U.S. cited acquaintances in deporting Arar

From Friday's Globe and Mail

UPDATED AT 2:05 AM EST Friday, Jan. 23, 2004


The only stated reason the United States deported Maher Arar to Syria is that he admitted he knew two Ontario men who were also under RCMP investigation and later jailed as terrorism suspects in Syria.

According to U.S. documents obtained by The Globe and Mail, an Immigration and Naturalization Service's regional director concluded that Mr. Arar was a member of al-Qaeda because the 33-year-old Ottawa computer engineer admitted to the FBI after his arrest in 2002 that he was acquainted with two men suspected of being terrorists at the time.

"I have determined that Arar is a member of the designated foreign terrorist organization known as al-Qaeda," INS Eastern region director J. Scott Blackman wrote in his October, 2002, decision.

The seven-page decision does not give any further reasons for the finding.

It refers to the two men — Abdullah Almalki and Ahmad Abou El-Maati — and to information received from the FBI and other unspecified agencies. It says that a "classified addendum" spells out more clearly why Mr. Arar was regarded as a security threat, but that attachment remains classified.

Since he was freed last fall, Mr. Arar said he had had fleeting encounters with Mr. El-Maati, a Toronto truck driver, and Mr. Almalki, a computer engineer in Ottawa, but that he doesn't really know them.

But the three men, all devout Muslims and Canadian citizens, have a lot in common. RCMP officers visited each of their homes in Canada and Syria separately jailed each of them as terrorism suspects.

Mr. Almalki is the only one still locked up in Syria. He was arrested after flying into the Damascus airport from Malaysia in May, 2002.

Mr. El-Maati was arrested when he flew into the same airport from Canada six months earlier. He was in jails in both Egypt and Syria before his release in Cairo last week.

Mr. Arar was the last one of the three taken into custody. He was arrested at a New York airport in September, 2002, because his name was on a terrorism watch list. After spending two weeks in a Brooklyn jail, Mr. Arar was woken up at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday and told the INS director had decided to deport him.

Mr. Blackman outlined his reasoning in a decision he wrote only a few hours before. "The FBI interviewed Arar on September 27, 2002, at JFK International Airport. During the interview, Arar admitted his association with Abdullah Almalki and Abdullah Almalki's brother, Nazih Almalki," it reads.

Mr. Arar had told the FBI he worked as a computer engineer with Nazih Almalki, who has never been accused of involvement in terrorism. Mr. Arar also had said he once met Abdullah Almalki outside an Ottawa fast-food restaurant and "advised the FBI that Almalki exports radios and that one of his customers was the Pakistani military," according to the INS.

The significance of this fact is unclear, though RMCP officers who questioned the Almalki family suggested that some of the exported computer equipment ended up in al-Qaeda's hands.

As for Mr. Arar's relationship with Mr. El-Maati, the truck driver, the INS director's description is even more terse. "During the September 27, 2002, interview at JFK, Arar admitted knowing Ahman [sic] El-Maati," it reads.

The Globe and Mail revealed last week that the Toronto truck driver had been the subject of an intensive counterterrorism investigation before he flew from Canada to Syria in the fall of 2001. Months earlier, he was stopped at the Canada-U.S. border and grilled for about eight hours about a map said to detail government buildings in Ottawa.

Mr. El-Maati denied the map was his. But suspicion surrounding him appears to have been augmented by the fact that the FBI is looking for his brother, Amer, whose Canadian citizenship papers have been found in Afghanistan. Today, however, Ahmad Abou El-Maati is a free man and the RCMP is said to be preparing to return seized items.

When Mr. Blackman authorized Mr. Arar's deportation, he did so amid heightened security fears that coincided with the release of a new Osama bin Laden audio tape. Apart from Mr. Arar's associations with the other two men, it's unclear what information the INS had.

With a report from Jill Mahoney in Edmonton

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