California Town Reacts to Father-Son Terror Indictments
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SPENCER MICHELS: The town of Lodi, just south of Sacramento, wears its patriotism on its sleeve. These cadets were getting ready for the big Flag Day celebration in All Veterans Plaza. Surrounded by flourishing farmland and vineyards of zinfandel grapes, Lodi is conservative, religious, small-town America, home to a succession of immigrant groups, a place where terrorism would seem remote. But Lodi’s mayor, Republican businessman John Beckman, sees it differently.
JOHN BECKMAN: I slowly started thinking about the war on terrorism and al-Qaida and folks who are along that ideology. This would be a great place for them to hide out, just like any other small town across America where they can, you know, blend into a community that embraces other religions and other cultures and makes them part of our community.
SPENCER MICHELS: About 2,000 of Lodi’s 62,000 residents are Pakistani; some are new immigrants, some have been here for decades, some are community leaders. Many of the men pray at the Muslim mosque.
The Pakistani community was shocked this month when two of its members were arrested by FBI agents, who, for two years, had been investigating suspected terror connections around Lodi.
Authorities said 22-year-old Hamid Hayat told them, after first denying it, that he had been trained to kill Americans at a secret al-Qaida-backed camp in Pakistan. He was arrested on his return. His father, Umer Hayat, well-known as the friendly ice cream vendor, was said to have given his son money for the trip. Both men are being held on charges of lying to the FBI. A day after those arrests, agents swarmed over this property and gathered videotapes, computers and other evidence, and arrested two imams from the Lodi mosque.
This is the spot on the outskirts of Lodi where the Pakistani community hopes to build an Islamic center. And it’s also the place where one of the spiritual leaders of that community was picked up by the FBI and detained on immigration charges. Heading the investigation is FBI agent in charge Keith Slotter, who wouldn’t comment on individual cases.
KEITH SLOTTER: Right now, a lot of the focus is on international terrorism, particularly Islamic radicals. And to say that doesn’t exist in this country would be foolish. It does exist.
SPENCER MICHELS: Slotter says the investigation could get larger. Originally, the agency branded the Lodi situation a terrorist cell, but has backed off that characterization.
KEITH SLOTTER: I don’t like the use terms like “cell” and that sort thing, because it does have a tendency to perhaps convey the wrong thing. History will judge the significance of this case once it’s concluded, but we’re still quite a ways from that.
SPENCER MICHELS: The FBI’s focus on Pakistani-Americans brought a variety of reactions in Lodi.
WOMAN: A lot of them work where I work, and they’re very nice. But you still have to be careful.
MAN: Various elements from around the world are going to come over here, and they’re going to try to do damage to us because they hate the Americans; they’re jealous of the Americans and the American way.
SPENCER MICHELS: The ice cream man who was arrested was a familiar figure to one woman.
WOMAN ON STREET: It’s kind of scary.
SPENCER MICHELS: Really?
WOMAN ON STREET: Yes, because I know the ice cream truck used to always come to my house, and the little kids I used to baby-sit, and all of us, would buy from it. So it was a shocker, you know?
SPENCER MICHELS: And the mayor said there have been no expressions of hostility toward the Pakistani community in Lodi.
JOHN BECKMAN: You don’t change your attitude or your way of looking at people or your way of dealing with folks of another religion or another culture because of one isolated incident.
SPENCER MICHELS: Among Pakistanis, the arrests sparked concerns about their continuing acceptance by the community. Mohammad Shoaib is mosque president.
MOHAMMAD SHOAIB: Everybody, you know, is upset because Lodi is a very good place to live, you know. And it’s our hometown and we have been living here for 30 years, so just suddenly something happened and altogether, all four people, five people have been, you know, detained.
SPENCER MICHELS: In addition, some Pakistani-Americans have complained about FBI tactics. Raj Khan, who writes a column for the local paper, has been involved in an anti-hate campaign since the burning of a cross at a Lodi high school seven years ago. He was questioned by the FBI, along with some of his neighbors. At this Lodi drug store, Khan says, a Pakistani pharmacist was confronted by agents.
RAJ KHAN: A pharmacist was taken in and he was questioned for about 11 hours, and he was given a lie detector test; at least that’s what he told me. And so I think that shows that — how much people are willing to cooperate. Some of the youngsters, young men of the community, were taken by FBI and they were questioned for hours and hours, and it was a pretty harrowing experience for them.
SPENCER MICHELS: FBI Agent Slotter says he met with members of the Pakistani community to answer their concerns.
KEITH SLOTTER: First and foremost, I think, they want to make sure that the entire Muslim community is not painted or — to be terrorists, and that the whole community is not under this cloud, and that’s certainly not the case.
SPENCER MICHELS: The arrests have exacerbated a dispute that had already split the Muslim community. Some say that moderates, who want to build a new Islamic center, were opposed by traditionalists who were against it.
RAJ KHAN: I think it’s an ideological dispute. I think we are fighting for the heart and soul of Islam in United States — whether we’re going to be progressive, enlightened, open and inviting the other community members to our midst. What the people are doing who are trying to destroy that, they want to go back to the mentality of a cultural religion that belongs to their village. It’s closed.
SPENCER MICHELS: Some moderates, like American-born Muslim Pam Parvez, have speculated that the traditionalists called the FBI in to arrest the two moderate imams on immigration violations, hoping to stop construction of the proposed Islamic center.
PAM PARVEZ: There are a very small number of people in the community here in Lodi that do not want to see that happen. And I believe that it was their last-ditch effort to put a stop to this by making phone calls.
SPENCER MICHELS: To the FBI?
PAM PARVEZ: To the FBI
SPENCER MICHELS: Alleging?
PAM PARVEZ: Alleging that they’re doing wrong things.
SPENCER MICHELS: At the mosque, board member Malik Ahman denies this happened.
MALIK AHMAN: I think this is false, because the FBI already said that they’ve been following those people almost over two years. But this is something between like a minor thing, you know, our dispute over the land a little bit.
KEITH SLOTTER: We talked about that during the meeting, but it really has had no impact on anything that we’re doing.
SPENCER MICHELS: Lodi officials, meanwhile, have to concentrate on the possibility of terrorism in their midst.
JOHN BECKMAN: The potential that an al-Qaida cell could exist in Lodi I take very seriously also. And if there is something along those lines, I’m glad the FBI is here, and I hope they stay here until they arrest everyone who is linked to al-Qaida. The trouble that we as Americans are facing is, in order to maintain a free and open society, it’s very difficult to find and weed out terrorists who may be living in the free and open society.
SPENCER MICHELS: The FBI says the Lodi investigation is far from over.