Gaza City — Nael Mosallam watched the 9/11 attacks from a rooftop in Brooklyn. He was doing construction work – re-roofing a rowhouse – when another worker tapped him on the shoulder and pointed out a low-flying plane over Lower Manhattan. "Everybody was shocked, nobody moved," he said.
He walked home in a daze, horrified, like tens of thousands of other New Yorkers.
But the personal impact of the attacks did not set in until several hours later, when he turned on the television and saw footage of the reaction in the Middle East.
"They were saying the Palestinians did this, showing video of people in Gaza celebrating, handing out sweets, laughing," he said. "I saw that and I knew, that was it, I knew I was gone."
It took several months, but Mosallam's premonition was correct: Mosallam, like hundreds of other Arabs and Muslims, was swept up in an FBI raid for alleged connections to terrorism; he spent three years in prison before finally being deported to his native Gaza.
Mosallam was in the United States illegally; he crossed over the Canadian border in 1996. The US government had the right to deport him.
But he was, by all accounts, an otherwise law-abiding and productive resident. He had a job, a home, and references who could (and did) vouch for his character, according to paperwork from his immigration hearings and from human rights groups who took up his case in 2003.
Mosallam denies any connection to terrorism, and indeed the US never charged him or presented any evidence. A search of public records turned up no other criminal convictions or tax problems.
If 9/11 had never happened, Mosallam said, he would probably still be living and working in New York. Instead he is back in Gaza – "the cage", as he called it – living with his parents, eking out a marginal living in a restaurant.
'We had neighbours getting crazy'
After sneaking across the Canadian border, Mosallam settled in South Ozone Park, a working-class neighbourhood in Queens, one of the five boroughs of New York City.
He found a steady job in construction, earning around $300 per day, he said. He paid $3,000 for fake documents – a driver's license and a Social Security number – which allowed him to buy a car and open a bank account. He rooted for the Yankees, barbecued with neighbours, and started dating a Puerto Rican woman who lived in northern New Jersey.
"But let's not talk about her," he said, glancing sheepishly over his shoulder at his father during our interview. "My dad doesn't know I had a girlfriend!"
Mosallam moved in with her for a short time after the 9/11 attacks, because he was afraid to stay in his home, he said. He had not personally been attacked, but Arab friends had rocks thrown at their houses; mosques were threatened.
"We had neighbours getting crazy because they had lost people in the attacks," he said. "Friends from Egypt told me to leave my house because it wasn't safe there anymore."
He moved back to Queens early in 2002 and helped a new neighbour renovate his home. Mosallam blames that neighbour for what happened next – "he came to my house one day, and he was suspicious of me", he said.
That allegation cannot be proved, but it seems clear that someone reported Mosallam to the FBI. He was watching television at home a week after the neighbour's visit when the door suddenly flew open, he said. "It was the FBI. They said, 'we're looking for chemical weapons.'"
"They asked if I know people from Hamas, and I said yes, back home… I explained that I'm from Gaza and I know people from Hamas," he said. "And they asked if I go to the mosque, and I said every now and then, when I'm passing by, I go in and I pray."
"One of my neighbours works for the [New York police department], and he tried to come over and say that he knows me," Mosallam said. "And the FBI agent told him to get the [expletive] out of there."
From there, as Mosallam tells it, he disappeared into the legal system. The FBI brought him in for fingerprinting; he was held for two months on Rikers Island, a New York City prison.
Once the FBI cleared him, he was moved to an immigration facility in New Jersey; he would later be moved to Louisiana, and Texas, and back to New Jersey, before finally being deported to Gaza – three years later.
'Little attempt to distinguish'
The FBI rounded up hundreds of illegal immigrants, mostly from Pakistan, Turkey and Arab countries, in the months after September 11. A 2003 report by the Justice Department's inspector general criticised the arrests, noting that many people were detained despite having "no connection to terrorism".
"We found that the FBI and the [Immigration and Naturalisation Service] made little attempt to distinguish between aliens arrested as subjects of a [terrorism investigation] and those encountered coincidentally," the report said.
The department also instated a policy of holding detainees until they were cleared by FBI and CIA "name checks", a process which often took months due to backlogs at both agencies.
The arrests cost the US government millions of dollars; it costs around $27,000 per year to incarcerate a federal prisoner, according to the Justice Department, not to mention the costs of investigating them.
But none of the more than 700 people rounded up in these sweeps were ever charged with terrorism. Most were eventually deported, usually after months or years in detention.
Mosallam's own three-year incarceration was largely due to his status as a Palestinian refugee. The Israeli government, which occupies Mosallam's native Gaza, did not want to take him back. The US offered him a choice of two neighbouring countries, but that also proved unsuccessful. "Egypt didn't want me. Jordan didn't want me," he said.
Israel eventually agreed to his return, so he was flown from New York to Jordan, and then transported overland to Gaza.
And as a final insult – even though the US never formally charged him with terrorism – the Egyptian government placed a 10-year travel ban on Mosallam, forbidding him from leaving Gaza through Egypt.
"For security reasons," they told him.