The Terrorist Who Wasn't

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The story hit the newspapers and television stations the next day. From the first news reports, Ebaid maintained his innocence, claiming that Hollywood police unfairly targeted him because his business — and, specifically, his loud Middle Eastern music — did not fit in with Mayor Giulianti's vision for rapidly changing downtown Hollywood.

"I am not a member of any terrorist group," Ebaid told CBS affiliate WFOR-TV (Channel 4) immediately after his arrest. "I never have been."

A sign was taped to the window of Exotic Bites: "He is not a terrorist and has never been involved in anything that would hurt this country. He loves this country and the people."

Border Patrol officers transferred Ebaid to Krome Detention Facility in Miami, where he was interrogated by Homeland Security agents before being transferred to another detention facility in Arizona as a result of Hurricane Wilma.

"I told [federal officials], 'Take your time, but you are wasting your time, because I am not the one,'" Ebaid says. "There is no devout Muslim who has a belly dancer like I do, with alcohol around. No devout Muslim would allow that. It's just stupid. I don't understand: Why come to me? Why look at me? What did I do? I'm clearly not involved with terrorists.

"I laugh at the whole thing sometimes," he adds. "How can I not? They interrogated me, the Homeland Security agents, asking questions like 'What terrorist organizations are you working with?' I laughed at them!"

Even now, no one admits to knowing how or why Ebaid's name appeared on a terrorism watch list. At the time of his detention, the FBI claimed that it had received a complaint that Ebaid had spoken sympathetically about Osama bin Laden. Even if it were nothing more than a thought crime, Ebaid denies it. What's more, federal officials have never identified the complainant or provided any evidence to establish his or her credibility.

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.

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.

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson