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.

But the Muslims Mohamed met in Argentina had a different interpretation. "One guy even tells me: “Shaheed [in Arabic] means martyr.' He then suggested to me I should go to the jihad, and die a real shahid. Die for Allah. Well, at that time I was so desperate I said, “Yes, I am willing.'"

During one dinner at an Arabic restaurant, Mohamed remembers, he was asked "if I was serious about going in the jihad. I said yes. I then asked what I had to do. They said, “If you are willing to die in the path of Allah, you have to do anything.'"

Then one night in April of last year, he was picked up in a van with dark-tinted windows. He sat in the back with two other men who urged him to join them in repeating an Arabic chant: "There is no God but Allah."

Tom Bennett
Tom Bennett

After an hour's drive, he recalls, the van pulled into a gated compound where he was led into a warehouse. Before pictures of bin Laden and posters proclaiming, "America, the Great Satan," he says they prayed, had refreshments, and then went over plans for bombing the U.S. embassy and a Jewish temple. The discussions were in Arabic; a friend from the restaurant translated for Mohamed.

At one point, he says, the speaker held up his hands about eighteen inches apart to indicate the thickness of a wall. "When I asked what's going on," says Mohamed, "the guy who brought me there said, “We are going to blow up the U.S. embassy.' He said, “We want America the great Satan out of here.'"

On the way back to Buenos Aires, Mohamed says he was told to return the next evening with all his belongings. And at that moment, he remembers, "I was thinking about getting out of here."

He ran for the Chilean border, but without papers he was denied entry. Broke and tired, he returned to Buenos Aires. Wary of trusting anyone at a mosque, he "decided I will go to the first church I see. I then ended up in an evangelist [sic] church. When I explain everything to the pastor, he told me to sit and wait. The next thing about six or seven police officers came and arrested me."

While held in a military jail, Mohamed says, he was interviewed by Argentine anti-terrorism police, Interpol, and representatives from the British embassy. But after the first day of his chronological account -- and before he could get to the details of the bombing plots -- he says "a Pakistani guy, dressed in Pakistani clothes" and claiming connections to Hezbollah, was put into his cell. "And he knew everything about me," says Mohamed. "He said if I wanted to remain alive, I should not tell them anything." And so he did not mention the bomb plots.

A month later Mohamed was issued a British passport and put on an American Airlines flight to Miami.

Jack Wallace met Mohamed in July at the Manatee County Jail after the young FIAC attorney had completed a routine presentation to INS detainees about their legal rights. "Mr. Wallace, can you take a look at this?" Mohamed said as he gave Wallace the handwritten letter.

Two weeks went by before Wallace read Mohamed's letter. And when he did, he says, he found it "very shocking."

The next day he showed the letter to Rebecca Sharpless, his supervisor. She also found it alarming. But they did not mention it to Cheryl Little, their boss, or to anybody else. "I figured he was clear," says Wallace. "The FBI had talked to him. What more could I do?"

In August FIAC attorney Charu Newhouse al-Sahli met Mohamed when she and Wallace returned to the Manatee County Jail. In the following weeks Wallace, Newhouse al-Sahli, and Sharpless spoke to Mohamed by phone about his asylum plea, and all found him sincere. Says Sharpless: "Humble, understated, and I completely believe his story. He is not that sophisticated. He doesn't come across as someone who is intelligent enough to manipulate the system."

In a letter to Wallace postmarked August 14, 2001, Mohamed asks for advice about his pending asylum hearing. "Sir, if you cannot represent me, please come or send someone just to guide me because I don't want to say anything I shouldn't," he wrote.

He reminded Wallace that he did not want to be sent back to Trinidad "to be killed by the Muslims." He mentioned writing to the consulates of Panama, Chile, and Costa Rica and his plans to write to Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, along with "any[where] within the Commonwealth that will accept me as a refugee." He said he wrote to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He also arranged for x-rays of his body to be taken to show his healed broken leg and the stab wound in his neck. "I really would like to get out of this situation and start back with my life," he wrote.

A hearing on Mohamed's asylum plea lasted two hours. According to the transcript, Judge Jonathan Dowell listened to Mohamed's detailed story patiently, at times interrupting the garrulous Trinidadian with questions about dates and sequences of events. Near the end of the hearing, however, Dowell seemed to indicate a growing incredulity, not about the meetings with terrorists in Buenos Aires but over Mohamed's account of being waylaid on a street in Port of Spain by the same two thugs who months earlier had run him down with a car and broken his leg.

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