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RESPONSE TO TERROR | RIGHTS : COLUMN ONE

Detainee Caught in Backwash of Sept. 11

If not for the attacks, Raza Nasir Khan likely never would have been arrested. Two months later, he's still locked up, one of about 1,200 people snagged in massive sweep.

November 19, 2001|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WILMINGTON, Del. — A pizza cook with dreams of becoming a chef, Raza Nasir Khan does not seem to fit the profile of a terrorist.

Federal prosecutors admit that he is not a menace to society, and a federal judge has declared from the bench that "there is nothing here" to connect the 29-year-old Pakistani immigrant with the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or any other terrorist conspiracy that may be afoot in the U.S.

Indeed, were it not for Sept. 11, Khan most likely never would have been arrested. Yet more than two months after that dreadful morning, he remains behind bars, one of roughly 1,200 detainees scooped up in the massive, often frantic, federal investigation. About half still are in custody.

A cook by trade, a hunter by avocation, a bachelor who strayed from much of his rigorous Muslim training, Khan was tramping alone through the woods near Wilmington, hunting for deer one morning, when he came upon a state Fish and Wildlife agent and asked him for a map.

Khan was carrying a bow and arrow and a global positioning device, a relatively inexpensive electronic compass. It was a week after the suicide attacks, and the forest was near a nuclear power plant.

Alerted by the suspicious wildlife officer, FBI agents visited Khan's home. There, they found a shotgun, a .22-caliber rifle and a Russian-made semiautomatic pistol. The guns were legal, but it was a felony for Khan to have them because his visa had expired and he was in this country illegally.

Within days, he was arrested and charged as an illegal immigrant in possession of firearms. The judge in the case repeatedly has refused to release him on bail. Prosecutors hope to bring him to trial later this year. A conviction could result in his deportation.

Khan cannot contact his family, even as his ailing parents telephone from Islamabad, seeking advice from his attorney and mercy from the judge. His best friend cannot see him, either, and has spoken to him only once by phone.

Federal officials refuse to provide details about most of those arrested since the attacks. But they have said that only a few are being held on material witness warrants relating to Sept. 11, and that about 200 others were rounded up solely on immigration charges.

That suggests that the vast majority, like Khan, are being detained on unrelated federal, state or local criminal charges.

In most of the cases, the court files have been sealed and hearings are held behind closed doors. Prosecutors and judges say that because the continuing FBI investigation is so complex and grand juries are hearing evidence, information about individual cases must be tightly restricted.

Because Khan was quickly ruled out as a terrorist suspect, his court hearings have been open, and his case record is accessible in the court clerk's office here. Unlike so many others, his case has a name and a story attached to it.

It was an early fall morning Sept. 19, and Khan was in the Cedar Swamp forest in northeastern Delaware. He apparently was looking for a particular spot to hunt deer when he met the wildlife agent and asked for a map of the woods. The agent was immediately wary. Khan, after all, was obviously a foreigner, and the Salem Nuclear Power Plant lay just across the Delaware River in New Jersey.

The next evening, the FBI was at Khan's door, and two days later he was in handcuffs. His destination was a federal detention center in nearby Philadelphia.

Even those prosecuting him concede it may have been bad timing more than anything else that led to his detention. Although Khan was among hundreds swept up in those first frenzied days, Richard Andrews, assistant U.S. attorney in Wilmington, said "that doesn't necessarily mean he had anything to do with Sept. 11."

"If you ask me," he added, "Mr. Khan was arrested because of Sept. 11 in the sense that they would not have gone out to interview him but for Sept. 11."

FBI Used Ruse to Gain Entry, Roommate Says

At Khan's first hearing, Veronica Hnat, a special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, testified that "in light of what happened" at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, visiting Kahn at home made sense.

Khan's best friend and roommate, Syed Hassan, said the government overreacted, and that FBI agents used a ruse to get inside their ground-floor apartment near downtown Wilmington.

After knocking on the door the night of Sept. 20, Hassan said the agents announced they were looking for information about Fayez Ahmed, a Saudi Arabian believed to be a hijacker aboard one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center.

"But that was just an excuse," Hassan said. "It was a better way to enter the house."

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