Chapter 63: 'Little Italy'

Mohammed Musharraf Hossain
"Have you heard of the Albany Pizza Shop Sting?" asked Holmes.

"I can't say I have," I admitted.

"Of all the tales Fred told me last week," said Holmes, "this may be the most heartbreaking. I'll give you a summary.

"The story revolves around Mohammed Musharraf Hossain, a Sri Lankan immigrant to the United States who lived in Albany, New York, and supported his wife and six children with the proceeds from his pizza shop, 'Little Italy.'

"In 2003, the pizza business was not doing very well, and Hossain had begun looking for ways to improve his cash flow, when 'Malik' Hussain started coming around.

"Malik drove a flashy car, wore fancy clothes, and carried plenty of cash. He said he was a successful businessman, and he seemed quite friendly. So one day Mohammed Hossain asked Malik for a loan. This was the opening Malik had been looking for, and he reported the conversation at once to his handler, FBI Special Agent Tim Coll.

"In truth, Shahed 'Malik' Hussain was not a successful businessman, but a convict working off a sentence. He had immigrated from Pakistan and found a job with the Department of Motor Vehicles. The state had paid him for translating questions on the driving test, so that South Asian immigrants could try for licences even if their English was poor. But Shahed Hussain soon found a more lucrative angle; he began selling the correct answers to the applicants. Eventually he was caught, of course. 

"Rather than serving prison time, he accepted an offer from the FBI and became a confidential informant. He began visiting mosques, Muslim bookstores, and other places, such as 'Little Italy,' where dangerous terrorists might be lurking.

"Malik returned to the pizza shop again and again, and eventually made Mohammed Hossain an offer he could hardly refuse: Malik would 'lend' Hossain fifty thousand dollars in cash, and Hossain would repay the loan by cheque, a few thousand at a time, until he had paid back forty-five thousand, at which point the debt would be considered paid in full.

Shahed 'Malik' Hussain
"Mohammed Hossain couldn't understand why Malik would make him such an offer, nor could he understand why Malik sometimes seemed to mumble into his pocket during breaks in their conversations. But he needed the money badly, so he didn't think he was in a position to ask difficult questions. It wasn't until after he was arrested that Hossain learned Malik had been recording their talks.

"According to documents presented in court, Malik hinted to Mohammed Hossain that he was involved in terrorism, and asked Hossain what he thought of it.
'What the Saudis did with the World Trade Center,' Malik asked, 'in your opinion, was it good or bad?'

'This was bad,' Hossain replied, unaware that he was being recorded. 'This was bad. Do you understand that?' He went on to explain that a true Muslim wants to spread Islam. And the best way for that to occur is to abandon violence and lead exemplary lives.

'We should have a good relationship with the unbelievers,' he told Malik. 'Then, because of our goodness, Islam will spread and continue to spread.'
"Malik also claimed he was connected with J-e-M, the Pakistani terrorist group. Mohammed Hossain didn't understand the reference. He thought Malik was talking about the rock band, REM. Mohammed Hossain was so disconnected from Malik's terrorist angle, and so sure he was doing nothing wrong, that he insisted on putting everything in writing.

"In the Muslim tradition, all financial agreements must be witnessed by an honoured third party, preferably an imam. So Mohammed Hussain visited the local mosque, which he had helped to found, and asked the imam, Yassin Muhiddin Aref, to witness his transaction with Malik. This was exactly what Special Agent Coll was hoping would happen.

Yassin Muhiddin Aref
"Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain signed the papers, and soon they found themselves charged with money-laundering for a terrorist enterprise."

"What?" I asked in amazement. "Why?" 

"All the incriminating details were in Malik's pocket, so to speak," replied Holmes. "In between talking to Mohammed Hossain about the loan, Malik had been talking to the wire he was wearing, and telling an utterly fabricated tale in which he was an illegal arms dealer and the fifty thousand dollars he was lending to Hossain had come from the sale of a surface-to-air missile. Malik had cash, connections, and a plan -- to use another missile to assassinate the Pakistani ambassador -- or so he claimed.

"All this appears to have gone in one of Mohammed Hossain's ears and out the other, if it ever reached his ears at all. Maybe it never got beyond Malik's pocket. Yassin Aref was not even present when these conversations were allegedly happening, but he was implicated in the 'money-laundering scam' as well.

"It might seem difficult to obtain terror convictions against men who have openly disavowed violence, especially when they have done so on Islamic religious grounds. But Malik was prepared to work around this minor detail. In court, he 'translated' Hossain's rejection of terrorism into the claim that Hossain had told him, 'When I read the scriptures, it makes me want to kill.'

"This was clearly false; the prosecution provided fifty hours of the recordings Malik had made, and in all those conversations, there was not one statement in support of terrorism by either defendant.

 "The misrepresentation of the audio evidence was not the only 'mistake' made by the prosecution during the trial. In an even more blatant irregularity, prosecutors claimed that Yassin Aref's name and his former address and phone number had been found in a notebook which was recovered from a bombed-out area of Iraq after the American invasion.

"They claimed that the place where the notebook was found had been used as a training area by al Q'aeda terrorists, and that beside Aref's name in the book was an Arabic word meaning 'commander.' Until it was brought out at the trial, the government never 'noticed' that the writing in question was not Arabic but Kurdish, and that the word meant not 'commander,' but 'brother.'

Tellingly, even after the 'error' was pointed out, prosecutors did not retreat from their 'erroneous' position. The U.S. Attorney, Glenn Suddaby, went so far as to say:
'It doesn't change their behavior. It doesn't change the significance of where this notebook was found.'
"Even after the FBI admitted the entire sting had been set up to target Aref, and even though Malik's version of the 'evidence' was transparently false, the trial went ahead as if nothing had been amiss. And the jury went along with it! The defendants were both convicted, and sentenced to ten years each."

"It sounds like something straight out of Kafka," I said.

"It certainly does," replied Sherlock Holmes. "A few brave local journalists wrote movingly about the injustice that had been committed, but none of their heartfelt columns changed anything. The local Muslim community was thoroughly terrorized, and Mohammed Hossain and Yassin Aref are still in prison."