Enthusiastic and ambitious, Karim Koubriti came to America from Morocco in search of opportunity when he was 22 years old. He was the son of educators, and he studied French law for a time, though he hadn’t graduated. He had a certain sophistication.
Still, his intelligence and savoir faire could hardly have prepared him for what was to come nearly a year after arriving in the United States.
Six days after Sept. 11, 2001, FBI agents came knocking at his door on Norman Street on Detroit’s west side.
Koubriti had returned home from work by 5 p.m Two of his roommates were sleeping. He had just taken a shower.
He heard the knocking and somebody screaming: “Nabil, Nabil Nabil.”
The agents were looking for a man named Nabil al-Marabh. There was a sense of urgency. Nabil had lived at the address a year earlier, but moved out before Koubriti and his roommates had moved in.
(A cab driver in Boston, Nabil Al-Marabh was on the FBI’s list of possible terrorist suspects. He was arrested a few days later outside of Chicago, questioned and eventually deported on a conviction for stabbing and wounding his roommate in Boston in May 2000.)
Koubriti ran downstairs in his boxer shorts and opened the door. There stood agents and a translator.
What came next for him was unimaginable: Years of imprisonment and emotional pain. In the chaotic wake of the worst attack on the U.S. since Pearl Harbor, he was arrested and accused, along with three other men, of operating a terrorist sleeper cell in Detroit in a case that captured the attention of the nation. Attorney General John Ashcroft suggested the men had prior knowledge of the 9/11 plot, though he subsequently retracted that statement.
Eventually, after spending three years in jail, the judge dropped the terrorism charges after the Justice Department had concluded they were bogus and that the prosecution had withheld information beneficial to the defense.
When he finally was a free man, he felt resentment. He was mad. He didn’t understand why the legal system was so slow in discovering the truth.
“I was angry. It felt it took too long,” Koubriti said.
At the same time, he was excited to be free. And he said he was determined to carry out his initial vision and do well in America.
“I don’t like to lose,” he said. “I’m trying to make my life normal.”
Today, Koubriti, 33, has moved on. He says he has not soured on the country. He’s enjoying life. He has a three-bedroom home in the western suburbs of Detroit that he loves, and he owns a trucking company with 7, 18-wheel rigs.
“After all the things that have happened to him, he doesn’t seem bitter,” says friend David Lee, a Detroit attorney who wasn’t involved in the case. “Few people I’ve ever seen have embodied the spirit of the American dream like this guy.”
In a lengthy interview with Deadline Detroit, Koubriti spoke about his nightmarish experience and how he emerged to live the good life in America.
The Nightmare Begins
For Koubriti, Sept. 17, 2001, was anything but normal.
The agents who came knocking on the door asked if he knew Nabil, the man they had actually come looking for.
He said no.
They asked for ID. He told them it was upstairs. The agents followed him.
When they went upstairs, sitting on a table were ID badges for LSG Skychef, a company at the airport that provides food to the airlines. Koubriti and a roommate had worked there from May to July 2001.
Koubriti told the agents that he they no longer were employed at the airport. They now worked at Technicolor, in Livonia, working on an assembly line, putting together cardboard containers for videos. But it was the Skychef material that caught the agents’ attention.
“As soon they see the badges they just handcuffed us,” Koubriti recalled.
He said the agents also found a fake passport and fake identification. Koubriti said they belonged to a former roommate at a previous home. The man eventually pleaded guilty to multiple charges and agreed to testify as a prosecution witness in Koubriti’s trial.
Koubriti said the agents took him and his two roommates, Ahmed Hannan, 33, and Farouk Ali-Haimoud, 21, to the FBI office in downtown Detroit. Koubriti was 23 at the time. In November, the feds would also arrest a former roommate, Abedel-Ilah El Mardoudi, who had in his possession $90,000 and fake IDs.
The FBI put them in separate rooms. They brought in a translator.
The questions left little doubt what theory the agents were working.
“Have you ever been in Libya?” they asked. “Have you ever been to Afghanistan? Do you know Osama bin Laden?” Bin Laden?
“I never heard his name before,” Koubriti said.
He thought: “It’s looking bad.”
FBI agents later took them to the Wayne County Jail.
When he said to the agents, “You told us you going to bring us back home, one said: “Don’t worry, you’re going to be all right.”
Koubriti was scared.
“I’ve never been locked up in my life,” he said. “I don’t even have a traffic ticket all my life. Jail is not a good place.”
He spent the lion’s share of his time at Wayne County Jail, but also was lodged after his conviction in places like the Sanilac County Jail and the federal prison in Milan.
Guards often placed him in isolation, a fate he got used to. Sometimes they tried serving him pork for meals even though he told the authorities his faith forbid him from eating it. Some corrections officers called him a terrorist, which made him angry. And sometimes he was strip searched after returning from court.
“It was like a dream,” Koubriti recalled.
Inmates told him he was in the news. “They say you are a terrorist.”
He said nothing in response. And he thought: “I was like, ‘no, this is not happening.’”
His parents, in Morocoo, lived in pain knowing their son was languishing behind bars.
“My father lost weight, my mom used to cry, like all day, until she started not to have tears anymore,” he said in an Arabic accent.
Koubriti has a round face and olive skin, with whiskers on his chin. He has an easy smile and seems laid back, and has adjusted well to his adopted country. He’s quick to get American humor and sarcasm, and he socializes with an ecletic group of friends including African-Americans and Jews.
He studied French law for two years back home in Fez, Morocco, then his father set him up with a coffee shop. The economy was poor, but the coffee shop did ok -- generating enough income for a 22-year-old, but nothing great.
He came to the U.S. after his sister put his name in a lottery for a visa. Koubriti won, receiving a legitimate green card to work in America. He closed the coffee shop, and in October 2000, he boarded a plane and landed at JFK airport in New York.
The entry was an eye-opener.
“The first word I heard in America when I get out of the airplane and go on the subway was ‘fuck.’
“It was a kid, like 7-years-old. I’m like, what’s going on? I thought ‘fuck’ was a bad word. I’m saying, ‘what is this?’”
He looked for work at a temp employment agency, which pointed him toward Ohio, where he found a job at a chicken processing plant, standing on the line, cutting up chickens for 11 hours a day.
“It was very hard work,” he recalled. “You stand on your feet. When you go to sleep, you dream chickens.”
Some Tunisian men told him to check out Detroit.
“They said, ‘you’ve got a green card, you can go to Michigan, there’s a lot of Arabic community, you can find a better job easier over there.”
So off he went, with a friend, Ahmed Hannan, whom he had met in Ohio. They moved into a flat in Dearborn, where they were joined by some other men. Later, Koubriti and two others moved into the flat on Norman Street nearby in Detroit.
He and Hannan, one of his roommates, found work washing dishes on the midnight shift at LSG Skychef at Metro. It required no security clearance because the job gave him no direct access to the airport.
They worked there for a few months, but were fired after they failed to show up after a car accident.
In between jobs, Koubriti went to truck driving school so he could get a truck driver’s license. He had heard that truck drivers earned good money, so he took advantage of an Arab-American organization called ACCESS, which paid for the schooling.
Eventually Koubriti and Hannan landed jobs at Technicolor, the video production company in Livonia.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he came home by 6 p.m. He spoke to a female friend he had hoped to meet that night.
“She was supposed to come over, and then she told me, ‘well, I’m not coming today because of what’s happened.’
“I’m like, what happened? She says, ‘did you watch the news?’ I tell her ‘no.’ She told me to go turn on the TV.”
Thursday, Part II: The Trial