Bush-Cheney and Kerry-Edwards signs littered the lawns of North Miami Beach as Imam Foad Farahi walked from a mosque to his apartment a few blocks away. It was November 1, 2004, the day before George W. Bush would win a second term in office. But the Muslim holy man had been too busy fasting and praying to pay much attention to the presidential election.
For Farahi, an Iranian citizen who had lived in the United States for more than a decade, it was simply another month of Ramadan in South Florida. Then, around 5 p.m., as he neared his apartment, he saw two men standing outside. They were waiting for him.
"We're from the FBI," one of the men said.
"OK," he responded.
They wanted to know about José Padilla and Adnan El Shukrijumah, two South Florida men linked to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Padilla, the so-called Dirty Bomber, was arrested in May 2002 and initially given enemy combatant status. He eventually stood trial in Miami, was convicted on terrorism charges, and sentenced to 17 years in prison. Shukrijumah is a Saudi Arabian and an alleged Al-Qaeda member whose last known address was in Miramar. The FBI is offering up to $5 million for information leading directly to his capture.
"I know José Padilla, but I don't know Adnan," Farahi told the agents.
Of course, Farahi knew of Shukrijumah. As imam of the Shamsuddin Islamic Center in North Miami Beach, Farahi was in a unique position to know about local Muslims, including Padilla and Shukrijumah. Padilla had prayed at Farahi's mosque and was once among his Arabic students. Shukrijumah was the son of a local Islamic religious leader.
"I have had no contact with Padilla since 1998, when he left the country," Farahi told the government agents. He had once met Shukrijumah but had no contact with him after that. "I don't know anything about his activities."
"We want you to work with us," Farahi remembers the agents telling him.
And this is when the imam's five-year battle with the federal government began.
"I have no problem working with you guys or helping you out," Farahi said. He could keep them informed about the local Muslim community or translate Arabic. But the relationship, he insisted, would need to be public; others would have to know he was helping the government.
But that wasn't what the FBI had in mind, Farahi says. The agents wanted him to become a secret informant who would investigate specific people. And they knew Farahi was in a vulnerable position. His student visa had expired, and he had asked the government for a renewal. He had also applied for political asylum, hoping one of those legal tracks would offer a way for him to stay in the United States indefinitely.
"We'll give you residency," the agents promised. "We'll give you money to go to school."
Farahi considered the offer for a moment and then shook his head.
"I can't," he told them.
The slender, bearded 34-year-old Farahi frowns as he recalls all of this while sitting on a white folding chair in the Shamsuddin Islamic Center on a recent afternoon. "People trust you as a religious figure, and you're trying to kind of deceive them," he says, remembering the choice he faced. "That's where the problem is."
Farahi soon discovered the FBI's offer wasn't optional. The federal government used strong-arm tactics — including trying to have him deported and falsely claiming it had information linking him to terrorism — in an effort to force him to become an informant, he says.
The imam has resisted the government at every step, having most recently taken his political asylum case to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
"As long as you're not a citizen, there are lots of things [the government] can do," says Ira Kurzban, Farahi's attorney. "They can allege you're a terrorist and try to bring terrorist charges against you, or they can get you deported." Terrorism, he explains, can even be defined as giving "money to a hospital in the West Bank that turns out to be run by Hamas."
Farahi asserts unequivocally he is innocent of any terrorism charges the government could bring against him. In fact, he says, he would report anyone in the Muslim community supporting terrorism. "From the Islamic perspective, it's your duty to respect the law, and if there's anything going on, any crime about to be committed, or any kind of harm to be caused to people or property, it should be reported to the police," he says.
The FBI's intense efforts to pressure Farahi into becoming an informant reveal the bureau's desperation to infiltrate local Muslim communities. The hard-line tactics have become so widespread in the United States that the San Francisco-based civil rights group Muslim Advocates distributes a video advising how to respond if FBI agents approach.
In fact, relations between the FBI and U.S. Islamic communities are so strained that a coalition of Muslim-American groups in March accused the government of using "McCarthy-era tactics" and threatened to sever communication with the FBI unless it "reassessed its use of agent provocateurs in Muslim communities."
Despite this public conflict, few specific cases of Muslims being recruited as informants have become public. Farahi's battle with the government is not only daring but also unusual.
"People have two choices," Farahi says. "Either they end up working with the FBI, or they leave the country on their own. It's just sometimes when you're in that situation, not many people are strong enough to stand up and resist and fight — to reject their offers."
By law, Foad Farahi is an Iranian. But by every other measure, the North Miami Beach imam is something else. In his 34 years, he has never set foot in Iran. He speaks Arabic, not Farsi, and while the majority of Iranians are members of the Shia sect of Islam, Farahi is a Sunni. He is an Iranian only because he inherited his father's citizenship.
But Farahi grew up in Kuwait. His father was an Iranian businessman who operated a currency exchange business in Kuwait City. His mother, a Syrian, raised him and his younger sister to speak Arabic and worship as Sunnis. But he knew his future would never be secure in Kuwait. "Even if I married a Kuwaiti woman, I wouldn't become a citizen," he says. "Kuwait could deport me to Iran at any time for any reason."
At age 19, he applied for and received a student visa from the United States. He chose to come to South Florida, where his family once vacationed when he was a teenager, and enrolled in Miami Dade College. He received an associate's degree there and transferred to Barry University, the private Catholic school in Miami Shores, where he earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry.
While at Barry, he served on the university's interfaith committee, several faculty members recall. This continued even after he graduated. He helped put together interfaith dinners and talked about Islam. In addition, he participated as a teacher in a Barry University peace forum attended by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim children. "He has had a positive influence at this university," says Edward R. Sunshine, a theology professor at Barry. No one who knows Farahi, Sunshine says, would suspect he is radical or militant in any way.
Farahi went on to obtain a master's degree in public health from Florida International University. He also began an intensive, three-year imam's training course administered by the director of Islamic studies at a mosque in Miramar. In 2000, the Shamsuddin Islamic Center opened near his home in North Miami Beach. Six months later, its imam returned home to Egypt, and Farahi was a logical successor.
In Islam, an imam is among the designated leaders in a community or mosque. The imam leads prayers during gatherings and helps others understand the teachings of Islam. Farahi earns a modest salary funded by donations to the mosque.
It was through this position that he met several South Floridians who have been linked to terrorism. In addition to Padilla and Shukrijumah, he encountered Imran Mandhai, a 19-year-old Pakistani man living in Hollywood who was arrested in 2002 for an alleged plot to bomb power plants.
"Imran came here once years ago during Ramadan," Farahi recalls as he sits in a corner of the mosque. "It was a big event for him at the time. He memorized and recited the Koran."
When Farahi met with the FBI agents November 1, 2004, he said he couldn't spy on members of his mosque in good conscience. Two days later, FBI agents phoned him. They requested he come to their office to take a polygraph. "I had nothing to hide," Farahi recalls. "They asked the same questions over and over, to see if my answer would change, and it didn't."
The agents were still focused on Shukrijumah.
"What is your relationship with him?"
"When was the last time you were in contact with him?"
"Where is he now?"
For two and a half years after the polygraph, Farahi didn't hear from the FBI. Then, in summer 2007, he received another call from the bureau. An agent asked to meet with him immediately. In Cooper City, two FBI agents — a man and a woman — again asked Farahi if he would work with the government. He again declined, and the meeting ended amicably.
Farahi didn't know the pushback would come later.
On a November day in 2007, Farahi arrived at Miami Immigration Court for what he thought would be a routine hearing on his political asylum case. The imam had requested asylum because he is a Sunni, a persecuted religious minority in Iran. Fear of religious persecution is one of the internationally recognized grounds the United States considers in granting asylum from Iran.
As Farahi entered the courthouse, he saw four men from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They wore body armor and had guns holstered at their sides. All followed Farahi from the security checkpoint on the ground level to the third-floor courtroom of Judge Carey Holliday.
Farahi's attorney at the time, Mildred Morgado, spoke with the ICE agents and then asked to talk to Farahi in private. "They have a file with evidence that you're supporting or are involved in terrorist groups," Farahi recalls Morgado telling him. (Morgado did not return repeated calls seeking comment.)
Farahi says the ICE agents gave him an ultimatum: Drop the asylum case and leave the United States voluntarily, or be charged as a terrorist. He was afraid.
Indeed, luck wasn't on Farahi's side when drawing a judge for his asylum claim. Appointed to the immigration court in October 2006 by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Holliday was a Louisiana Republican who had quickly earned a reputation for being tough on immigrants in Florida. In one case, he declined to hear arguments from an Ecuadorian couple who alleged they were targeted for deportation because their daughter, Miami Dade College student Gabby Pacheco, was a well-known activist for immigration reform. "People who live in glass houses should not throw stones," Holliday wrote. (The judge resigned this past January, after the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General found Bush administration officials had illegally considered political affiliation when selecting judicial candidates for immigration court.)
So Farahi told Judge Holliday he would voluntarily leave the country within 30 days. Although Farahi's Iranian passport was expired — a bureaucratic problem that should have given him more time to consider the government's threat — Judge Holliday granted the order of voluntary departure.
Soon, Farahi realized the government's claim that it would prosecute him as a terrorist was a bluff — nothing more than leverage to coerce him into becoming an informant. To this day, the government has not shared with Farahi or his attorney any information about this professed evidence, and he has not been charged with a crime.
"If they have something on Foad, they should make it public. They haven't done that," says Sunshine, the Barry University theology professor. "They are intimidating and bullying, and I resent that type of behavior being paid for by my tax dollars."
Farahi's assertion that the government is trying to coerce him to become an informant cannot be verified independently because the FBI won't comment on his case. "It is a matter of policy that we do not confirm or deny who we have asked to be a source," says Miami FBI Special Agent Judy Orihuela. But similar claims from other would-be informants seem to support Farahi's assertion.
In November 2005, for example, immigration officials questioned Yassine Ouassif, a 24-year-old Moroccan with a green card, as he crossed into New York from Canada. The officials confiscated his green card and instructed him to meet an FBI agent in Oakland, California. The bureau's offer: Become an informant or be deported. Ouassif refused to spy and won his deportation case with the help of National Legal Sanctuary for Community Advancement, a nonprofit that advocates for civil rights on behalf of Muslims and immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia.
The government employed a similarly tough tactic against Tarek Mehanna, a 26-year-old U.S. citizen living in Sudbury, Massachusetts. After FBI agents failed to persuade Mehanna to spy, the government charged him with making a false statement. Prosecutors allege Mehanna told FBI agents a suspect was in Egypt when he knew that person was in Somalia. Mehanna is awaiting trial, and his attorney has alleged the prosecution is a form of revenge for Mehanna's unwillingness to be an informant.
Among more recent cases is that of Ahmadullah Sais Niazi, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Afghanistan. Charged with making a false statement to obtain citizenship, he alleged in a February detention hearing in Orange County, California, that he was arrested and indicted for refusing to be an informant.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) suspects there are hundreds of similar cases in which the government has used deportation or criminal charges to force cooperation from informants. Most of these cases will never be made public. What's more, the FBI is now working under guidelines, approved in December 2008 by then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey, that allow agents to consider religion and ethnic background when launching undercover investigations. Today, many Muslims in the United States simply assume informants are working inside their mosques.
"This is becoming increasingly common," says Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR's national communications director. "Law enforcement authorities seek to use some vulnerability of the individual, whether it be business, immigration, or personal, to try to gain some sort of informant status.
"The issue is law enforcement's basic understanding of the community. Is it one that law enforcement needs to have blanket suspicion toward or is it... well integrated into our multi-faith nation and wants to preserve public safety as well as civil liberties?"
Ira Kurzban's law office in Miami is a mile from the alfresco restaurants of Coconut Grove. On a hot day in late August, Kurzban wears a white guayabera and shows no concern for the disheveled gray hairs on the sides of his balding head.
He leans forward at his desk, having been asked a question about Farahi. "He's an imam in his mosque," Kurzban says as he throws his hands in the air in a sort of protest. "He's basically, you know, the rabbi."
Kurzban has become a well-known advocate for immigrants' rights, having argued more immigration-related cases before the U.S. Supreme Court than any of his peers. He is also on the board of directors of Immigrants' List, the first political action committee in Washington, D.C., established to support candidates who endorse immigration reform.
Farahi, desperate not to leave the country but frightened after government agents threatened to charge him as a terrorist, hired Kurzban to take his case on appeal.
In November 2007, Kurzban asked the Board of Immigration Appeals to throw out Farahi's voluntary departure order and reopen his political asylum case, arguing the imam was illegally intimidated. The board denied the request, so Kurzban petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Farahi's order of voluntary departure has been stayed.
For now, the legal battle makes Farahi a kind of no-land's man. He no longer has an official immigration status in the United States, and in asking for political asylum, he has rejected his Iranian citizenship. As he was in Kuwait, Farahi is home in a land that could expel him at any time.
"I think the real issue is, does the government have the right to pressure people... to make them informants?" Kurzban says. "It's clearly modus operandi of the FBI to (a) recruit people who are going to be informants and (b) to use whatever leverage they can."
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A few weeks later, in North Miami Beach, Ramadan is nearing its end. For Farahi, this year's religious festival marks nearly five years since the FBI first asked him to be an informant. "I'm not bitter about what has happened," the imam insists.
Dressed in khaki pants and a white button-down shirt, he walks barefoot through the mosque as members begin to arrange food on folding banquet tables. After sundown, everyone will eat and drink together to break the fast. Farahi is distracted as he waves at attendees and hugs others entering the mosque.
"I'm not bitter," he repeats after a few moments. "I wouldn't say I'm bitter at all. But I'm tired. I want to live my life in this country. I want to stay here. That's all."
Farahi stops and waves to another man. The imam shakes his head quickly. "I wish the case would be over," he says. "I just wish I could stay here."