Moroccan says the U.S. gave him a stark choice: Inform on fellow
Muslims or be deported as a likely terrorist. It's a routine tactic,
PRESSURED TO NAME NAMES
Los Angeles Times
SAN FRANCISCO The document that federal agents handed to Yassine
Ouassif to justify his deportation contained startling language: "The
United States government has reason to believe that you are likely to
engage in terrorist activity."
Ouassif was in exclusive company. Since Sept. 11, only five people
have faced that ominous charge. Ouassif was about to become the sixth.
The slip of paper offered no details on what was behind the accusation.
As federal officials took him into custody in December, they told the
24-year-old Moroccan a permanent resident who had moved to
California nine months before the terrorist attacks that he would be
taken to a detention facility in Arizona. He could fight deportation
from there, but it would take at least two years, they said. And they
assured him he would fail.
Ouassif was scared. He cried. But he was not surprised.
Just three weeks earlier, an FBI agent had laid out a stark choice in
a furtive meeting near an East Bay commuter rail station: If Ouassif
signed on as an informant in the government's war to root out
terrorism, all his problems would disappear. If he declined, Ouassif
would almost certainly be deported.
"He was gambling on me," said Ouassif, a devout Muslim whose thick,
curling eyelashes lend him a childlike demeanor.
Ouassif, saying he is a law-abiding green-card holder, chose to fight
back. "Hire people to help you and pay them," he said. "Don't put
someone in the field and say, 'You have to help us.' "
The story of the San Francisco resident a security guard and
part-time engineering student is in some ways unremarkable. He is
one of many immigrants investigated, yet not charged or deported, in
the post-Sept. 11 era. But his case reveals a lesser-known aspect of
the war on terror: the federal government's high-stakes some say
coercive tactics to recruit Muslim collaborators.
Ouassif treaded water for seven months in a murky administrative
netherworld facing vague accusations of terrorist activity, but
granted no court hearing while he says he was pressed aggressively
to become an informant.
The account of Ouassif's ordeal is based largely on interviews with
him and his lawyer, as well as his own voluminous written chronicle.
Immigration officials declined to comment, since no formal action was
taken against Ouassif. FBI officials also declined to discuss the
investigation, saying it is classified.
Nevertheless, the basic outlines of Ouassif's tale check out
including evidence that he was told to contact a San Francisco FBI
agent who tried to recruit him.
San Francisco FBI spokeswoman LaRae Quy said the known facts that
Ouassif did not become an informant and was not deported prove that
he was treated fairly.
"It's clear that there wasn't any coercion here or he would have been
thrown out of the country for not cooperating," she said.
But lawyers and local Islamic leaders in California cite at least a
dozen recent cases of clients who were aggressively encouraged to
become informants after they were detained for minor visa violations.
"They are trying to cultivate and exploit innocent people, enticing
them, bribing them, tricking them in all these ways to snitch and
spy," said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the 70-mosque Islamic
Shura Council of Southern California.
Most Muslims who have been approached as potential informants are too
fearful to talk publicly. Ouassif said he decided to speak to
reporters from The Times and the Wall Street Journal because he hoped
to encourage the FBI to find "a way of dealing with a situation like
this in a non-harmful way."
Ouassif grew up in Casablanca, Morocco, with seven brothers and one
sister. He entered the United States in January 2001, at 19, after
winning a green card through the federal government's lottery. In
2003, he traveled to Morocco to marry a 17-year-old cousin. When he
returned, he enrolled at San Francisco City College and made plans to
bring his wife, Khadija El Fahri, to live with him.
Ouassif is now cleanshaven and wears jeans and sneakers. But then, he
sported a full beard and, by his own account, embraced an intense
religious orthodoxy. He gravitated to the Al-Tawheed mosque, on the
edge of San Francisco's gritty Tenderloin neighborhood, across the
street from a sex shop. At the mosque, Ouassif sold Moroccan clothing
for extra income, worshiped and talked often with friends.
In the post-Sept. 11 environment, some conversations were starkly
critical of U.S. policy, he conceded. But Ouassif said he never
advocated violence and believes that those who commit terror against
nonbelievers are "distorting Islam."
His ordeal began Sept. 26, 2005, after a visit to his wife in Morocco.
Three hours into his Paris-to-San Francisco flight, the plane turned
back. An Air France spokesman confirmed that the flight was diverted
"at the request of the U.S. authorities."
Ouassif was questioned in France and then put on a plane to
Casablanca. Moroccan agents took over, warning him that U.S. officials
had the dirt on Ouassif and his friends.
"I pleaded with them in the name of God not to take any action without
proof," he said.
For more than five weeks, Ouassif said, he was told to wait while a
Moroccan intelligence agent promised to resolve the U.S. Embassy's
concerns. When they finally met again, Ouassif recounted, the agent
asked him to attend the mosque near his family home in Casablanca and
spy on some prominent Islamists.
And then he told him that was just the start.
"We also need your help in America," Ouassif recalled the agent saying.
Ouassif wanted none of it.
Without reporting to U.S. Embassy authorities in Casablanca, as
authorities had ordered him to do, Ouassif booked a flight to
Montreal. He hoped to escape notice by crossing the border by bus. But
At the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Champlain, N.Y.,
on Nov. 23, 2005, Ouassif said he underwent questioning, his right
hand cuffed for a time to a small metal chair. He had not reported to
the U.S. Embassy in Morocco, he told the female agent who questioned
him, because he was innocent and afraid he might lose his green card.
She asked about his visits to Morocco, religious beliefs and views on
When she finished, an FBI agent, identified by his business card as
Michael Lonergan, told Ouassif that under normal circumstances he
would be detained but that a San Francisco FBI agent named "Dan" had
just intervened. Ouassif could go home, if he agreed to call Dan when
he got there.
Lonergan printed Dan's number on his card.
Reached at his two-man office in Plattsburgh, N.Y., just south of
Champlain, Lonergan said he could not comment.
Customs and Border Protection officials revoked Ouassif's green card
and instructed him to report to immigration authorities in San Francisco.
Informants have long been key to criminal investigations. But they are
usually used merely to turn up leads. Agents then accumulate other
evidence or follow through on their own, undercover.
Terrorism cases, in contrast, are increasingly built solely on informants.
Rand Corp. terrorism expert Brian Jenkins said the reasons are varied.
The FBI lacks agents with language and ethnic backgrounds to
infiltrate potential jihadist groups. Pressure has mounted to
intervene before terrorist acts are carried out. And would-be
terrorists now favor "local initiatives beneath the radar of
international intelligence," he said, making investigation of
homegrown groups much more critical.
The recent arrests of seven Miami men who allegedly talked of blowing
up Chicago's Sears Tower, for example, stemmed entirely from the work
of an undercover FBI informant who posed as an Al Qaeda operative.
Still, problems with informants in high-profile cases have underscored
The informant, and star witness, in a botched Detroit terrorism
prosecution allegedly told his cellmate that he had lied. The case
unraveled after an investigation revealed prosecutors had withheld
that and other key information from the defense.
Another informant in a high-profile New York terrorism case set
himself ablaze in a personal protest against his handlers.
And in the California prosecution of a Lodi father and son, the
informant told tales of seeing top Al Qaeda officials in the Central
Valley sightings discounted by terrorism experts as preposterous.
Initially investigated as a suspect, that informant agreed to help in
exchange for more than $200,000 payments that critics contend could
lead informants to lie or entrap.
Appealing to an innocent person's concern for potential violence is
the best recruiting approach, experts and the FBI's Quy said.
But, Jenkins said, "The most common, easiest way is to use leverage
against someone who has actually committed a crime and then to say,
'Look, in exchange for X, we need your help.' "
One way to exert such leverage is through immigration violations. Even
when the offense is minor, the consequences are almost always severe.
"For many people, the stakes are whether they get to continue living
in the country that is their home," said Georgetown University law
professor David Cole, who has represented terrorism defendants. "That
is a huge hammer to hold over somebody's head."
When he returned to San Francisco, Ouassif said he called the FBI
agent, Dan Fliflet.
For nearly four hours the next day, they walked and talked near a West
Oakland train station. "He said, 'I know all about you and your
friends at the AlTawheed mosque,' " Ouassif recounted. " 'I also know
you have jihadi beliefs holy war beliefs.' "
Ouassif denied it. But Fliflet insisted he had a detailed report on
Ouassif. He proposed a long-term collaboration, Ouassif recalled,
first in San Francisco and later in Sacramento. Ouassif could
cooperate. He would get his green card back and his wife would be
allowed to come live with him. Or he could refuse. And then Fliflet
would spearhead efforts to expel him.
"America is like a bus," Ouassif said Fliflet told him. "Either you
board the bus or you leave."
He gave Ouassif one week to think about it. "We shook hands and he
left," he said. "It was the most terrible moment I have ever experienced."
The questions tumbled out. "Is it going to harm people? Is it going to
hurt me?" Then he swung the other way. "I thought, even if I have to
go back and live with my family in Morocco, it's OK. I just want to
live a peaceful life."
A friend counseled Ouassif to hold firm. "Nothing will happen to you,"
he said. "This is their strategy. Be patient. It's a test from God."
Ouassif sought help. At his side at his first immigration appointment,
on Dec. 14, was Banafsheh Akhlaghi, an Iranian-born lawyer who has
become an advocate for the civil rights of Middle Easterners, Muslims
and South Asians.
Fliflet and an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
chided him for not helping his country and promised they had proof he
was "a bad guy." Then, Customs and Border Protection agents took him
into custody and handed him the charging document, also known as a
notice to appear in court.
But within hours, he was released. The region's national security
prosecutor for the Department of Homeland Security, Peter Vincent, had
relayed to Akhlaghi that there was insufficient evidence to prove the
terrorism allegation, she said.
The agents then asked Vincent for more time to gather evidence. They
took four more months. At last, on April 18, Ouassif's ordeal ended.
"Finally, they gave me my green card back, with no explanation and not
even any apology," Ouassif said.
Reached at the cellphone number that Fliflet gave Ouassif, Fliflet
declined to comment.
Vincent also declined to discuss the case and referred a call to ICE
spokeswoman Virginia Kice, who said that the agency never began formal
immigration proceedings against Ouassif.
But she noted that the decision to present Ouassif with the notice to
appear before a prosecutor agreed to press the case was unusual. "I
wouldn't think it's common," she said.
Ouassif's story in many ways remains mysterious.
Akhlaghi said she was told the investigation was prompted by a
transcript of Ouassif expressing anti-U.S. opinions that, "if he were
a citizen, would have been protected speech."
Such a conversation would likely have been recorded by an informant
who had already infiltrated Ouassif's Al-Tawheed friends.
Quy, the FBI spokeswoman, said that agents would not place someone on
a no-fly list without cause.
"The FBI did not arbitrarily choose Yassine from a group of young
Muslim men," she said. "We were in receipt of specific information
that indicated he may be either directly involved or have knowledge of
But Akhlaghi believes agents tried to scare Ouassif into cooperating,
threatening him with charges they could not substantiate.
She has handled four other immigration cases since last year in which
Bay Area clients were pressed in custody to become informants. Two
Pakistani students and an Egyptian imam were picked up for minor
violations, including failing to pay student fees and misstating an
address on a form. The fourth, a Moroccan, was discovered to have
overstayed his visa.
All declined to become informants and are fighting deportation.
"They are being visited when they are in shackles and handcuffs and an
orange suit," Akhlaghi said. "There is something that can be really
threatening about that."
Syed, of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, said he has
heard of about 10 attempts to turn Muslims with immigration troubles
into informants in the last 18 months.
Even in cases in which federal agents are using leverage, terrorism
experts suggest there are lines that should not be crossed.
"If we were going to deport them anyway, and you say, 'You've
committed a violation. That's the way it is. But if you help us out,
we'll throw you a lifeline,' I think that's fair," said Michael
O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert
on homeland security. "What I would consider unfair would be
deliberately picking on someone for a violation for which they would
not normally be punished."
Ouassif has moved to a downtown apartment and, as a state-licensed
security guard, now watches over Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power
plants. He dropped out of school this spring in the midst of his
ordeal, saying the stress was too much.
"My only concern right now is to live a normal life," he said. "I want
to bring my wife to this country, as my other friends have. This is
all I'm thinking of. It's really personal."
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