By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
It was midday at Miami International Airport when a scraggly, intense kid with a face like a razor blade unfurled a small rug and knelt, forehead to the floor, and then performed the Muslim rite of salah. "God is great," he murmured. "God is great."
The sounds of the chants spilled to a nearby security guard. He approached and asked the boy's name and what he was doing. "Raees Alam Qazi," the 17-year-old replied. There was a departing flight to Pakistan, and Qazi said he was going home. He told the guard he didn't like America or its addiction to material goods and sexuality.
The guard, alarmed, scribbled down the name "Qazi" and alerted his bosses. That was 2010, and from that moment forward, the skinny and disheveled youth would be watched. The U.S. government followed as he bounced between houses around Peshawar, destitute and unemployed. Agents monitored his return to the United States a year later to live with his two brothers in Oakland Park. And they surveilled Qazi as he withdrew into ascetic Islam, streamed violent videos, played Xbox games, and hatched quite possibly the most feckless and disorganized terrorist scheme in the annals of mayhem.
In a case that was trumpeted from Miami to Mumbai, Raees Qazi, 20, and his brother, Sheheryar, 30, were charged November 30 with conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and to use a weapon of mass destruction. Their alleged plot involved several batteries taped together, high-strength peroxide, remote-control-car parts, and Christmas lights. Federal prosecutors said this "weapon of mass destruction" was intended for explosion in the United States — until Raees apparently went broke after riding a bike around New York's Times Square looking for a prime spot to plant a bomb. If convicted on both charges, Raees and Sheheryar will spend the rest of their lives in prison.
The Raees Qazi story — about a kid driven by poverty and alienation to the wrong side of a legal system infected with terrorism hysteria — isn't unique. In 2006, the Liberty City Seven of Miami were charged with planning an attack on the Sears Tower in Chicago though they were too poor and inept to do much of anything. Only the ringleader, Narseal Batiste, was convicted of all four charges and sentenced to 14 years.
In some ways, both the Qazi and Liberty City indictments reek of prosecutorial overreach. A University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill study published earlier this year called terrorism by Muslim Americans "a minuscule threat to public safety." Islamic extremism didn't cause even one of the 14,000 murders in the United States last year, the study noted.
Indeed, Raees Qazi was never capable of killing anyone, said his older brother, Shoaib Amam Qazi, who gave New Times the most detailed description of the family to date. Smoking Marlboro Reds outside their apartment near Oakland Park Boulevard, the wiry, unshaven 33-year-old said Raees's incompetence was too profound. "He's just a little kid," said Shoaib. "When you look at him, when you talk at him. You know. He's just a little kid."
Raees's father, a baker with diabetes who declined to give his name, first came to the United States from Pakistan decades ago. But it wasn't until the early 2000s, during Pakistan's descent into tribal conflict, that his sons followed to South Florida, settling into the two-bedroom apartment.
Most of the family acclimated to American life, but it was difficult for young Raees. Alcohol was anathema to him, and after watching poolside bikini-clad women, he'd come away feeling sad and sinful.
Meanwhile, Sheheryar Qazi — broad, groomed, and confident — attended a Fort Lauderdale technical school called FastTrain Institute. He stocked shelves at Dunkin' Donuts but was soon promoted to assistant manager. He fathered a child, later drove a Yellow Cab, and assumed leadership of the household, taking over the apartment's lease for $975 per month.
But then the brothers began to argue. Raees foundered at Piper High School, and religion began to dominate his life, Shoaib said.
During a vicious argument a few years ago, Sheheryar condemned his little brother's inconsistency. Afterward, Raees maintained an icy silence that wasn't broken unless someone spoke to him — which became rare. "If someone talked to him, he would only say, 'Brother, it's prayer time,'" Shoaib recalled. In 2010, Raees decided to go home to Pakistan and, with family savings, booked a flight.
But Raees, uneducated and impoverished, had an equally difficult time there. He couldn't find a job, and after one year, he decided to return to Oakland Park, phoning Sheheryar for money. And Sheheryar helped him — as always.
Although Shoaib spoke at length about the relationship between his brothers, he was reticent about his own familial role as well as his father's. At first, Shoaib said, he barely knew them. Then he tried to distance himself from Raees and Sheheryar. One neighbor said Shoaib, who's deeply religious, wore clerical clothing before the arrests but now dons only basketball shorts.
"I don't want people to think my whole family is responsible," said Shoaib, resisting his girlfriend's demands he stop talking. "If my brother is wrong, I'm not with him. He's not my brother."