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Connecticut News

How A Bridgeport Man Wound Up In 9/11 Interrogations

In this Thursday, Sept. 27, 2001, file photo, then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft meets with reporters at FBI headquarters in Washington, where he released photographs of the 19 suspected hijackers.
Joe Marquette
/
Associated Press
In this Thursday, Sept. 27, 2001, file photo, then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft meets with reporters at FBI headquarters in Washington, where he released photographs of the 19 suspected hijackers.

Many Muslims feared they would be targeted by authorities following the 9/11 attacks, and it happened in Bridgeport, Connecticut. A Jordanian man named Eyad Mastafa Al-Rababah was living there when he recognized pictures of the alleged hijackers in the news. He went to the local FBI office.

“He was very deeply alarmed because he realized he had met some of the people who had been accused of being the hijackers at his mosque,” said Anjana Malhotra, who interviewed Al-Rababah about what happened next.

Malhotra is an attorney and the lead author of a Human Rights Watch report that investigated government detentions post-9/11. She spoke to dozens of detainees like Al-Rababah.

“Instead of being treated as someone who was willingly to help identifying who did this, how it happened, [Al-Rababah] was immediately treated as a suspect,” she said.

Al-Rababah was arrested and first held in Connecticut, according to Molhatra.

“He was not allowed to see a lawyer. He was interrogated as a suspect. First by local officials and then by multiple officials from the Department of Justice,” she said.

State laws let authorities hold someone just a few days without charges, but federal law lets authorities hold material witnesses as long as necessary to “prevent a failure of justice.”

Al-Rababah was detained, but never charged or called to testify in any 9/11 criminal proceeding, Malhotra said.

“He was strip searched on a regular basis. He was held in solitary and he was interrogated constantly," she said.

This was a violation of international human rights law, according to The Human Rights Watch report. The FBI and guards treated Al-Rababah and other Muslims picked up after 9/11 as if they were responsible for the attacks, Malhotra said.

“Regardless of the fact that he and so many others had so much good will and had affirmatively come forward and help the U.S. government address and try to prevent further violence,” she said.

Al-Rababah was brought before a judge about a month after his arrest. He was held in isolation for several months in detention facilities in Connecticut, New York and Virginia before he was convicted on unrelated fraud charges. His lawyer in that case declined to comment. Al-Rababah was ultimately deported to Jordan for helping an undocumented person get a Virginia driver’s license. Maholtra said that person had no ties to 9/11.

“This is the experience that every single material witness had gone through that saw countless, countless, people who were Muslim, South Asian, Arab or immigrant group that was being targeted,” said Malhotra. “The U.S. government dug up whatever information it could find to keep those individuals in detention after illegally detaining them for months.”

Authorities exploited the material witness law post-9/11, Maholtra believes, and she said that law should be tightened. She said the United States needs to reckon with the harm this and other government policies — like the so-called Muslim Travel Ban of 2017 — do to stoke Islamophobia.

A section of the 9/11 commission report says, “Some FBI investigators doubt Rababah's story” that he happened to meet four of the alleged hijackers at his mosque.

A fuller account of what unfolded in government investigations of the attacks might soon become public. President Joe Biden ordered the FBI to review and declassify 9/11 documents beginning this month.