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Al Muhajiroun leader in Arizona Zakaria Soubra deported after being linked to 9/11 hijackers and Tempe mosque

Student at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University " caught the attention of the FBI agent"
by Dennis Wagner
The Arizona Republic
May 2, 2004

Zakaria Mustapha Soubra

Here we have more evidence of the deception being attempted by Kamran Bokhari, the Al Muhajiroun spokesman in North America , Bokhari is a fellow of the CSID,Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, and interim treasurer and secretary of the AMSS, Association of Muslim Social Scientists.

In his response to a MIM press release, Bokhari had stated that Al Muhajiroun in the US was started by a small group of disaffected Hizb ut Tahrir members in New York and gave the impression that he was one of the lone members in the U.S. and that he occupied an insignificant and isolated position in Springfield, Missouri.

In fact,there were several groups of Al Muhajiroun supporters in the U.S, and Soubra's involvement Al Muhajiroun ,while a student at an aeronautical univerrsity, brought him to the attention of the FBI .

MIM: Zacakaria joined Al Muhajiroun in London and was in close contact with it's leader Omar Bakri. He started a chapter of Al Muhajiroun in Arizona in 1999, had ties to the Tempe mosque, and was linked to Hani Hanjour, one of the 9/11 hijackers.

Dennis Wagner
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 15, 2003 12:00 AM

A Lebanese man caught in the hunt for terrorists and the controversy over America's Sept. 11, 2001, intelligence failure says his life was ripped apart by the "paranoia" of FBI agents after the World Trade Center attack.

Zakaria Mustapha Soubra, an aeronautical safety student who spent more than a year in federal detention, said in a phone interview from Beirut that he was smeared with suspicion, hounded by the FBI and finally deported last month even though he had nothing to do with the suicide mission or terrorist cells.

"They suspect everybody," Soubra said in the first interview since his arrest in Arizona last year. "Believe me, they are trained to suspect Muslims and Arabs. That's the issue. My whole life was destroyed. My future. They just destroyed everything."

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Soubra, who was attending Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott when al-Qaida attacked, admits that he served as an Arizona organizer for the radical Islamist group and that he demonstrated against U.S. foreign policy. But he condemns Osama bin Laden and the murder of civilians.

Two months before the Sept. 11 attacks, Soubra was identified in the so-called Phoenix Memo, an e-mail written by FBI Agent Kenneth Williams advising supervisors that Middle Eastern aviation students should be monitored as potential terror threats.

The failure to heed Williams' red flag was considered a major U.S. intelligence failure. It became a focus of congressional hearings and public outcry after the terrorist attacks. Eight Arab or Muslim aviation students in Arizona were listed in the e-mail, but Soubra is the only one who has been identified publicly.

On May 23, 2002, the day after Congress questioned Williams about that memo, Soubra was arrested in Tempe and held without bond amid secret Immigration Court hearings.

A judge ruled that he was a threat to America based on FBI avowals and eventually ordered his deportation. But federal agents obtained a material-witness warrant and continued to hold him.

Last month in Virginia, Soubra testified about other Middle Easterners before a federal grand jury investigating Sept. 11 terrorism. Some he knew, he said, others he did not. Then, after being held for a year without bond, he was flown to Lebanon, where he lives with his family.

Soubra, 27, is one of 765 Muslim-nation foreigners detained for immigration violations in America's homeland security frenzy. Hundreds more have been arrested by the FBI and other agencies for criminal offenses large and small, or as so-called material witnesses.

The investigations are shrouded in secrecy and details are scarce. The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and FBI won't even provide numbers on how many were detained in Arizona or how many remain in custody.

Although Soubra is unique because of his central position in the review of national security, he is typical in claiming innocence and criticizing U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's relentless enforcement machine.

Visa violation

Soubra said investigators had no terrorism evidence against him, yet Williams persisted in claiming Soubra was an associate of Sept. 11 hijackers Hani Hanjour and Nawaf Alhazmi.

"It's a lie," Soubra said. "I never knew them. And the thing is, until this moment, the FBI insists that I know them. They believe that I'm hiding something."

Williams has refused all interview requests. FBI spokeswoman Susan Herskowits declined to comment except to say that the bureau aggressively pursues terrorism.

"We think the American public expects and deserves this level of effort," she added.

In a court declaration last year, FBI counterterrorism chief Andrew Arena swore that public disclosure about Soubra would harm national security.

Authorities never formally charged Soubra with a crime. Instead, he was arrested based on a technical violation of his student visa. He fell below the mandatory course load required by immigration law.

Saying that the government seldom resorts to drastic measures in such cases, Soubra said, "They used that as a pretext to hold me and to deport me."

Soubra said he came to the United States seeking an education and a career that are unavailable in his impoverished homeland.

"Decent pay and support for my family, that was my goal," he said.

After spending two years in London, he selected Embry Riddle because of its international reputation. He said he struggled in aerospace and electrical engineering before shifting to aeronautical safety, where he caught the attention of the FBI agent.

While in England, Soubra joined Al Muhajiroun, an organization that advocates Muslim rule and vilifies U.S. support for Israel. Soubra still shares that view: "Anybody who is against oppression can see that U.S. foreign policy is really biased."

But the outspoken son of an imam, a mosque prayer leader, is equally harsh with bin Laden, declaring, "The guy believes in killing innocent people, and that is against Islam. He's a criminal and should be brought to justice."

Soubra said he did not realize that Al Muhajiroun espoused the murder of U.S. civilians until after his arrest, at which time he renounced his membership and condemned the organization as un-Islamic.

"He was so shocked that his group was hurting people," recalled Brandy Chase, a 19-year-old American who married Soubra in prison last year. "He's extremely non-violent. . . . Anybody with eyes can see he's not a criminal."

As the case progressed, Soubra lawyer Eric Bjotvedt complained that it was being cloaked in absurd secrecy so U.S. investigators could conceal their lack of evidence.

"They basically have nothing," he said after one sealed hearing. "They're setting an example. . . . It's all about his (Islamic) beliefs."

Created suspicion

Even Soubra concedes that federal agents were justified in scrutinizing him after Sept. 11.

He had formed an Arizona chapter of Al Muhajiroun in 1999, two years before his arrest. He was so rabid in his views on Islamic governance that, according to news accounts, he was once asked to leave a Tempe mosque. He attended Valley protests against U.S. foreign policy on the Palestinians and against Russian policies in Chechnya.

Soubra said he believes those demonstrations triggered his first contact with Williams.

"He told me, 'It's your right. You are free to say whatever you want as long as you don't support financially or materially any terrorist organization,' " Soubra said.

Soubra would not expound on those early conversations with Williams, but said he believes his name appeared in the now legendary e-mail because he exercised freedom of speech. On May 23, 2002, as Soubra returned home from a visit to the Tempe mosque, FBI and immigration agents swarmed his car and put him in handcuffs. "I was never frightened," he said, "because I knew I hadn't done anything wrong."

During the next 12 months, investigators interrogated Soubra a half-dozen times at the Florence detention center, and several more times after he was moved to Virginia.

Besides questions about the Sept. 11 hijacking, Soubra said he was asked about his friendship with two Saudi men, Hamdan Al-Shalawi and Mohammed Al-Qudhaieen, who were removed from an America West flight in Columbus, Ohio, in November 2000 after the flight crew became suspicious.

Al-Shalawi and Al-Qudhaieen, both university students from Arizona, sued the airline for discrimination claiming they were handcuffed and humiliated based on racial profiling. The men have denied any terrorist affiliation, but Soubra said Homeland Security authorities continued to suspect them.

During two days of testimony before a grand jury in Virginia, Soubra said, he was shown photographs and asked about numerous Middle Easterners. He was given immunity.

"It was just a game. I don't know what's secret about it," he said of the proceedings. "I just told them how I feel."

Soubra said counterterrorism agents have become so blinded by suspicion they cannot recognize innocence.

"Don't you think if I wanted to do something I would have done it?" he asked. "They are very paranoid. They don't trust people, and that's good to a point. But they go beyond that limit."

Meanwhile, Soubra said he is looking for work in Lebanon and awaiting the arrival of Chase, who married him in a Muslim ceremony last year at the Florence detention center.

After speaking on the phone for nearly an hour, Soubra suddenly announced, "I'm going to end now. It hurts me, all this past. I just want to bury it and try to live normally."

Before hanging up, he conceded that the FBI may have achieved at least one goal: Zakaria Soubra will never return to America.

Reach the reporter at [email protected] or (602) 444-8874.


Terror Probe Hovers Over Arizona

Search: Authorities say it is too tough to tell the dangerous from the ardently dissident.

Times Staff Writer

October 28, 2001

TEMPE, Ariz. Well before the trail of a suspected Sept. 11 skyjacker drew investigators to this Phoenix suburb, the FBI had its eye on Zakaria Soubra.

The 25-year-old Lebanese national, one of the few Middle Eastern students at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University north of here, suspects it might have been his visit to a shooting range with an American-born veteran of jihads in the Balkans and the Middle East. Or his membership in a London-based group calling for governments around the globe to be removed in favor of a single, pure Islamic state.

Or maybe it was his association with several fellow Muslim flight school students, some of whom attend a prayer group Soubra formed and who also were questioned by the FBI within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Although confidential government records show more than two dozen current and former Arizona residents have come under federal scrutiny--or have been targeted for questioning since the East Coast attacks--only one, picked up overseas, is suspected of having a direct link to terrorist activity.

Indeed, the government's anti-terrorism efforts here open a window on the difficulties of identifying cells or individuals who are truly dangerous.

As the FBI investigated tips involving small groups of Middle Easterners here who espoused radical beliefs, a young Saudi, who authorities believe steered a jetliner into the Pentagon, moved through this same college town, largely unnoticed.

Hani Hanjour was in his early 20s when he first came to Arizona in the mid-1990s to take flight training at local airfields. He kept to himself, having limited contact with the outside world.

Even in private conversations, one former roommate recalls, he never signaled strong religious or political views.

The public stridence of a Zakaria Soubra, who expounds religious arguments to justify suicide bombings in the Middle East, and the disciplined stealth of a Hani Hanjour, who silently planned mass murder, illustrate a fundamental challenge to America's counter-terrorism efforts.

Pursuing radical activists and determining when their rhetoric might cross into illegal or violent activity is tricky--legally and tactically--federal officials say.

"There are people who just keep popping up" and whose case files are repeatedly opened and closed because prosecutable crimes can't be found, said one senior federal law enforcement official who has worked counter-terrorism investigations. "We're not interested in their religion. We're just interested in violent activity, when it crosses a line into violent acts."

Soubra, for example, insists that hijacking commercial airliners and killing U.S. civilians is prohibited by his faith--at the same time he calls for Islamic world domination.

For investigators, the failure to pick up warnings before last month's plot makes clear they must concentrate on an additional, far different chore: identifying devoted killers trained to blend in.

"They don't stand out. And they especially don't stand up and say, 'We hate America,' " says professor Steve Cimbala, who teaches national security and intelligence studies at Pennsylvania State University.

Officials say there is no foolproof way to zero in on those who are actually threatening as opposed to ardently dissident, especially with time and resources stretched thin.

Arizona has had its mix of both.

Among those who have been sought or monitored in the Phoenix area in recent weeks is a family man who records indicate has been scrutinized several times in connection with international terrorism probes. The man did not respond to requests from The Times for an interview, but neighbors say the FBI and police questioned them after the attacks about activities at the man's home.

Another is a Sierra Vista man, who lived near the Mexican border and left the U.S. in 1999, according to records. He is described as a weapon expert and is suspected of scouting terrorist targets in the Southwest.

Yet another is Malek Seif, a Djibouti national whom federal authorities reported receiving flight training in the Phoenix area at the same time as Lotfi Raissi, an Algerian arrested last month by English authorities. Raissi is suspected of overseeing pilot training of four of the suspected 19 hijackers. Seif left the U.S. in late August and was arrested in Marseilles, France, in early October as part of an anti-terrorist crackdown, according to records and interviews. After two days, he was released because of a lack of evidence that he had knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks, a French law enforcement official said. He is still believed to be in Europe.

Since Sept. 11, two other Phoenix-area residents have been detained on immigration charges, and a material witness in the case has been indicted for lying about whether he knew Hanjour.

FBI officials here refuse to discuss their terrorism investigations, before or since the attacks.

One apparent reason for the agency's focus on the Tempe area is its growing, somewhat transient Muslim community.

Many Muslim students are attracted to Arizona State University and the large Islamic Cultural Center nearby. The center serves as a hub of religious and social activity and includes the first gold-domed mosque in the Phoenix area.

Long before Sept. 11, federal agents sought to tap into the Muslim community for information.

One former Arizona State Muslim student recalled agents first showing up at his home in 1998, after the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, to interview him--and try to cultivate him as a source.

In recent years, agents also have been interested in potential threats, apparently focusing in part on a mysterious figure, known among young local Muslims only as Abu Muhajid, which translates roughly to "the Fighter."

Muhajid, described as a white, American Muslim, often shared tales of Islamic holy wars in Chechnya and Bosnia, say those who met him. He could not be found in recent days, and those who know him say he has disappeared.

"He had experience in jihad," Soubra said. "He used to report what other Muslims" were suffering.

Soubra believes it was his own association with Muhajid and their visit to a local shooting range that first brought FBI agents to his door in early 2000.

"They said they saw me hanging out with a person who was dangerous to society," he recalled last week. Since then, federal agents have periodically returned to Soubra and his associates, interviews show.

After a Saudi friend began visiting Soubra's apartment, the FBI showed up a second time, asking who the visitor was. Just days after he moved out, agents were at Soubra's landlord's office, asking more questions.

"They just said they were checking him out," recalled the apartment owner, Bill Stromberg.

Within hours of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, agents showed up at Embry Riddle to interview Soubra and several other Muslim students who know him.

"They asked all kinds of questions about" Soubra, said Ahmad Alhulaisi, a Palestinian studying aeronautical engineering.

Alhulaisi is among several current and former Embry Riddle students on lists of people the FBI has been keeping tabs on since the skyjackings. Earlier this month, he was detained for questioning during a Prescott traffic stop, a law enforcement source confirmed.

Alhulaisi complained about the delay and being under such scrutiny. But he acknowledges he was speeding home after one of his weekend road trips to nightclubs in Southern California frequented by Middle Easterners. "I love L.A.," he says. He is less enthusiastic about Soubra's Friday prayer meetings. "He is religious. . . . Me Please see ARIZONA, A17

ARIZONA: Rhetoric Draws Attention

Continued from A16

and my roommates are not strict like that."

Soubra said he arrived in Arizona for flight safety studies in 1998, and is being sponsored by a relative.

The FBI's interest in Soubra is partly tied to his membership in Al-Muhajiroun, a controversial London-based group, records show.

The organization, which British authorities reportedly have under 24-hour surveillance, maintains the U.S. government is engaging in terrorism against Muslims and contends Islamic law prohibits cooperating with the FBI or other government agencies of non-Islamic states.

It also says Muslims should work for the creation of a single Islamic state worldwide. However, Soubra stresses, the group also has said that killing innocent U.S. civilians is wrong.

Only "pure intellectual and political" means may be used to remove non-Islamic regimes in the West, says Soubra.

Soubra acknowledges belonging to an Arizona chapter of the group but declines to discuss how many members there are or where they meet. He sidesteps questions about his views of suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, instead offering lengthy descriptions of what he says is the Islamic basis for various kinds of jihad.

Soubra's activities have rubbed many the wrong way. At his flight school, advisors unsuccessfully urged him to cancel a lecture criticizing U.S. military presence in Yemen, just days after the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole.

At the Tempe mosque, Soubra says he was once asked to leave after chastising members for supporting non-Islamic governments in the U.S. and elsewhere.

For all the disruption he has caused and the investigative attention apparently paid him, friends say Soubra appears to be peaceful, if a bit preachy.

He insists he knew nothing of the Sept. 11 plotters and has not been given any indication he is a target of a federal investigation. He continues to go about his flight safety training and dorm life.

Unlike people such as Soubra, Hanjour kept to a routine of study, attracting little attention even within the Muslim community.

At Tempe's King Tut coffeehouse, a popular Middle Eastern gathering spot where tobacco water pipes and political argument go hand in hand, Hanjour occasionally dropped by. But he is remembered mostly for his silence, according to owner Majda Kassel.

"He didn't talk much," she said.

Abdulah Suliman, who lived with Hanjour in Tempe for three months in 1998, said his former roommate rarely ventured out, other than to attend pilot lessons or go to the bank to get the money he said relatives sent.

"I'd tell him let's go see a movie. He'd say, 'No.' I'd tell him let's go play basketball. He'd say, 'No,' " Suliman said. "He just stayed home and studied his books for flight school."

Hanjour sometimes went to the Tempe mosque. But Suliman, who has been interviewed in recent weeks by the FBI, said he never got a measure of Hanjour's religious or political beliefs. It just didn't come up.

Raissi joined Hanjour for a time at flight school here. Though more outgoing than Hanjour, Raissi stayed a shorter time and also appeared to have avoided the attention of officials, according to interviews.

To help investigators ferret out terrorist cells, President Bush signed legislation Friday giving law enforcement sweeping new tools to tap phones, monitor e-mails, share sensitive information and hold suspects.

But many wonder whether even those powers will be enough to uncover those silently scheming to commit mass violence.

"There isn't anything you can do to a guy who gives you zero signals," Penn State's Cimbala said.

Kassel said Raissi and Hanjour sat at her tables and she sensed nothing.

"The one who never advertised his thoughts," she said, "is the one who did the deed."

_ _ _

Times staff writer Sebastian Rotella and researcher Nona Yates contributed to this report.

The Islamic Cultural Center in Tempe Arizona responded to 9/11 attacks by asking people to show support and solidarity for Muslims .


In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful

Assalamu Alaikum (Peace be upon you),

As America Muslims, we really appreciate the feelings and understandings of our Non-Muslim friends who have been showing all kinds of support to the Islamic Cultural Center (ICC) in Tempe and the rest of the Arabs and Muslims in the United States. Best Regards, ICC Board

To send a support e-mail message, simply click here.

Here are some sample of support email messages that we have been receiving from our dear Non-Muslim friends:

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