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New York's Arab Enclave Trips Radar

Terrorism: Post-9/11, 'people here feel more and more under siege,' one person says of task force tactics in raid on underground services.

July 01, 2002|MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — On the corner of Atlantic and Court streets in Brooklyn, in the time it takes to savor a tall latte at the Starbucks a block away, you could send cash across the world, buy a black market visa to Yemen or create a whole new identity.

To New York's joint terrorism task force, it was the perfect setup for would-be terrorists, the kind of underground network that once may have supported America's attackers as they prepared their fatal mission of Sept. 11.

To the hard-working Middle Eastern population here, these services are simply the dark edge of the necessities of immigrant life, sometimes abused but mostly ignored as they try to carry on under a lingering shadow of suspicion.

Days like last Wednesday are designed to make the rest of the nation feel safer. Starting at 6 a.m., armed, body armor-clad officers of the FBI, Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service swarmed the neighborhood, knocked down doors and arrested 19 people, mostly of Yemeni extraction. Sixteen were accused of money laundering, one was charged with fraud and two with forging identity documents.

The headlines the next day said that authorities had gotten their men. But to this diverse community--not just to the couple whose door was broken down by mistake at dawn, or the old man who said he had a machine gun pointed at his head or the women whose husbands disappeared into detention months ago--the sense of security that much of America is seeking seems increasingly elusive.

"It's odd," said Emira Habiby Browne, executive director of the Arab-American Family Support Center in Brooklyn. "While the rest of the country seems to slowly forget the impact of Sept. 11, people here feel more and more under siege."

The neighborhood of Cobble Hill, three blocks from Brooklyn's state and federal courthouses, seems an unlikely spot for a terrorist base. The bustling main road, Court Street, is lined with sycamores and flanked by blocks of swanky brownstones. On a single block, diners can choose from Tex-Mex, Indian, Middle Eastern and Chinese restaurants, or a meat-and-potatoes joint. And sprinkled betwixt the new shops are small storefronts and kiosks offering help to people who speak better Arabic than English--help to send money to their home countries, to fill out immigration and tax forms and to bring their families here.

Among the recent arrivals in the neighborhood were Arabic-speaking FBI agents, who hung around for six months, trying to win people's trust and observe how business is done. They benefited from an Arabic custom, residents say: hospitality to newcomers. "We all remember being new immigrants here, how hard it is," said Hassan Al-Faqieh, a restaurateur. The agents were welcomed and absorbed into the community.

Their attention ultimately focused on two service centers. One, the Old Glory Cosmopolitan Translation and Service Bureau, operated from a kiosk inside a 6-by-12-foot supply closet in a popular Yemeni restaurant. The restaurant owner said Saturday that he had allowed a countryman to use the space two months ago, in hopes that the service would bring in more customers. "Not," he said, "the FBI."

The other service center, Saba Travel, is a small office at the top of a dark stairway, behind a brown door now marred with the dents of FBI battering rams. The owner, Abdorabah M. Gaisi, hadn't sold airline tickets in years but specialized in immigration applications, neighboring travel agents said.

The FBI agents suspected more. Earlier last month, on different occasions, an FBI agent wired with a recording device bought a Yemeni divorce decree and birth certificates stamped with Yemeni government seals from each place. He wasn't asked for any identification, and the kiosk proprietor, Ali Hamdi, simply made up the fictional mother's name, according to the agent's affidavits for arrest and search warrants. Each document cost $70 and took less than an hour to make.

The agent also stated that the Saba Travel office had counterfeit seals from federal and state agencies that could be used to make fake U.S. documents.

"This is a delicate time, and if you're doing something wrong, you should pay for it," said Ismail Hassan, a real estate agent and notary who lives next door to Saba Travel. "But I know this man. He may have documents to facilitate immigration to America, but he is not engaged in criminal activity to aid and abet terrorism." Hassan waved his arm toward the sidewalk filled with shoppers and baby strollers. "There are no terrorists in this neighborhood."

The FBI and the U.S. attorney's office say they're treating the cases as white-collar crime involving fraud and the illegal transfer of money, not necessarily as terrorism cases.

But in the post-Sept. 11 world, everything is suspect. Arab business owners say they are accustomed to occasional polite but unscheduled drop-ins from "the feds."

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