New York Times
November 25, 2001

Swept Up in a Dragnet, Hundreds Sit in Custody and Ask, 'Why?


Osama Elfar was dozing on a hard bench under the ever-present drone of the prison television set when a guard's voice crackled over the intercom, "Happy birthday." Otherwise, Nov. 9 would have passed without Mr. Elfar even noticing he had turned 30.

"When you're here, you don't know day from night, Thursday from Friday — it's all the same," Mr. Elfar said in a telephone interview from the Mississippi County Correctional Facility in Charleston, Mo. "A new decade start for me. Unfortunately, I was locked up."

An Egyptian who came to the United States five years ago to attend a Florida flight school, Mr. Elfar recently worked as a mechanic for a small airline in St. Louis. He has been in jail for two months and began a hunger strike on Friday to protest his incarceration.

Mr. Elfar is among hundreds of little- known foreigners swept up in a vast dragnet after the terrorist attacks — some of whom have résumés suspiciously like those of the 19 hijackers, and others who have spent days, weeks and now months in prison for immigration violations that before Sept. 11 would probably have been ignored or resolved with paperwork. Government officials say that the aggressive response is warranted by the extraordinary situation, and that they are simply enforcing longstanding laws.

"Sept. 11 has forced the entire government to change the way we do business," said Mindy Tucker, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department. "Our No. 1 priority right now is to prevent any further terrorist attacks. Part of that entails identifying those who may have connections to terrorism who are here in America and making sure they're not in a position to carry out any further terrorism."

Over all, more than 1,200 people have been detained as part of the sweeping investigation, including men traveling the country with large amounts of cash and box cutters, and those who sought information on crop-dusters and flying lessons on large jets.

But a senior law enforcement official said for the first time last week that just 10 to 15 of the detainees are suspected as Al Qaeda sympathizers, and that the government has yet to find evidence indicating that any of them had knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks or acted as accomplices.

While most members of this small group are being held in New York on material witness warrants, some 500 others — almost twice as many as previously believed — are in federal custody on immigration charges for violations like overstaying their visas or lying on documents.

A handful of those arrested are believed to have known some of of the suspected hijackers. Osama Awadallah, for instance, wrote about one of them in a college exam book, prosecutors say. Another student, Mohdar Abdallah, is in jail because his name was found on a slip of paper in a rental car one of the hijackers parked at Dulles International Airport in Washington before his suicide mission.

Others seem to have drawn suspicion for more coincidental reasons. An Egyptian antiques dealer from Arkansas named Hady Hassan Omar made plane reservations on a Kinko's computer around the same time one of the hijackers did so at the same place; he spent two months in jail before being released on Friday. A Pakistani gas station attendant was just a few minutes ahead of Mohammed Atta, the suspected ringleader, in the line to renew his driver's license; he was denied bail by a Miami judge.

Of those snared in the government's net, many have cooperated with the F.B.I., admitted that they violated their visa agreements and agreed to leave the country. But they remain in jail.

Now, as the Justice Department seeks to interview 5,000 young men who have arrived here from the Middle East on temporary visas in the past two years, immigration attorneys and Arab-American community leaders are worried that cooperation may lead to the same fate as that of those already detained.

"The impact of all this is alienating the very community whose confidence and support is critical to a successful investigation," said Lucas Guttentag, director of the immigration rights project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The F.B.I. has so far denied a Freedom of Information Act request filed by a coalition of 21 Arab-American and human rights groups demanding a list of who is jailed, where and why. Earlier this month, six members of Congress made a similar request. Ms. Tucker said that the department was prevented from releasing some information because judges have sealed criminal cases, and that some information has been given to Congress.

"People don't want to step forward to help with bail," said Randall Hamud, a San Diego lawyer who represents three detained students, one of whom has been released. "They're afraid if they give money, they'll be put on an F.B.I. hit list."

Mr. Elfar, the man who turned 30 in the detention center, said he was expecting F.B.I. questions because he had entered the country to study at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., as did one of the hijackers. Agents picked him up on Sept. 24 at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, where he had been repairing planes for Trans States Airlines, a small regional carrier, for several years.

Investigators seized Mr. Elfar's address book, phone bills and computer. On Oct. 5, he was given a lie detector test.

A month ago, Mr. Elfar, who is from Alexandria, Egypt, was granted a "voluntary departure," which means he must leave the country but would not be blocked from returning. He was supposed to fly out by Friday; instead, he is still in jail.

"He's willing to buy a ticket, but they're not finalizing this," said Dorothy Harper, Mr. Elfar's lawyer. "Whether they're investigating more, whether they just want to keep him around for a while, I don't know."

Already fasting during daylight hours because of Ramadan, Mr. Elfar said Friday that he was starting a hunger strike and would only drink a glass of water each sunset to fulfill his religious obligation of breaking the fast.

"A lot of things that were on my mind I do not believe it anymore, like the fair trial, the free speech," he said.

Though the government has provided scant information, the story of the detainees has begun to emerge through interviews with their lawyers, relatives and friends. For a few of their stories, please go to the url listed below.

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