To gather intelligence from CMU inmates, correspondence is combed through by a counterterrorism unit in West Virginia. Regular group prayer is prohibited, and communications must be in English unless there’s a live translator. Phone calls are limited to two fifteen-minute conversations a week (most maximum-security prisoners get 300 minutes a month). Immediate families of CMU inmates can visit only twice a month for a total of eight hours (general-population prisoners at Terre Haute get up to 49 hours of visits a month), and those conversations are monitored, recorded, and conducted through Plexiglas. Physical contact is forbidden, a permanent ban not imposed on most violent felons in maximum-security prisons.
As a result, critics say, those familiar markers—family, language, and religious identity—are being stripped away. “This is more than just being cut off from the world,” says Nina Thomas, a psychologist-psychoanalyst at NYU who has studied the CMUs. “Inmates are being shut into a very narrow universe.”
While the stated purpose of the CMUs, according to prisons spokesperson Traci Billingsley, is to “protect the public,” Meeropol thinks that they “spread fear.” Shamshad Ahmad, a physics lecturer at the University of Albany and president of Aref’s mosque, says that CMUs “send a message that the whole justice system [is] geared to take revenge of the events of 9/11 on anyone belonging to the Muslim community”—a message that, essentially, any Muslim could become Aref.
And especially because Aref’s conviction is itself a matter of controversy, CCR has chosen the imam to become its lead plaintiff in a case against the CMUs, one of the major lawsuits, including the ACLU’s in Indiana, meant to challenge the units and change the way they operate. Along with five other plaintiffs, Aref now sits at the center of a civil-liberties battle against the prison system. To a growing number of supporters in Albany—who have rallied to get him out; have published his pre-CMU memoir, Son of Mountains; have raised money for his family—he is a symbol of the inequities Muslims still endure as collateral damage in the war on terror.
Aref was born in a mountain village in northern Iraq, where he lived through Saddam’s genocide on the Kurds and met his wife, Zuhur. They fled to Syria, where he finished his religious studies, worked at the office of the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK), and had three kids. Under a U.N. asylum program, the family learned in 1999 that they were going to Albany, a place the 29-year-old Aref had never heard of.
Although he couldn’t speak or understand much English, he managed to support his family as a hospital janitor for more than a year before he became the imam of Masjid As-Salam, the city’s only mosque. During his four years as imam, Aref regularly discussed his anti–Iraq War sentiments and grew to represent the spiritual voice of many Albany Muslims. “People hesitated to criticize the government publicly,” says Ahmad. “But he didn’t.”
It is believed that the FBI decided to target Aref in the summer of 2003, after the American military stormed an armed camp in Iraq and discovered a notebook with his name and number in it, along with the word kak, which the FBI translated as “commander” (the prosecution would later admit that the term actually translates to “mister”). The camp was alleged to be affiliated with Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist organization founded by Mullah Krekar, who was once a member of the IMK, where he had met Aref. Aref’s backers argue that the camp was filled with refugees and that the notebook could have belonged to anyone. Aref claims that he met Krekar only in passing and that he left for Albany long before the mullah founded Ansar al-Islam.
That Aref had a past connection to Krekar was perhaps enough to attract the FBI’s attention, though likely not enough to mount a legal case against him. So, working with expanded surveillance powers, the FBI went about setting up an operation.
Since 9/11, the FBI had begun relying more heavily on informants, under a controversial policy of preemptive prosecution—taking down those thought to possibly become terrorists in the future. It has resulted in the conviction of more than 200 individuals, including four Muslims in Newburgh convicted of plotting to bomb two Bronx synagogues; a 19-year-old Somali charged with attempting to blow up a Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon; and a man caught plotting an attack on Herald Square. “These types of operations have proven to be an essential law-enforcement tool in uncovering and preventing potential terror attacks,” Attorney General Eric Holder said at a dinner this winter in defense of the tactics.
Critics, however, point out that in many operations, it’s difficult to determine whether anyone is truly culpable—or inherently dangerous. And intentionally or not, it’s very easy to round up Muslims. “There is a massive ideological, military, and intelligence infrastructure committed to the domestic and international wars on terror. These wars depend on maintaining Muslims as the primary threat to national security,” says Amna Akbar, a senior research scholar at NYU’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. “The U.S. government seems to rely on widespread use of informants … sending them into mosques and other community spaces without any concrete suspicion of criminal activity.”