Innocent Muslim doctor tells of arrest, two-week ordeal
In wake of attacks, easily explainable, chance facts led FBI to suspect him
By MACARENA HERNANDEZ
SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS
Monday, October 1, 2001
SAN ANTONIO -- On the eighth day, they gave him a Quran.
Opening the Islamic holy text at random, Dr. Al Badr Al-Hazmi sat alone in a small, locked room and read the first verse from the book of Shura:
"For those who are patient and forgiving, it is the most righteous of deeds."
Ever since federal agents had arrested him on Sept. 12 -- the day after the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington -- the San Antonio radiologist had been praying for a quick return home.
Allah had finally answered him.
"He wants me to be patient, and he wants me to forgive," he recalled thinking. "I will be patient, and I will forgive."
Al-Hazmi believed that once he sat down with the authorities, he could explain his innocence.
Like most of the country, he had watched in horror as hijacked planes ripped into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The Saudi native knew that authorities believed he might have had something to do with those "insane acts." But it wasn't until Sept. 23 that he got an opportunity to clear his name.
And within 24 hours after answering their questions, federal officials released him.
The doctor returned to San Antonio almost two weeks after he was led away from his home in handcuffs. In an interview with the San Antonio Express-News Saturday, Al-Hazmi recounted his harrowing ordeal.
It began, he said, at 5 a.m. on the morning after the terrorist attacks.
Al-Hazmi was awake, having gotten up early to study for the radiology board exams he was to take three days later in Dallas. While his wife and children slept upstairs, Al-Hazmi answered the door to find five FBI agents on his doorstep.
"They said, 'Dr. Al-Hazmi? Keep quiet,'" he recalled.
"I told them, 'You keep quiet because my kids are upstairs, and I don't want them to get up now (and) see the guns."
For the next six hours, the agents searched his home. Al-Hazmi said he prayed, called his lawyer and an hour before he was taken away, he had breakfast with his wife and children.
"After a while (the agents) started asking questions, and I said, 'I'm not speaking without a lawyer,'" he said, but that didn't stop the agents from trying.
Al-Hazmi said they asked him if he had been to Boston and Washington, D.C.
"Yes," he replied.
They asked if he knew Mohamed Atta, Nawaf Alhazmi and Salem Alhazmi. "No," he said.
"I came later to realize those are suspects, hijackers," said Al-Hazmi. "But I told them Al-Hazmi family name is like Smith and Jones in the United States."
By noon, the FBI agents, who mostly searched his home office, had carted off his home computer, copies of Islamic magazines, a copy of Time magazine, his degree certificates and medical textbooks. Then they took him outside, out of his children's sight, and informed him he was under arrest.
"I said 'What's my guilt?'"
They said, "We'll explain it to you later."
By 1 p.m., Al-Hazmi was sitting handcuffed in an FBI office in San Antonio, still wearing his blue pajamas, and answering questions about his brothers and sisters, their ages and where they lived.
"Nobody explained to me anything, they just kept saying, 'Later, later,'" he said. "I said, 'I need to call my lawyer.' They said, 'Later.' I need to call my wife. They said, 'Later.'"
FBI officials then took Al-Hazmi to the local Immigration and Naturalization Service office to have his picture and fingerprints taken. There he met two Mexican nationals.
"One of them said, 'Listen, you are stronger than them, and you are going to survive it. It might take one week or two weeks, and you will be released.'"
For the first time that day, Al-Hazmi said, he felt that someone at least understood his anguish and confusion. He, too, offered them his sympathy. One of the men told him they were used to the process of deportation.
Still, the two strangers asked for his prayers.
But that night, it was Al-Hazmi who was in need of prayers.
Al-Hazmi, who had never even visited a jail before, spent his first night alone in a cell at the Comal County Jail in nearby New Braunfels. The next day, agents drove him back to the INS building to fill out more paperwork, take more fingerprints and pictures.
When he returned to the Comal County Jail the second night, Al-Hazmi noticed he was being treated differently than the day before. The slightly built doctor said he was placed in a "cold room, with no bed, just a mattress." The green shirt and pants he was given the day before were replaced with a flimsy dark blue gown that looked like an "apron," and only covered him up mid-thigh.
"The guy said, 'Merry Christmas' to add to my pain when he handed me the suit," he said. "It was a terrible night because I hate cold weather. And I couldn't sleep, and I kept shifting between right and left, trying to get some sleep because I was tired, and I was hungry."
Al-Hazmi prayed for a quick resolution. He was running out of patience, he said. He prayed for his mother, wife and children.
That Friday, FBI agents led him away, in handcuffs and shackles.
Al-Hazmi, who is nearsighted, said the FBI agents took away his glasses, making it almost impossible for him to see. He said they drove him to the San Antonio airport, where he boarded a small aircraft. Two Indian passengers were already there, accompanied by a U.S. marshal and an immigration officer.
One of the Indian men, who had the name Ayub printed on his wristband, kept crying, Al-Hazmi recalled. The other one sat there "emotionless," he said. Al-Hazmi offered Ayub words of encouragement. As he did so, he thought of his 2-year-old son back in San Antonio.
For the first time since his detainment, Al-Hazmi broke down and cried.
"When we arrived to (New York) it was as if an army was waiting for us. U.S. marshals, soldiers with guns, many cars, armed vehicles, and I got scared at that point. I said, 'Oh my God, where are we going?'" recalled Al-Hazmi.
Law enforcement officials took each detainee in separate cars. Al-Hazmi was taken to a facility he believes was the Manhattan Detention Complex.
"The first (thing) I heard there was "zero tolerance" so I said OK, so I have to keep my mouth shut," Al-Hazmi recalls thinking.
By then, Al-Hazmi had given up asking to be allowed to make phone calls to his wife and lawyer. He was handed a small, hotel-size bar of soap and placed in a small cell with a bed, toilet and shower. They handed him an orange jumpsuit that was a few sizes too big. Agents would repeatedly search him over the next few days.
Although he skipped dinner, he slept "like a baby" for the first night since his arrest.
Those next three days and nights in New York City ran together for the doctor.
With few exceptions, Al-Hazmi spent most of his time in isolation, praying in his room and waiting to meet with his lawyer and FBI officials. But it wasn't until the fourth day after arriving in New York City that Al-Hazmi would get the opportunity to meet with an attorney, named "Gary," who had been appointed by the court.
For the first time since his arrest six days earlier, Al-Hazmi learned why he was being held.
"Before he read the allegations I asked him, 'Do you think this thing will be done before the board exams or after the board exams?'" Al-Hazmi recalled. "He said, 'You have no idea of the seriousness of your situation. Let's get real here. Don't worry about your board exams. We are worried about your life.'"
Then the attorney read from an affidavit that outlined the string of coincidences that had led officials to link Al-Hazmi to the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.
One was a receipt for $21 and change for a meal at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Another was his choice for online travel reservations -- Travelocity. A third was the place where Al-Hazmi got his visa, the same Saudi city where some of the hijackers got theirs.
Agents also questioned why Al-Hazmi had wired $10,000 to a Houston friend months before he came to San Antonio in 1997. They wanted to know about his plans to fly to San Diego on Sept. 22, a date that had already ignited rumors and speculation in the media about a second round of attacks.
The "evidence" also included a couple of phone calls to Al-Hazmi's home in Oct. 1999 from a man named Abdullah bin Laden.
One by one, Al-Hazmi answered the accusations against him. The meal was purchased in Washington in May, when Al-Hazmi was there studying at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology for six weeks.
Travelocity is one of the most popular airline reservations services on the Internet.
As for the visa, Al-Hazmi obtained it in Jeddah, only a one-hour flight from where he lived in Gizan, his wife's hometown.
Regarding the phone calls from Abdullah bin Laden, Al-Hazmi explained that the man works with the World Assembly of Muslim Youth. Al-Hazmi had exchanged about five phone calls with the man two years earlier, trying to obtain books and videotapes about Islamic teachings for the Islamic Center of San Antonio.
Al-Hazmi said he has no idea if the man is related to Osama bin Laden. He has not spoken to the man since.
As for the money he wired to his friend in May 1997, Al-Hazmi said he sent it to his friend so that it would be waiting for Al-Hazmi when he arrived here.
"They said, 'What did you do with that money?' I said, 'Go to Lack's (furniture store) and get the receipts. I also bought a car with $6,000.'"
As for the trip to San Diego, it was for him and his family.
When he finally heard the allegations, Al-Hazmi said he was relieved.
"I was happy. Well, not happy, but relieved to hear those stupid allegations," he said. "I said it is just a matter of time, and they will know that I am innocent."
His eighth day in detention, Al-Hazmi was finally allowed to meet with his attorney Gerry Goldstein, the attorney hired by ARAMCO, the Saudi Arabian oil company sponsoring his medical studies here.
"He said, 'The bad news is that you have a cancer,'" Al-Hazmi recalled Goldstein telling him. "The good news is that you have the best treatment."
But it would still be another four days before Al-Hazmi would get the opportunity to sit down with an attorney and the FBI to answer questions.
Almost two weeks after he had been detained, Al-Hazmi, accompanied by another attorney who had been hired for him by the Saudi Arabian Embassy, met with the FBI. By Monday, the FBI had cleared Al-Hazmi and released him. The next morning, he boarded a flight to San Antonio.
"My advice to anybody, who is approached by the FBI, American or non-American, is 'Don't talk to (the FBI), just wait for a lawyer.' It is better that you wait for two weeks or three weeks than to talk to them because they can be tricky," Al-Hazmi said.
When he arrived in San Antonio last Tuesday, Al-Hazmi had no idea about the rabid media attention that had been focused on him since his detainment. The passport photograph that he had given his wife just two weeks before the attacks had been duplicated in many major newspapers throughout the world.
At home, his three children had been told their father was in New York City helping with rescue efforts. And for about a week, at his request, his wife had not told his mother of his whereabouts or ordeal.
But it wasn't long before news of the arrest reached his parent's neighbors in Gizan, the village of about 300 where the doctor grew up. Although his parents are illiterate, with the help of his older brothers, they sent all nine children to college.
Al-Hazmi said he called his mother as soon as he was released.
Throughout the interview, he spoke of his newfound strength and of his wife's support. He broke down once during the interview when he recalled his anguish at being so far away from his little boy.
Throughout his detention, he said he prayed at least five times a day. He squeezed in some extra prayers at night, the time of the day Muslims believe is a good time to talk to God, when everyone else is asleep. And he cried, he said.
"I know that while I was crying, asking for help, God was watching me and seeing how strong and how weak I was," he said. "He knows that we are weak, and that is why his mercy is always with us."
At times, he said, he would question why this was happening to him, and he would lament how his name had been stained by a mistake. But then he would remind himself of the thousands of people who had died in the Sept. 11 attacks.
"My pain was nothing (compared to the victim's families). That is one of the reasons that kept me strong through the whole thing," he said.