Terrorism and the American Dream: Part II
In case you missed part one of this series, you'll find that here, Terrorism and the American Dream: Part I
Karim Koubriti waited in jail for trial. It was 2001. He was accused, along with three other friends, of operating a terrorist sleeper cell in Detroit in a case that generated national attention in the chaos and paranoia of the post-9/11 world.
In October 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft suggested the group had prior knowledge of the 9/11 plot. A day later, Ashcroft retracted the statement.
“I was very angry,” Koubriti recalled, recalling that time. “Everybody was pissed off. This is not happening. This is a joke.”
At some point, the men were kept separate from one another at the Wayne County Jail and in lock down for 23 hours a day.
Koubriti’s lawyer, Richard Helfrick, who sat in on the interview with Deadline Detroit, said prosecutor Richard Convertino wanted the four men to plead guilty, but insisted they give up information about terrorism.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” Helfrick recalled saying. The defendants simply were not terrorists.
“We don’t have anything to give you on the terrorism front,” Helfrick essentially told the prosecutor.
Clearly, the prosecutor didn’t buy it.
The indictment was chock-full of terrorism-related allegations. Koubriti couldn’t believe it.
During his arraignment on those charges in federal court in downtown Detroit, he remembered reading the document and looking over at Convertino.
The indictment cited a radical form of Islam known as Salafism and talked in general terms about radical Islam through the ages -- Salafists, Takfiris, Wahabis, al Qaeda and jihad. The indictment seemed to be a creative approach to a complicated case.
One day in court, Koubriti read the indictment as Convertino sat nearby.
“I start laughing,” Koubriti, 33, recalled. “I started reading all about al Qaeda. If you read the indictment you know what I’m talking about. The introduction, they go way back to the 7th Century. I mean they grab it from a book. I am laughing because I’m like ‘what does this have to do with me?’
“I was never religious guy in Morocco. I was 22 years old, like any other 22-year-old here in America, not interested in anything like politics or anything.”
That of course changed. After being arrested, he became observant.
“I start praying and I never stop,” he said.
Passing Time in Prison
Koubriti did research in prison.
“My head never stopped thinking how to get out of there,” he said.
He spent a lot of time in isolation. He became depressed and angry. His only visitors were attorneys. Some guards called him a terrorist, and they strip-searched him after he returned from court, something he found particularly humiliating.
“The routine will kill you,” he said. “The same thing everyday.”
Once the trial started, he came to dislike U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen. He felt Rosen favored the prosecution at the expense of the defense.
“Our motions were always denied. Judge Rosen was not a fair judge at all. Really. I kind of have feelings. It pushed me to the degree that I went as far to think that because he’s Jewish and we are Muslims he’s revenging whatever is going on in Israel on us.
“That’s how far I get looking at his unfairness. I felt angry. Why is this judge doing this? He got the power to do everything, why is he not doing the right thing?”
Helfrick, his attorney, interjected: “It’s not because he’s Jewish.”
Rosen declined comment. Convertino did not respond to emails or a phone call.
The trial took three months, and was heavily covered by local and national media.
“It was like the funniest terrorism trial you ever seen in your life. I swear to God. It’s like a movie,” Koubriti said.
During jury selection, a woman was asked if she would convict even if there was no proof the men were terrorists.
Koubriti recalled: “She says, ‘yeah, I would come back with a guilty verdict with no evidence,’ and I’m like ‘whoaa.’”
At trial, the government introduced into evidence a day planner that had been seized at Koubriti’s house. The defense claimed the sketches inside were nothing more than random doodlings by a mentally unstable man who had lived in the Dearborn house before he moved in.
But authorities insisted the crude drawing was a rough sketch of an American military base in Turkey that may have been part of a foiled attack involving a Jordanian man who was in custody overseas.
Agents also found video tapes about Islam that belonged to one of the defendants, Farouk Ali-Haimoud, 21, of Algeria. Koubriti said Haimoud got them while attending talks at the Ramada Inn in Southfield. He said they preached anti-violence; press reports described them as advocating jihad.
The prosecution also introduced videos of Las Vegas and New York. The prosecution claimed they were surveillance tapes designed to help plot terrorist attacks. Koubriti said the videos were made by a 19-year-old Tunisian tourist who was visiting the U.S.
In June 2003, the jury deliberated for seven long days. Koubriti was nervous, but he remained confident.
“We were thinking we proved beyond a reasonable doubt that these people were lying, that it’s obvious to everybody it was bullshit,” he said.
Finally, the jury returned.
“They start with my name,” he recalled.
Koubriti was convicted of one count of terrorism, as was El Mardoudi. Ahmed Hannan was acquitted of terrorism, but convicted of fraud. And Ali-Haimoud was acquitted of all charges.
“When they say ‘guilty,’ I say, ‘what do you mean guilty? After all that we proved in trial, we proved that the government is basically lying. Not once, not twice, not three times.’ It was obvious.
“I cried. I cried. The tears come out of my eyes without feeling nothing. I cried. First I was like in shock and I turn around and I see Farouk was crying. He was acquitted of everything. Then I start crying too. I didn’t understand. We were arrested, the same evidence against all of us basically. Either all of us guilty or all of us not guilty.
“It doesn’t make no sense.”
He said the prosecution kept bringing up his name and brought people to lie about him.
“He just hated me,” said Koubriti.
It looked like Koubriti would be going to prison for a long time. But several months after the verdict, allegations began surfacing that the prosecution had failed to turn over helpful evidence to the defense.
While Koubriti and the others waited in jail, the Justice Department conducted an investigation, and a year later, in September 2004, department officials concluded that the prosecution had failed to follow court procedures.
In court papers, the Justice Department said: “In its best light, the record would show that the prosecution committed a pattern of mistakes and oversights that deprived the defendants of discoverable evidence (including impeachment material) and created a record filled with misleading inferences that such material did not exist.”
Finally, after three years behind bars under suspicion of being a terrorist, Koubriti got word that the judge planned to drop the charges.
He cried. He prayed. He thanked God.
In September, in open court, Judge Rosen, dropped the terrorism charges, saying though prosecutors have to be innovative in the fight against terrorism, they also are obligated to obey the law.
“They must not act outside the Constitution,” Rosen said. “Unfortunately, that is precisely what has occurred in the course of this case.” He added that the prosecution formed a theory early on "and then simply ignored or avoided any evidence or information which contradicted or undermined that view."
In October, Rosen released Koubriti to a halfway house because the government planned to charge him with insurance fraud. It was another detour on the way to freedom.
The charges stemmed from a car crash with his friend in July 2001 in which, Koubriti said, an attorney convinced them to file a claim against the insurance company. But authorities deemed the claim fraudulent, even though Koubriti said he had injured his neck.
So Koubriti spent 15 months in the halfway house at Livernois and Fenkell on Detroit’s northwest side, awaiting another trial.
In the end, the insurance fraud charges against Koubriti were dismissed and he was granted time served under a pretrial diversion, which meant he didn’t have to plead guilty, but had to stay out of trouble or face possible prosecution. A conviction could have led to deportation.
Koubriti went on to do various jobs and then bought his own 18-wheel truck to transport goods. He eventually bought seven trucks and created his own trucking company.
Two of the other defendants took different paths.
His friend Ahmed Hannan pleaded guilty to the insurance fraud and was deported to Morocco. Abedel-Illah El Mardoudi served some time for document fraud before he was deported to Morocco.
Koubriti’s friend and former roommate, Farouk Ali-Haimoud, who was acquitted of all charges at the trial, drove a truck for Koubriti for a while. Now he owns two trucks of his own.
When Koubriti rehashes the trial in such detail, he still cannot believe what he sees as viciousness on the part of the prosecutor and the principal FBI agent on the case.
He said: “I cannot believe there is evil people like that. They know we are not terrorists.”
Listen to Karim Koubriti talk about his ordeal:
Read part III in the series: Freedom