Syed Riaz Ahmed emigrated to the United States from Pakistan in 1997. He lives with his wife and family in Atlanta, Georgia, and teaches computer science at North Georgia College. He has been a strong moderate voice for Muslims in his community. In March 2006, his son, Syed Haris Ahmed, was arrested by the FBI in connection with plotting terrorist activities in Canada and the United States. In this interview with FRONTLINE/World reporter Linden MacIntyre, the father describes his son as a sensitive and emotional person and recalls the events and warning signs that his son was being drawn into a radicalized world. This is an edited transcript of an interview that took place in December 2006.
Q: Linden MacIntyre: How did you react when suddenly the situation landed in your own family?
A: Syed Riaz Ahmed: I took it very peacefully. I thought maybe something was wrong somewhere and that led him to go that way.
Q: The automatic parental reaction would be, "They made a mistake. This is not my boy they are talking about." Did you have that?
A: At first, yes, that was the feeling. But later on when I talked to him, then I got the feeling that that was not the case.
Q: What did he tell you?
A: He said that he is sometimes not happy with what is happening all over the world with the Muslims, so he was very sensitive, really emotional. He used to cry in his room about what is happening, and he said, "I should be able to do something, give them some kind of support like a material support, help them, boost them, console them …" Before he was arrested, he gave me a feeling that he was under surveillance and that he might be arrested.
Q: Crying in his room and feeling compassion for his brothers and sisters around the world is not a crime. What got the FBI involved?
A: What he told me later on was that he was chatting with some people on the Web site and going into some Web sites. I don't know what he was doing, but he just gave me that impression that he was with some other group of people.
Q: What kind of people?
A: What I told you before, that they had the wrong notion about Islam ….
Q: Are you talking about salafist, jihadist kinds of individuals?
A: Yeah, jihadist.
Q: How does this fit with what you know about your son, this jihadi kind of interpretation?
A: It doesn't fit at all with him. He got that impression from those Web sites and chat rooms. Later, he told his cousin in Pakistan that he went there just to explore what they are doing …. Are they doing any service to Islam? Or are they just following their own wrong interpretation of Islam? So then he realized that they are not doing anything good for the Muslims. So he wanted to get away from that group.
Q: But it was too late.
A: It was too late.
Q: Now, he grew up in a moderate, religious, observant home, right?
A: Yes, yes. Our family, my in-laws, my extended family in Pakistan, they are all moderate. We have no incident happened in our whole family in the last 50 years, anywhere, anywhere.
Q: He went to Canada at one point with a friend. What did you know about that trip?
A: The only thing that I knew about was that he was going with his friend to meet some of his friends-- not my son's friends, but my son's friend's friends. It was just a friendly visit for chatting or getting to know that area, the people, to enjoy their life, you know? Have a happy time.
Q: But the authorities are making a fairly big deal out of it. They're saying that the people that he and his friend contacted in Canada were for pursuing the same kind of jihadi interest.
A: I have no idea that it was that kind of people.
Q: It's also considered significant that he went to Pakistan. What do you know about that?
A: When he lost interest in engineering at Georgia Tech and he told his mother-- my wife-- that he wanted to go and do some Islamic studies, I said if you want to do it, you can do it later on, you finish your degree. But as you know at this age, you cannot force a young man to do something you want. … They will do what they want. So I agreed, OK, that's no problem. Go to the best University, OK? Get the degree, become a Master. Become an expert on Islamic studies. No problem with me. So he went. He explored one or two universities to get admission, and these universities are recognized by the government of Pakistan. But at that time, due to some pressure from other governments, the government of Pakistan had banned foreigners; and my son was a foreigner … a U.S. citizen, in high school in USA, so he cannot claim immediately that he is a Pakistani. So they say, OK, you cannot get admission at least for one or two years. So he came back to Atlanta to continue his engineering degree.
Q: It's been said that young people go there and they get into madrasas and become influenced by extreme imams, and that this is where he was headed.
Q: Whenever this comes to court, they will say he went there looking for training, military experience. What do you think of this?
A: There is nothing of such available in Pakistan that I know. And he was not going there for that, but for only barely theoretical Islamic Studies at the undergraduate and graduate level.
Q: You are a moderate. Publicly you have taken extremely broad-minded positions on public affairs. Were you worried when you saw your son becoming rigorous in his religious practice?
A: The only thing that concerned me is that he might be wasting a little bit more time getting those things, which he could do later on, … and that he is neglecting his studies. That's the only concern I had.
Q: Unfortunately, I won't get to meet Haris. Who is he? What kind of a young man was he growing up?
A: He was very jolly, you know, friendly, and whenever he is with his friends or cousins or brothers or sisters, he is very happy. He make them laugh; he tell jokes. And if they need some kind of help, he will always be there. Like the friends here in Atlanta, they wanted some help with moving stuff from here and there. "OK, my car is here, I'll give it to you, I will come and give you all the help. You need money, OK, I've got some money here, take it."
Q: What impresses me is that a lot of people in your position would be in a state of denial, saying he's been framed, this is just more evidence of the fact that Muslims don't have a normal life in the States. But you're not saying that. You're saying that he got himself into a bit of trouble here. So what happened to him?
A: He thought that he could help the Muslims get away from the suppression. I would say he had childish, wild dreams, thinking that he could change the world. … He was misled. He was brainwashed. He was led to believe something that is not normal in Islamic way of life, that is not advisable, that is not preached by normal Islamic scholars and preachers. Because Islam says respect all human beings, respect your neighbor, respect everybody, doesn't matter what color or what religion. Respect women, respect children, respect elders. So the question of going against anybody or harming anybody is not what Islam says.
Q: How could this have happened to the son of a man who is extremely reasonable?
A: That's what happens if you are too much exposed to technology and Internet Web sites. The only mistake that I think he did is he did not talk to his friends, his elders, his father, the preacher at the mosque where he was going every day. If he would have talked to these people, nobody would have agreed with what he was being led to believe. And he will have been out of trouble.
Q: The U.S. government says that this made him dangerous. What do you think?
A: No, I don't think that is at all true about my son. He would never do anything, literally, to harm anybody in this country. Or anywhere.
Q: How is he taking his incarceration?
A: With good spirits because he says whatever is being done is being done for the good of the restricts of his soul and what God, Allah, intended to happen … to beautify him, to make him more spiritual, clear his mind, clear his thoughts.
Q: But it also could ruin his life.
A: The life in this world, but not the life after that.
Q: Is it inevitable that just having gone this far into the justice system, he cannot recover?
A: What do you mean by recover?
Q: I know there aren't a lot of people getting released once they get caught in this web. What do you think should happen?
A: I cannot say anything about what will happen. … Because only Allah knows what will happen. What should happen? He or all those people who are in that age group, who have done not any physical harm, they have not been actually involved in any activities except for … getting a picture here or getting a comment there, they should be given a second chance because they are young people, OK? And they should be given a second chance to prove that whatever they were thinking was wrong. They got this idea from somewhere, and they're sorry.
Q: Is he sorry?
A: Oh, yes. He says every time we go there, to his mother, "Mom, I'm sorry. I didn't think it would put me into trouble or put you all into this position.
Q: What has this done to your family?
A: We are so upset that he is leading a life that he does not deserve. But he got into that situation by being at the wrong place at the wrong time and without any advice from elders like his father or uncles. We are stuck in a situation that only Allah knows when we will come out of it. We cannot make any decision about life like going back to Pakistan or leaving this place, because we don't want to leave him alone. He is our son. He is our blood.
Q: Do you think that he felt marginalized being a young man from Pakistan living in mostly white America?
A: No. No.
Q: What is your assessment of this jihadist ideology that seems to be having such an effect on young people in many places?
A: This is very bad. It should not happen. It should be curtailed. The sites should be banned. Government and the ISP providers, they should take joint action to try to cut it off. Or have some limits imposed, ethical limits, social limit that you cannot put these kinds of materials on your websites because it is not good for the community, for the country, for the nation, for the world. This is making the whole Muslim community look bad in the eyes of other people.
Q: What do you recommend to other parents, who have teenaged boys who suddenly seem to be spending a lot of time on the computer?
A: Talk to them. Not like a father, as a friend. Ask them what they are doing on the Internet. I thought he was sending emails or just exploring or reading some newspapers. So that was my mistake.