In El Paso, a border town once known as the Six Shooter Capital of the West and lately threatened by the Juarez drug wars, the mountains and desert can seem oddly reminiscent of Afghanistan.
A prison gate here is marked with a Homeland Security warning - "Threat Level: Elevated" - a throwback to the Bush administration's preoccupation with finding al-Qaeda agents inside U.S. frontiers. Yet inside the jail is an Arab prisoner whose secret story resuscitates many fears that so shook the world eight years ago. Here, he speaks publicly for the first time.
His name is Mohamad Kamal Elzahabi. He is a 46-year-old Lebanese national, who was an Afghan training camp instructor in the early 1990s. The FBI accused him of being an alleged al-Qaeda sleeper or cash courier - suggesting he helped the 9/11 hijackers who left from Boston. "The government's evidence suggests some amazing coincidences," reads a secret U.S. deportation ruling. "... He was in Boston the same time the 9/11 hijackers took off from Logan Airport."
Within weeks, his time in the United States will be up. He is to be sent to Lebanon and, he fears, torture.
His impending return to the Middle East represents a new chapter to an old story. Mr. Elzahabi says his case ties into those of Canadian Arabs tortured in the Middle East after 9/11. "It's all connected to me," he said.
Mohamad Elzahabi passed through the Afghan camps and fought battles against Russian forces while fighting with Chechen insurgents. For a time he lived with family members in Montreal, and then in the summer of 2001, he headed south across the border. (He complains that he was refused Canadian citizenship in the 1980s.)
His intent, he says, was to become a cab driver or a long-haul trucker in the United States. But four days after he arrived in Boston, al-Qaeda killed 3,000 people in Washington and New York.
"That's my problem," he said. "I show up in the wrong places at the wrong time."
These days, his home is a 12-by-6-foot cell. He is subject to "administration segregation order I-886," a strict prison code that keeps him from other prisoners. He said it takes him a month to place a 10-minute phone call.
Though branded an al-Qaeda terrorist, he was never charged with such an offence. When his case came to trial, he was convicted simply of immigration fraud.
Complaining of being kept "incommunicado" for years, Mr. Elzahabi now wants his case raised with the U.S. President. "Go straight to the White House and ask Obama - 'Are you going to torture this guy?' "
His immigration judge in Texas played down those concerns. "The presence of torture as a tool for Lebanon's security services and police agencies is apparent," Judge William Lee Abbott ruled earlier this year. But he found that Mr. Elzahabi's pleas do "not compel a finding that people like him are tortured at least 51 per cent of the time."
"It's a gamble, the court recognizes this. But it's not a sure bet."
Bald and middle-aged, 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, Mr. Elzahabi pauses to reflect, before speaking quietly.
He wore a red prison-issue suit and handcuffs. In the cinderblock interview room, he wondered aloud who was listening and watching him from the other side of one-way glass.
"I'm supposed to be like Houdini or something," he said. "They made me big. I am nobody."
"I'm not al-Qaeda," he said. "I'm no sleeper cell. I've nothing to hide."
A delay in Washington
The Globe and Mail's interviews with Mr. Elzahabi took place over three days last month. Prison authorities who usually respond to interview requests within 48 hours took 10 months to process the request. Pressed about the delay, they would say only the tie-up was "in Washington."
Mr. Elzahabi said the reporter was his first non-lawyer visitor during his five-year incarceration. "In isolation you talk only 10 words a day," he said, explaining he was happy to tell his side of the story.Report Typo/Error