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.