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Yusuf Muhajir is a 58-year-old African-American Muslim who wears a long gray beard, a long garment, a pair of sandals, and a small knit cap. He’s 6-foot-6 and walks with a cane. “People wanna say I look like Osama bin Laden,” says Muhajir. There are similarities: Osama may be a touch taller and a few pounds lighter, but he uses the sandals, the cane, the head covering, and the long garments. Muhajir, a veteran of Vietnam and the first Gulf War, thinks the idea that he’d be mistaken for a terrorist is ridiculous. “I’m not gonna walk around like a neon light if I’m a damn terrorist,” he says. “I’m just a meager, broken-down old man.”
But this broken-down old man has had a series of baffling run-ins with law-enforcement officials that have left him wondering if his appearance makes him an easy target for the domestic War on Terror. Since his neighbors told him that federal agents came snooping around his 16th Street Heights apartment last summer, he’s been especially cautious. He’s restricted his association with other Muslims, and he’s tried not to worship at the same mosque too often. Those precautions come on top of his policy of totally avoiding the IHOP in Takoma Park.
One morning in October 2004, Muhajir pulled into the IHOP parking lot. Five police cruisers surrounded his car. He told his passenger—a female acquaintance whom he planned to introduce to the IHOP manager for a job interview—that he had no idea what he had done wrong. When he saw how many cars were on his case, he realized it couldn’t have been about a traffic violation. He attracted not only police from Montgomery County and Prince George’s County but agents from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as well. They ordered him out of his car, searched it thoroughly, and frisked him.
“Here’s the camera,” said an officer, taking Muhajir’s digital camera. They told him somebody had called that morning about a man walking around taking pictures, and that the caller had described Muhajir “to a T.” The IHOP is located by an Econo Lodge, an apartment building, and a church, making it a key site for anti-terrorism authorities.
But Muhajir’s camera contained only 12 pictures from the last day of the grand-opening festival for the National Museum of the American Indian. Muhajir insisted he hadn’t been walking around taking pictures that morning and had crawled out of bed only moments before the traffic stop. His back hurt him; he’d been at Washington Adventist Hospital the night before for X-rays. Nevertheless, the officials asked him and his companion “a million questions,” Muhajir recalls.
One officer combed the sidewalk for a digital-camera memory card that Muhajir was suspected of tossing out the window when police cruisers came up behind him. Another officer thought the photos from the National Mall displayed on the camera’s screen were suspicious: Why, he asked, did Muhajir take a photo with the Capitol in the background?
Anthony Green, a then-manager of the IHOP, watched the scene from inside. He had been expecting Muhajir to stop by with the job applicant that morning. After about an hour of questioning outside, a DHS agent in a suit entered the restaurant and asked Green to corroborate Muhajir’s story about bringing the woman for a job interview. Once Green did, the woman was dismissed. But the authorities continued to ask Muhajir questions about his home, birthplace, and activities near the IHOP for another hour. After they finished their interrogation and dismissed Muhajir, he entered the restaurant, sat down briefly, then left and never returned.
Green says that in the year and a half before the incident, he used to see Muhajir in the IHOP about every other day. “I know Mr. Yusuf,” he says. “I have never seen him up to anything strange or weird. Quite often I got the impression that he was always trying to help people.” The woman Muhajir brought for the interview never returned, either; Green suspects that she found the encounter very unsettling. Muhajir says he’s avoiding the area because he doesn’t want to go near those cops again.
One morning last June, retiree Joshua Anderson was lounging in front of the entrance to his Northwest apartment building. Two men in white shirts, black pants, and well-equipped belts approached him and identified themselves as agents from the FBI. They said they wanted to see the man who lived in apartment 405—Muhajir. They said they didn’t want him to know they were looking for him. Anderson let them in.
Muhajir had spent most of the summer in upstate New York, helping his son get ready for college. When he returned to his D.C. apartment at the end of July, his building manager, Amacire Bocoum, told him that the FBI had come looking for him. His neighbor at the end of the hall said the agents had placed a card on his door. That he never found it and hasn’t been contacted worries Muhajir.
Bocoum, an African Muslim, might be even more worried. Since the FBI visit, he’s quit his weekly visit to the mosque, in part because Muhajir used to drive him. He said the FBI agents simply asked him if he’d noticed anything strange around the building or about Muhajir. They also complained that they’d had trouble getting in touch with Muhajir. That was enough to unnerve Bocoum, who says that because he’s a relatively recent arrival from Mauritania, he doesn’t want any trouble. His wife, Shelagh Bocoum, isn’t really worried that the FBI will find trouble with Muhajir or her husband, but she has little patience for the whole thing.
“They’re wasting their time, and they’re wasting my taxpayer money,” she says. “They’re trying to justify their existence.” But futile as the FBI’s activities in this case may be, the consequences could be serious. “The innocent Muslims are the ones in a position to find out if there is anything suspicious. It’s counterproductive to make them paranoid.”
Muhajir has become paranoid, indeed. In June, he came out of the shower to find that he had missed a call from the 703 area code. When he called the number back, he reached a receptionist for the System Planning Corporation, a contractor for the Department of Defense. Muhajir tried to get as much information as possible out of the receptionist, but the call wasn’t traceable to a particular office or official. “We don’t perform any investigative work,” says System Planning’s Jim Kudla.
Muhajir has received alarming phone calls before. In 2003, he answered what he thought was a wrong-number call from a man with a guttural Northeastern accent who wanted “Joe’s Pizza Parlor.” A couple of days later, someone with the same voice called back and identified himself as a detective from the New York City Office of Homeland Security. He said he was charged with investigating terrorist threats. Muhajir thought it was a joke.
“‘I just want to get to the bottom of this before all hell falls on your head,’” Muhajir remembers the detective saying. When the detective said he wanted to ask Muhajir about some articles he had written, Muhajir made the connection: Three weeks prior, after a trip to New York, he’d mailed two newspaper articles and a leaflet to a gas-station manager at 182nd and Broadway who had asked him to send some literature on Islam. Muhajir explained to the detective that all he did was send three items, all printed, distributed, and readily available in the United States. The newspapers were the Weekly Mirror and the Muslim Link, and Muhajir tossed in a Spanish-language brochure for the benefit of the manager. Then he ranted at the detective:
“You guys got beef with some Iranians, some Pakistanis, and some Arabs—I’m none of that shit. I’m a black nigger. I’m the little tar-baby, the Little Black Sambo, the ginger-bread boy, the spear-chucker, the watermelon-and-fried-chicken-eater, last-hired, first-fired, back-of-the-bus-riding three-fifths of a man. I don’t go on the Mall; I don’t demonstrate; I got Imams mad at me for not proselytizing; I don’t get involved in other people’s geopolitics—I’m just a practicing Muslim. I’m a law-abiding citizen and a veteran.”
The detective relented but told Muhajir that he must’ve done something bad to somebody to bring the investigation on him. Muhajir hasn’t heard from him since. Nor has he figured out how, exactly, he came under investigation. He had addressed the envelope to the “Hispanic Manager” of the gas station. Did a postal clerk find that suspicious? Or did the manager himself want to play homeland-security vigilante? The manager could not be reached for comment.
Muhajir lives on disability retirement for injuries sustained as a civilian employee of the Navy. His knees went bad first, and he has slight scoliosis and bulging discs. He moves slowly and relies on his cane—not exactly a menacing profile.
And he’s certainly not used to being thought of as a terrorist. Born and baptized in New Orleans as Darryl Champion, Muhajir grew up attending Catholic schools in New York and California. He had been a devout Catholic right up until he met Muslims while serving his first tour of duty with the Navy Mobile Construction Battalion in Vietnam. Islam struck Muhajir as a logical step forward from Catholicism. His conversion did not foment an interest in Middle Eastern geopolitics—instead, his political thinking has remained focused on being black in America. “We’re like a colonized people within this landmass,” he says.
Having spent more than 12 years in Africa working as an electrical engineer, Muhajir has sought an understanding of where and how black people fit into this country and attempted to trace his lineage to see where African and European blood might converge. He’s proud of moments when he awakens African-Americans to their “blackness” by complimenting unpermed hair or sharing his knowledge of a piece of African jewelry. He was well-settled in his worldview, and then, wham: “Just when I thought I had being a nigger in America down pat, now I’m a terrorist,” he says.
Muhajir doesn’t know what will come of his encounters with federal authorities, “but I do know people are disappearing,” he says. “They’re looking for somebody they can frame up as a ‘cell.’” When a disability paycheck was weeks late, he wondered if somebody wanted to make him sweat. He envisions a scene in which black-booted agents bust his door down at night and tell him it’s time to go to Guantánamo. Or, instead of dragging him off, they’ll just shoot him in the head “at some slight provocation.”
Debbie Weierman, a spokesperson for the FBI in the District, refused to comment on Muhajir or on how the FBI deals with any case. To do so would be to reveal the bureau’s “investigative techniques.”
Those secret techniques have had an overt impact on Muhajir, who’s made an effort to disassociate himself from anyone who might interest the feds. “I don’t talk to no Muslims,” he says. He never writes checks to mosques for fear of being linked to something he doesn’t even know about. He’s tried to buy more African Muslim clothing to emphasize his blackness. The message to authorities, says Muhajir, goes like this: “Did you forget what a nigger was? Don’t confuse me with your other bogeyman.”
Laila Al-Qatami, communications director of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), says that Muhajir’s altering his behavior is something the FBI would actually expect from a person worthy of suspicion. But she says Muhajir’s case sounds “unusual”—normally, FBI agents are very upfront and aggressive when they want to speak with someone. The ADC gets calls from a lot of paranoid schizophrenics who think they’re being spied on by the government. Muhajir’s anxiety over the 703 phone call and the late paycheck sounds like craziness to the ADC.
It could be that Muhajir is a victim of the entire country’s emerging culture of suspicion and fear—not just his own. When Chinese fireworks went off at the Kennedy Center last fall, frightened citizens deluged police and fire departments with phone calls; people figured we’d finally been bombed. One woman fled the city without even confirming an attack. “Suspicious packages” occasionally disrupt rush-hour traffic and subway service. On the Metro, people are instructed to scan their fellow commuters for the terrorist in their midst. The Capitol Police expect drivers to open their trunks for inspection whenever heading toward the Capitol on major avenues.
So when people walk past Muhajir on the street and think they just saw Osama bin Laden, perhaps they call the police. It’s just the sort of activity the government encourages. The D.C. police department, for example, has its own Terrorist Incident Prevention Program, part of which is a hotline: 1-877-YOU-WATCH. Tips are solicited even if the tipsters are “not sure about whether something is really suspicious.” Or it could be that the government is keeping tabs on Muhajir simply because he’s a Muslim—that the FBI has conducted warrantless surveillance of Muslim homes, businesses, and places of worship has been well-documented in recent news reports.
Maybe Muhajir’s international travel caught the attention of authorities. In 2001, while on his last trip to Tanzania, Muhajir received a package containing a machete that he’d accidentally left behind in the States. When the package arrived, Tanzanian officials worried that Muhajir belonged to an Islamic faction from Zanzibar. His interrogators eventually realized that they had nothing to fear from Muhajir, but just as they wrapped up the questioning, another official came down from upstairs. He said in Swahili that they would have to take Muhajir’s mug shots and fingerprints. The interrogators didn’t understand why—they thought he was a good guy. The man from upstairs said the request came from Muhajir’s embassy. And then the man said in English, “suspicion.”CP