Conflicting image of detainee emerges - Bradenton Herald
- Conflicting image of detainee emerges
NORMAN, Okla. - His name is Hussein al-Attas. He is 24
years old. Ten months ago, he was arrested by federal
agents at the mosque where he worshipped.
He has been locked in solitary confinement ever since,
his only companion a Spanish-speaking prisoner on the
other side of the wall, to whom he speaks through the
Neither his family in Saudi Arabia, nor his Muslim
friends in this college town will speak for him. They
are afraid, they say, of endangering themselves. And
of making life harder for al-Attas, held by the
Justice Department in downtown Manhattan as a material
witness in connection with the terrorist attacks of
His attorneys, silenced by a federal gag order, defend
their client during closed hearings and in legal
motions filed under seal.
Al-Attas has not been charged with a crime.
He is the university student who gave a ride to
Zacarias Moussaoui, a Muslim extremist arrested last
summer after spooking administrators at a Minnesota
flight school with his badgering insistence on
learning to fly jumbo jets.
Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, is
the only person charged with conspiring to help 19
hijackers who plowed two passenger jets into the World
Trade Center and a third into the Pentagon. Al-Attas,
born in Riyadh to Yemeni parents, was his friend and,
briefly, his roommate in this suburb, home to the
University of Oklahoma.
Behind the veil of silence, those who know al-Attas
say he is a good and honest man. Perhaps too naive,
perhaps too willing to listen when he should have
walked away. Speaking on condition of anonymity,
saying they fear retribution from immigration
officials, they described his ways as quiet and kind,
his soul as sensitive and devoted to Islam, his
beliefs unbowed before the temptations of America.
But confidential FBI reports reviewed by The
Associated Press present a different young man - one
who said he might fight, if called upon, to defend
Islamic beliefs, and who lied to federal agents last
FBI reports and interviews in Norman provide one of
the most detailed profiles to date of a Sept. 11
material witness: A young man who spoke of loneliness,
of shaming himself by doing poorly in school, and of
keeping company with Moussaoui, who offered to lead
him to the pure, outer limits of Islamic faith.
Others have also been jailed as material witnesses,
but the government will not say how many.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft says the detention
of material witnesses "is vital to preventing,
disrupting or delaying new attacks." They have not
been identified, he said, because to do so could
create a "public blacklist."
The little-used practice is intended to hold witnesses
without whom a criminal trial might be jeopardized. In
the current cases, witnesses are allowed no visitors
save their attorneys, some of whom privately say weeks
and months passed before clients were allowed to make
a first phone call.
According to confidential FBI reports, Hussein Ali
Hassan al-Attas told federal agents he entered America
in 1995 on a student visa, determined to obtain a
university degree in engineering so he could return to
Saudi Arabia and continue the legacy of his four older
brothers, all successful engineers.
But his heart did not dwell in the land of pipe
fittings and blueprints. After flunking several
classes, he changed his major to mathematics, a step
away from his family's wishes but close enough to
In Norman, he met other young men from the Middle
East, sent like him to study state-of-the-art oil and
building technologies, and to bring that knowledge
He found solace at Norman's Islamic Society and
mosque, a white house two stoplights from campus. He
taught the Quran to children there, a vocation he came
On a recent, stormy night, the mosque's scratchy
public address system carried an invitation to tell a
visitor about "our innocent brother Hussein al-Attas."
A young man was among those who approached. He met
al-Attas in 1999, at the local Target, he said.
Al-Attas noticed him and extended his hand.
"He said 'We are the same,' " the 23-year-old student
recalled. He asked not to be identified, saying
federal agents had already searched his home because
of his friendship with al-Attas, and he feared another
The two spent a lot of time together, he said. Both
loved soccer. Both thought of marriage, but the
uncovered heads and bodies of American women repelled
"That's what made us stick to our Islam ways," said
al-Attas' friend. "I don't see families here, I see
everyone for himself. They use beautiful women to sell
things with their bodies, and they say we treat women
bad. That confuses me."
Al-Attas' faith impressed mosque members. He had
memorized the Quran, all 114 chapters. "We do that
when a person really loves Islam," said his friend.
Al-Attas didn't talk much about himself or his
problems. But there were signs. While his friend
progressed from sophomore to senior, al-Attas remained
a junior, again switching majors, the last time to
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