Mohamed Abdi has been released from jail but doesn’t know if his life will ever be the same.
Abdi was arrested on Sept. 23 and charged with forgery. The case wasn’t that simple, however, because federal officials suspected him of being involved with terrorists who attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
“He was charged with a relatively minor crime but I knew the government was interested in something much bigger,” said Joseph Bowman, the Alexandria attorney who represented Abdi. “It is very frightening for a defense attorney to be representing someone who is truly innocent.”
FBI agents first came to Abdi’s Alexandria apartment on Sept. 13. They had found his name and telephone number in a car that was linked to one of the highjackers of American Flight 77 that was flown into the Pentagon.
“They come to my house, 12 people, when I am not at home, just my wife and kids are there,” Abdi said. He is a native of Somalia who speaks and understands English imperfectly. “They try to get my wife to speak to them in Arabic but she keeps telling them that she doesn’t know Arabic and they don’t believe her.”
When Abdi arrived home at around 11:30 that night, agents questioned him about how his name and telephone number came to be in the car. “I tell them that I know nothing about this,” Abdi said.
The next morning, agents returned to Abdi’s apartment and asked him to come to their office and take a polygraph. “They tell me that I need to cooperate, so I agree,” Abdi said. “I don’t know anything about these terrorists so I don’t think there is any problem.”
Abdi took the polygraph and, according to federal officials, he failed it. “We have never been allowed to see the chart or any information about the method that they used in administering this polygraph,” Bowman said. Bowman did not represent Abdi at the time of the polygraph.
Abdi did not hear from federal officials again until Sept. 23, when agents came to his place of employment. “They talked to my supervisor and then said that they were going to arrest me,” Abdi said. “I ask them for what and they tell me for forgery, so I said OK, and went with them.”
Abdi pled guilty to forging his landlord’s name on a rent subsidy check. He was sentenced to four months in jail and three years of probation.
Two pieces of evidence, in addition to his name being found in the car of one of the highjacker’s, apparently led officials to suspect Abdi. First, there was a newspaper clipping that contained part of a story about a man named Ressam. Ressam was a terrorists who was apprehended at the U. S. Canadian border in 1998 and who was believed to have been plotting a terrorist attack on millennium celebrations.
“We didn’t know anything about this newspaper clipping until the preliminary hearing on Sept. 26,” Bowman said. “Agents found the clipping in one of Mohamed’s jacket pockets.”
On the other side of the clipping was a picture of a preschool. “I had the clipping because I wanted to find a school for my children,” Abdi said. “I didn’t even know about what was on the other side.”
The other piece of evidence was that Abdi had several security uniforms in his apartment that he gave to a janitor in his building. According to Bowman and Abdi, FBI agents had seen these items when they searched his apartment but had not removed them or asked him about them.
“They were old and I took them from my apartment to give to someone who might need them,” Abdi said.
Abdi came to the U. S. in 1993 and has worked as a security guard since 1994. The uniforms were those that he had used over the years, according to Abdi.
“It seemed to me that they were taking pieces of unconnected evidence and trying to put the worst possible light on them,” Bowman said.
After Abdi was arrested on Sept. 23, he did not speak to federal agents again and no charges were filed. He was never charged in connection with any terrorist activity.
“I am not angry at the government,” Abdi said. “I think I was just unlucky to have my name and phone number in this car.”
Abdi, who became an American citizen in 2000, does not regret that decision. “I came here as a refugee to have a better life,” he said. “I became American citizen because I choose to live here and want to be American. My children were born here and it is important for me to be citizen, too.”
Abdi lost his job as a security guard and, because of his felony conviction, will likely be unable to work in this field. At the time of his arrest, he was working two jobs and earning approximately $26,000 a year. He was supporting his wife and four children.
“I am looking for a job,” Abdi said. “My wife and children have gone to Seattle and I want to go there, too. I just want to try and get my life back to where it was.”
He hopes to make arrangements to leave the area and join his family. “I will tell my children what happened to me when they get older because I want them to know,” Abdi said. “But I am not angry. I understand.”