It was midday at Miami International Airport when a scraggly, intense kid with a face like a razor blade unfurled a small rug and knelt, forehead to the floor, and then performed the Muslim rite of salah. "God is great," he murmured. "God is great."
The sounds of the chants spilled to a nearby security guard. He approached and asked the boy's name and what he was doing. "Raees Alam Qazi," the 17-year-old replied. There was a departing flight to Pakistan, and Qazi said he was going home. He told the guard he didn't like America or its addiction to material goods and sexuality.
The guard, alarmed, scribbled down the name "Qazi" and alerted his bosses. That was 2010, and from that moment forward, the skinny and disheveled youth would be watched. The U.S. government followed as he bounced between houses around Peshawar, destitute and unemployed. Agents monitored his return to the United States a year later to live with his two brothers in Oakland Park. And they surveilled Qazi as he withdrew into ascetic Islam, streamed violent videos, played Xbox games, and hatched quite possibly the most feckless and disorganized terrorist scheme in the annals of mayhem.
In a case that was trumpeted from Miami to Mumbai, Raees Qazi, 20, and his brother, Sheheryar, 30, were charged November 30 with conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and to use a weapon of mass destruction. Their alleged plot involved several batteries taped together, high-strength peroxide, remote-control-car parts, and Christmas lights. Federal prosecutors said this "weapon of mass destruction" was intended for explosion in the United States — until Raees apparently went broke after riding a bike around New York's Times Square looking for a prime spot to plant a bomb. If convicted on both charges, Raees and Sheheryar will spend the rest of their lives in prison.
The Raees Qazi story — about a kid driven by poverty and alienation to the wrong side of a legal system infected with terrorism hysteria — isn't unique. In 2006, the Liberty City Seven of Miami were charged with planning an attack on the Sears Tower in Chicago though they were too poor and inept to do much of anything. Only the ringleader, Narseal Batiste, was convicted of all four charges and sentenced to 14 years.
In some ways, both the Qazi and Liberty City indictments reek of prosecutorial overreach. A University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill study published earlier this year called terrorism by Muslim Americans "a minuscule threat to public safety." Islamic extremism didn't cause even one of the 14,000 murders in the United States last year, the study noted.
Indeed, Raees Qazi was never capable of killing anyone, said his older brother, Shoaib Amam Qazi, who gave New Times the most detailed description of the family to date. Smoking Marlboro Reds outside their apartment near Oakland Park Boulevard, the wiry, unshaven 33-year-old said Raees' incompetence was too profound. "He's just a little kid," said Shoaib. "When you look at him, when you talk at him. You know. He's just a little kid."
Raees' father, a baker with diabetes who declined to give his name, first came to the United States from Pakistan decades ago. But it wasn't until the early 2000s, during Pakistan's descent into tribal conflict, that his sons followed to South Florida, settling into the two-bedroom apartment.
Most of the family acclimated to American life, but it was difficult for young Raees. Alcohol was anathema to him, and after watching poolside bikini-clad women, he'd come away feeling sad and sinful.
Meanwhile, Sheheryar Qazi — broad, groomed, and confident — attended a Fort Lauderdale technical school called FastTrain Institute. He stocked shelves at Dunkin' Donuts but was soon promoted to assistant manager. He fathered a child, later drove a Yellow Cab, and assumed leadership of the household, taking over the apartment's lease for $975 per month.
But then the brothers began to argue. Raees foundered at Piper High School, and religion began to dominate his life, Shoaib said.
During a vicious argument a few years ago, Sheheryar condemned his little brother's inconsistency. Afterward, Raees maintained an icy silence that wasn't broken unless someone spoke to him — which became rare. "If someone talked to him, he would only say, 'Brother, it's prayer time,' " Shoaib recalled. In 2010, Raees decided to go home to Pakistan and, with family savings, booked a flight.
But Raees, uneducated and impoverished, had an equally difficult time there. He couldn't find a job, and after one year, he decided to return to Oakland Park, phoning Sheheryar for money. And Sheheryar helped him — as always.
Although Shoaib spoke at length about the relationship between his brothers, he was reticent about his own familial role as well as his father's. At first, Shoaib said, he barely knew them. Then he tried to distance himself from Raees and Sheheryar. One neighbor said Shoaib, who's deeply religious, wore clerical clothing before the arrests but now dons only basketball shorts.
"I don't want people to think my whole family is responsible," said Shoaib, resisting his girlfriend's demands he stop talking. "If my brother is wrong, I'm not with him. He's not my brother."
If Shoaib is to be believed, Raees' problems escalated after his return from Pakistan. Raees engrossed himself in images of warfare and suffering in Afghanistan. "That's when the fucked-up part started," Shoaib said. "If you watch violence, you'll become addicted to violence." Raees' obsession swallowed whole days. At night, he would be at his Xbox, playing Call of Duty or other games of violence. The family tried to sell his Xbox on Craigslist, demanding he quit the videos and games. But Raees couldn't.
Sheheryar soon found his little brother a job at a Dunkin' Donuts off Andrews Avenue, but Raees quit almost immediately. The manager prohibited Raees from praying on the job, so he walked out, furious at the man, furious at America.
He soon haunted the same mosque, Masjid Al Iman on Franklin Road, that convicted terrorist José Padilla attended during the 1990s. He spent most of his afternoons worshiping, but few there remember him well. Muhammad Ahmed, an elderly Sudanese man who has lived in the United States for "many years," said he tried to teach the teenager Arabic, but the younger man quit after three sessions. "Raees was someone we saw every day," Ahmed said. "We didn't see anything not normal in his behavior... and then, suddenly, he was just taken away."
Then, one day last month, a letter arrived for Sheheryar. "Thank you, brother, for everything," it read. "But I must leave now." The next morning, the family awoke, and Raees had departed for New York, where prosecutors say he searched for places to plant a bomb.
On November 29, when Raees arrived back in Miami, FBI agents arrested him, extracted the alleged bomb-making materials from the family's apartment, and cuffed Sheheryar as well.
It was deeply confusing, Shoaib said. The Christmas lights had been for a wedding. And who doesn't have batteries around the house? Today the family, barely eking out an existence before, has imploded. Its financial rock, Sheheryar, is gone, perhaps forever. Eviction notices have streamed in, and the family will soon lose the apartment.
What's more, inside this quiet gated apartment complex, something dark and racial has emerged. Perhaps, said neighbor Barbara Kubiak, who lives next door to the Qazis, other Muslims in the community are terrorists too. "It's pretty scary when they're one wall away," she added. "They have to get out of here. It's done. They have to get out."
Shoaib Qazi isn't surprised by the fallout. "You know how people are — they're scared already. If you change your name to a Muslim name, they'd ask you why. And then they'd start looking at you too."