From Accused Terrorist to U.S. Citizen: Ali-Haimoud's Painful Journey

August 19, 2012, 6:24 PM by  Allan Lengel

He was accused of being part of terrorist cell in Detroit in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He spent about 15 months in the Wayne County Jail, often in isolation. He was occasionally strip searched.

And then, he was acquitted of all charges.

Now, after the trial, the jailing, the humiliation and the close encounter with spending his life in prison,  Farouk Ali-Haimoud has a new American experience: 

He has become a U.S. citizen.

“I went through a lot to get that citizenship,” he said, talking on a recent Sunday afternoon at an Arabic bakery on West Warren Avenue in Dearborn. “Those were hard times, not just hard times for me, but for my family. They accused me of one of the worst crimes on the planet.”

About nine months ago, Ali-Haimoud, 32, got word from immigration authorities -- just like millions of immigrants before him -- that he was a U.S. citizen.

But his journey from Algeria to Detroit to U.S. citizenship, was anything but typical.

It included months on end in Wayne County Jail, a grueling federal trial that generated international attention in the post-9/11 era, and an acquittal, followed by more insults. Once free, he says co-workers and bosses would ask him -- some half jokingly -- whether he was a terrorist or fugitive from justice.

And the Fox 2 kept running a photo of him and identifying it as convicted conman Youssef Hmimssa, a star government witness in the case.

And now, after all that, while Ali-Haimoud feels far less trusting of people, he is still able to say:

“I feel good about being a citizen. Of course, everybody wants to be a citizen in this country. As far as jobs, you can work anything unless you’re lazy and you don’t want to work. There’s opportunity here, not only for jobs but freedom of religion, freedom of everything.”

His defense attorney, Robert Morgan says Ali-Haimoud is not bitter, but adds: “Everybody recognizes there are far too many miscarriages of justice, and this was at the top of this list. The government case was phony and artificially constructed.”

Ali-Haimoud came to the U.S. in 1999 from Algeria at age 19, after graduating from high school, to join his mother, who already lived in Detroit.

He took English classes at a church in Dearborn and started working a series of jobs, first at a gardening nursery, then construction and restaurants.
He became friends with people in the coffee houses in Dearborn and found roommates.

On Sept. 17, 2001, less than a week after the terror attacks, the FBI came knocking at his door on Detroit's west side. Agents were looking for someone who had lived there a year before.

Nonetheless, the agents found some things that believed looked suspicious, including more than 100 religious audio tapes that belonged Ali-Haimoud. He said he bought them while attending a seminar at a Southfield hotel on how to live in a non-Islamic country. He says he never got a chance to listen to them. The government claimed they preached about radical Islam, and would later point to them as further proof of the group’s jihadist mindset.

“That’s the funny thing,” Ali-Haimoud recalled. “I never listened to those tapes and I still have them. I bought the whole set.”

The FBI whisked away Ali-Haimoud and his two roommates to the FBI office downtown, where they were questioned. A fourth person in the case, a former roommate, was arrested a couple months later. At the time, Ali-Haimoud said he wasn’t too worried. He said he didn’t blame the FBI.

He thought: “These guys are just doing their jobs. That’s what we thought at first. They’re going to do their investigation. It’s going to take a bit of time and then obviously they are going to find out we had nothing to do with all of this.”

The FBI agents asked questions, including what he knew about Osama bin Laden.
“I had no idea,” he recalled. “This might sound funny to you. The first time I heard of Osama bin Laden was right after Sept. 11.”

Federal authorities let him go after several weeks. But months later, they re-arrested him, charging him and the others with plotting violence against targets in the U.S. and abroad.

There were endless hours in isolation at Wayne County Jail. Strip searches. 

Kevin Ernst, his first attorney in the pretrial phase of the case, said: “I thought the kid was like a deer in the headlights. He was just overwhelmed. He didn’t understand it. The case against him was so thin.”

On June 3, 2003, the jury came back with a verdict. Two of the four defendants were convicted of terrorism charges. A third was convicted of fraud. And then there was Ali-Haimoud. 

“It was a shock to me. I was acquitted of everything.” he said. 

“ I didn’t like it. I thought everybody else is going to be acquitted. I was like, why? That is not justice. If you’re saying that these guys are terrorists, automatically I’m a terrorist.”

“I really felt bad.”

But his mother was far less ambivalent. In fact, she was elated.

“She started crying,” Ali-Haimoud recalled.

In the following months, though, questions were raised about the validity of the case. Then in September 2004, more than a year after his acquittal, the Justice Department moved to vacate the convictions against two of his co-defendants who had been convicted on terrorism charges.

The government concluded that the chief prosecutor had withheld key evidence from the defense and that the terrorism charges were unfounded. The federal judge called the government’s key witness, Youssef Hmimssa, a convicted con man, a “pathological liar,” a reference to his testimony in the trial that appeared to be key to the convictions. The prosecutor was later indicted on allegations of withholding evidence, but was acquitted. The whole case was an embarrassment to the government.

 After getting out of jail, Ali-Haimoud got a job at an automotive supply plant in Brownstown in Wayne County.  

“Every time I’m looking around I see the newspaper,” he said, explaining that the papers contained articles about his case. “I had to go literally pick up the newspapers and throw them away. I was just afraid people might look at the the second page. I can see my picture right there.

“A lot of people they used to come to me. ‘Hey, is that you out there?’ I’m like, ‘no man, we’re like Chinese. All the Arabs look alike.’ The Arabic people, the Yemini, they knew it was me.” He went on to other jobs where he faced similar humiliation.

On top of that, he says Fox 2 ran his photo, but identified him as Youssef Hmimssa, the convicted conman. At that time, the case was still generating interest after his acquittal because two co-defendants were still behind bars, waiting for the government to erase their terrorism convictions.

Ali-Haimoud believed the station was sending a message about him --  “even though this guy is released, watch out for him.”

Eventually, he started working as a driver for his former roommate and co-defendant, Karim Koubriti, one of the two defendants who had his terrorism conviction vacated. Koubriti runs a small trucking company Downriver.

Today, Ali-Haimoud also has a small interstate trucking company Downriver that delivers auto parts.

Ali-Haimoud’s two sisters live in the western U.S. He lives with his mother in Detroit. So he says America is the place for him to be, even with all that has happened. He said he understands the American mentality.

“If they do feel a little bit of hatred toward the Muslims I understand because if the same thing would have happened in my country, my people would have done the same thing.”

But he says he wishes that non-Muslims would “bother to look more into Islam. Because if they did, they would find out that the Islam presented by the media or by extremists themselves such al Qaeda or different groups, is not the Islam that tens of millions of Muslims across the planet follow. If they did look into Islam or read about it or find out the truth, then all the stereotypes against Muslims would vanish.”

As a result of his ordeal, Ali-Haimoud says he’s on guard around people.

“Right now you have to be more cautious, less trusting,” he says. “Sometimes I see people, I don’t even want to talk.”

With citizenship comes one of the great rights: The right to vote. Surprisingly, Ali-Haimoud was initially less than enthusiastic when asked about voting. 

“I’m not into politics too much. It doesn’t matter, Obama or this guy or this guy," he said. "They’re all going to do whatever they want to do."

But upon further reflection, he said he's interested in exercising that right.

"I might try it, maybe the first year.  I never did that before.”

So now he’s got his citizenship, he’s got a small business and his family is relatively near.

That being said, has his experience in the U.S. soured him on living the American dream, like his fellow Americans?

“You always feel like you’re Arabic, you’re Muslim, you can never be like one of them,” he says.

His first attorney, Kevin Ernst, said he was glad to hear that Ali-Haimoud had become a citizen.

“I think the kid was undeniably innocent,” Ernst says. “That’s the least the country owes him.”

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