- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 20, 2002

BALTIMORE (AP) When police entered a northwest Baltimore apartment during a routine arrest Sept. 10, some wondered whether they had stumbled onto a secret al Qaeda terrorist cell.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward Norris thought it was possible and said so on television. FBI counterterrorism agents rushed in to assess what police had found on the eve of the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
At least six young, male Muslim immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Canada and Morocco were sharing a sparsely furnished apartment.
A computer contained links to Web sites of flight schools and local airports. The apartment was littered with photographs of Union Station in the District and Times Square in New York. FBI agents recovered and translated handwritten documents in Arabic containing "radical fundamentalist rhetoric," an FBI affidavit said.
With the United States on edge, the story made national news. Immigration agents detained five of the men on charges of visa violations. FBI affidavits describing the evidence persuaded judges to keep four men in jail, awaiting deportation.
But two months later, the terrorism investigation appears to have fizzled. Based on court testimony and interviews, the men appear to be exactly what they said: immigrants hustling at Afghan-owned fried chicken restaurants to make enough money to survive and send a little to family overseas.
Their only crime appears to be overstaying their visas.
"We're not the people they think we are," Shamsudin Mohammed, 26, a Somali who has been incarcerated since his arrest Sept. 10, told the Baltimore Sun. "This is the place we are eating and finding our freedom. We'll be the first to protect this country."
The FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.
Immigration and Naturalization Service officials said they were treating the cases as routine visa violations.
"It's very frustrating for the Muslim community," said Abid Husain, director of the Islamic Center of Baltimore. "There's a fear that anybody can be picked up at any time."
Immigration judges kept the men in jail, saying they based their decisions on FBI requests for more time to complete the terrorism investigation.
The bureau won't say what it found. But it appears that none of the initial suspicions panned out.
According to court filings and interviews, the flight school and airport computer links were created by Ahmad Shah Malgarai, the brother of detainee Reza Zazai. Mr. Zazai is a Canadian citizen originally from Afghanistan who is charged with overstaying his visa.
In an affidavit, Mr. Malgarai said he took a single, $49 flying lesson in Delaware in late 2000 or early 2001. Mr. Malgarai said he used the computer to research an article on the challenge facing Muslims who want to learn to fly since the September 11 attacks.
The "jihad writings" were verses from the Koran and other religious texts, some written by hand in a notebook, attorneys for the detainees said.
Contrary to initial police impressions, the apartment contained neither forgery equipment nor false documents, said Louis Crocetti, the INS district director in Baltimore.
Rather than surveillance photographs of terrorist targets, the pictures in the apartment turned out to be tourist snapshots or postcards, a government source told the Sun.
Sameer Ashar represents Khoshal Wahid Nasery, an Afghan national held on charges that he overstayed a visitor's visa.
"As a country, we're trying to work out a rational way for the legal system to deal with the threat of terrorism," Mr. Ashar said. "I don't think we've found it yet."


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