Terror cases unravel

ethnic profiling alleged

No security threats found after arrests of Arab-Americans

August 16, 2006|By TIM JONES AND E.A. TORRIERO | TIM JONES AND E.A. TORRIERO,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- The headlines suggested terror in the heartland: two Arab-Americans carrying a big wad of cash and hundreds of cell phones arrested in Ohio, and three others with a thousand cell phones and photos of the Mackinac Bridge detained in Michigan.

But the perception of a national security threat, aired on cable news channels throughout the weekend, is unraveling, leading the FBI and at least one prosecutor to back off and provoking a storm of protest from Muslim-American groups who allege ethnic profiling.

Prosecutors in Ohio dropped terrorism charges yesterday against two men from Michigan who were arrested last week, saying they could not prove that the men were involved in a terrorist plot.

On Monday, the FBI said it had found no evidence that three Texas men of Palestinian heritage who were arrested Friday in Michigan had terrorist ties or were planning to blow up the Mackinac Bridge.

Muslim American groups call such arrests a rush to judgment that reflects increased targeting of Arab-Americans since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The number of reported incidents of harassment, violence and other forms of discrimination against American Muslims has soared in recent years, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. In 2005, the group reported 1,972 such cases, more than triple the 602 cases reported in 2002.

"This is a very alarming trend, and we have every right to be concerned," said Imad Hamad, Midwest regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

The arrests in Ohio and Michigan apparently were a response to urgings from federal authorities last winter to be on the lookout for people buying large numbers of cell phones. Police agencies say the phones have been used to detonate bombs.

Ali Houssaiky and Osama Sabhi Abulhassan of Dearborn, Mich., were arrested Aug. 8 in Ohio. They had in their possession $11,000 in cash and several hundred cell phones. They were charged with soliciting or providing for an act of terrorism, money-laundering and a misdemeanor charge of lying to police.

They walked out of jail yesterday after posting a reduced bond on the misdemeanor charge, the only one remaining.

Washington County Prosecutor James Schneider said the case is under investigation and that a decision will be made later on whether to refer the case to a grand jury. Houssaiky and Abulhassan, do not "pose an imminent threat at this time," Schneider said.

The cases have underscored the difficulty of protecting national security while respecting constitutional rights.

"Arsalan Iftikhar, the Council on American-Islamic Relations' national legal director, said the number of incidents always jumps after an international terror scare or acts of war.

"There's a definite correlation," he said. "It's an instant spike, and then it drops again as the fallout slows down."

Most of the incidents that the council has recorded involve employment discrimination, religious accusations, racial profiling, and problems with due process in the legal system.

About 10 percent of the incidents involved hate crimes, the group said, and 15 percent to 20 percent stemmed from what it identified as claims of government harassment.

"They don't stop white guys with a bunch of cell phones," Iftikhar said. "If they did that, there would be an uproar. But do it to Arab-Americans and nobody says anything."

Three men from Texas - Adham Othman, Louai Othman and Awad Muhareb - were arrested in Caro, Mich., on Friday with about 1,000 cell phones in their possession and with digital photos they had shot of the Mackinac Bridge. They were charged with gathering material related to terrorism - the phones - and surveillance of a vulnerable target - the bridge.

Michigan State Police said Monday that the men were not planning to blow up the bridge, and the FBI said it had found no terrorist links.

Nabih Ayad, the attorney representing the men being held in Caro, said legal protections are not working for his clients, who are being held in lieu of $750,000 cash bail.

"Common sense dictates that if the federal government has ruled out terrorist ties, I can't see how a small town of 4,000 people can take on the interests of national security and continue with the case. It's outrageous," said Ayab.

A hearing is scheduled today on a motion to reconsider the bail.

Tim Jones and E.A. Torriero write for the Chicago Tribune

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