Interviews October 2006

Islam on Trial?

The author of "Prophetic Justice" discusses the murky business of prosecuting would-be terrorists on the basis of their beliefs.

Like so many others (the Ali al-Timimi case, for example), this story involves a kind of intercultural struggle. Do we know anything more about Hayat’s background—his family, his education—that might provide clues as to how his life took this course?

From the archives:

"The Education of Ali Al-Timimi" (June 2006)
Describing him as a "rock star" of Islamic fundamentalism in the United States, the government sent an American Muslim scientist to prison for life. But has justice been served? By Milton Viorst

Actually, quite a bit emerged about him and his family during the trial. His grandfather is a very well known conservative cleric in Pakistan. His father came to Lodi, California, in the 1970s and drove an ice cream truck for a living and, like many immigrants, kept very strong ties to Pakistan. Hamid Hayat himself lived in Pakistan as a youth—maybe from the age of nine to eighteen or so, if memory serves me correctly—with his extended family there. To me, he really seemed to be straddling two worlds. At some point, he expressed interest in becoming an imam, for which he spent some time working at the mosque in Lodi, but he didn’t seem to be actively pursuing that. He didn’t really seem to have a focus. He went back to Pakistan in 2003 to find a wife, a pretty common move for a lot of South Asian immigrants, and to tend to his mother, who was seeking medical care. But one definitely gets the sense from the trial that he wasn’t up to much over there, and obviously the central question is whether he attended the terrorist training camp during that visit.

So we’re not even sure he ever attended a training camp. But let’s say he did go. Is it possible that that decision could have been an arbitrary one? As if he just made it on a whim?

In fact, that’s what he tried to tell the FBI at one point—that he went to the camp but didn’t know what it was. So it’s really hard to say. He did not come across as a planner. Even the jurors and the prosecutor agreed that he was not a proactive kind of person. If he had been participating in something—a question I think is still murky—his role was most certainly that of a foot soldier. That’s even how the prosecutor put it.

This is kind of reflected, I think, by Hayat’s relationship with the FBI informant. The informant was quite a bit older—maybe in his mid thirties—and as Hayat was not a worldly person in any way, He seemed impressed by the informant’s sophistication. I wish I’d had the space to get into it in the piece because the relationship between the two of them revealed a lot. Naseem Khan, the informant, has said that his instructions from the FBI were to pose as an extremist and to really encourage Hayat to engage in conversation. This raises the specter of entrapment. But the FBI and the prosecution believed that if someone is in fact willing to engage in such conversation, then that’s a fair indication that there may be something worth investigating further. The FBI and the prosecution felt it was totally legitimate for Khan to have encouraged Hayat to engage in extremist rhetoric for this reason.

Hayat was hard to read in that he boasted and bragged a lot, but much of what he said was not true. He clearly held opinions that most Americans find reprehensible, but does that mean he would act?—and are beliefs a reliable way to judge someone’s intent to do so?

So for all we know, that could have been the first such conversation he’d ever had? Theoretically speaking?

I doubt it. The defense—I thought this was interesting and having spent time in Pakistan I don’t think they’re wrong—tried to make the argument that people in Pakistan have these kinds of conversations all the time. Anti-Americanism is very common there. A lot of people don’t think the Taliban are evil in the way we do. So, I wouldn’t assume that he didn’t hold those opinions—I think he probably did. He’s coming from a very different cultural context. I think the jury probably thought, “Well, he’s living in America now. That kind of talk doesn’t fly here.” But it’s important to remember that in Pakistan, where he had spent so much time, his thinking is not necessarily abnormal.

You note in the piece that Hayat’s confession to the FBI was “as irresolute as his life.” Let’s say Hayat made a false confession. What might have been his motivation for doing that?

If he did make a false confession, he probably didn’t realize what the implications of doing that would be. I also think he was expressing a certain amount of deference to authority. When you listen to or watch the confession, you get the sense he was simply saying what he thought the agents wanted to hear. At the end of questioning, Hayat invited one of his interrogators to his wedding. This is to say, I just didn’t get the sense that he quite realized what was at stake. On top of that, the FBI was also interrogating his father at the same time, and part of their strategy seemed to hinge on using each against the other. “Your father said you did this. If you don’t want to get both of you in trouble, you need to come clean with us now.” And vice versa. But it’s a real mystery, to be sure. The jury certainly believed it was a real confession, though I think many of us watching the trial were more skeptical.

And the taped confession is, by nature, very forced. Here you have the FBI asking Hayat all these leading questions, on the premise that Hayat had already confessed off camera so they were just recreating what had originally transpired. There’s no record of the off-camera confession—no transcript or video. The point of the taped confession is to just get it on the record. Still, the questioning does come across as extremely leading. It’s tough.

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Abigail Cutler is a staff editor at The Atlantic.

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