- Maybe it was something, maybe it was nothing, thought
Himanshu "Bobby" Shah, manager of the Best Western Maryland Inn
in College Park, Md. On the very day that terrorists staged attacks on
the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Shah noticed that a hotel guest
had abandoned his folding suitcase and backpack outside Room 157 on the
ground floor. The man, who had paid $77 cash for his room and shown an
Egyptian passport as I.D., had checked out a few hours earlier.
- Shah walked past the bags, sitting in a covered outdoor
walkway, several times. "You don't just leave your luggage outside
half a day," he thought to himself. After a maid and a groundskeeper
also mentioned the bags, the 28-year-old native of Gujarat, India, began
to worry: What if his employees doubted his patriotism? "I want them
to understand that I care for their safety. They might be thinking, 'Bobby's
a foreigner. Why isn't he taking the right step?' "
- Taking the right step has become a lot more complicated
in the weeks since Attorney General John Ashcroft asked Americans to report
any suspicious activity that might involve terrorism. Law-enforcement authorities
have fielded 435,000 tips as of Nov. 6, and detained more than 1,100 people.
The Justice Department recently drew up a list of 5,000 Middle Eastern
men it wants to question further.
- Sometimes the tips net tantalizing leads, such as the
case of the community-college English professor in California who noticed
that a student had written the first names of two of the hijackers in his
exam booklet. The FBI was called, helping connect some dots: The student's
phone number also showed up on a scrap of paper in the glove compartment
of a hijacker's abandoned car at Dulles International Airport. The student
has since admitted meeting one of the hijackers and was indicted for lying
to a grand jury about not knowing the other. An FBI spokesman calls the
tip program "helpful," and says the agency "still appreciates
any information that the public wishes to provide."
- But often, the leads have resulted in the detention of
men who aren't terrorists at all, but minor immigration violators. The
rampant informing is a reminder that when people are looking for something
suspicious, almost anything can start to look fishy.
- Questions have emerged in some cases about the motives
of the tipsters themselves. La-Tennia Abdelkhalek, an American-born cook
at a Rafferty's restaurant in Evansville, Ind., called the FBI on Oct.
11 with a startling story: Her husband Fathy, an Egyptian waiter at the
Olive Garden, seemed despondent and had told her he was "going to
crash." The FBI moved swiftly, arresting not only Abdelkhalek, but
eight of his friends, all of whom were former members of the Egyptian national
rowing team who had relocated to Evansville.
- All were arrested as material witnesses and locked up
in a federal detention center in Chicago. Lawyers for the nine men say
they were suspected of being members of an "Evansville cell"
plotting to blow up the Sears Tower. But eight of the nine were released
after eight days; one was still held on immigration charges.
- Abdelkhalek's friends think his wife blew the story out
of proportion because she was angry that Abdelkhalek hadn't been forthright
about his immigration problems and another family he had in Egypt before
he married her. "She screwed all of us, because she was mad Fathy
had children and was sending them all his money," says Hashem Salem,
a waiter at the Texas Roadhouse, an Evansville steakhouse, who was among
the nine detained. La-Tennia Abdelkhalek calls Salem's assertion "ridiculous"
and says she'll take her husband back if he wants. (His friends say he
has since landed in detention again because INS officials deemed his marriage
- Ross Rice, a spokesman for the Chicago FBI, says that
once La-Tennia Abdelkhalek passed a polygraph test, investigators didn't
care about her motives for coming forward. "There are more men in
jail right now because an ex-wife or an ex-girlfriend decided to rat them
out," Rice said. "It doesn't mean they don't deserve to be there."
- The FBI's call for help in cracking the anthrax case
has led to a raft of unusual tips.
- After the agency announced a $1 million reward for useful
information in that case - since raised to $1.25 million - Stan Kiszka,
a 58-year-old brick mason in North Trenton, N.J., got to thinking about
the Middle Eastern-looking man who lived down the street. More than six
weeks after the attacks, he called 911.
- "Right before the bombings, he had four guys visit
him in a white car, a compact thing like a Neon or a Previa or something,
and it had Florida tags," Kiszka says he told the dispatcher. "Then,
right around the bombings, this guy disappears for a couple of days."
- He added: "Before that, the afternoon of Sept. 7,
I saw this guy carrying a small plastic sandwich bag with an envelope inside
of it out to his car, place it real gently on the passenger seat like it
was a baby or something, then look around, lock the car and go upstairs."
- By 8:30 that morning, two Trenton city detectives were
at Kiszka's front stoop. Ten minutes after they left, they called to tell
him not to go to work yet, that the FBI wanted to hear his story. Two FBI
agents soon showed up.
- Neighbors say the two agents staked out the predominantly
Polish block for the next four days. On Nov. 3, about 10 police officers
and five federal agents surrounded a small apartment building up the block
and presented a search warrant at the second-floor unit of Allah Rakha,
a 43-year-old gas-station attendant from Pakistan. They searched and questioned
Rakha and his brother, Ilyas Chaudhry, who have shared the $750 unit with
two cousins for nearly six years.
- A hazardous-materials crew took swabs of the apartment
and its mailbox for anthrax testing. They confiscated some prescription
cold medicine from the bathroom. And Rakha, who was in the process of getting
his expired work visa renewed, was handcuffed and taken into Immigration
and Naturalization Service detention at Hudson County Jail in Kearny, N.J.
- By Nov. 6, an FBI spokeswoman said, the FBI had cleared
Rakha of any connection to anthrax or Sept. 11, although he remains in
jail pending an immigration hearing. Rakha couldn't be reached for comment.
- Kiszka doesn't feel bad about his handiwork. If Rakha
is an "illegal alien," he says, he can't do anything about that.
- Sometimes, jumpy neighbors end up telling on people with
odd habits. People in the community of South Ozone Park, in Queens, N.Y.,
whispered for more than a year about the big group of men in the little
house, the ones who kept the blinds drawn, who never said "hello"
to the neighbors, who kept weird hours and didn't cut the grass. Last summer,
a police officer who lived across the street ran a check on the license
plate of one of the cars in the driveway just to see if it was stolen.
- "They were very strange," says Nick Libramonte,
a 63-year-old wedding-gown designer who lives across the street from the
little house and, since he works from home, keeps an eye on the comings
and goings on his street from his big bay window. "They hang their
laundry - even their underwear - on the fence. Who does that?"
- Then Sept. 11 happened. Some neighbors say suddenly more
men showed up at the little house. People definitely got suspicious. A
day or two later, Father James Mueller, the priest of one of the neighborhood
Catholic churches, St. Anthony of Padua, called the FBI. "I told them,
'This is weird, and people are frightened and here's the address,"
' Father Mueller said.
- Father Mueller said he wasn't just acting on his own
suspicions. A confluence of events prompted his call to the FBI. First,
one of his parishioners - he won't say who - came to him with concerns
about the men. Father Mueller shrugged it off. Then more parishioners came
to him. Father Mueller did his own reconnaissance. "There was all
this coming and going. The lights were turned off," he says. "The
house just didn't look right." He didn't try to talk to any of the
men. He didn't know their names or even how many people lived in the house.
- Father Mueller was worried about the kids. St. Anthony's
nursery school and its 80 children are just a few doors down from the house.
People were shaken and mourning - St. Anthony lost two members in the disaster.
"We have 6,000 people dead, and these people could be involved,"
said Father Mueller, adding that he prayed about what to do. "I don't
want these guys running around and blowing up other things."
- The FBI won't confirm that it acted on Father Mueller's
tip. But one of the house's residents, Muhammad Rafiq Butt, a 55-year-old
native of Jehlum, Pakistan, was taken into custody on Sept. 19 and interviewed
by the FBI. After the FBI decided it wasn't interested in Butt, he was
held on an immigration violation at the Hudson County Jail.
- Butt had entered the U.S. on Sept. 24 of last year and
had overstayed his six-month visa. On Sept. 20, the INS filed a notice
requiring Butt to appear before an immigration judge. Butt initialed an
INS document admitting that he was in the U.S. illegally and stating his
desire to return home. But on Oct. 23, Butt died in prison of an apparent
- Father Mueller, a big barrel of a man, says he feels
sorry for Butt and has prayed for him and his family. But even knowing
the outcome, he says he would do it all over again. "This is very
sad for the family, sad for him, but he could have dropped dead in the
street," Father Mueller says. "I don't think these people meant
any harm, but when you act suspicious constantly in times of crisis you
bring it on yourselves. They could have been making anthrax by the ton
- At the Maryland Best Western, Shah, a trim, neat man
with wire glasses and preppy olive pants, felt a tug of conflicting emotions
over his Egyptian guest. He himself has suffered slights based on his slightly
dark skin and Arabic-sounding name. Once or twice, he says, guests have
dropped off comment cards complaining that the hotel "is being run
by foreigners and isn't as good." Like most Indians, he is Hindu,
not Muslim, and bristles when people assume he is an Arab. Since the bombings,
he says, Indians "are getting pretty bad stares ourselves."
- The day after he spotted the luggage, Sept. 12, Shah
made his decision. Two FBI agents and a police detective came by the Best
Western during a sweep of Washington-area hotels for the names of about
16 terrorists on recent guest registries. Shah found none of the names
in his computer, but told the agents he had a tip for them.
- The Egyptian man who stayed at the Best Western, Ahmed
Abouelkheir, had flown into New York Sept. 7 on a tourist visa that allowed
him to remain in the U.S. for six months at a time. In an interview, Abouelkheir
says he wanted to find an employer willing to sponsor him for permanent
residence. The same age as Shah, 28, he himself has a degree in hotel management
from a Cairo institute, he says.
- Upon arriving in the U.S., Abouelkheir says he went to
Maryland to look for a former roommate from a prior visit, only to find
that strangers were living there and had no space for him. After spending
one night wandering the parking lot of a shopping center to save money,
he says he took a room at the Best Western. When he left two days later,
he was bound for Washington, D.C., to look for fellow Egyptians who might
have a room to rent.
- He says he left his luggage outside his room only temporarily
to grab lunch at a Burger King across the street, assuming the maids would
watch it. Before he set out for Washington, he says, the staff had already
put his luggage behind the front desk. He says he was only vaguely aware
of a problem in New York because he hadn't been watching TV, or he wouldn't
have acted so "freely."
- Shah, the hotel manager, says he knew none of this when
he spotted the luggage. He was slightly comforted when the Egyptian returned
and checked into the hotel again on Sept. 14. By then the police had the
luggage. Alerted to Abouelkheir's return, the FBI found the hotel guest
the next day buying pizza and hot chocolate at a convenience store across
the street. They questioned him and let him go, both Shah and his former
guest say. An FBI spokesman in Maryland declined comment on his case. Shah
told his staff, "If he is a threat, the FBI wouldn't have let him
go. You have to trust your government."
- Still, employees didn't feel comfortable with the Egyptian
back on the premises. Shah says the man continually walked around the grounds.
On Sept. 16, a maid knocked on his door and told him it was checkout time,
according to both Shah and Abouelkheir. What happens next is in dispute:
Abouelkheir says the maid became agitated and "waved scissors in my
face" and said, "You have to leave." Shah says that couldn't
have happened because the hotel doesn't put scissors on the maid's cart.
- "Of course they are going to say no," it didn't
happen, Abouelkheir retorts. But he adds: "I was just washing my face,
preparing to leave. I'm a customer. She shouldn't treat me like that."
- The hotel called the police that day, and officers told
Abouelkheir to leave. But over the next few days, says Shah, the Egyptian
kept coming back on the property. "By that time my employees were
freaked out," he says.
- Abouelkheir's explanation: He was trying to locate the
authorities who had his suitcase, which contained his passport, plane ticket
and about $50. He had been given a number to page the FBI agent, but says
he couldn't do it from the pay phone at the convenience store because it
didn't appear to be accepting incoming calls. He couldn't afford another
night at the hotel and so he asked a hotel bartender if he could borrow
a phone, he adds.
- Finally, on Sept. 18, a week after the hijackings, Shah
called the FBI again. "He's here again," he told them.
- The Prince George's County Police Department arrested
Abouelkheir during another foray to the convenience store. They charged
him with trespassing and held him in a detention center in Upper Marlboro,
Md., for about six days. He was repeatedly questioned by the FBI about
his multiple trips to the U.S. and about everyone he had ever known in
- Six days later, the county dropped the charges. But soon,
he says, federal agents escorted him to a small commuter plane in handcuffs
and shackles, and flew him to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan,
where he was held on a material-witness warrant in the terrorism case.
- Abouelkheir says the FBI spent days showing him photographs
and asking him about an acquaintance, Mohamed Moustafa, an Egyptian bank
clerk who had helped him find a roommate the prior year in College Park.
Abouelkheir says they told him Moustafa was actually Ziad Jarrah, one of
the men who hijacked the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania Sept. 11. "I
told them no, he is a very good man," says Abouelkheir.
- Then, just as suddenly, the government dropped the warrant.
Abouelkheir's attorney, Martin Stolar, says the FBI found Moustafa alive
in the Midwest. Moustafa couldn't be reached for comment.
- Still, Abouelkheir's ordeal wasn't over. The day the
warrant was dropped, he was transferred to Bronx County Criminal Court
in New York City because authorities discovered he hadn't paid a $250 fine
for a disorderly conduct violation three years earlier. The judge issued
a conditional discharge, but by that time, the INS had issued a detainer
forbidding Abouelkheir's release. The INS filed documents alleging that
Abouelkheir had worked "without authorization" from the INS on
a prior visit to the U.S., and that "therefore he is deportable."
- Abouelkheir acknowledges he worked briefly in a pizzeria
and at an Indian restaurant as a dishwasher. While the INS processed his
transfer to Passaic County Jail in Paterson, N.J., he spent the weekend
on Rikers Island.
- When Shah, the Best Western manager, heard about the
Egyptian's ordeal, he was surprised. "They told me he was released,"
he says. But Shah says he has no regrets. "Actually, no, I don't feel
bad about it. I was just told to report anything suspicious. So I did,"
- As for Abouelkheir, he's now in a cell with about 40
other detainees. "I have to be quiet and patient," he says, "because
if I'm going to think too much I'm going to be sad."
- Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All