The Terrorist Who Wasn't

Hollywood's Manny Ebaid struggles to rebound after the War on Terror made him collateral damage.

The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) was created in 2004 to collect information on suspected terrorists and maintain so-called watch lists, but it lacks accountability. The agency does not disclose criteria for inclusion on watch lists or how a name can be removed from the list if improperly or mistakenly added. NCTC's list of suspected terrorists — which federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies access — includes roughly 325,000 names associated with people in the United States and abroad.

But NCTC's terrorism watch list has proven so unreliable that in December 2005, the Transportation Security Administration disclosed that 30,000 airline passengers had been mistakenly identified as suspected terrorists as a result of the list. Among those was Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

In Ebaid's case, even though federal officials quickly discovered that they had scant evidence to justify his inclusion on the list, they continued to push for his deportation. A minor crime came back to haunt Ebaid.

Ebaid dances at his welcome-home party. Before his arrest, he operated Exotic Bites (next image) at this now-vacant location.
Manny Ebaid
Ebaid dances at his welcome-home party. Before his arrest, he operated Exotic Bites (next image) at this now-vacant location.
Exotic Bites
Colby Katz
Exotic Bites

In the summer of 1999, Miami-Dade police pulled Ebaid over during a traffic stop after they witnessed him visit a drug dealer who was under surveillance. Police found Ebaid with a small bag of marijuana that weighed roughly 20 grams, only enough for personal use. Ebaid admitted to buying the drugs and agreed to provide information on the dealer in exchange for leniency. Ebaid received a sentence of one day in jail — which he served upon arrest — and the charge was erased from his record because he was a first-time offender.

But the marijuana case was enough to put Ebaid's life in the United States in jeopardy. Although he'd been married since 1993, Ebaid waited until 2003 to apply for permanent residency based on his marriage to a U.S. citizen. On his application, Ebaid said he had never been arrested or convicted of a drug-related crime. That was a fib, one that Ebaid attributes to a misunderstanding. Ebaid claims he wasn't aware that he essentially pleaded guilty to felony possession of marijuana.

"I thought the marijuana charge was dropped," he says. "I didn't even go to court for it."

Ebaid told Immigration Judge Kenneth S. Hurewitz that he used marijuana through 2000 but has since quit. "He testified that he now understands he was arrested and convicted and should have stated such in his application for adjustment," Hurewitz wrote in his opinion on the case. "Importantly, he made no attempt to deceive the court as to his drug conviction and has accepted full responsibility for his actions."

But the drug charge was the least of Ebaid's worries. Authorities in Egypt became aware of Ebaid's detention, and soon after, Egyptian authorities searched the homes of Ebaid's family in Alexandria. For months, his family members were kept under surveillance, according to letters they sent him.

Ebaid believed that he would be tortured and possibly killed if deported to Egypt. He told Judge Hurewitz that because of the publicity generated by his case, Egyptian authorities were "bound to inflict harm upon me." Even if the U.S. government assured Egypt that the inclusion of his name on a terror list was a mistake, he would still be tortured, Ebaid says.

"I can't win," he says. "Egypt tortures terrorists. If I go back to Egypt and they think I'm a terrorist, they will torture me for information about terrorism. They will not believe that the United States government, the best government in the world for human rights, would put my name on a terror watch list without reason. Egypt will not believe that. If I go to Egypt with the story that the U.S. government dropped the charges, they will think that I have become a spy for the U.S. government. Either way, I will be tortured."

In September 2005, Hurewitz granted Ebaid his request not to be deported. The Egyptian became a free man, but his reputation now prevents him from ever returning to Egypt, where he had hoped to retire and be closer to his family.

Just after Thanksgiving, Ebaid returned to Florida. His friends gathered at Exotic Bites for a welcome-home party.

They ate. They danced. They laughed.

And Ebaid quickly discovered that life isn't easy for an exonerated terrorist.

Ebaid used to love walking along Hollywood Boulevard with his two young children. They'd stroll through the sidewalk cafés on sunny afternoons. He'd occasionally buy the kids ice cream, and they'd walk as the dessert melted and ran down their little fingers. Ebaid enjoyed those days, and he wishes he could have them back.

Since his detention one year ago, Ebaid has sheltered his two kids from the truth of his ordeal. In an effort to discourage unwanted attention, he asked that details about his wife and two children not be reported.

But the outside world keeps intruding. Recently, two older women approached him while he was walking with his children.

"We saw you on the news," one woman said after grabbing Ebaid's elbow. "We're sorry about what happened to you."

After the encounter, his daughter asked, "Why did she say that?"

Ebaid slumps forward as he remembers telling his daughter a lie. "I told her I was doing promotion for the business," Ebaid says. He wipes away a tear.

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