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Send Off: Shabbir Ahmed's lawyer Saad Ahmad speaks to reporters; his client is being deported to Pakistan.

The Danger Game

In wrapping up a surreal saga, the government said Shabbir Ahmed was only three links away from Osama bin Laden. Oh, and that they're letting him go. What happened?

By Najeeb Hasan

On Aug. 15, after more than two months in jail without being charged for a crime, Lodi terror probe target Shabbir Ahmed finally cried uncle, agreeing to be deported to Pakistan. After the hearing, his lawyer Saad Ahmad explained to a huddle of reporters that although his client would prefer to remain in the United States, he would rather go to Pakistan than fight a minor visa violation while indefinitely jailed.

After Ahmad's impromptu press conference, the 15 or so reporters who had squeezed into the tiny, ninth-floor San Francisco courtroom were instructed to file up to the 10th floor, where they were greeted by a beaming Immigration and Customs Enforcement representative. Ronald Le Fevre, the chief immigration counsel who had sat quietly through the immigration hearing, took his spot behind the podium, and the cameras began rolling.

His speech from a prepared statement took less than two minutes to read. Le Fevre said the deportation was a victory and that Ahmed would "no longer be in a position to advance any doctrine of hate."

He then announced he would take one question.

Though this moment would be glossed over in the mainstream press accounts the next day, it was in fact the one to which the entire hearing had come down. The prosecution has based their case on statements by Ahmed that they called "anti-American"; he had been called "a danger to the community"; a Customs Enforcement attorney had presented as evidence an oversized poster board that through a complicated flow chart—an almost incomprehensible labyrinth of arrows and photos—purported to link Ahmed with Osama bin Laden himself.

So, the question could not have been more obvious, and everyone wanted to ask it: If Ahmed is indeed a terrorist, if he is indeed linked to Osama bin Laden, how can he possible be permitted to skip happily back to Pakistan?

"We have a range of tools at our disposal," replied La Fevre. "Prosecution is one of those tools and only one of those tools. We have used another tool, that is to remove Mr. Ahmed. Once he is removed, he will no longer be able to advance his goals in the United States."

Prosecution is only one of those tools? Wait a second, did this guy really commit a crime? Or was the government trying to cover up any suspicion that this case, as Ahmed's supporters have charged, was a sham all along?

A loud wave of follow-ups swamped the chief attorney.

"Thank you very much," La Fevre said. "That's all."

With that, he turned and bolted out the door he came in.

The reporters looked at each other in disbelief.

"I paid $28 to park for this?" murmured the correspondent for The New York Times.

Is He or Isn't He?

So the government's bizarre attempt to resolve this case shed no more light on the real questions it raised: Is Ahmed a terrorist? Is he a threat to the United States? Or was this whole case, which fed the terror-alert sensationalism of cable news for months, post-9/11 hysteria?

From the Immigration and Customs Enforcement perspective, Shabbir Ahmed's earlier hearing on Aug. 9 was perhaps the critical moment: the final opportunity to make Ahmed's image sinister enough to warrant continued detention. The agency's attorneys were already well on their way to the goal, succeeding, during the first part of the bond hearing in late June, in painting Ahmed as a preacher who urged his followers to "kill Americans" during protests of the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan in Pakistan.

His attorney, Ahmad, was in a tough spot. Immigration officials had established, without a doubt, that his client was vehemently opposed to the bombing of Afghanistan after 9/11, though this position was held by the vast majority of Pakistanis. Indeed, a Gallup Pakistan poll shortly after 9/11 indicated that 83 percent of all Pakistanis were more sympathetic to the Taliban than the United States government during the conflict between the two; 75 percent of Pakistanis opposed allowing the United States to use Pakistani air bases during the conflict.

The problem for Ahmad, however, was that in the terror probe of Lodi, formerly a quiet town 90 miles northeast of San Jose, his client's opposition to the bombing of Afghanistan had been equated by FBI and immigration officials to support of Al Qaeda.

And so, Ahmad did all he could—not necessarily to allow his client to give more context about his political views (that would perhaps be too dangerous), but to show how his client was a victim of circumstance and that he was no longer a political extremist. Ahmed was permitted to say that he opposed the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan because he thought it would be similar to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. "When Americans bombed Pakistan," he said (through a translator), "the same picture came before me, that the women and children would face the same consequences." But he also quickly added, "Later on this was not true."

In the exchanges between Ahmad and his client from that hearing, Ahmed certainly doesn't sound like a terrorist, or even an extremist; rather, Ahmad steered the conversation to make his client sound almost slavishly pro-American:

Saad Ahmad: You mentioned that you made these speeches before you came to America, and that you didn't know the truth?

Shabbir Ahmed: ... I said I had a different picture, but when I came [to America] the picture was different. And when I went back [to visit Pakistan], I said there that "in America there is Islam but not many Muslims, and here we have many Muslims but no Islam." Because what Islam teaches us, I came to know when I came here. ... When we opened the door of our mosque [in Lodi] for Christians and Jews, some were against us. I gave a Friday sermon that our Prophet opened his mosque's door for Christians and Jews. ... And when I went to Pakistan, I went to a church in Islamabad. ... Before I came to America, I would have never have gone to a church. But, by coming here, I realized that we should go there.

Saad Ahmad: What's your opinion of the United States?

Shabbir Ahmed: This is my country. Islam teaches us that you should love your country. And whoever is against this country, I'm against it.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorney Paul Nishiie's biggest moments came when he invited Gary Schaaf, who described himself as one of three lead FBI agents working on the Lodi terror probe, as a witness. During Schaaf's time answering questions, Nishiie not only was able to establish the FBI's chain-of-command theory about Lodi (Lodi resident Hamid Hayat would carry out the attacks and take orders from Ahmed, who in turn would take orders from Muhammed Adil Khan, another Lodi religious leader detained in the probe, who would take orders from Al Qaeda–affiliated personalities in Pakistan) for Judge Murry, but was also able to drag out his centerpiece, a 3-by-5-foot poster that helpfully detailed all sorts of Al Qaeda connections in clear lines.

The major thrust of the poster was to link Adil Khan, who was active in the U.S.-supported Afghan resistance of the Soviets, with other religious personalities—Sami-ul-Haq, Nizamuddin Shamzai, Jalaluddin Haqani, among others—who were also active in the resistance and who, 10 or 15 years after being former President Reagan's praised freedom fighters, were alleged to have links with either bin Laden himself or the Taliban. The logic was as follows: bin Laden is "close friends" with Jalaluddin Haqani; Haqani and Adil Khan "fought together" in Afghanistan (again, at the behest of the U.S. government); thus, Adil Khan is linked to bin Laden. And of course, Adil Khan had links to Shabbir Ahmed, who had links to Hamid Hayat, who had links to Umer Hayat, who, in all probability, had links to half the town of Lodi—he was an ice cream truck driver, after all.

After the hearing, outside the courthouse, while Saad Ahmad found himself surrounded by a huddle of television cameras, it was evident that Nishiie had done his job. The courtroom artist, an older woman with a grandmother's warm smile, was, as is her custom, taping her courtroom sketches on the court's gray walls for the benefit of the cameras. With one hand she was applying the tape; with the other she was holding a cell phone, through which she was having an earnest conversation.

"This guy [Shabbir Ahmed] was really involved," she told the person on the other end of the line with awe in her voice. "I saw it. It went right down the line from Osama bin Laden to him. I could see it right here"—she pointed to her rendering of Nishiie's poster, perhaps for her own benefit.

What she said then might be a perfect summation of the surreal way this entire terror-probe saga has played out.

"I can't explain how, but they have all the lines connecting these people. A whole web of people."


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From the August 31-September 6, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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