Umair Anser came home from middle school on Oct. 3, 2001, and found his house in Bayonne torn apart after some 20 federal agents had swept in to question his parents.
His father, Anser Mehmood, was one of 1,200 Muslim men detained in the anxious weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. The Pakistani immigrant believed he would return home after the agents cleared him of any link to terrorism.
Instead, he was held at a maximum-security federal detention center in Brooklyn for seven months — four of them in solitary confinement — before his transfer to the Passaic County Jail in Paterson and eventual deportation. When his family was able to visit, they were shocked.
“He was in chains,” Anser, now 33, said of his father. “He was treated like a terrorist, and he was confused because he didn’t know what was going on.”
The sweeping arrests did not lead to any terrorism convictions but did succeed in striking fear within Arab, South Asian and Muslim communities in the United States. In some cases, families did not know where their loved ones were for weeks. Some detainees were subjected to solitary confinement and reported abuse in jail. Their detentions upended lives and careers and left families without income.
Two decades after 9/11, detainees and their families are calling for the government to acknowledge harm and mistreatment. Their advocates — people who fought for their release and launched court battles in their defense — say accountability also means dismantling the powers and policies that allowed for religious and ethnic profiling, unwarranted surveillance and wrongful detentions.
“If you are remembering those who lost their lives and the ways their lives changed, you should also recognize the people who were picked up in the wake of events whose lives were destroyed,” Umair Anser said in a phone interview from Lahore, Pakistan, where he lives with his family.
“You should remember their sacrifice as well. The FBI just said they wanted to question him. He said, ‘OK, I will answer everything they ask me.’ And he lost everything.”
Picture of abuse and uncertainty
In the highly charged environment after the 9/11 attacks, the United States was on high alert and federal officials warned that “sleeper cells” could be under cover waiting to launch the next terrorist attack.
Attorney General John Ashcroft directed the FBI and other federal law enforcement personnel to use “every available law enforcement tool” to arrest persons who “participate in, or lend support to, terrorist activities.”
Within a week, the FBI received more than 96,000 tips or potential leads from the public, according to a 2003 report by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General. The tips were “often quite general in nature,” the OIG found.
Among those tips, the FBI investigated a person who appeared nervous while renting a truck and a grocery store deemed suspicious for employing “too many people,” the report stated.
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In Mehmood’s case, the FBI got a tip that “a male possibly Arab” left a fake Social Security card at the state Department of Motor Vehicles, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal advocacy organization that has represented detainees including Mehmood in their lawsuit.
Another report, by the American Civil Liberties Union, said the FBI was investigating a report that Mehmood, a truck driver, did not make a delivery on Sept. 11 to Washington, D.C.
Court documents, reports by the U.S. government and human rights groups and the family’s own recollections paint a picture of abuse and uncertainty.
The day after agents detained him, Mehmood was shackled by his hands and feet and taken in a van to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where “high interest” detainees were held. He was dragged out of the van and slammed into walls, breaking his left hand, according to his son and reports about jail conditions.
He was in solitary confinement for 23½ hours a day in a 12-by-6-foot cell with a small window that was painted over in black. He spent the last two months of his detention in the Passaic County Jail in Paterson.
Denied a lawyer for three months, Mehmood eventually pleaded guilty to working with an unauthorized Social Security card after removing the card’s “not valid for employment” label. He was deported to Pakistan on May 10, 2002.
After his arrest, Mehmood’s school-age children faced harassment from classmates while his wife, Uzma Naheed, was left without income, relying on support from charities. Naheed joined Saturday protests outside the Brooklyn jail calling for the rights and release of detainees and spoke out about her husband’s ordeal to the media.
When the family returned to Pakistan, they left behind a house, a car, a truck and a new trucking business. The children — one born in the U.S. and three who were brought over at a young age — struggled to adjust to a new environment while Mehmood grappled with financial loss and anger over his situation.
Mehmood declined to comment for this story. His son, Anser, said it was difficult for his father to talk about what happened and that he was upset about the outcome of a lawsuit over his detention and that “no justice prevailed.”
Today, they live in Lahore, where Anser works remotely in logistics for an American company. His father, now 63, had run a construction business and invested in property but never recouped any of the losses back in New Jersey.
“Everything got destroyed in nine months,” said Anser. “And there were many stories just like my father’s.”
Some detainees were questioned and released without being charged with a criminal or immigration offense. Others, however, were jailed for immigration violations like overstaying visas — infractions that before 9/11 were not seriously enforced.
In all, 762 of the detainees were jailed, with the majority — 400 — held in Paterson. Another 84 were locked up at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. The detainees included people who were targets of investigations, visa violators encountered during police activity and possible “material witnesses” who could have information about a crime, according to the inspector general and news reports.
The terrorism investigation after 9/11 spurred the arrests, but ultimately most of the detainees were held for civil immigration violations including overstaying visas or entering the country with invalid documents. Some also faced criminal charges, including Social Security fraud, marriage fraud or credit card fraud.
Later, amid accusations of ethnic and racial profiling, Ashcroft said in interviews that “every one of the persons being held is a person being held on a specific violation.”
“We’ve detained them because we believe that we can enhance the safety of the American people,” the attorney general said.
Under a blanket “hold-until-cleared” policy, they were not allowed to be released until the FBI cleared them of links to terrorism. The detainees were citizens of more than 20 countries. A third, 254 people, were from Pakistan, followed by 111 from Egypt.
At the time of the arrests, Fahd Ahmed, a community activist living in Brooklyn, had just joined DRUM, or Desis Rising Up & Moving, a nonprofit founded in 2000 to advocate for South Asian and Indo-Caribbean immigrants. After learning about the detentions, volunteers posted flyers advertising an information hotline for relatives. The response was overwhelming, Ahmed said.
They heard from wives who said law enforcement had taken their husbands and they did not know where they were being held. They got calls from children saying their father hadn’t been home for days. Detention centers would not release names to advocates.
With a few leads, DRUM volunteers visited county jails in New Jersey to find the “disappeared,” said Ahmed, who is now executive director of DRUM.
“We went to the Passaic County Jail and said, ‘We’re here to visit so-and-so,’ ” said Ahmed. “As soon as we met them, they said, ‘There are a hundred other guys back there.’ They started to give us names of other folks.”
Passaic County Jail detainees complained that they had been “paraded naked from one section to another” and that guards used dogs to intimidate them, Ahmed said. Some went on hunger strikes, while protests took place outside the facility.
In its 2013 report, the Justice Department Office of the Inspector General did not find evidence of a pattern of abuse at the Passaic facility. It concluded that 9/11 detainees there were not singled out for more restrictive treatment compared with other inmates.
But the report cited a “pattern of abuse by some correctional officers” at the Brooklyn detention center. The men spent long stretches in solitary confinement with little access to attorneys, phone calls and visitors, the inspector general said. They faced repeated strip searches, verbal abuse and sleep deprivation. They were slammed against walls and had arms, hands and fingers twisted, the report found.
The Office of the Inspector General overall found “significant problems” in the way the authorities arrested and treated hundreds of immigrants in the country illegally. Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee in June 2003, Aschroft defended the Justice Department’s actions.
“We make no apologies for finding every legal way possible to protect the American public from further terrorist acts,” he said.
“We must be unrelenting,” he added. “We must not forget that al-Qaeda’s primary terrorist target is the United States of America.”
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Aschroft also said the Justice Department “does not stand for abuse” and would investigate those cases.
Those detained included 70 people from New Jersey, while nearly 500 were arrested in New York. Awni Abuhadba, an Arab American community leader in Paterson, said he heard stories about families searching for loved ones who turned up in jails.
But people in Paterson were grateful for the law enforcement presence, he said, at a time when they feared they would be targets of hate after false reports of people celebrating the 9/11 attacks as well as news that several hijackers had rented an apartment in the city.
“They did their jobs. We cannot interfere with their jobs,” Abuhadba, a former Paterson deputy mayor, said about the detentions.
Two decades in court
Since April 2002, ex-detainees represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights have been waging a court battle against officials with the jails and former President George W. Bush’s administration over racial profiling and the alleged abuse that followed.
Five of the original plaintiffs reached a $1.26 million settlement in 2009.
But there have been setbacks. In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal officials could not be held liable for the detention and abuse of detainees. Six justices, in their ruling, reasoned that the climate of fear at the time called for extreme measures and that it would be up to Congress to determine whether the actions justified monetary damages.
And last month, a U.S. district court dismissed remaining claims against prison officials, although CCR expects to appeal.
“The fact that 20 years later, individuals abused by federal officials in a federal jail are still without remedy is shocking,” said Rachel Meeropol, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
“The clients are deeply devoted to trying to get an acknowledgment that what happened to them was wrong. It’s been 20 years, but the memories of their treatment are still very fresh in their minds and causing them a lot of pain.”
For many, mistrust in law enforcement continues, say advocates for civil rights and for Muslim and Arab communities. They cite years of unwarranted surveillance, flawed terrorism watchlists, airport detentions, controversial counterterrorism programs and questionable use of informants to bait and catch potential criminals.
They are calling for the U.S. to end profiling based on religion and race under the guise of national security. Congress must also ensure that when federal officials violate the Constitution, they can be held accountable, Meeropol said.
“When state officials violate the constitution, they can be sued to disincentivize them from breaking the law in the future,” she said. “We have nothing like that for federal officials.”
Anser Mehmood joined the lawsuit in 2010, and his son said he continues to hope his father will be compensated for losses and abuses. He also wants to see reforms.
“I would like to see changes in the system where people are not manhandled like my father was,” he said. “The impact is still there in my heart after 20 years.”
Hannan Adely is a diversity reporter covering Arab and Muslim communities for NorthJersey.com, where she focuses on social issues, politics, bias and civil rights. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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