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"People have two choices," Farahi says. "Either they end up working with the FBI or they leave the country on their own. It's just sometimes when you're in that situation, not many people are strong enough to stand up and resist and fight — to reject their offers."
By law, Foad Farahi is an Iranian, but in his 34 years, he has never set foot in the country. He was born in Kuwait, but under Middle Eastern law, he is an Iranian because his father was from there.
Farahi grew up in Kuwait, where his father operated a currency exchange business in Kuwait City. His mother, a Syrian, raised him and his younger sister to speak Arabic and worship as Sunnis, an Islamic sect that's persecuted in Iran. But he knew his future would never be secure in Kuwait. "Even if I married a Kuwaiti woman, I wouldn't become a citizen," he says. "Kuwait could deport me to Iran at any time for any reason."
At age 19, he applied for and received a student visa from the United States. He chose to come to South Florida, where his family once vacationed when he was a teenager. He enrolled at Miami Dade College. He received an associate's degree there and transferred to Barry University, the private Catholic school in Miami Shores, where he earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry.
While at Barry, he served on the university's interfaith committee, several faculty members recall. This continued even after he graduated. He helped put together interfaith dinners and talked about Islam. In addition, he participated as a teacher in a Barry University peace forum attended by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim children. "He has had a positive influence at this university," says Edward R. Sunshine, a theology professor at Barry. No one who knows Farahi, Sunshine says, would suspect he is radical or militant.
Farahi went on to obtain a master's degree in public health from Florida International University. He also began an intensive, three-year imam's training course administered by the director of Islamic studies at a mosque in Miramar. In 2000, the Shamsuddin Islamic Center opened near his home in North Miami Beach. Six months later, its imam returned home to Egypt, and Farahi was a logical successor.
It was through this position that he met several South Floridians who have been linked to terrorism. In addition to Padilla and Shukrijumah, he encountered Imran Mandhai, a 19-year-old Pakistani man living in Hollywood who was arrested in 2002 for an alleged plot to bomb power plants.
"Imran came here once years ago during Ramadan," Farahi recalls as he sits in a corner of the mosque. "It was a big event for him at the time. He memorized and recited the Qur'an."
When Farahi met with the FBI agents November 1, 2004, he said he couldn't spy on members of his mosque in good conscience. Two days later, FBI agents phoned him. They requested he come to their office to take a polygraph. "I had nothing to hide," Farahi recalls. "They asked the same questions over and over, to see if my answer would change, and it didn't."
The agents were still focused on Shukrijumah.
"What is your relationship with him?"
"When was the last time you were in contact with him?"
"Where is he now?"
For two and a half years after the polygraph, Farahi didn't hear from the FBI. Then, in summer 2007, he received another call. An agent asked to meet with him immediately. In Cooper City, two FBI agents — a man and a woman — again asked Farahi if he would work with the government. He again declined, and the meeting ended amicably.
Farahi didn't know the pushback would come later.
On a November day in 2007, Farahi arrived at Miami Immigration Court for what he thought would be a routine hearing on his political asylum case. The imam had requested asylum because he is a Sunni, a persecuted religious minority in Iran. Fear of religious persecution is one of the internationally recognized grounds the United States considers in granting asylum from Iran.
As Farahi entered the courthouse, he saw four men from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They wore body armor and had guns holstered at their sides. All followed Farahi from the security checkpoint on the ground level to the third-floor courtroom of U.S. Immigration Judge Carey Holliday.
Farahi's attorney at the time, Mildred Morgado, spoke with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and then asked to talk to Farahi in private. "They have a file with evidence that you're supporting or are involved in terrorist groups," Farahi recalls Morgado telling him. (Morgado did not return repeated calls seeking comment.)
Farahi says the ICE agents gave him an ultimatum: Drop the asylum case and leave the United States voluntarily or be charged as a terrorist.
Indeed, luck wasn't on Farahi's side when drawing a judge for his asylum claim. Appointed to the immigration court in October 2006 by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Holliday was a Louisiana Republican who had quickly earned a reputation for being tough on immigrants in Florida. In one case, he declined to hear arguments from an Ecuadorian couple who alleged they were targeted for deportation because their daughter, Miami Dade College student Gabby Pacheco, was a well-known activist for immigration reform. "People who live in glass houses should not throw stones," Holliday wrote. (The judge resigned in January after the Department of Justice found that Bush administration officials had illegally selected immigration judges based on their political affiliation.)