited to hear from him. Most of the precious telephone minutes were saved for conversations with Shamieh.

Though Altashi’s lapsed immigration status was the official reason given for his arrest, it’s possible that the INS and the FBI were working together to detain Muslim men, even when it was unlikely they had any information related to September 11. Shamieh maintained that before September 11, men like Altashi were rarely even picked up. Many immigrants out of status live peacefully throughout the country. The INS, he said, doesn’t have the manpower to find, detain and deport them all, so unless the immigrant is in custody for some other reason, usually criminal, the INS never saw them. In Altashi’s case, he was actively seeking permanent residency status.

“I thought they got him because of his name,” said Alnassiri, who recently helped a second Muslim man named Osama secure bail after being arrested for INS violations. That other Osama was apparently out within 48 hours.

Though Alnassiri wanted to see Altashi released, he thought it was going too far to suggest that his detention was an abuse of civil liberties. Alnassiri, who came to California from Yemen, thought profiling was probably appropriate. If the FBI weren’t investigating young Muslim men, he said, we’d think they weren’t doing their jobs.

“It’s probably different for you,” said Alnassiri, indicating citizens of the United States, “but we know how the government deals with people here. It’s different than over there,” he said, referring to Middle Eastern governments where a man suspected of terrorism would have received much harsher treatment.

Asked how Altashi was doing, Alnassiri suggested that the whole experience was only an inconvenience. The food was good, he explained, the living conditions were fine. The detention facility was full of other immigrants, and the staff let him observe Ramadan.

Asked whether or not Altashi might have had some information related to the attacks, Alnassiri claimed that the mosque’s members would have known, and Altashi would not have been allowed to worship with them. Extremism and militancy were unacceptable at the mosque. Alnassiri claimed that even if members simply showed anger or frustration at what was happening to them now, they were not allowed back to worship.

Though it was difficult to find anyone either in the FBI or INS who was willing to confirm the facts of Altashi’s case on the record, including the exact charges or the date he was arrested, INS press contact Bergeron was willing to offer a realistic scenario for how a suspect like Altashi might be detained.

As with other investigations, said Bergeron, it might begin with a source, a person who tells the FBI that a given individual may have some information related to terrorist activity. The person may be suspected of links to terrorist organizations, or communication with known terrorists, or with others somehow related to terrorist attacks.

The individual is questioned by the FBI, either with or without a representative from the INS. If the individual is guilty of an INS violation, that individual is arrested after questioning.

The FBI field agent then writes up a report and submits it to a centralized control office for the FBI. The contents of the report are then reviewed alongside all similar reports. Perhaps one little piece of information will become relevant when viewed against the entire national effort. That’s what the FBI is hoping.

Altashi was supposedly cleared by the FBI, but Bergeron claimed that it’s not yet possible for him to be completely cleared. The local field agent may have determined that any given individual was cleared of immediate suspicion, but one agent couldn’t know what might have been relevant to agents involved in other parts of the investigation.

This was nothing new, claimed Bergeron. Someone detained because an informant told the FBI he was involved in drug trafficking would have been in exactly the same position. The INS doesn’t want to release someone who may later be found guilty of a drug felony, so they hold the individual until the FBI completes its investigation.

In a drug trafficking scenario, however, it might take only a short time to clear an individual’s name and release him. In the case of the war on terrorism, the investigation is so extensive that men like Altashi may be in custody for weeks, or even months.

Taher Husnein arrived home from a cross-country trip to find his house under surveillance by both narcotics officers and FBI agents.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Will Altashi’s detainment continue indefinitely, then? Even his lawyer doesn’t know for sure. Under the guise of protecting his privacy, almost no information about Altashi’s case has been released by the government. Shamieh even had trouble confirming Altashi’s immigration status.

Such secretive practices by the INS and the FBI, along with new legislation that gave the Bush administration greater freedom to tap phone lines and hold secret tribunals, had understandably made Sacramento’s Muslim community nervous. Altashi was only one of many Muslims in the Sacramento area who felt intense pressure to cooperate with the FBI under any circumstances. Their desire to appear innocent and helpful had led to a rash of interesting stories, rumors and urban myths that reveal how far the community was willing to go to avoid suspicion, and how deep that suspicion potentially ran.

Masood Khan, a member of the Muslim Students Association at the University of California at Davis, claimed that Muslim college students were being targeted. He’d heard that the federal government had sent out letters to college administrators requesting lists of all foreign students. When asked if he’d ever seen a copy of such a letter or if he knew of any administrator who’d received one, he admitted that he did not, but he remembered reading about it in more than one place.

Khan also heard that the American Lawyers Guild recently held a forum to teach Muslim Americans how to respond if they received a request to come in for questioning. Only about 15 people attended, said Khan. The community was afraid the FBI would be at the meeting, taking notes of who was present.

For similar reasons, when people do go in for questioning, they appear without their lawyers, afraid that bringing a lawyer implies guilt. Some of these people have been arrested on site.

There were even stories circulating about FBI agents taking down license plate numbers in the parking lots of mosques.

Whether some or all or none of these stories are true is anyone’s guess, but their popularity suggested that the community was very concerned about potential targeting by the FBI.

While there were many stories of those who cooperated at all costs, there were also occasionally stories of those who resisted.

Taher Husnein attended the same mosque as Altashi and Alnassiri. On an evening in early December, Husnein walked casually into the Tower Cafe and was immediately recognized by a young waiter and a customer at a neighboring table. He chatted warmly with both of them as he took a seat and ordered a cup of coffee. Then he told a strange and disturbing story of being under surveillance by the FBI and California narcotics officers, probably because he had a box cutter in the back of his minivan.

Husnein, who has lived in the same Sacramento house for the last 13 years, had a history with automotive repair and sales. He used to export vehicles to the United Arab Emirates, which is why he had to fly to Texas this fall to retrieve a minivan returned by its previous owner. Husnein paid the excessive storage fees at the port, he said, and drove the minivan toward home. On the way, he spoke with his wife, who said that the FBI had come by and left a card. They’d had questions about an old pilot friend of Husnein’s, a Muslim man, who had recently emigrated to Canada.

On his way home, Husnein had numerous problems with the minivan. He had to fix a flat tire, have an extra key made, and replace a radiator hose. He bought a box cutter and used it to slice the bad hose so that he didn’t damage the radiator by trying to pull the hose out by the neck.

As he’d headed through Palm Springs, he said, he’d stopped to pick up dates, nine boxes of them, which were in the back of the minivan when he headed into Bakersfield, where a CHP officer spotted him, dropped behind him, examined the Arab lettering on the license plate, Husnein speculated, and then pulled him over.

Are you drunk, the officer asked him.

Without accusing him of speeding or any other infraction, she questioned him about the odd smell coming from the back of the minivan. Husnein told her about the dates. She looked into the back of the van but didn’t ask any further questions. She did not mention the box cutter. Checking Husnein’s driver’s license, she confirmed his address, and then let him go—or so he thought.

Husnein parked his beleaguered minivan at his Sacramento home in the middle of the night. Across the street, he noticed three cars parked in a row with their lights on. Instead of unloading the van, Husnein went into the house and woke his wife. She told him to go talk to whoever was in those cars, but Husnein went to sleep instead, arose in the early morning, prayed, read the paper and then went out to unload the van. Two of the cars remained across the street.

Husnein called the FBI agent who’d dropped off his card and left a heated message saying that he didn’t appreciate being spied on. Only when the agent called back did Husnein realize the FBI wasn’t responsible for the surveillance team, or so they said. To find out who was, Husnein and his wife went out to one of the vehicles still parked across the street. With Mrs. Husnein approaching on one side, and Mr. Husnein on the other, the driver rolled up the windows.

“Who are you?” Mr. Husnein demanded through the glass.

“Who are you?” the driver replied.

Husnein decided to call the local cops.

Two sheriff’s cars pulled up and talked with the drivers of the two remaining surveillance vehicles, and then reported to Husnein that he was being watched by narcotics officers, and apparently at the request of the FBI.

An FBI agent arrived soon after.

What was in all the boxes, the agent wanted to know.

Husnein told her about the dates.

And what about the box cutter, she asked.

He told her about the hoses.

The agent said to sit tight until her boss arrived, but by now Husnein had had enough. When the final cadre of officers and agents arrived, Husnein told them that they were upsetting the neighbors. He invited them to join him at La Bou, which a couple of them did. They went together and they all had coffees and Husnein answered their questions. He also gave them his theories on who was responsible for September 11.

If you want to know who did this, Husnein said, you have to investigate everyone on those planes. Investigate everyone at the World Trade Centers. Find out who didn’t show up for work that day, who lost money and who didn’t. According to Husnein, a Muslim couldn’t have perpetrated this crime. Muslims have rules, even rules for war, he said. Muslims can’t cut a tree, can’t kill a woman, a baby, or an old man, said Husnein. These people couldn’t have been Muslim. Have you investigated the Jews, Husnein wanted to know.

As the FBI’s national investigation of Muslim men intensified, attorneys around the country were seeing their practices swell with new Muslim clients. Shamieh, an immigration lawyer who speaks Arabic, said that he thought he was one of the only attorneys in San Francisco handling cases like Altashi’s. Since September 11, he said, he’d become the representative for 20 clients who’d been detained by the INS.

At 8:00 a.m. on a day in early December, Shamieh prepared to defend Altashi by teleconference at his long-awaited hearing at Eloy.

Shamieh expected the court to call him as soon as Altashi’s case came up on the judge’s daily calendar. Until then, all he could do was review the case and wait.

If Altashi were released, as hoped, detention center personnel would shuttle him to a nearby bus station, where he could take the bus to the Tucson airport. From there, he could fly home—assuming he could afford to. The court system paid to bring him to Eloy, but they wouldn’t pay to send him home.

Shamieh expected to hear from the judge between 8 a.m. and 8:30, but at 9:00 a.m. he started to grumble. He was supposed to be in court at 9:00.

Things were complicated by the fact that he’d just noticed a potentially serious snag. Altashi had once requested permission to leave the country and return. Shamieh wasn’t sure if he’d actually left or not, but he could now be tried as an arriving alien, which meant that only the district director had the power to issue a bond for Altashi’s release.

It began to look like Altashi would not make it home that day after all.

Shamieh looked at his watch and began to pace. “I hate this,” he mumbled.

Downstairs, Shamieh talked to a young attorney in khakis and a polo shirt who used to work for him. Shamieh took five minutes to brief Roger Kubein on the details of Altashi’s case while an assistant waited upstairs for the judge to call. Shamieh then headed to the courthouse.

At 9:40 the call came in, and when the judge heard that Kubein wanted to fill in for Shamieh, he angrily forbade it, saying that there was no time to fill out the forms that would give Kubein the client’s consent. And no, the judge growled, Shamieh could not appear by cell phone from some other location.

With this split-second decision, the judge doomed Altashi to another two weeks in detention. At least.

In his most deferential voice, Kubein thanked the judge for rescheduling, accepted December 20 as a new hearing date, and hung up.

The judge would usually have been more understanding, said Kubein, but after September 11, everything was different.

In the hallway outside Shamieh’s office, a growing number of clients sat silently, waiting for the busy attorney to return.

The next afternoon in Sacramento, Thomas was at home watching three children. As she gently picked up toys and returned them to their owners, soothing all three with slices of freshly cut apple, she didn’t seem especially upset about the botched court hearing. Though she was quick to laugh and quick to cry while discussing Altashi’s detention, she apparently wasn’t aware that her husband was supposed to be home already. She was simply waiting, and trying to prepare for Christmas, a holiday that Altashi used to celebrate for her son’s sake, even though Muslims don’t usually celebrate holidays with gifts.

As she sat gingerly at her dining room table, crowded with tiny Christmas decorations and miniature plastic Christmas trees, she immediately began crying.

“I haven’t really talked about [this] with anyone,” she said. “It’s really hard. I don’t know his status. … We’ve been only able to talk a few times.”

Thomas said that Altashi wanted to come home, wanted to sleep in his own bed, but didn’t know when that would be possible.

“It’s Ramadan,” she said, “and he can’t go to the mosque.”

The holy month of Ramadan is very important to Muslims, who pray five times a day and sometimes break the fast together at twilight.

This year, Ramadan was a holy month for Thomas too. She’d recently converted to Islam, impressed by the humility of the people at Altashi’s mosque. Since accepting an invitation to worship from Alnassiri’s wife, Thomas had been busily memorizing prayers in Arabic and going through the traditional activities alone. When she and her husband had a spare moment on the phone, she asked him many questions, and he told her how to follow the traditions of his religion.

“He’s my sweetie,” Thomas said, pursing her lips as she looked at a recent photograph of the two of them huddled together outside at night. Their faces and clothing were bright against a backdrop of blackness.

Though Thomas thought of Altashi’s detainment as a very personal story, much of the rest of the country envisioned Altashi as a potential informant, someone possibly linked to terrorists, a man detained because of his access to insider information about bin Laden and Al Qaeda. But Altashi is likely a regular person, a Muslim who wanted to gain American citizenship, and had been in contact with the INS in order to secure that possibility.

“I wish my husband were here to help me,” said Thomas, as the holy month faded into its second half. She prayed he wouldn’t be deported, fearing that she, like the other victims of the terrorist attacks, would then have nothing left but her memories of the loved one she suddenly lost to the events of September 11.