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Tustin man related to Al Qaeda figure is arrested

Brother-in-law of Afghan militant is charged with misstating facts in his U.S. citizenship application. He says that it's blackmail and that federal agents tried to force him to be an informant.

February 21, 2009|Carol J. Williams and Christine Hanley

A Tustin man of Afghan origin, who failed to mention in his application for U.S. citizenship that his brother-in-law is designated as an Al Qaeda terrorist, appeared in federal court Friday to answer charges that could send him to prison for 35 years.

Ahmadullah Sais Niazi's detention hearing in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana was postponed until Tuesday, but the 34-year-old defendant used the occasion to accuse federal agents of trying to force him to become an informant.

"I was blackmailed. I did not do what they told me to do," he told reporters in the courtroom, explaining what he saw as the motive for his arrest. "I want justice. I want fairness. . . . The people need to know."

Federal agents descended Friday at dawn on the tract home in Tustin where Niazi has lived for at least eight years with his wife and three young children.

He submitted quietly to the arrest, and stunned neighbors watched for three hours as agents, some in body armor, searched the single-story house for evidence that Niazi lied to government officials about his background and foreign travel.

A five-count grand jury indictment, handed up a week ago and kept under seal until Friday, charged Niazi with two counts of perjury and one count each of naturalization fraud, misuse of a passport obtained by fraud and making a false statement to a federal agency.

Niazi, who has lived in the United States since 1998 and earned citizenship five years ago, is related by marriage to Amin al-Haq, an Afghan militant who fought the Soviet occupation of the 1980s with a U.S.-backed Islamic resistance force that now is branded an Al Qaeda affiliate.

Al-Haq is married to Niazi's sister, Hafiza, and is said to be Osama bin Laden's security coordinator. The 49-year-old Afghan was identified by the United Nations Security Council as an Al Qaeda operative in March 2001 and listed as a "specially designated global terrorist" by the U.S. government a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Al-Haq's name came up during the terrorism trial of Bin Laden's driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, last year. There have been recent unconfirmed reports that Al-Haq has been detained by Pakistani security forces.

Niazi said he and other family members were upset by his sister's marriage because of Al-Haq's "past activities," an FBI agent who interviewed Niazi almost a year ago reported in a search warrant request that a federal magistrate approved Thursday.

Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, which represents mosques and Muslim organizations, said Niazi complained to him last year about being harassed by federal agents. Syed quoted Niazi as saying that they wanted him to work as an informant but that he refused.

"Perhaps this is simply a failed recruitment effort," Syed said of Niazi's arrest.

Niazi was accompanied to court by a deputy federal public defender, Chase Scolnick, but said he wanted to consult with another attorney. U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Nakazato postponed the hearing until Tuesday.

"I need to reveal something to the court and to everyone here about what's really happening. . . . These are all conspiracies," Niazi told Scolnick in a voice loud enough for spectators to hear.

If convicted on all five counts, Niazi could get 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1.25 million.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Deirdre Eliot, the anti-terrorism coordinator in Orange County, declined to comment on the case or on the suggestions that Niazi was targeted because he had refused to be an informant.

Agents had also searched Niazi's home last June looking for money-transfer records that investigators believed would show that he and his wife, Jamilah Romlas Amin, also a naturalized U.S. citizen, had been transferring funds to relatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan through an informal Islamic favor network known as hawala. The network operates outside the scrutiny of U.S. anti-money-laundering surveillance.

Investigators traced $48,000 in transfers by Niazi and his wife over nine years, according to an affidavit from FBI Special Agent Thomas J. Ropel III. The report also mentioned $364,000 in remittances by relatives of Niazi's wife to their family abroad through a Cambodian bank.

"There is probable cause to believe that Niazi, Jamilah and others are engaged in structuring financial transactions for the purposes of evading currency-reporting requirements," Ropel stated.

An ex-Marine trained in counter-terrorism and now assigned to the Orange County Joint Terrorism Task Force, Ropel interviewed Niazi last April and said in his affidavit that Niazi admitted to having visited relatives in Pakistan in 2005.

The FBI agent's research showed that the Pakistan trip, during which Niazi had contact with Al-Haq, occurred in 2004 and was reported on his Customs form upon reentry at Los Angeles International Airport as having been a trip to Qatar.

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