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COLUMN ONE

Pressured to Name Names

A 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, some say.

August 07, 2006|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

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."

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