Tamana Hayder, age 10, in the bedroom she shared with her sister, Tashnuba, 16, who was in federal detention. Tashnuba's prayer rug is at right. Tashnuba and her mother refused to be photographed.
DHAKA, Bangladesh - Slumped at the edge of the bed she would have to share with
four relatives that night, the 16-year-old girl from Queens looked stunned.
On the hot, dusty road from the airport, she had watched rickshaws surge past
women sweeping the streets, bone-thin in their bright saris. Now, in a language
she barely understood, unfamiliar aunts and uncles lamented her fate: to be
forced to leave the United States, her home since kindergarten, because the
F.B.I. had mysteriously identified her as a potential suicide bomber.
"I feel like I'm on a different planet," the girl, Tashnuba Hayder,
said. "It just hit me. How everything happened - it's like, 'Oh, my God.'
The Hayder family house, right,
is on 216th Street in Queens Village. The sisters, their mother and a
brother are back in Bangladesh.
The story of how it happened - how Tashnuba, the pious, headstrong daughter
of Muslim immigrants living in a neighborhood of tidy lawns and American flags,
was labeled an imminent threat to national security - is still shrouded in government
secrecy. After nearly seven weeks in detention, she was released in May on the
condition that she leave the country immediately. Only immigration charges were
brought against her and another 16-year-old New York girl, who was detained
and released. Federal officials will not discuss the matter.
But as the first terror investigation in the United States known to involve
minors, the case reveals how deeply concerned the government is that a teenager
might become a terrorist, and the lengths to which federal agents will go if
they get even a whiff of that possibility. And it has drawn widespread attention,
stoking the debate over the right balance between government vigilance and the
protection of individual freedoms.
It is not known what prompted the authorities to investigate Tashnuba, who
says the accusations are false. But in a series of interviews - her first -
she said the government had apparently discovered her visits to an Internet
chat room where she took notes on sermons by a charismatic Islamic cleric in
London, a sheik who has long been accused of encouraging suicide bombings.
An F.B.I. agent, posing as a youth counselor, first confronted Tashnuba in
her bedroom, going through her school papers and questioning everything from
her views on jihad to her posterless walls, she said. Sent to a center for delinquents
in Pennsylvania, Tashnuba said she was interrogated without a lawyer or parent
present, about her beliefs and those of her friends, mainly American girls she
had met at city mosques.
|The street in the Gulshan district of Dhaka, Bangladesh,
where the Hayder sisters now live in their grandmother's apartment.
As suicide bombings mount overseas, with teenage girls among the perpetrators,
there is no doubt that the government's intelligence efforts are spurred by
legitimate fears. The agent leading this investigation was a Muslim woman born
in Britain who has voiced strong concern about radical clerics' influence on
young immigrants there. And in Tashnuba, who wore a veil and talks of an ideal
Islamic state, she met unsettling opinions and teenage defiance.
But Tashnuba says that she opposes suicide bombing, that her interest in the
cleric was casual, and that the government treated her like a criminal simply
for exercising the freedoms of speech and religion that America had taught her.
As she tells it, F.B.I. agents tried to twist mundane details of her life to
fit the profile of a terrorist recruit, and when they could not make a case,
covered their tracks by getting her out of the country. In fact, the court order
of "voluntary departure" that let her leave requires a finding that
the person is not deportable for endangering national security.
Tashnuba said she believed she was singled out precisely because she is a noncitizen
- allowing investigators to invoke immigration law, bypassing the familiar limits
of criminal and juvenile proceedings.
"That gave them the green light to get me out of my family," Tashnuba
said during her long journey with her mother and siblings to this teeming city
where she was born.
This account is, in large part, her version of events. Some of it is supported
by documents and other interviews, but it cannot all be corroborated because
a court has sealed the case record at the F.B.I.'s request and barred participants
from disclosing government information. The government has declined repeated
requests to present its side.
'Alarm Bells' for F.B.I.
Two former F.B.I. agents, presented with the known details of the case, declined
to discuss it specifically, but spoke of the pressures and practices that shape
such investigations today.
Pasquale J. D'Amuro, who headed the New York F.B.I. office until April, said
that since 9/11, agents have had to err on the side of suspicion. More potential
threats are being reported, he said, and every one must be thoroughly investigated
through whatever avenues are legally available, including enlisting immigration
authorities as soon as a noncitizen is under scrutiny.
"The alarm bells are going off," said Mr. D'Amuro, now the chief
executive of Giuliani Security and Safety, a consulting company. "And we
have each and every time to run those threats to the ground, whether it ends
up to be a bogus threat or proceeds to some type of prosecutorial action."
Some cases are never resolved, he added. Even when suspicions prove unfounded,
he said, any visa violations are already in the hands of immigration authorities,
who have to bring them "to some type of closure."
But Mike German, who left the bureau a year ago after a long career chasing
homegrown terror suspects, said that the agency's new emphasis on collecting
intelligence rather than criminal evidence has opened the door to more investigations
that go "in the wrong direction."
"If all these chat rooms are being monitored, and we're running down all
these people because of what they're saying in chat rooms, then these are resources
we're not using on real threats," said Mr. German, who has publicly complained
that F.B.I. management problems impeded terror investigations after 9/11.
The stress on intelligence increases the agency's demands for secrecy, to protect
its sources. And secrecy, he said, leads to abuses of power.
"Perhaps the government has some incredibly incriminating piece of information
and saved us from a terrible act of violence; it would make everybody feel better
to know it," he said. "Conversely, if they did something wrong, the
public needs to know that."
From the beginning, the government framed this case as purely an immigration
matter. When a dozen federal agents plucked the girl from her home in a dawn
raid on March 24, they cited only the expiration of her mother's immigration
papers, telling the family that Tashnuba would probably be returned the next
Instead, after two weeks of frantic inquiries by her parents, The New York
Times learned that Tashnuba was one of two girls being held, officially on their
parents' immigration violations, but actually for questioning by F.B.I.'s Joint
Terrorism Task Force.
According to a government document provided to The Times by a federal official,
the F.B.I. asserted that the girls presented "an imminent threat to the
security of the United States based upon evidence that they plan to be suicide
bombers." The document cited no evidence. And in background interviews,
federal officials were quick to play down the case as soon as reporters called,
characterizing the investigation as a pre-emptive move against potential candidates
for recruitment, not the disruption of a plot.
By then agents had seized Tashnuba's diary, schoolwork and phone book - and
the computer she had repeatedly tuned to sermons broadcast daily by Sheik Omar
Bakri Muhammed. From her account of the agents' questions, and comments by a
government official who reviewed a report about the F.B.I.'s grounds for suspicion,
it appears that Tashnuba's interest in the speeches became the lens that colored
everything else about her life.
Veering between "nice and awful," she said, up to three agents at
a time pressed her about possible terrorist ties among her friends, and what
they saw as suspicious tendencies in her schoolwork, like class notes about
suicide. She said they even criticized the austere décor of the bedroom
she shared with her 10-year-old sister.
"The F.B.I. tried to say I didn't have a life - like, I wasn't the typical
teenager," Tashnuba said bitterly, fingering her long Muslim dress. "They
thought I was anti-American because I didn't want to compromise, but in my high-school
ethics class we had Communists, Democrats, Republicans, Gothics - all types.
In all our classes, we were told, 'You speak up, you give your opinion, and
you defend it.' "
The lesson backfired, she said, when she found herself stubbornly debating
the Koran's definitions of jihad with the lead F.B.I. agent: Foria Younis, a
Muslim immigrant of a much more secular stripe.
"It got personal," Tashnuba said.
Behind the Veil
She is a made-in-Queens mix of devotion and defiance, this slim, dark-eyed
adolescent who arrived in Astoria with her family at age 5. In her round schoolgirl
handwriting, she has compiled lists of favorite prayers and pious resolutions,
like "practice lowering gaze to fullest" and "be xtra nice to
parents." But when she recalls how F.B.I. agents questioned her religious
lifestyle, her voice drips typical teenage scorn: "Like, I'm supposed to
live for you guys?"
From childhood, Tashnuba embraced religion with a kind of rebellion. By 10
she was praying five times a day - and reproaching her more secular father,
a salesman of cheap watches. At 12, Tashnuba even explored Christianity. But
at 14, she adopted a full Islamic veil.
In part, she was emulating her closest friend, Shahela, an American citizen
who, in an interview, described veiling as a way to oppose "the degrading
treatment of women's bodies as commodities" and "to hold on to my
faith after 9/11." It also provided Tashnuba a refuge from her parents'
marital rifts and fragile reconciliations. Soon, the two friends were conducting
religious classes for other girls at city mosques.
"This is what gives me an identity," Tashnuba said of her religion.
It also estranged her from the raunchy banter at her Manhattan high school.
And when Shahela opted for accelerated home schooling, Tashnuba wanted to do
likewise. Her parents resisted, and rejected her alternate escape plan: an arranged
marriage to an American Muslim man from Michigan named Latif, whom Tashnuba
had met only fleetingly. He was not a Bangladeshi, but a blue-eyed, 21-year-old
salesman of Italian, Brazilian and German descent.
What she calls "a rough time in my life" reached a crisis last October.
The family had just moved to Queens Village, leaving her friends behind. When
Latif suggested an elopement to Michigan, Tashnuba impulsively agreed. A few
hours from New York, they heard that her father had gone to the police, and
quickly drove back. The police report would come back to haunt Tashnuba.
For now, her parents agreed to home schooling, through a correspondence course.
But she still had time for PalTalk, a popular Web service where she found Sheik
Omar's nightly London broadcasts carried live at 2 p.m.
"It was a casual thing," she said. "I would have it on for a
few minutes, then I would be going to CVS for my mom, whatever."
Parts of the broadcasts have long alarmed counterterrorism investigators, who
say the Syrian-born Sheik Omar urges young Muslim men worldwide to support the
Iraq insurgency on the front line of "the global jihad," and praises
the 9/11 hijackers and suicide bombings. In a chilling exchange reported by
The Times of London in January, a female listener asked whether "sisters
are allowed to do suicide bombings if the intentions are correct." The
newspaper reported that the sheik replied: "This is no problem; there is
But in a telephone interview, the sheik denied recruiting anyone. "Nobody
said to women that they should become a suicide bomber," he said.
Tashnuba said the topic never came up while she listened. What she recalled
was talk of a utopian Islamic state that would follow God's will, not human
desires. "You don't pay for water in an Islamic state, you don't pay for
transport," she said. "There are certain rights that can't be taken
The Student and the Agent
At 9, an age when Tashnuba was turning to prayer, Foria Younis was beating
boys at soccer in a Pakistani neighborhood in east London. Now 37, this former
prosecutor is a 5-foot-2, "gun-toting, door-kicking member of the F.B.I.'s
counterterrorist squad" who has hunted terrorists on three continents,
according to a long profile last year in The Daily Telegraph of London.
Though Ms. Younis would not agree to an interview for this article, she did
not quarrel with The Telegraph's depiction.
But on March 4, when she knocked at the Hayder family's door, Ms. Younis and
her partner did not reveal that they were F.B.I. agents, said Tashnuba's mother,
Ishrat Jahan Hayder. They claimed to be from a youth center, following up on
the police report filed five months earlier when the girl tried to elope. Mrs.
Hayder readily sent the woman upstairs to her daughter's bedroom. "I trusted
her," she said.
From the moment she walked in, as Tashnuba tells it, Ms. Younis started paging
through her papers. "She was like, 'Can I look at this?' Not waiting for
What mainly drew the agent's eye, the girl said, were papers from an extra-help
class for home-schooled girls that Tashnuba had joined to prepare for exams.
On one page was a diagram highlighting the word "suicide" - her notes
on a class discussion about why religions oppose it, she said.
Soon, she said, Ms. Younis was dropping comments like "So, I see you're
interested in suicide," and "So, you like staying all by yourself
in your room. Are you a loner?"
Tashnuba, who had many friends, was immediately nervous and defensive. "No,
I'm just in my room," she said she protested. "I saw where they were
Three weeks later - two days after Ms. Younis wrote a secret declaration about
Tashnuba, court documents show - immigration agents raided the house. As an
immigration matter, that was highly unusual; there was no active proceeding
against her mother or father, whose separate, long-pending applications for
political asylum had lapsed without action in the late 1990's.
But Tashnuba said the agents told her, "Your mom just admitted you're
not here legally and we have to take you, or else take everybody." At immigration
headquarters in Manhattan, the F.B.I. was waiting, along with the other girl,
Adama Bah, a native of Guinea whom Tashnuba said she knew slightly from a Manhattan
mosque. Ms. Bah was of less interest to the authorities than Tashnuba, according
to the government official who reviewed F.B.I. reports.
At day's end, the girls were driven to a maximum-security juvenile detention
center in rural Berks County, Pa. Suddenly they were among delinquent girls
accused of drug crimes and assaults. Tashnuba was required to wear a sweat suit,
march at attention and submit to strip-searches, she said. And the questioning
began in earnest.
"They tried to twist my mind," Tashnuba said. "They had their
little tactics - start with nice questions, try to get more severe. In the end,
when I did cry they were, like, mocking me."
A government psychiatrist concluded that she was neither suicidal nor homicidal,
and recommended her release. But the agents, Tashnuba said, kept "trying
to link me to the psychological state." They zeroed in on the single artificial
rose in her bedroom (her little sister's); a psychology course (required by
her correspondence program), and an essay she wrote about the Department of
Homeland Security (assigned as a writing evaluation by her tutor).
The tutor, Asmaa Samad, recalled the essay as innocuous: "It said nothing
derogative, nothing unpatriotic." Tashnuba said agents seized on one part.
"I wrote, 'I feel like Muslims are being targeted, they're being outcasted
But instead of backing away from opinions that the agents seemed to find alarming,
Tashnuba said she dug in her heels, especially on her belief in jihad. "If
Islam is threatened, you have a right to fight back," Tashnuba declared,
citing Koran verses.
The questioning went on, she said, from March 24 to April 7 - the day the first
article about the case appeared.
As the news spread, an advocacy group arranged a lawyer for her. The Bangladeshi
general consul in New York pressed the government for an explanation, and Homeland
Security replied: The sole reason Tashnuba was being held was her "unlawful
presence" in the United States.
The other girl was allowed to return to her East Harlem high school in early
May, under strict conditions including an order not to discuss the case. But
for Tashnuba, there was no prospect of release, her lawyer, Troy Mattes, said
he was told.
Broke and distraught, Tashnuba's mother asked to take "voluntary departure"
with her daughter, rather than fight. The government agreed, and an immigration
judge issued the necessary order.
Arriving in Dhaka on May 12, Tashnuba walked into her new life and burst into
tears. "I want to go back," she cried.
Her father and 14-year-old brother had stayed in hiding in New York, hoping
to avoid deportation while the boy finished school. With no money for a home,
Tashnuba and her mother, baby brother and little sister, Tamana, were to share
an aunt's bed at her grandmother's apartment, now occupied by nine people.
For Tashnuba and Tamana, an American citizen who speaks only English, more
education may be unaffordable, her mother said. Even Tashnuba's piety was challenged.
Veiling is taboo among her relatives, and few Dhaka mosques allow women.
At one point in the journey, she had wished she had never gone to America,
raging, "I see now you have no privacy, no liberty." But now she longed
for even one more day in New York, "to say goodbye."
Fighting tears, she fell silent, staring at the shelf of souvenirs her family
had sent back over the years: a big apple, a snow globe of the twin towers,
a Statue of Liberty.
William K. Rashbaum, in New York, and Souad Mekhennet, in Frankfurt, contributed
reporting for this article.