The War on Terror on the Lodi Front

Two juries in US District court in Sacramento issued verdicts last week on government prosecutions of supposed terrorists. One jury dealt a terrible injustice to a young Pakistani. The other jury split, thus–at least for now — balking the FBI of its prey.

At the center of the trials were two Pakistanis living in Lodi, a small town south of Sacramento. One, 23-year-old Hamid Hayat, a cherry picker, stood accused of being a terrorist who trained at an Al Qaeda camp and returned to the U.S.A. to wreak havoc. The other, his 48-year-old father, Umer Hayat, was charged with lying to the FBI about his son’s activities. Found guilty, the son now faces up to 39 years in prison . The jury deciding the father’s fate split down the middle, unable to reach a decision. He could face another trial. The cases have been followed with apprehension by all Muslims here.

Their ordeal began last summer, when Hamid Hayat, fresh back from a two-year trip to Pakistan where he has spent half his life, was called in by the FBI and interrogated three times.

The California-born Hamid is evidently a simple fellow. At his first interview in the FBI he betrayed no alarm at the prospect of interrogation by men who believed they were on the verge of breaking a major terror ring in Lodi. He complimented one of the agents on the style of his shoes and in general made every effort to be helpful. So did his father, Umer whose job is driving an ice-cream truck. The FBI also grilled him intensively last June.

When the indictments came down, the news headlines were that Hamid had attended a terror-training camp in Pakistan, that there was a terror ring centered on Lodi. Both father and son had made full confessions.

What actually emerged in the trial, where both men were fortunate to have good lawyers, was the usual saga of FBI chicanery. It became very clear from videotapes of the FBI’s questioning that the men have very poor English. Their native tongue is Pashto. They understood little of what they were being asked and were mostly concerned with pleasing their interrogators. In the words of one courtroom reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle, “they gave many answers that had been previously suggested by the agents–who did most of the talking.”

The son, in his five-hour videotaped confession, described a camp located on a mountaintop outside Balakot in the Northwest Frontier province, where he said 35 to 200 Pakistani men fired guns and exercised. The young man gave five different answers when asked who ran the camp. He mentioned “big people … taller than me, (more) educated than me”; a Pakistani group named Harakat-ul-Ansar that was first brought up by an FBI agent; al Qaeda); “maybe my uncle”; and “maybe my grandfather”.

The father, who said he visited the camp later, in 2004, out of curiosity, said it was outside Rawalpindi in Punjab province.

The father delighted the agents at one point by identifying three other young men in Lodi as possible terrorists. The son named two different men–his cousins–as attending Pakistani camps.

According to the Chronicle reporter, “Other admissions didn’t seem to make sense. He said he recognized that men had gone to the camp from around the world, and that some had come from his father-in-law’s madrasa in Pakistan, even though they wore masks. ‘I can recognize from the eyes, you know,’ he said.”

In contrast to his son’s location of the camp on top of a mountain, the father said the one he visited was underground.

At this camp, said Hayat Sr, more than 1,000 men from around the world–including white Americans–fired high-powered rifles, swung curved swords, and learned to pole vault across bodies of water. “They got those stick, the long stick,” Hayat said on the videotape. “You know … when you want to jump something, they was trying to stick like here and jump maybe 16 feet over there.”

“They used it like a vaulting pole,” FBI Agent Timothy Harrison put in.

“Yes sir,” Hayat said.

“There must have been very tall ceilings,” Harrison said. “This is a very deep basement?”

“Very deep basement, yes,” Hayat said. “Very, very deep basement, yes.”

The reason that FBI had pulled in the Hayats was that the Bureau had established a tight professional relationship in Oregon with a sharp fellow of 32 called Naseem Khan. In Lodi he was a fast food worker, then traveled north a few hundred miles on the invitation of an Oregon woman who was impressed by him. He cooked for her family on weekends, and had a job in a fast food joint in Bend, central Oregon.

To his Oregon residence, in 2001, not long after the attacks of September 11, came FBI agents investigating a different case in which there was a suspect with the same name as Khan. The agents established to their satisfaction that this Khan wasn’t the man they wanted. Fortune favors those who seize opportunity. Khan pointed to an image of Osama bin Laden’s number 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, that had come up on a newsclip on his TV and said he’d seen him in Lodi in 1999.

The FBI pounced on this disclosure, and soon Khan was on the Bureau’s payroll at $50,000 a year as an undercover informer, charged with returning to Lodi and probing the terror ring. To date the Bureau has paid him $250,000.

In fact, it was a piece of great good luck that the defense lawyers were able to get Khan’s claims to the Bureau into the court record. It came about because he was a crucial witness against the Hayats. In testimony he mentioned his claim of al-Zawahiri’s presence in Lodi, and the prosecution then had to give the defense a redacted version of their file.

According to Khan, the quiet town of Lodi was a rendezvous for several of the most wanted men on the planet. He’d seen Ayman al-Zawahiri in Lodi in 1999. “Every time I would go to the mosque [al-Zawahiri] would be coming or going,” Khan claimed. The vigilant Khan had also noted the regular presence at the mosque of Abdelkarim Hussein Mohamed al-Nasser, a suspect in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers military housing complex in Saudi Arabia. And, to top it off, he said he had seen Ahmed Mohammed Hamed Ali, a suspect in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, in nearby Stockton in 1999.

According to the Chronicle, public disclosure of Khan’s “observations” created quite a stir in Lodi. “The whole community is dumbfounded as to what’s going on with this,” said Nasim Khan, who was the Lodi mosque’s leader from 1998 to 2000 and is no relation to the government’s informant. “Everything that is coming out, there’s no basis into it.”

The locals told reporters that all three of the terror suspects, from Arab countries, would have stood out in the tight-knit Muslim community, which includes many Pakistanis and South Asians. The most prominent of the three, al-Zawahiri, is an Egyptian. “A majority of the congregation at the mosque is Pakistani,” said Shoaib, the mosque leader. “There’s only a half-dozen or so of Arab descent. If he came in on a regular basis, people would remember him. It’s a ridiculous claim.” One of the Pak-India spice store’s cashiers summed up the feeling that many have aboutNaseem Khan. “If the FBI gave me half the money they gave him, I’d tell them all kinds of crazy stories, too,” said Mumtaz Khan, 58.

For the prosecution, the problem regarding Khan’s overall credibility was that the three terrorists identified by Khan as having been in Lodi on specific dates, were–according to U.S. government officials–not in the U.S.A. at those times.

Back in 2001, riding high as an FBI undercover informant, Khan, equipped with a secret recorder, made friends with the Hayats and did what such FBI provocateurs always do: sought to push young Hayat into self-incriminating statements and actions while urging the shy young fellow to be a man and do battle for Islam.

Khan’s credibility took some heavy punishment, but that aside, the government, in the opinion of reporters covering the trial, did not seem to be making an overpowering case, even with the videotaped confessions the defense say were extorted from the befuddled and uncomprehending Hayats. Further hope was given the defense when, midway through the son’s trial, a juror who was excused by the judge because she’d failed to disclose a brief relationship to a sheriff’s deputy in 1996 told reporters she was unpersuaded by the government’s case.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt–that hasn’t been proven, in my opinion,” said Andrea Clabaugh, a 39-year-old Carmichael resident who works as an accounting manager at a structural engineering firm in Sacramento.

“In my notes, I recall writing down something about the agents feeding him names. It didn’t seem like Hamid actually volunteered anything. During those interrogations, it looked like he was being badgered. It felt to me that in some respects he was giving them information because they didn’t believe him when he said he didn’t know anything. He had to tell them something.”

Too bad she was recused. In the end the son’s jury accepted the government’s case.

Aside from the prosecution of the Hayats, the government went after two Pakistani imams in Lodi who agreed to be deported on immigration violations after the government tried to link them to extremists. Obviously, if the government had anything on the imams they would have held them and prosecuted. Muslims fear a conviction of the Hayats would unleash further prejudice and harassment.

One star of the courtroom battles was Hamid Hayat’s lawyer, Wazhma Mojaddidi, an Afghani immigrant and practising Muslim, only three years out of law school. This was her first criminal trial and her first federal challenge, and all agree she rose well to the challenge. She’s married to a Pakistani immigrant, and has the advantage of speaking five languages including Pashto, Urdu, Farsi, English and French. After the3 verdicct she said there would be an appeal.

The cases in Lodi were only two of many terror trials launched by the U.S. Justice in the wake of the 9/11/2001 attacks. It’s hard to find any that haven’t left the prosecutors and the FBI looking bad. Here in CounterPunch we recently described at some length the farcical imbroglios that followed the Bureau’s misidentification of a fingerprint taken from the bombing scene in Madrid and the efforts to put an innocent Portland lawyer in prison for a lengthy term. Eventually the case was thrown out after the Spanish police managed to make it clear that the finger print had absolutely to do with any finger on either of Brandon Mayfield’s hands. It turned out that the bombers in Madrid had nothing to with Al Qaeda.

In a Detroit case involving the terror prosecutions and convictions of threeMuslims–a supposed terrorist “sleeper cell” — in 2003, the sequel has been the release of the convicted men . A grand jury has now issued an indictment of Richard Convertino the lead prosecutor from the DoJ, along with Harry Raymond Smith, a security official from the U.S. embassy in Amman. They are charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice by making false statements.

In Florida the widely publicized Sami al-Arian case ended with his acquittal on all the most serious charges. On other charges he finally issued a guilty plea and has left the US. In the trial of Zacharias Moussoui in Virginia the prosecution were seconds from losing their case amid charges of witness tampering before the demented Frenchman made his bid for glory by alleging his target was the White House and his proclaimed accomplice Richard Reed, who was given a life sentence for boarding a plane with explosives in his shoes. At least the feds didn’t screw that one up, though it was a flight attendant who cracked the case.


Obama: The Roar of the Crowd

Date: April 24, 2006 11:52:11 PM PDT
Subject: re Obama, 4/24

you are and were right on about Obama. I met the spineless Dem (is that redundant?) in the summer of 2004, at a private fundraiser at the home of a wealthy, suburban Chicago attorney. I asked him one question: “I’ve heard that you call yourself a Democrat but you support NAFTA, the death penalty, and the war on Iraq – is that true?” Regarding the death penalty (George Ryan had
recently suspended all pending executions), he proceed to feed me some bullshit about how he believed that it was the right of the people to express their will, and that he wasn’t going to stand in their way (I’m paraphrasing). I said “but the death penalty is RACIST,” and he repeated himself. I got the same mish mash about the war and NAFTA. What a joke.

Keep up the good work!

Brian Rothgery
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Regarding the trials in federal court in Sacramento, this piece has relied on the excellent reports in the San Francisco Chronicle (primarily by Demian Bulwa) and by reporters at the Sacramento Bee.



Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.