The Accidental Terrorist

He stumbled into a group of Muslim extremists with plans to attack America. Then he stumbled into Miami. Today Shaheed Mohamed is nowhere to be found.

Nonetheless the FBI thought enough of Mohamed's tale to interview him repeatedly, and FIAC attorneys found his story believable. "Our staff hears a lot of stories from a lot of people," says FIAC executive director Cheryl Little. "In this case everyone who talked to him said he was very credible, and they don't always say that."

Here, based on his letters to attorneys, a transcript of his August asylum hearing, and a telephone interview from the Manatee County Jail on December 4 -- two days before he was deported -- is Mohamed's story:

Born in the two-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago in 1960, Mohamed is the grandson of immigrants from India. As a member of the nation's Muslim minority, he grew up in a country that became an independent republic in 1962 but remains a member of the British Commonwealth. In recent years Trinidad has seen increased tension between a population that is almost evenly split between blacks of African ancestry and those of East Indian descent.

Tom Bennett
Tom Bennett

Mohamed says he left Trinidad, and his wife and two daughters, in 1987 to live in the United States. He entered the country legally and found construction work in upstate New York. But in 1989, Mohamed recounts, the man who employed him in Saratoga County reneged on a promise to help bring his wife and children to America. The employer seized his passport and withheld his wages, he claims, doling out only enough for Mohamed to live on. With his wife also pressuring him about sending money home, he says, he stole a check from his boss and cashed it.

Arrested and charged with fraud, Mohamed pleaded guilty, served six months in county jail, and was ordered deported. He arrived back in Trinidad in June 1990, in the midst of an attempted coup d'état by a violent Muslim splinter group called Jamaat al-Musilmeen (Society of Muslims). With the island convulsed by political turmoil, Mohamed found himself disgraced by his criminal conviction and deportation and shunned by his family and other Muslims. He managed to scrape by until October 1993, when, he says, he was arrested in connection with "all the bad debts I left when I ran away to the U.S."

Convicted again of fraud, he served two years and two months in prison. Upon his release in January 1996, Mohamed resolved to change his life. He joined a mosque, where he was offered a job as a courier. But members of the mosque, he discovered, were involved with Jamaat al-Musilmeen, and he soon realized that the boxes of fish and shrimp he picked up at the seaport often contained weapons, militant Islamic videos, or other contraband.

Frightened, he fled to the less-populated island of Tobago, but after a few weeks three men he recognized from the mosque forced him back to Trinidad. He resumed working as a delivery man for the mosque, but in February 1997, fearing another coup was brewing, he says he went to the attorney general of Trinidad and volunteered to inform on the militants for the special police. Days later he was deliberately run down by a car and hospitalized for weeks with a broken leg. But he continued to inform, and continued to be paid by the special police, he says. In September of that year he was accosted by thugs and stabbed in the neck. After a friend was murdered and Mohamed's father was assaulted, he decided to flee again.

According to Mohamed his next two years were an odyssey of danger and misadventure. He continued to collect cash as a government informant, all the while dodging militant Muslims who knew what he was up to. He got a job selling ladies' dresses, but when orders were slow in coming, he sold the samples for cash. His employer pressed charges and Mohamed was sentenced to 45 days in jail for theft. After his release he lived with drug smugglers and on deserted island beaches. Finally, in August 2000, he says, "I decided to leave the country for good."

After brief stays in Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, Mohamed found work at a mosque in Brazil. But when Muslims there learned he had been an informant in Trinidad, he was on the run once more.

Without a passport, Mohamed says, he sneaked into Argentina and made his way to Buenos Aires. "As usual as a Muslim traveler, I went to the mosque for help," and spoke to the imam, the prayer leader. "I told him my problem," he says. "I told him that I have no family. I have nothing to live for. I just need work for a place to stay and food to eat. I was helped financially. The money was good. I did not have to work."

Based on what experts now know about the operations of independent terrorist cells, Islamic militants may have seen Mohamed as a perfect candidate for a suicide mission. He was single, estranged from his family, and penniless. More important, he professed to be a devout Muslim.

Before his stay at a Brazilian mosque, Mohamed claims he'd never heard of Osama bin Laden. Until he attended several militant meetings in Buenos Aires, "I thought going to jihad means like in Trinidad -- going from house to house and preach."

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