A Muslim's Choice: Turn U.S. Informant or Risk
By PETER WALDMAN
Street Journal" -- -- Last November, when Yassine
Ouassif crossed into Champlain, N.Y., from Canada, border agents
questioned him for several hours. Then they took away his green card
and sent him home to San Francisco by bus, with strict instructions:
As soon as he got there, he was to call a man named Dan.
Dan, it turned out, was Daniel Fliflet, a counterterrorism agent for
the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Mr. Ouassif met the agent at an
Oakland subway station on Nov. 30, and the two men walked the
streets together for 90 minutes.
Mr. Fliflet told the 24-year-old Moroccan that he'd been monitoring
his friends and him for many months, Mr. Ouassif recalls. Mr.
Fliflet made him an offer: Become an informant and regularly report
to the FBI on what his Muslim friends in San Francisco were saying
and doing. In exchange, he would get back his green card. He could
resume his education, bring his Moroccan wife to America, and pursue
his dream of buying a car, moving to Sacramento and becoming an
If he refused? asked Mr. Ouassif. "I will work hard to deport you to
Morocco as soon as possible," Mr. Fliflet responded, according to an
account written by Mr. Ouassif soon after the meeting. "I want you
to know something important," the FBI agent added, according to Mr.
Ouassif. "America is just like a bus, and you have a choice to make:
Either you board the bus or you leave."
Mr. Ouassif's encounters with federal officials -- and with
intelligence agencies on two other continents -- came to a head in
April. His story provides a window into a largely covert front of
the war on terror: the FBI's aggressive pursuit of Muslim
informants. Since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, the bureau has had
the difficult task of penetrating a culture that few agents know
anything about. It has responded with a forceful effort to conscript
eyes and ears within Muslim communities.
Some of the recruitment is public. FBI agents plead for community
assistance in meetings at mosques and other Muslim conclaves. Agents
are also under pressure to develop confidential sources. According
to FBI rules, supervisors review case files every 90 days to
scrutinize the nature and credibility of agents' contacts. "If an
agent is sitting there with nothing," one FBI official says, "their
supervisor will come down and ask, 'What are you doing?' "
Over the years, informants have been vital in developing criminal
cases against drug gangs, the Mafia and other organized crime. But
when agents resort to coercive tactics, it sometimes backfires, some
FBI agents say. In intelligence gathering, the so-called hammer --
the threat of legal retaliation -- can alienate the "human assets"
needed most, experts say, and can raise legal and ethical questions.
"The best FBI man is really just a good salesman," says Patrick
Webb, a retired FBI supervisor who set up San Francisco's terrorism
task force in the 1990s. "Blackmail of any type is blackmail. That
Mr. Fliflet didn't respond to questions emailed to him about his
dealings with Mr. Ouassif. An FBI spokeswoman in San Francisco,
LaRae Quy, confirms Mr. Ouassif's account of his dealings with Mr.
Fliflet. "This was a serious investigation, though not necessarily
of Mr. Ouassif," she says. "We had really good reason to believe he
could give us good information about a lot of things."
After his meeting with Mr. Fliflet, Mr. Ouassif faced a dilemma
increasingly familiar to Muslims in America in recent years: whether
to inform on friends and relatives or risk alienating U.S.
Asking for Help
Walid Mustafa, a 53-year-old Palestinian American who teaches kung
fu, first encountered the FBI when a young agent knocked on his door
in Sacramento to ask about fund-raising at the local mosque. The FBI
had been questioning donors to Muslim charities nationwide. Several
weeks later, Mr. Mustafa contacted the agent for help: His brother's
ex-wife had sold their duplex and absconded with the proceeds to
Malaysia, Mr. Mustafa told the agent. They agreed to meet at
Mr. Mustafa says the FBI agent offered to pay him for providing
information about local Muslims. "What about helping my brother?" he
recalls asking. "You help us. We'll help you," he says the agent
"It was so insulting," says Mr. Mustafa. "As Muslims, we're
obligated to protect this country. We don't need to get paid. I told
him, 'You're not going to solve the problem by hiring snitches in
mosques. Get involved. Get to know people. Become part of the
Karen Ernst, an FBI spokeswoman in Sacramento, says that Mr. Mustafa
"got very upset" when he was asked to become an informant. But she
says the agents who dealt with him never suggested trading favors in
Mr. Ouassif, the young Moroccan whose green card was taken at the
border, immigrated to the U.S. in 2001 at the age of 18, after
winning the green card in a State Department lottery. He says he
immediately began to look for a wife. He asked other U.S. Muslims to
fix him up, "but the only thing people cared about was how much
money I had," says Mr. Ouassif, who works as a laborer and security
The solution, he says, came to him in a dream: He would marry
Khadija El Fahri, a first cousin whom he hadn't seen since 2001,
when she was
14. His mother and aunt arranged it, and in 2003, the couple married
in Casablanca. After a brief honeymoon, Mr. Ouassif returned alone
to San Francisco, enrolled in community college and hunkered down
for what he expected would be a long, agonizing wait for a visa for
his 16-year-old bride.
Mr. Ouassif's troubles began last September after he visited his
wife in Morocco. He took off from Paris on a flight back to San
Francisco. Three hours later, the pilot announced the flight was
returning to Paris. Two French policemen escorted Mr. Ouassif off
the plane. French authorities told him that the U.S. would not
permit the plane to land with him onboard, he says. They told him
they didn't know why, he says. They put him on the next flight to
Moroccan security officials met Mr. Ouassif at the airport and
grilled him all night and for much of the next day, he says. At one
point they told him he'd "never see the sun again" if he didn't tell
them why the U.S. would turn back a French jet just because he was
aboard, he says. Through tears, he pleaded innocence. Moroccan
authorities allowed him to stay with his family while they
Paul Bresson, a spokesman for the FBI in Washington, declined to
discuss any aspect of the so-called no-fly list maintained by the
government. A spokeswoman for the Moroccan embassy in Washington did
not respond to requests for comment.
One month later, a Moroccan agent informed Mr. Ouassif that he'd
been cleared of suspicion by Moroccan intelligence, Mr. Ouassif
says. The agent warned him not to return to the U.S., but didn't
elaborate. Nearly broke from the extended stay, Mr. Ouassif bought a
plane ticket to Montreal. His plan was to return to the U.S. by bus
and to resolve his problem with U.S. authorities at the border.
When he arrived there, an inspector wondered why he had flown
through Montreal. Concerned about arousing further suspicion, Mr.
Ouassif said nothing about the incident in Paris. He told the
inspector he'd heard the road from Canada was beautiful, he recalls.
He was handcuffed and placed in a holding cell for several hours, he
says. An immigration officer interviewed him at length about his
life and religious views. Then, he says, he was introduced to
Special Agent Michael Lonergan of the FBI's office in Plattsburgh,
N.Y. They were left alone to talk, he says.
Immigration officers had taken his green card. Under normal
circumstances, Mr. Lonergan told him, he would have been sent to a
Buffalo detention center to await deportation proceedings, according
to Mr. Ouassif. He'd been spared, Mr. Lonergan told him, by a call
from Dan, his FBI colleague in San Francisco. Special Agent Dan
Fliflet wanted Mr. Ouassif to come to San Francisco, but not by
plane, and to call him as soon as he arrived. According to Mr.
Ouassif, Mr. Lonergan told him that Mr. Fliflet would decide whether
he would get back his green card or be deported. Mr. Ouassif was
ordered to report to an immigration interview in San Francisco three
weeks later, on Dec. 14.
Mr. Lonergan referred questions about the matter to the FBI's
spokesman in Albany, N.Y., who declined to comment.
One week later, as Mr. Ouassif and Mr. Fliflet walked the streets of
Oakland, the FBI agent accused him and his friends of having "jihadi"
beliefs, according to Mr. Ouassif's written account. Mr. Ouassif
responded that they were observant Muslims interested in peace and
personal betterment, not jihad and politics. Mr. Fliflet said he
didn't believe that, and asked Mr. Ouassif if he had any information
to share, according to Mr. Ouassif.
Mr. Ouassif says he told the agent about the only suspicious
character he knew, an Afghani man who prayed on Fridays at a San
Francisco mosque and claimed to have fought with the Afghan
mujahedeen against the Soviets. The man supported Muslim insurgents
in Iraq, Mr. Ouassif said, and once asked Mr. Ouassif to wire $5,000
for him from Morocco to Iraq. Mr. Ouassif told the agent he had
refused, and had told the Afghani that he didn't believe the Iraq
conflict was a true jihad.
Mr. Fliflet gave Mr. Ouassif one week to consider the FBI's offer to
become an informant in exchange for his green card, according to Mr.
Ouassif. If he didn't hear from him, the FBI agent said, he'd assume
Mr. Ouassif "prefers to help extremists" instead of America,
according to Mr. Ouassif. Mr. Fliflet warned him the FBI had ample
evidence to prove he was an extremist, Mr. Ouassif says. Mr. Fliflet
told him not to tell anyone about their meeting, including any
Accepting the offer, says Mr. Ouassif, would have fulfilled his
dream to bring his wife to America. But he feared that doing so
would be sinful. According to the Quran, he says, the lowest depths
of hell are reserved for munafiqun -- hypocrites who act as Muslims
while plotting against them. Mr. Ouassif says he also worried that
working with the FBI was a lifelong commitment -- easy to start,
impossible to stop.
Mr. Ouassif immediately told his roommate, Noureddin Moussawi, what
had happened. Mr. Moussawi, a Moroccan-American cabdriver who had
worked for 10 years as a United Airlines flight attendant, says he
told Mr. Ouassif that the FBI wouldn't hurt him because he'd done
nothing wrong. "Tell the truth. You have nothing to hide," Mr.
Moussawi recalls telling him.
Two weeks later, Mr. Ouassif reported for his scheduled immigration
interview. Ignoring Mr. Fliflet's instruction, he brought a lawyer,
Banafsheh Aklaghi, founder of a San Francisco nonprofit group,
National Legal Sanctuary for Community Advancement. Mr. Fliflet was
there. An immigration agent peppered Mr. Ouassif with questions.
Clues emerged as to why the authorities had taken such an interest
Much of the interview focused on one of his former roommates, a San
Francisco cabdriver who had returned home to Baghdad shortly after
Mr. Ouassif moved in with him in 2003. Mr. Ouassif says he inferred
from the questions that his ex-roommate had been arrested or killed
in Iraq. Mr. Ouassif's cellphone number had been on the man's phone,
the immigration agent said. Mr. Ouassif told the agent they hadn't
been close friends, and that he hadn't thought the man was dangerous
or he wouldn't have lived with him.
The agents told Mr. Ouassif they intended to detain him for
deportation. His lawyer asked why. Mr. Ouassif says the agents
didn't answer. He was handcuffed and put in a holding cell. Through
a cell window, his lawyer told him he was slated for detention in
Eloy, Ariz., one of the highest-security facilities in the federal
system. Mr. Ouassif cried.
About three hours later, he says, the immigration agent took him
aside without his attorney and asked if he still wanted to fight
deportation. He said he did. Within minutes, he says, another
immigration officer gave him surprising news: he was free to go. The
Homeland Security lawyer on duty had refused to sign his detention
order, citing a lack of evidence, his attorney, Ms. Aklaghi, was
told. (FBI and immigration agents can recommend detention and
deportation, but it is up to Homeland Security lawyers to review the
legality of the decisions.) Mr. Ouassif was given another
On April 6, Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement
branch gave Mr. Ouassif his green card back. Ms. Aklaghi says she
learned more at that point about why federal authorities were so
interested in him. Mr. Ouassif had been secretly recorded by an FBI
informant talking to friends in a San Francisco mosque. A Homeland
Security lawyer, she says, did not specify what Mr. Ouassif had
said, but told her that his statements did not indicate criminal
intent and were fully protected by the First Amendment.
Nevertheless, his statements had landed him on the no-fly list, Ms.
Aklaghi says, and led to all his subsequent travails.
Mr. Bresson, the FBI spokesman in Washington, said the bureau won't
discuss "any specific individuals who are purportedly on the list or
the mechanics involved with how they allegedly got there."
Another federal official familiar with Mr. Ouassif's case says
government lawyers have become much more discerning about the
treatment of Muslim immigrants since the years immediately following
9/11. "We know the FBI is desperate for human assets, for feet on
the ground, but the worst thing we could possibly do is threaten and
blackmail people and treat them with disrespect," this official
Ms. Quy, the FBI spokeswoman in San Francisco, says that Mr. Fliflet
thought he could help Mr. Ouassif with a visa problem and did not
set out to threaten him. "We're learning, too," she says. "We need
to understand where the boundaries are for them, as well as us." She
says the suspicions about Mr. Ouassif and his acquaintances are
"diminishing all the time, because our questions are getting
Mr. Ouassif says he plans to resume his studies, which he had
dropped in January due to stress. He's desperate to visit his wife
in Morocco, he says, but worries he's still on the no-fly list. A
spokeswoman for the U.S. Terrorism Screening Center, which keeps the
list, declined to comment.
Mr. Ouassif says his next goal is to save $25,000 to buy his mother
an apartment in Casablanca. After the requisite FBI background
check, California recently renewed his security-guard registration.
He's now working double shifts guarding electric-power plants.
"It's OK to ask me or anyone else, 'If you see a dangerous person,
an extremist, will you call us?' " he says. "Of course I will. But I
don't want to live a secret life."
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