October 3, 2001
Painful Cases of Mistaken Identity
By Fredrick Kunkle
METUCHEN, N.J., -- The FBI shattered more than Syed Asif's front door when they stormed his apartment in a predawn raid. They also shattered his faith in the American system of justice.
"I cannot sleep at night now. I am so scared that someone's going to come and pop open the door and shoot me or something," said Asif, 50, a Pakistani immigrant who works as a security guard.
In the hunt for accomplices to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the FBI and local police departments have rounded up hundreds of people. Some have turned out to be victims of happenstance or mistaken identity, and leaders from the Islamic community and the FBI have met several times to discuss ways of minimizing tensions.
Asif's misfortune began with a rumor that one of his neighbors in a Metuchen rooming house had been dancing and celebrating while working at a gas station on Sept. 11. Asif said he was not sure of the neighbor's name, even though they had quarreled a few times because the man entertained visitors late into the night.
No one seems to know how the rumor started. Jagdis Deol, who owns both the rooming house and the gas station next door, said the first he heard of it was about 10 days ago when a drunk stormed into the station, spoiling to fight whoever had been dancing.
Deol confronted Asif's neighbor. He denied any kind of celebration during his shift on Sept. 11 or the days thereafter. But it didn't matter.
"I fired the kid. I said, 'You got to go. You're hurting my business,' " Deol explained.
A few days later, local police came by the station. Then, around 5:45 a.m. last Wednesday, FBI agents smashed their way into the rooming house. Guns drawn, they ordered everyone to the floor. Asif said he and several others were handcuffed as FBI agents turned their second-floor rooms upside down and paraded them outside while police stopped traffic.
"I just cannot tell you the embarrassment of that," Asif said. "Everybody was looking at us like we were some kind of criminals."
At police headquarters, he said, FBI agents inspected all of the men's identification documents, looking for forgeries. After checking his papers and satisfying themselves that he was a naturalized U.S. citizen, he said, the agents removed his handcuffs and asked him to translate during the questioning of his neighbor.
Asif, who speaks Punjabi and Urdu, complied. The questioning lasted at least 30 minutes, he said. The neighbor denied having anything to do with the terrorist attacks but confessed to having a false New Jersey driver's license. Asif said that everyone was released, though he has no idea what happened to the neighbor who worked at the gas station.
"Is this the way I should be treated as a citizen of this country?" Asif asked. "I think there should have been a better way, a more decent way, to investigate."
Metuchen Police Chief James Keane referred all questions to the FBI. Special Agent Sandra Carroll, a spokeswoman for the bureau's Newark office, said she had no record that anyone was detained after the search. She also said she sympathized with innocent people who are sometimes swept into the investigation. But she said that there had been enough evidence to obtain a court-approved search warrant, and that agents had no way of knowing whether they would encounter resistance.
"We don't know that going into the door," she said. "For everyone's safety, on both sides, there is a certain procedure that we have to [follow]. We're in a very precarious situation in this investigation, and we're dealing with very dangerous people."
So far, the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service have detained or arrested more than 500 people in the terrorism investigation, and more than 140 are still being held, Justice Department officials said.
Meanwhile, in New Jersey's Berkeley Township, a case of mistaken identity triggered the FBI's search of another apartment building and gas station.
After seeing pictures of the suspected hijackers, residents tipped authorities that a man who looked like suspected hijacker Marwan Al-Shehhi had been working at the Bayville Shell on Route 9.
"The day his picture was in the paper, I identified him across the street," said James Tilton, a clerk at the Ocean Gate Market and Deli across from the apartment. The man who looked like Al-Shehhi often stopped in to purchase "Home Again" international calling cards at $10 a piece from the deli, Tilton said.
FBI agents searched the gas station and the first-floor apartment at 219 Ocean Gate Ave., detaining at least two people and kicking up a small media storm.
Then the owner of the gas station, Magdy Beshara, an Egyptian American from East Brunswick, N.J., went to the local newspaper, the Asbury Park Press, with a relative from Forked River, N.J., in tow. He explained that his cousin, Akram Mena, 37, worked at the gas station from March 2000 to February 2001.
Mena bore a striking resemblance to the FBI photo of Al-Shehhi that ran in the Press, right down to his style of eyeglasses, goatee and mustache.
Carroll, the FBI spokeswoman, attributed the search to an unfortunate misidentification. But the damage had been done. Passersby shouted curses at the gas station, and an employee was threatened as he walked home, Beshara said.
"Business went down about 75 percent," he added. "It's going to take a while to come back."
Copyright © 2001, Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.
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